By: Sue Brannan Walker; Illustrated by Kate Seawell
Reviewed by: Tony Crunk
Negative Capability Press, 2007
Sue Brannan Walker, a state literary treasure, is associated as closely with Mobile as with Alabama. She has further cemented that legacy with a charming new book for children (and their affiliated adults), Reuben’s Mobile.
The book’s conceit is simple but engaging: through a series of page-long poems and accompanying illustrations, the title dog, a (real-life) Harlequin Great Dane, visits a number of key Mobile landmarks. In the process, readers receive thumb-nail introductions to distinguishing features of the city’s history, natural landscape, and cultural traditions.
The sites Reuben visits are a diverse mix of the ponderously historical (Bienville Square, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) and the less ponderously diverting (Cooper Riverside Park, Wintzell’s Oyster House). The poems’ tones vary appropriately, as well, from the raucousness of Reuben’s Mardi Gras participation to the tranquility of his slow drift through the delta wetlands to his slightly irreverent curiosity in the Church Street Graveyard.
Reuben himself proves a personable and companionable tour guide. The poems manage to impart a good deal of historical and other information, but always from Reuben’s slightly skewed canine perspective.
And therein lies the book’s unique appeal to children: the child’s-eye view of such sites as Reuben visits is frequently more closely akin to a dog’s-eye, than to an adult’s-eye, view. Like Reuben, children may achieve a degree of earnest attentiveness to the historical and cultural information to be encountered in such places, but they are likely to indulge themselves sooner or later in more child-like-dog-like responses, such as Reuben’s stopping to dig in the dirt of Bellingrath Gardens, his eschewing the buns and condiments of Dew Drop Inn’s famous hot dogs, or his imagining himself starring on stage, rather than observing from the house, at the Saenger Theatre.
As poems, the individual pieces occasionally over-reach in folding raw information into literary form, so there are some clunky moments. The one poem written in regular rhyme, "Mobile’s Krewe of Barkus," is readily the most dynamic and lyrical in the book.
Kate Seawell’s rich and expressive water color illustrations are exceptional. They bring not only Reuben, but the spirit and ambience of Mobile to vivid life.
Tony Crunk lives and writes in Birmingham.