The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. By Mark Twain and Philip Stead. Illustrations by Erin Stead. Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2017. Pp. 152. Hardcover. $24.99. ISBN 978-0-553-52322-5 (trade); ISBN 978-0-553-52323-2 (library binding); ISBN 978-0-553-52324-9 (ebook).

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The following review appeared 21 August 2017 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Readers of this review may not be familiar with story-telling quantum mechanics for the simple reason that this reviewer is its only theorist and perhaps its sole subscriber. This theory of the subatomic underpinnings of story-telling is no different from the physics involved in broader quantum mechanics: Several different versions of a story can begin at the same place at the very same time, travel various distances by various routes, and yet all end up in the very same place at the very same time, and all of these seemingly contradictory versions can peacefully and simultaneously coexist. However, if particles from one version of a story collide with particles from another version, energy is released that can be observed.

An example of story-telling quantum mechanics in action is the oft-repeated account of how Mark Twain structured his bedtime stories for his daughters in their Hartford home. It is said that Twain would base his stories on the bric-a-brac that stood upon the mantel, beginning a new story each night with the painting of the "cat in the ruff" and ending it with a girl named Emmeline. Every story began and ended at those points but took a different path, with no repeated events allowed. Twain himself reported that if any particle from one story collided with a single particle from a previous story, it provoked violent explosions of energy from his observant audience of two or three. (This was hard work, and some Twainians cannot help but suspect it was no coincidence that he killed off poor Emmeline when he got the chance in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine puts this theory to the test. The story is inspired by sixteen pages of explicit notes left unfinished by Mark Twain in 1879, and discovered in 2011 in the Mark Twain Papers by well-known Mark Twain scholar John Bird, who noticed a bracketed note by Twain at one point in the narrative that records Susy's response to the tale. Bird suddenly recognized that he was reading what are very likely the only notes Twain ever preserved for any of the countless bedtime stories he told his daughters. After the University of California Press declined to publish the unfinished story, Bird, with Mark Twain Project (MTP) editor Bob Hirst's cooperation, brought the notes to the attention of the Mark Twain House and Museum. Tina Wexler of IMC Partners, on behalf of the Mark Twain House, showed them to Frances Gilbert of Random House, who arranged to have the story reconceived and completed by the Caldecott Medal-winning husband and wife team of Philip (text) and Erin (illustrator) Stead. Doubleday Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Random House Children's Books) has announced a first printing of 250,000 copies, and sales of the book will benefit the Mark Twain House & Museum, the MTP, and the University of California Press.

Unlike Twain's bedtime stories in Hartford, his story about a kidnapped prince was first told in Paris when Clara was five and Susy was seven, and was based on a picture in a magazine, not the bric-a-brac on the mantel back home. Twain's notes sketch out in telling detail the experiences of a boy named Johnny, whose dying mother leaves him some seeds she was given by an old woman she believed was probably a fairy. After she dies, Johnny follows her careful instructions, planting and watering the seeds, and eating the flower that blossoms forth, which gives him the magical ability to communicate with all kinds of animals (anticipating Dr. Doolittle by four decades). He first meets a kangaroo (which provoked Susy's comment that Twain recorded which in turn led to John Bird's recognition of what the story represented), and soon all of the animals of the forest join forces to build him a new home. One day Johnny finds a royal handbill offering a reward to anyone who can rescue the king's son who has been kidnapped by giants. Johnny, with his animal friends, heads to the king's castle and strikes a bargain after demonstrating to the skeptical king that he--a small insignificant boy--could indeed converse with the menagerie now under his command. He soon sets off with his animal friends to rescue the prince, tracking him to a cave guarded by two dragons who never sleep, and there, without warning, Twain's notes abruptly end.

Perhaps Twain intended his notes to end at that moment, and retold it each night with a different ending, a variation on the pattern of quantum mechanics story-telling that he practiced at home with the mantel bric-a-brac. Or, perhaps the remaining pages of notes were never written, or maybe they were written but later lost. It's even possible he allowed his daughters to finish the story each evening. It should be remembered that Twain experimented with stories with no endings in his published works, including "Grandfather's Old Ram," "An Awful Terrible Medieval Romance," "Those Extraordinary Twins" and an untitled ribald sketch in Following the Equator known as "A Story Without an End." Unless new evidence surfaces, the answer to why Twain's notes end when they do is unknowable.

