Monday, May 17, 2010

A Unicorn Grows in London

A Kid for Two Farthings
By Wolf Mankowitz
128 pages
Bloomsbury Publishing
November 2009
Original Pub. Date: 1953

'Every animal when it was made by the Almighty was given one extra-special present, . . . But the unicorn got the most special present of all. He was given a magic horn which could cure anything anybody was ever sick from. It could grant anybody's wish - straight off.'

A Kid for Two Farthings by Wolf Mankowitz has been recently reissued as part of the Bloomsbury Group, a series of out-of-print novels from the early twentieth century specially chosen by writers, bloggers, and readers. The books also have beautiful vintage-inspired covers that will surely delight any print junkie.

Best known for his work on the early James Bond films, Wolf Mankowitz was born in 1924 on Fashion Street in Spitalfields, London. The Jewish community where he grew up is also the setting for A Kid for Two Farthings, where six-year-old Joe lives with his mother above a workshop owned by Mr. Kandinsky the trouser-maker. With Joe's father away working in Africa, Mr. Kandinsky has become a surrogate parent of sorts who frequently entertains Joe with fantastic stories. According to Mr. Kandinsky, unicorns once flourished until they were hunted nearly to extinction for their horns, which could grant wishes and were worth ₤100,000. The remaining unicorns found refuge in Africa, although some may still be found out in the world, ready to bring good fortune. Mr. Kandinsky, for example, could use a Superheat Steam Presser, while his assistant Shmule needs to win an upcoming wrestling match to buy his fiancĂ©e a ring. And Joe still doesn't know when his father is coming back.

Then Joe unexpectedly finds a unicorn for sale at the local animal market. Maybe now everyone's dreams will come true.

Actually, Africana is a small goat but Joe's innocence transforms the sickly little animal into a magnificent stallion from an exotic fairy tale. This fanciful perception is also reflective of how Joe, as a very young child, views his world at large. Although the tough character of his neighborhood is made clear, its implications often go over Joe's head. For example, little work simply means that his mother and Mr. Kandinsky have more time for him, while Mr. Kandinsky's story of the unicorns can actually be seen as an allegory of the Holocaust. Still, it is obvious that Joe is learning about his environment. After witnessing an old homeless man die in the street, Joe understands that he no longer has to worry about the "cannibal king" who had seemingly threatened Africana several days ago.

This double perspective gives A Kid for Two Farthings a particular charm that will appeal to both kids and adults alike. Children will enjoy the simple story of a boy's imagination and desire to help his friends with the assistance of a unicorn. Older readers, meanwhile, will emphasize with the difficulties faced by the residents of Fashion Street and may also be interested in the social history aspects. The setting actually reminded me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and taught me that the immigrant ghetto of the early twentieth century is not a uniquely American phenomenon.

Overall, I would place A Kid for Two Farthings alongside Harry Potter and the films of Miyazaki as children's entertainment that parents can appreciate as well. It's an adorable, poignant little book and I am very glad that Bloomsbury has given modern readers the opportunity to experience it.

Wolf Mankowitz adapted A Kid for Two Farthings into a screenplay. The film was made 1955 and directed by Carol Reed. Here is part one of the complete film available on YouTube.

Click here for Frances's review.

Review Copy


JoAnn said...

I may have to break down and place a Book Depository order soon... all the Bloomsbury books sound delightful!

E. L. Fay said...

This is the only one I've read but Frances of Nonsuch Book has reviewed several of them. They sound worth it for the covers alone.

Emily said...

This sounds delightful! I get the impression (mostly from Frances, but now also from you) that these Bloomsbury reissues pack more of a punch than one might expect from the admittedly-lovely-but-also-pastel covers. I have The Brontes Went to Woolworth's on my to-be-read shelf; hopefully I can get to it soon.

Anonymous said...

I have yet to read any of these books by the Bloomsbury Group, but they all look like must-reads. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this one and I'll definitely look for it.

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