Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

After about 70 pages, I almost didn’t finish this one. The middle half is better, and probably made it worth reading, once, but I’m not even quite sure about that. The story owes something to Chaucer, and something to Milton, references various European legends, and possibly authors I didn’t pick up on. The plot is fine; it’s the style that breaks down.

The end paper informs me that Rev. Walter Wangerin, Jr. mostly wrote children’s books, and that this was his first novel. The problem with the first part of the book is that he can’t decide whether he’s writing tongue-in-cheek or not. The effect is rather like a story-teller who keeps winking at the audience but never gets to a punchline; possibly never actually meant to tell a joke at all.

The language – throughout, but especially in the first part – has the angularity I associate with Lutheran hymn tunes: where other denominations tend to subtly alter rhythms to suit English better, the Lutherans have, as best I can tell, kept the original German rhythms despite translating the words. The effect is a bit odd when you grew up with the other, and this book produces the same effect – as if English, at least in its most common American incarnation, isn’t quite the author’s native dialect. Of course Wangerin was actually a Lutheran, but I didn’t know that when I started reading or came up with the comparison – I don’t ever read the end papers first.

The final problem is that the story just isn’t consistent. The characters – talking animals all – don’t develop, they just change as necessary. The rules that seem clearly laid out – Wangerin spends whole chapters on them – are subverted without sufficient explanation. And there’s a sort of Book of Judges problem in that the characters are, for the most part, not actually likeable. I think Wangerin meant the book to be deadly serious; but he keeps slipping into – or never quite gets out of – a narrative tone that leads the reader to expect something much lighter. On the other hand, he keeps giving hints that the story is supposed to be, if not allegorical, at least some way religious in meaning; but the moral is never spelled out, and if it’s just a parable about the Providence of God I would rather go re-read Job. Or “The Wanderer”.