My elementary school was actually a pair of schools combined in some ancient merger — the Linscott and the Rumford.
The Rumford was the newer of the two buildings, rebuilt in Space Age moderne style after the original was firebombed a couple of years before I was born. It was connected by a glass-paneled walkway to the Linscott, a semi-rehabbed relic of the early 20th Century complete with dark hardwood floors and steam radiators capable of melting the nylon of a Sears-brand kid’s parka.
The Rumford housed the admin offices, K-4 classrooms and the gym. The Linscott contained a basement cafeteria, the fifth and sixth grade classrooms, and a large open central area split between the school library and a carpeted-stepped “auditorium.” Apart from the low back wall that separated it from the auditorium, the boundaries of the library were demarcated by an asymmetric arrangement of shelves which enclosed a central reading/study area. It — along with the energy-conserving dim lighting — gave the place an eerie abstract stage set vibe, like something out of a shot-on-video PBS edutainment offering.
This being the seventies and me being a geek, I gravitated towards the book-club castoff tomes covering supernatural phenomena and classic movie monsters. When those weren’t available, I turned toward the turn-of-the-century travails of the Moffat family. If those were also out on loan, I scanned the remote and neglected shelf containing books of myths and legends.
It was there I found my favorite of the library’s meager offerings — a 1950s kidlit recounting of the Iliad and Odyssey. According to the card in the back, I was the only person who’d ever checked the book out, making it an easy fallback. My mom was a vocal enthusiast of Classical myths and Arthurian legends. Much of it genuinely rubbed off on me, though there was also a calculated aspect to my interest — the hope that parental pride would offset her wrath about whatever stupid thing I’d done to set her off that day.
The two epics were broken down into double-page chunks of prose with relevant illustrations. The art was the real attraction — a mid-century modern minimalist spin on Grecian urn and mosaic styles which made the stuff of myths seem that much more hauntingly mythic. The Odyssey was my favorite of the two, mainly because the singular protagonist was easier to follow and it didn’t skimp on the ghosts and monsters.
Over the next couple years, I racked up at least a half-dozen entries in its previously blank check-out log. It became the subject of a couple of book reports and the elements of the stories incorporated into improvised action figure adventures. When the time came to leave the Linscott-Rumford for the terrors of JFK Junior High, I considered taking the book with me, but punked out due to fear of getting caught and guilt about depriving some other theoretical kid of the thrills it had given me.
At the end of my eight grade year, my Nana’s police scanner lit up with news about a fire at the Linscott. Some dipshit teens had broken into the building and set the library on fire, which then spread though the rest of its ancient frame. I hopped on my bike and rode the two miles back to the old neighborhood to watch it happen, alongside nearly every other resident of North Woburn. As I watched a significant chunk of my mental landscape go up in flames, one thought kept running through my head. “I should’ve swiped that damn book.”
And that’s how the book maintained a minor toehold in my memory over the year, in anecdotes about a favorite childhood book that got lost when the school burned down or ones about my elementary school burning down and taking a favorite childhood book with it. Occasionally I’d think about seeking out more details regarding it, but it wasn’t until the last decade or so that the many variants of “children’s iliad odyssey 1950s urn art” I plugged into Google got a solid lead in return.
The book was a 1964 Golden Press edition of The Iliad & the Odyssey, written by Jane Werner and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. The Provensons were a pair of animation studio illustrators who met while working on wartime propaganda material before embarking on a lengthy and acclaimed career as artists for children’s books. Based on the various forum posts and review sites I scanned, their take on Homer’s epics has become a legend unto itself.
So much so, in fact, that even battered-to-shit copies of the out-of-print classic commanded upwards of fifty bucks. That was too rich for my blood at the time, so I had to content myself with finally identifying the book after two decades of increasingly hazy memories.
I’d scan the usual secondhand book vendors every year or so, typically when boredom and the need for retail therapy overtook my better judgement. Each time, the asking prices edged up a little higher and came to accept I’d never managed to secure a copy…
…until a month ago when I realized I actually could afford it and the book better fits the “deep personal significance” criteria than a lot of other retro artifacts picked up during my current quality-over-quantity mindset. I also sprung for a pair of other (cheaper) Provensen illustrated releases along similar lines, The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends and The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales. The former is close in format to the Homeric duo, with Roland, Rustam, and the Ring Cycle thrown in next to Perseus and Hercules. The latter, despite the title branding, is more prose-heavy, though the slimmer assortment of illustrations are still top flight work.
Revisiting favorite childhood books can be a dicey endeavor. Nostalgia is an inflationary phenomenon, one that can violently evaporate upon contact with the reality. Font sizes seem biggee, plots seem simpler, writing seems stupider than distantly remembered. I cracked open my newly arrived copy of The Iliad & the Odyssey expected this would be the case, but it turned out to be even more sophisticated than I recalled. While the more lurid and viscerally explicit parts of the source material have been toned down for younger readers, neither the text not the illustrations pull too many punches when it comes to matters of fragile mortality and existential terrors. As far as popularized versions of the poems go, they’re still a damn sight more sophisticated than a lot of “adult” oriented retellings I’ve read.
Furthermore, the Provensens’ vision of the Classical world is a fairly diverse one, with characters sporting an astonishing variety of skin tones instead of falling into the then-prevailing “Northern European folks with crested helmets” trope. The monsters and mythical creatures still creep me out like they did over three decades ago, and the books made some ideal lazy sofa-time reading at a moment in my life where such things are particularly appreciated.
And I would’ve felt really stupid if I spent that much money on a book that did embarrass me in hindsight.