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Crossing the Cornfield and Saving the World: The Neddiad: 09/29/17
Sometimes I find it necessary to revisit a review, especially when experiencing the book in a different medium or under vastly different circumstances. Originally I read The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater in hardcover from my local library. This time, I experienced as an audiobook as read by the author while on a roadtrip to Wyoming.
The Neddiad is the first of the Ned and Friends series and is more or less a middle grade homage to the Iliad. Although ten years have passed on the battle field outside Troy, Homer cuts to the chase and just shows both sides coming apart at the seams and the messy resolution involving some high profile deaths. Pinkwater's book, though, has the battle be a long turn, recurring event — on the order of centuries, not years.
While Pinkwater's book culminates in an epic battle involving a Lovecraftian monster, the La Brea tarpits, the World Turtle, and one very confused and young hero — there's this weirdly wonderful deconstruction of an American road narrative and it's that aspect I'd like to focus on first.
Ned Wentworthstein begins in a neighborhood back east. He hears about the Brown Derby restaurant and tells his dad he wants to eat there someday. His dad who tends to be impulsive, uses that request as the excuse he's been looking for to move the entire family to Los Angeles. As this will be a one way trip, the Neddiad establishes itself as an "On the Road" story.
As Ned's father is the "Shoelace King" and can afford to rent a family suite on the Southwest Chief as they go from Chicago to Los Angeles, this book is also in the "traveling while male and white" category. It's set up as being a tale of luxury travel, cut off from the elements, completely safe, and completely guaranteed to go as planned.
That is until New Mexico and Ned and his family are allowed to detrain while the train takes on water and provisions. Ned is lured off road (in this case, the rail road) and finds himself in a Native American market where he can learn about the different cultures in the area, buy goods, and see them at work. It's there that he meets Melvin (of the many names) and receives the Turtle.
If you got to Four Corners, one symbol you'll see over and over again is the Turtle — which is said to carry North America on its back. My son and daughter both own versions of this turtle — neither of them though magical in the way that Ned's is.
Two things happen here to Ned's pre-scripted journey. The first is that he moves into a "crossing the cornfield" situation and second, he changes transportation from an always "on the road" vehicle to one that can go off road if needed — ie, an automobile. In fact, over the remaining part of Ned's journey to Los Angeles, he'll get more and more off road to the point of even flying in an airplane over the Grand Canyon.
Let's look though at the crossing the cornfield piece of Ned's journey to Los Angeles. Though the initial push is with detraining in New Mexico, it's not until Arizona that Ned completely loses sight of his guaranteed ride into Los Angeles. When the train stops to let on passengers, Ned somehow thinks it's going to be another long stop like New Mexico. He detrains, wanders into Flagstaff, and the train leaves with out him.
Flagstaff isn't exactly known for it's cornfields so how does this city put him on that path? Just as in Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, the cornfield can be an entrance to the Underworld. For Ned — his first foray into the Underworld comes from being put up in the haunted room of the hotel near the train station. Rather than this being a traumatic experience — Ned ends up befriending the ghost and inviting him along on his journey to Los Angeles.
The bellhop ghost though is just one of many ghosts and many entrances to the Underworld. The biggest Underworld component is the La Brea tarpits. It's a place full old bones and one of two portals Ned uses while saving the world.
Every character in the Neddiad has an important role but I want to just look at one: Melvin the Shaman. From the moment Ned and he meet in New Mexico, Melvin ends up being there whenever Ned looks like he's going to fall off the unmarked path.
In the crossing the cornfield genre — Melvin is a reluctant scarecrow, more so than he is a minotaur. Melvin, though clearly powerful enough to be omnipresent and omniscient, repeatedly states that he can't fight the battle for Ned, nor can he know exactly when Ned will need to fight said battle (or even if Ned will ultimately be the one to fight it).
Melvin, while in the colloquial means an average (Jewish) guy, the name itself means "gentle lord." Ned assumes that Melvin is a shaman because he gives advice, seems to know more than he should, and was in possession of a magical turtle. I think, though, that Melvin is more than that — an Old One — if you will. Melvin goes with the turtle throughout the ages. He's not any particular type of god or spirit, but with the turtle having come to rest in Santa Fe, has taken on the persona of the people there, though not particularly well (as the bellhop ghost points out on several occasions).
Ned's journey from urban rich kid to hero is a winding path full of detours and peril.
Finally, as this was the audiobook, read by the author, I should note that Pinkwater, who has radio experience as an NPR commentator, did an excellent job. I wish the remaining books in this series were also done as audiobooks. Pinkwater has a rather dry, matter of fact way of narrating his book which plays ironically against the weirdness of the story. Ned, like Pinkwater, does for the most part, present what happens as if it were the most normal thing ever — even when meeting ghosts, or fighting mythological creatures, or swimming with world turtles. Pinkwater's approach to narrating the book reminds me fondly of The Wayside School Collection, narrated by author Louis Sachar.