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Dominic ()

Thanks to the hit film, William Steig will likely always be known first of all as the author of Shrek.  And his Sylvester and the Magic Pebble won the Caldecott and crops up on some lists of the best books ever for kids.  But Dominic, his first children's book, is every bit as good as those two and perhaps better.

In the tradition of the great picaresques, like Don Quixote, and of the kind of quests that Arthurian knights set out on, Dominic the dog leaves home one day in search of adventure.  He immediately meets an alligator-witch, but refuses to let her tell him his future, but who lets set him on the right road; a catfish, who gives him a spear that will make him invincible; a fox, a ferret, and a weasel who turn out to be members of the Doomsday Gang, with which he will do battle for the rest of the book; and a hundred year old pig, Bartholomew Badger, whose dying days Dominic makes more comfortable, and who in turn leaves him a fortune.  Thus equipped, Dominic utilizes his spear, his endowment, his courage, his great good nature, and his marvelous nose to help those in need, particularly those confronted by the ubiquitous Doomsday Gang.

Dominic is a wonderful hero.  His journey is thrilling and perilous but joy-filled.  The characters he encounters are amusing and interesting in their own rights.  Taken just as a fairy tale adventure the book is quite marvelous.

But there's also a spiritual depth to the tale that the previously mentioned books hinted at but never really plumbed.   The passages following the death of Bartholomew Badger are especially lovely :

    Dominic went out for a long walk and did a lot of thinking.  He was still walking when the stars came out.  Mournful, he lay down on the ground
    and looked at the stars.  Life was mysterious.  Bartholomew Badger had been alive long before there was a Dominic--long before anybody had
    even thought there would ever be such a dog.  Two hours ago Bartholomew Badger was still alive.  But now he was gone.  There was no
    Bartholomew Badger; there was only a memory.  His turn was over.  Dominic's turn was still at the beginning.  There were many who hadn't
    yet even begun to exist, but there they would be, some time in the future, a whole new world of creatures, some important, some not, and many
    of them wondering about life just as Dominic was wondering now.  It would be their turn and then Dominic's turn would be over.  Many of them
    would think about the past, which was now the present, but by then what was now the future would have become the present.

    Somehow this kind of thinking made Dominic feel more religious than usual.  He fell asleep under the vast dome of quivering stars, and just
    as he was falling asleep, passing over into the phase of dreams, he felt he understood the secret of life.  But in the light of morning, when he
    woke up, his understanding of the secret had disappeared with the stars.  The mystery was still there, inspiring his wonder.

 I can't think of any meditations on loss that are any better than that one in "adult books".

There's also a terrific defense of realism in art. When Dominic walks into a landscape painting so real that he couldn't tell it from its surroundings he asks the mouse artist :

    '[E]verywhere I look I see beauty.  If I can see a lovely landscape, just as lovely as one painted by Manfred Lyon, only by looking out
    my window, why would I want to own a painting done in that style?  It's the same as what I can see wherever I turn.'

    'I've considered that,' said the mouse, 'and this is my answer: When the landscape is covered with snow, can you see leaves?  In the midst
    of a dreary winter, when you are longing for the spring, you can look at the daffodils in a painting of mine and be confident that there is
    such a season as spring and that it will come again.  When you are suffering in summer heat, you can encourage yourself by looking at
    a cold winter landscape painted by Manfred Lyon.  You can keep in a sort of contact with an absent friend or loved one through a portrait
    by me.  Anyway...I dislike theorizing.  I'd rather paint than think.  Painting is fun, but thinking hurts my brains.'

There's Tom Wolfe's argument in The Painted Word captured in a brief exchange between two animals.  Not bad.

And throughout, Mr. Steig addresses questions of the purpose of life, and again and again the characters return to the idea that they do have a purpose and that by being who they are they fulfill it.  Matilda Fox, who's actually a widowed duck, has a nice soliloquy in response to Dominic's question about whether she likes walking, swimming or flying best.  She describes the value of all three and why she can't choose amongst them.  It reads in part :

    'Flying is pure delight,' said Mrs. Fox, 'unless you are being chased by birds of prey.  There's a rhythm to flying and it's the rhythm of the
    universe.  It's a cosmic experience.  Up there, and especially high up, I feel close to my Maker--I have the conviction that life is eternal
    and I will see my dead husband again, rest his soul.  Floating on air currents, rising with the updrafts of warm air, sliding on the downdrops,
    I feel in perfect harmony with natural events.

