The Magic Hat of Mortimer Wintergreen by Myron Levoy (Harper & Row: $11.95; 211 pages; ages 8-12).
In 1893 a traveling magician is booed out of a South Dakota town after he accidentally pulls a ripe skunk from his hat. Fleeing with him are Amy and Joshua, two orphans trying to escape the terrors of Aunt Vooch, a deranged character not worth the ink. The opening chapters of this middle-grade novel suggest rollicking humor, but the child abuse is so gruesome one can hardly laugh.
Aunt Vooch lashes with her buggy whip, screams profanely, then chains the kids to the pigpen before slopping garbage on their heads. Why read on? Surely this award-winning author, celebrated by the American Library Assn. in 1981 and 1986-- surely he will bring this together.
Happier Life at a Snap
Mortimer Wintergreen doesn't change even after he evaluates himself, nor do Joshua and Amy grow. They are simply snapped into a happier life, a well-deserved one, but aside from being nice kids, their characters don't stretch. Each hardship is met with legerdemain rather than thought. When the despicable Aunt Vooch keeps harassing everyone, poof, she finally vanishes into the clouds, her cruelty unresolved.