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The Accent Is on Legerdemain --Not Plot Development

June 04, 1988|KRISTIANA GREGORY | Gregory reviews frequently for The Times

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.

The author has a creative flair for dialogue and some of his descriptions are genuinely good, but, at 211 pages, 8- to 12-year-olds are asked to invest far too much time. Levoy could tighten some of the long-winded escapades and give the characters some character. For instance, because Mortimer Wintergreen has appointed himself the children's protector, he could confront Aunt Vooch instead of vaporizing her. He could teach Joshua and Amy to think their way out of peril instead of relying on the hat.

Realize Her Wrongs

Aunt Vooch could perhaps realize her wrongs and try to change. Joshua and Amy could use some of the wonderful verve and daring typical of kids their age to triumph over trouble. They could be role models instead of mannequins.

There is a happy ending, but, unfortunately, a happy ending plucked from thin air will leave inquisitive young readers full of questions.

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