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Trust Me On This : No One Could Resist Their Smile

August 15, 1993|TOBI TOBIAS | Tobias, a New York-based writer, read to her two children every night for over a decade. Trust Me on This is an occasional feature in which writers make a case for that forgotten, obscure or unsung book that they put in everyone's hands with the words: "Read this. You'll love it. Trust me on this." "Goldie the Dollmaker" is in paperback from Farrar, Straus & Giroux

I can't remember if my gently worn copy of M. B. Goffstein's "Goldie the Dollmaker" was acquired for me or for my children, who were at picture-book age when it was published in 1969. I do know that it still speaks directly to my heart and that for more than two decades I've been giving copies of it to youngsters and to adult artists--to the latter because it describes what they do, indeed what they are .

This is the story it tells: Goldie Rosenzweig--a childlike figure with an adult's self-reliance--lives alone in an isolated cottage whose bare-bones simplicity rivals the Shakers', carrying on the doll-making trade of her dead parents. Not only has she committed herself wholeheartedly to the ceaseless labor of her craft, bringing it to a fine degree of meticulousness, she infuses her soul into each figure that her devoted hands carve and paint. No one can resist the appeal, at once magical and deeply human, of a doll Goldie has birthed; its smile is heartbreaking.

On a trip to town for her frugal list of supplies, Goldie checks in with the young man who represents the "normal" life of tender connections she has sacrificed to her work. A carpenter (ironically, a woodworker like herself), Omus Hirschbein builds the boxes in which she ships her dolls. The handsomest and friendliest of Philistines, he lives in a world that is entirely square. On the same outing, Goldie buys a Chinese lamp she can ill afford; the beauty of its painted porcelain captivates her, annihilating prudence. Back home, frightened by her extravagant impulse, she allows her aloneness to overwhelm her. The "genie" of the glowing lamp--the spirit of the man who made it--appears to comfort her and to greet her as kin. He reveals to Goldie what she is: a fellow artist, one who communicates across impossible reaches of space and time by creating things for people with the instinct to respond to them--that is, for "friends."

Moved by the implications resonant in Goffstein's every line--drawn and written--I haven't done justice to the book's succinctness. Each bit of it is necessary, and there's nothing extra. The text, which begs to be read aloud, if only inside your head, has been refined to its essence. It has the quality of stones and glass cast up on a sun-warmed beach, having become, after long submission to the beating of the ocean's waves and the drag of its tides, smooth, rounded, comfortable to hold, modestly beautiful. Though Goffstein's sentences are spare and precise, their rhythm (prose, not verse, rhythm, but musical nonetheless) is cadenced and soothing; it creates an atmosphere of calm and completeness. This manner of expression can suffer from a surfeit of good qualities. In "Goldie," it's rescued by the occasional twinkle of an offbeat choice of word or turn of phrase. As a stylist, Goffstein has a cousin in Beatrix Potter.

The pictures are characteristic of Goffstein's early books. Painstaking black line stands brave and unadorned in a white expanse softened only by dove-gray washes. The outlines have the staunchness and vulnerability you see in the handwriting of those newly literate. The human figures are short and plump--theirs is the endomorphic anatomy often matched to a benign temperament--and as sturdy as forever. The inanimate objects are equally plain and poignant. The place suggested is vaguely rural, vaguely middle-European; the time, a while ago. In other words, the setting, though strongly implying roots, is sufficiently not here and now for it to become the country of the imagination.

In "Goldie," Goffstein explores her central concern, which is art: the nature of the people who make it and the process of its making. In her 30 books, she keeps moving back to the subject, as if each time she had discovered a new aspect of an immense wonder. She has produced two small compendiums, "Lives of the Artists" and "An Artist's Album," each comprising five profiles-in-miniature of visual artists who are historically real and (excepting an anonymous Native American woman whose work is a doll) celebrated. In "An Artist," Goffstein treats the painter as a generic type, although the luminous pastel washes and the figure of the little old man who is the book's hero, and its only character, cry out "Monet!" In this lovely work, Goffstein analyzes abstractly what an artist does and expresses it epigrammatically.

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