Likewise, late in the book, Dominic himself determines :

    The alligator-witch had certainly been right,  Life wasn't dull along this road.  Fighting the bad ones in the world was a necessary and gratifying
    experience.  Being happy among the good ones was, of course, even more gratifying.  But one could not be happy among the good ones unless
    one fought the bad ones.  He felt he was serving some important and useful purpose.

Beyond that purpose, Dominic fulfills another, even more useful.  He entertains us splendidly and infects us with the great joy he takes in life.  It may lack the reknown of some of his later works, but Dominic may be his best.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

William Steig (3 books reviewed)
Children's Books
William Steig Links:
-ESSAY: What My Husband Saw (JEANNE STEIG, October 11, 2003, NY Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : Dominic (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)
    -AUTHOR SITE : William Steig, Children's Book author
    -William Steig - HarperChildrens
    -Author William Steig ( - William Steig
    -INTERVIEW : The Children's Canon : Kids' book authors pick their all-time favorites Ý: William Steig (Salon, 12/16/95)
    -LETTER : Letter from William Steig to Paul Heins (Hornbook Virtual History Exhibit)
    -STEIG, WILLIAM November 14, 1907- , Author and Illustrator (Educational Paperback Association)
    -William Steig (Mei-Yu Lu, Reference Specialist, ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication )
    -INTERVIEW : William Steig : One of the most prolific New Yorker cover illustrators and cartoonists for more than 65 years, William
Steig has also created some 30 children's books. He is 89 and lives in Back Bay. (John Koch, 6/22/97, Boston Globe Magazine)
    -ESSAY : Let 'er Play : Classic and iconoclastic books shake up the alphabet and take kids on a trip through the Dictionopolis of the
written word. (POLLY SHULMAN, Salon)
    -LESSON PLAN : Teacher CyberGuide :Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (CyberGuide by Carol Burr, Valerie McAnally, Shannon Taylor, San Diego County Office of Education)
    -LESSON PLAN : Sylvester and the Magic Pebble Written and illustrated by William Steig
    -Yahoo! Directory : Home > Arts > Humanities > Literature > Authors > Children's > Steig, William (1907- )
    -REVIEW : of A GIFT FROM ZEUS : Sixteen Favorite Myths. By Jeanne Steig. Illustrated by William Steig (Wendy Doniger, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PETE'S A PIZZA Written and illustrated by William Steig (Signe Wilkinson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : THE TOY BROTHER Written and illustrated by William Steig  (Ellen Handler Spitz , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Abel's Island by William Steig (Lela Olszewski, SF Site)
    -BOOK LIST : 100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know : SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig (NY Public
    -AWARDS : Caldecott 1970 : Steig, William. ÝSylvester and the Magic Pebble

    -FILMOGRAPHY : William Steig (
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Andrew Adamson (
    -INFO : Shrek (2001) (
    -ESSAY : 'Shrek!' author exclaims his approval of film (Claudia Puig, 06/20/2001 , USA TODAY)
    -ESSAY : Happily Ever Ogre : An anti-fairy tale run amuck (Eric Metaxas, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY : Does Shrek really end happily (Jeffrey Overstreet, June 11, 2002, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY : "Shrek" is not Shrek! : William Steig's subversive misanthropy is jettisoned for winking innuendo in the movie version of his children's book. (Margot Mifflin, May 24, 2001, Salon)
    -ESSAY : "Shrek" : Computer animation is a technological miracle. So why does it leave us cold? (Stephanie Zacharek, May 18, 2001, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (James Berardinelli Reel Views)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Stephen Hunter, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Movie Parables' Michael Elliott)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Hollywood Jesus Visual Reviews)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Matthew Rees, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (ELVIS MITCHELL, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Paul Malcolm, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (KENNETH TURAN, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Julia Eccleshare, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (BRUCE KIRKLAND, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Sabadino Parker, PopMatters)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Bob Aulert, Culture Vulture)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Sean Weitner, Flak)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of Shrek (Jaime N. Christley, Film Written Magazine)
    -MORE REVIEWS at Imdb