George and Martha, how much do I love thee? Let me count the billions of ways. My mother, a children’s librarian, never read George and Martha to her classes because she felt the droll humor and understated story lines were lost on the children. Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t. But I find the George and Martha stories elegant, full of grace and wit, and generosity. Give me George and Martha any day of the week.
The illustrations of these two hippos — best friends — are endearing and funny, but in a dry, sly, way. There’s nothing imposing or burdensome about their renderings. Maurice Sendak wrote, “The refined sensibilities of his hippos stand in touching contrast to their obvious tonnage, and his pen line — though never forgetting their impossible weight and size — endows them with the grace and airiness of a ballerina and her cavalier.”
These comely, devilish hippos possess all the traits that we humans do, except they do it better, with more dexterity, more grace. And look at their eyes! Just two dots and you have everything you need. Amazing.
Let’s look at the text of the first story of the first book, which is my favorite. It opens simply, like so:
Martha was very fond of making split pea soup. Sometimes she made it all day long. Pots and pots of split pea soup.
If there was one thing George was not fond of, it was split pea soup. As a matter of fact, George hated split pea soup more than anything else in the world. But it was so hard to tell Martha.
You have to read these six sentences a few times to appreciate how ingenious they are, and how much pathos is in them. This isn’t language hurriedly scrawled across a page. These lines are worked over, analyzed, written and rewritten to pack the biggest punch. George hates split pea soup. Martha loves to make it. George loves Martha, and he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. Is this not the embodiment of so many of life’s trials, wrapped up and exquisitely placed, in a spare few lines, on a clean expanse of white?
Here’s George, trying to hide his distaste for pea soup by pouring it into his galoshes. But of course Martha watches from the kitchen.
Don’t you just love how we’re looking at George from Martha’s perspective? As she witnesses this clandestine act from the stove? I tell you there is nothing funnier.
And then this, at the end:
“How do you expect to walk home with your loafers full of split pea soup?” she asked George.
“Oh dear,” said George. “You saw me.”
“And why didn’t you tell me that you hate my split pea soup?”
“I didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” said George.
“That’s silly,” said Martha. “Friends should always tell each other the truth. As a matter of fact, I don’t like split pea soup very much myself. I only like to make it. From now on, you’ll never have to eat that awful soup again.”
“What a relief!” George sighed.
These books were originally issued one by one, with five stories per book, six books in all. Now, you can buy the complete collection with a spectacular introduction by Maurice Sendak, who has a keen appreciation for what James Marshall does in all his stories for children. Amazingly, James Marshall was misunderstood: time and again he was passed over by the awards committees, which is outrageous, and testament to his genius.
The collection is really one of the best ones out there. Ray and I return to it again and again. Buy the book for the friends who possess a deadpan wit and a tender heart. Marshall had both.