But the Steads bravely rise to the challenge and finish Twain's story, supplying at least one possible outcome. In doing so they take the liberty of making many changes along the way: The characters of a mean-spirited grandfather and an innocent chicken are added into the mix, and the plot altered to accommodate them--one dies early on, and the other lives 100 years. The kangaroo that provoked Susy Clemens's comment is replaced by Susy the Skunk, who exudes a faint whiff of Adele Roberts's popular The Adventures of Sammy the Skunk (2011)--with no apologies to Susy Clemens or Adele Roberts. Twain's story itself is recast as a frame narrative with Stead meeting with Mark Twain on Beaver Island, Michigan, where, young readers or listeners are reminded for some reason, the Mormon leader James Jesse Strang declared himself "King" of a renegade polygamous settlement and was later assassinated. Twain himself intrudes into the story several times. The dying widow (presumably Johnny's mother) who gives the seeds to Johnny is presented merely as a blind beggar in the Stead version of events. Along the way to the cave where Prince Oleomargarine is thought to be held captive, Johnny encounters a parade of people who are curiously stooped over. Comparisons are made between Here and There (the United States of today, and the world of this fairy tale), introducing some social themes (some might detect satiric political commentary) contrasting the worlds of the fairy tale and the present day, which were also not part of Twain's original plan. These changes all appear before the narrative reaches the cave guarded by the two dragons who never sleep, and some of them play out in Stead's entirely original ending. It's a more complex--even confusing--story than the tale conceived by Mark Twain, and young readers may need help sorting it out.

Twainians can be forgiven if they object to these alterations to Twain's original conception of his fairy tale, and it does not help that the text of Twain's original story does not appear in this edition, although some of his notes are reproduced in facsimile on the end papers and readers are referred to an online site to view them ( However, as of 18 August 2017, these facsimiles are not yet online at that site. Although the characters, plot, and themes are significantly changed from what Twain described in his notes for his story, this is not a departure from Mark Twain's urtext quite on par with the undisclosed fabrications and confabulations performed by Albert Bigelow Paine and Frederick Duneka on the The Mysterious Stranger. Stead himself has been quoted as saying "No one's qualified to write for Mark Twain" and this book is a respectful--if radical--reimagining of the story, using Twain's notes only as a touch-stone. The Steads don't hide the fact that they have substantially changed the story, although the absence of Twain's original notes makes it impossible for the reader to determine how much of what they are reading is Twain and how much is Stead--a valid question since both Mark Twain and Philip Stead are credited as the authors.

Another objection that could be raised is the obvious mismatch between the simple story and the more complex vocabulary. The publisher advertises the reading level for this book as ages eight to twelve. Younger children who might find the story compelling would certainly stumble over words like "festooned," "burgled," "medallions," "prematurely," "throngs," "melancholic," "optimism," "cymbals," "forsaken," and "credibility" that seem to pop up in every sentence. While this vocabulary would not challenge older readers, those older readers would probably not be captivated by the simple story-line like young readers. This may not be so serious a flaw as it might seem since the best bedtime stories are those that a parent reads or recites to a child, and the Steads's presentation makes it imperative that the story be read by adults to children, so that the words can be explained in context as the story is read aloud. This reflects how Twain told his stories to his own daughters.

Objections aside, the result is wholly in the tradition of classic fairy tales, with talking animals, dragons, a fairy in disguise, a kidnapping, a cave, a king, and giants. Naturally, it involves a quest that takes place in a faraway time and place. Along the way, the Stead text pays subtle homage to other fairy tales like "Jack in the Beanstalk," "The Gingerbread Man," and even works of Shakespeare. The enchanting and atmospheric illustrations likewise contain some echoes of illustrations found in various editions of The Prince and the Pauper and in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. It also teaches some lessons about the relative values of friendship and material wealth, and is--with or without Mark Twain--a beautifully illustrated and charming tale.

But the Steads's version is not the only possible resolution to Twain's unfinished tale. Many other endings could have been contrived to complete Twain's story, perhaps picking up on the obvious clues Twain left behind: His story centers around a small boy whose courage, ingenuity, and intelligence are doubted by those bigger or more powerful, setting him up to overcome large obstacles like giants and dragons by calling upon those very traits. The dragons who never sleep are merely frightened away in the Steads's version, but the fact that Twain introduces them as dragons that never sleep would seem to suggest that he intended them to be vanquished by being made to go to sleep by some clever means. Twain's notes may be incomplete, or appear so, but they contain hints of the various other ways his story could find its way to a satisfying conclusion.

In fact, just such a version has been written. John Bird, who first discerned what Mark Twain's notes really represented, and who has written wisely on the family life and parenting of Sam and Livy Clemens, wrote a perceptive completion of Mark Twain's tale. This reviewer has been privileged to read both Bird's version and Mark Twain's original notes, and without yielding to the temptation of revealing his ending, can only say that Bird's completion of the tale is true to Mark Twain's intent and aimed at young readers just like Twain's own daughters. It is far superior, and deserves to be read alongside Mark Twain's original notes so that children of all ages can make their own judgments.

The Steads's version presented in this edition is a valid and worthy possibility, and this reviewer has no quarrel with what they produced--they delivered what they were asked by their publisher--and the result can proudly stand on its own merits. But the story they tell is not consistent with Mark Twain's original conception, and presenting it as representative of Mark Twain's creative talents does no justice to the great author. It is, as Philip Stead describes it, "a brand-new work" (p. 151). The theory of quantum mechanics story-telling reminds us that many versions are possible. Twainians will be especially curious to know exactly what Mark Twain wrote himself, allowing them to imagine how a version completed in a way more consistent with Twain's original narrative plan might have played out. In the meantime, the children and grandchildren of every Twainian who encounter this current version will be charmed, although it won't be Mark Twain doing the charming.