In the spirit of great unfinished work – Schubert’s unfinished symphony, Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia – an unfinished children’s story by Mark Twain, now titled The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, was discovered among Twain’s papers in 2011. Like other unfinished art, contemporary masters often take up the task to finish; in this case, the Newbery Medal winners Philip and Erin Stead provided the art and supplemental text to Twain’s scribbled notes and skeletal outline of a bedtime story he had created for his young daughters over several days.
The story has a little boy on a quest with a chicken and a skunk named Sally. A magic flower when eaten has him able to communicate with animals. The King with a short man complex has banned anyone taller than he is, the willowy Queen sits knitting below his high throne, and someone had kidnapped the Prince. Conversations between Philip Stead and Mark Twain interrupt the action periodically, and Twain’s story ends with the Prince in a cave guarded by dragons.
Erin Stead draws a beautiful assortment of animals in muted watercolors with the chicken and skunk taking on special roles. Her moving portraits of the queen and the boy will remind you of someone you care about.
Recently watching the Mark Twain Prize presented to David Letterman, I thought about Twain’s role in American humor. Twain was well known for mixing his humor with truth; reading Twain can be fun for children and philosophical for adults. Although the action seems a little slow, the Steads completion of this unfinished story adds another piece to Twain’s impressive canon.
The satisfying ending the Steads provide is timely and poignant.
“…the words that could save mankind from all its silly, ceaseless violence, if only mankind could say them once in a while and make them truly meant…
I am glad to know you.”