February 7, 2008

Through the Tempests Dark and Wild

Though it is meant for young readers, 8 to 12 years old, Sharon Darrow’s Through the Tempests Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein is a deeply moving story that will captivate reader of all ages. It is also one of the most beautifully illustrated books I’ve ever seen.

The story fictionalizes the last days of Mary Shelley’s idyllic, two-year stay in Scotland with the Baxters, friends of her father. Mary had been sent away because of tensions between her and her stepmother, fueled by heartache and rebellion over how her father had come to abandon the progressive ideas of her lost mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Writer Sharon Darrow impeccable research allows her to weave a plausible narrative of Mary’s friendship with the Baxter children, Robert and Isabel. The story includes fireside tales attributed to Mary, suggesting the young woman’s nascent storytelling abilities. One is a wonderful ghost story about a drowned lover, the other is a short but heart-wrenching account of her own birth as a comet “streaked across the rooftops of London”, leading to her mother’s death eleven days later.

Darrow’s writing is sublime, and Angela Barrett’s artwork is astounding, a perfect conjuncture. Barrett illuminates the story with large, atmospheric watercolors. The reproductions here do not do them justice. The cover, for instance, wraps around the book. The lightning-struck Juras continue to unroll across the back, and you’d have to hold the book in your hands to fully appreciate the soulful expressions of the characters, or the astounding detail of the rain — every drop seemingly rendered by Barrett — falling across the scene.

The image of Mary writing, cropped here, is larger in the book. Note the famous portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, not only perfectly recognizable, but shown in foreshortened perspective, a piece of virtuoso drawing.

Many of the illustrations, Rembrandt-like, feature windows or opened doors offering intimate glimpses of things beyond. One of the most striking picture in the book shows William Godwin holding baby Mary, standing at the foot of Mary Wollstonecraft’s deathbed. We see only a shape under the covers, tall curtains like silent guards around the stilled bed. Godwin’s unimaginable loss is palpable as he kisses the baby’s head. Barrett told The Guardian that she posed herself, holding a doll, to capture the moment.

Another wonderful illustration shows Mary entertaining Isabel and Robert with her stories. They huddle by the weak light of a fireplace on one side of the illustration while, far across the darkened room, we can barely make out ghostly faces hidden in the folds of thick drapes.

Barrett also renders large, dramatic spaces, showing tiny, windswept characters on vast coastlines. We see Mary dwarfed by giant, ancient pines, looking at a castle, distant and small, across the bay. Mary’s sadness is perfectly captured as she sails, gazing back at Scotland across the endless ocean spread before her. Close inspection of the art reveals a distant sailboat and a microscopic flock of seagulls.

Frankenstein is not mentioned in the main story, yet we know that the book will be Mary’s ultimate achievement, as witnessed by the cover, a momentous, thunder and lightning-attended, yet incredibly tender meeting of Mary and her creation.

Mary’s later life, and the importance of her most famous book, is covered in an Afterword. Here, Barrett illustrates Frankenstein with a handful of small drawings in a narrow strip running across the bottom of four pages. It is an astounding summary of the novel. The first two images are reproduced here: Frankenstein hovering over the creature in his bare-bones garret, and The Monster — His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath — appearing at Frankenstein’s bed curtains. Among the other images, all key scenes, there is a wrenching image of The Monster gazing at himself in a pond, the oft-illustrated moment made unique and memorable here for a large weeping willow bending, as if in sympathy, over The Creature.

Through the Tempests Dark and Wild is masterfully written and illustrated, a true treasure for Mary Shelley and Frankenstein fans. It was published by Candlewick Press of Massachusetts in 2003.

Read “Haunting Coincidences”, an informative introduction to the book and the unique circumstances of its writing.

Candlewick Press’s page for the book, and bios for Sharon Darrow and Angela Barrett.

Sharon Darrow’s website.

Angela Barrett has also illustrated a superb Beauty and The Beast, a surprising version of Snow White, and numerous other books. Read an in-depth article about her, Running With Wolves, in The Guardian.

Angela Barrett’s British Council Magic Pencil page.

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