HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: The Old Tobacco Shop: A True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure
Author: William Bowen
Illustrator: Reginald Birch
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, republished 2015
Language level: 2
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Recommended reading level: Ages 12 and up
Rating: *** 3 stars (FAIR)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Bowen, William. The Old Tobacco Shop: A True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure (published in 1921 by Macmillan; republished in 2015 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform). Freddie, who is described as a “Little Boy” and, though his age is never given, is said by reviewers to be about five or six years old because he’s only just begun not to call himself “Fweddie,” has recently moved with his father and mother into a new two-story house “in the city that lies on the river called Patapsco” which runs into Chesapeake Bay (most likely Baltimore, MD). His father sends him to “The Old Tobacco Shop” run by a humpbacked little man named Toby Littleback to buy some Cage-Roach Mitchner tobacco for his pipe. Freddie becomes friends with Toby and Toby’s old maid Aunt Amanda. Toby takes Freddie to a theater to see a show by a mime, Mr. Hanlon, who is literally a mute. Toby also fills the boy’s head tales of strange characters including one about the magic tobacco in a container shaped like a Chinaman’s head that must never be touched.
One night, Freddie is alone in the shop and decides to light up a pipe with the mysterious Chinese tobacco to see what would happen. This summons up an able-bodied sailor named Lemuel Mizzen fresh off the seas who gives a treasure map to Freddie. Along with Toby, Aunt Amanda, Mr. Hanlon, the Churchwarden from across the street, two old codgers who frequent the shop, and Mr. Punch who is the humpbacked statue out in front now come to life, Freddie sets out on Mizzen’s leaky ship, the Sieve, to sail the Spanish Main and find the treasure on Correction Island. These strange, colorful characters suffer shipwreck, drift on rafts of mattresses, are captured by pirates who threaten to kill them, and escape to find a rug merchant who promises to make their dreams come true. What happens to them? Do their dreams really come true? And will they ever make it back home?
This book by author William R. Bowen, who was Chair of the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Toronto Scarborough, was a 1922 Newbery Honor Book. Aside from the somewhat bizarre fact that the plot is based on the actions of a “Little Boy” who smokes a pipe (one might humorously wonder what that original Newbery committee was smoking when they nominated this book for the Medal), this is a rather inventive, imaginative fantasy. Although there are all sorts of political correctness issues about the book, there is not much to which one might strongly object. Besides a couple of common euphemisms (blamed, confounded), the phrase “Lord bless us” is used once as an exclamation. The scenes where the pirates threaten, with some vivid detail, to kill Freddie and his companions, and where the group finds thirteen other pirates with knives in their backs may be a bit intense for younger and sensitive readers. The language is fun because it has a lot of one-liners and wordplay that’s done effectively. The original novel was illustrated by Reginald Birch. The CreateSpace edition which I read doesn’t have the illustrations, and for this reason I don’t normally recommend CreateSpace books, but for some older stories they’re often the only ones available, unless you want to pay big bucks for antique, out of print volumes.