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The Little Gentleman    by Philippa Pearce & Tom Pohrt order for
Little Gentleman
by Philippa Pearce
Order:  USA  Can
Greenwillow, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Elizabeth's parents separated when she was a babe, leaving Bet to live with her grandparents. Grandmother Allum is Mr. Franklin's housekeeper. Recovering in bed with a broken leg after a fall from a ladder, Mr. Franklin decides that Bet is perfect for a test and a task he has in mind. The test is for Bet to show Mr. Franklin how well she can read aloud. He stresses to Mrs. Allum 'that Bet would be reading aloud for me but not to me'. The task is to take a book about earthworms into the pasture, sit on a big log, and read the story aloud. During the second day of reading out-of-doors, Bet senses a movement beside her; it's a mole, who can speak!

Mole tells Bet how delicious earthworms are compared to bugs (too crunchy). (Mr. Franklin knows all about the mole which he met while reading aloud in the same meadow, prior to his accident.) Bet becomes a go-between for Mr. Franklin and the mole. When mole (a.k.a. 'the little gentleman') inquires about Mr. Franklin's health, he becomes adamant that Mr. Franklin be told not to return to the reading place. Mole explains to Bet that Mr. Franklin offered to create a 'vivarium' for mole to live in, which Mole sees as a place of captivity. Mole and Bet choose the secret password 'Tirra-lira', which warns mole not to come out of his hole if other beings are in the meadow. Mole tells Bet his life history, of tunneling from Scotland to England, and of Queen Victoria's day. He explains that he was bewitched, giving him speaking powers, and everlasting life. The mole is approximately three hundred years old!

Mole tells Bet, 'I am neither Scottish nor English. I am mole, 'Talpa europaea'. My native land is the earth, the soil through which I go. I care nothing for monarchs and their quarrels'. Mole reveals his escape from a showman, and his desire to tunnel back to his birthplace, the town of Hampton Court (in 1700). Mole now wishes to become 'wholly mole', that is, to undo the witchcraft set upon him so he can return to his normal mole-self. Sharing her own life story, Bet tells mole of her Mum's wanting Bet to come live with her new husband and baby boy in the town of Disham. Bet convinces mole to use his witchcraft to shrink her to a size which would allow her to travel the underground tunnels for a 'chthonic adventure'. Heavy rains come over the land, flooding all within its path including Mole's habitat. On return to the meadow after a visit to her Mum's home, Bet stands in the disheveled, water-receded meadow and sings a song that might reach her friend, 'I'll sing you one-O / Green grow the rushes-O. / What is your one-O? / One is one and all alone'.

Philippa Pearce has created a rousing venture, with black-sketched illustrations by Tom Pohrt that set the mood for each chapter. I heartily endorse Pearce's The Little Gentleman as an ageless, delectable tale of loyalty, love, and parting-sorrow. Other books by Pearce include award-winning Tom's Midnight Garden and Familiar and Haunting: Collected Stories.

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