The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods
I’ve written before about the importance of fairy tales, their cultural heritage and why they remain critical in today’s modern culture. But what about fables (stories with a moral message) or folk tales (stories stemming from an oral tradition, passed down by the ‘folk’ who told them), or legends (semi-true stories with important meaning for the culture in which they originate) or myths (stories that explain a history or occurrence)?
This novel isn’t any of the above, and yet reads like one. It borrows many of the familiar tropes from them – good versus evil, the magic of an animal (this time a bird), and the heroics of ordinary people. And throughout the story, the reader can trace glimpses of remembered tales, faint associations with stories of old. It’s a clever little book.
Alberto, the carpenter, lives in a special little town called Allora, where the fish fly out of the sea and the houses shine like brightly-coloured jewels on the hilltop. But he suffers great loss when a plague sweeps through the town, killing his entire family. He turns from making furniture to making coffins. When his food starts to go missing, he tries to discover who the food thief is, and before long befriends a boy, Tito, and a rather special bird. But there is danger ahead, and Alberto must risk everything to save the lonely boy from his brutal stepfather and the town’s rather greedy mayor.
The story unfolds in style like a long lost folk tale, both in the way it describes the town, and also in the unfolding of the plot. If you look closely, fragments will remind you of other stories. The stupidity and greed of the mayor with his desire for a huge jewel-studded coffin reminded me of the Emperor’s New Clothes; Alberto and Tito’s relationship reminded me of Geppetto and Pinocchio; Fia, the bird, reminded me of The Firebird:
“…a bright little bird flew high overhead. Each beat of its wings made a patch of stars flicker out, and another made them flicker back on.”
There is a mythical island of jewels, like the promised land of Oz, or Atlantis or the Ancient Egyptian Island of Flame; the two gossipy, mean-spirited sisters living next door to Alberto reminded me of those from Cinderella; and the near-impossible task of the mayor’s coffin reminded me of all those impossible tasks in myths – the Sisyphean Task; and of course there’s a story within the story…
But even if you strip all that away, what’s left is a beautiful everyman story of the enormity of grief being defeated by the discovery of new friendship and love, of bravery and hope in the face of evil and despair. The book flows beautifully, with enough suspense and adventure to keep the reader hooked, but also the lilting beauty of the text which matches perfectly the beauty of the setting – the small glistening town on the edge of the sea, and a cast of colourful characters.
What’s more, the book is highly illustrated – each page decorated with a raft of foliage and fish in a distinctive ink blue – the text itself also in blue. Full-page illustrations punctuate the story.
But why did I mention fairy tales and folk stories at the start? Why do the allusions in the story make it special? Of course you can read The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker without knowledge of a literary history. It may even be that sometimes a reader comes away from a novel with bells ringing about another story that the author hadn’t even picked up on themselves. But it’s precisely this reader interaction with a text that makes it so interesting. The allusions add a depth to the read.
Ancient myths, fairy tales and fables were told to make moral points, to guide the reader in life, in much the same way that so many modern stories are told to teach empathy and compassion in our diverse world. Our reading will be a much richer experience if we teach the next generation the storytelling tradition – strengthening the relationship between stories of different cultures and literary canons, giving the readers tools so that they can develop an analytical understanding of narrative, deeper connections between texts, seeing bonds and similarities.
I was approached recently by a teacher raised in an extremely religious orthodox environment, who knew none of the fairy tales that we and Disney so often take for granted. She was lamenting her ignorance, until I pointed out the wealth of stories she must have from her religious texts. And these too provided guidance and a way for her to draw parallels with the texts she is now reading with the children.
Crossing barriers, reaching over the divide. Stories do this. And what better way to do it than by creating new folk stories from the old. Borrowing, alluding, and comparing.
You can buy The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker here.