James Thurber: The Thirteen Clocks

It’s time my kids got back to work and did a review. Up this time, one of our favorites, James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks (1950). The lovely hardcover New York Review Children’s Collection contains the original illustrations by Marc Simont, who died last year, and really it is just the kind of book to read to your kids over a few nights.

The-13-Clocks

Before my two sons who can speak get their words of literary criticism in, let me give a bit of a synopsis. The 13 Clocks has many of the elements of a classical fairy tale. There’s a princess, a prince, an evil duke (who likes to spend his morning “place-kicking pups and punting kittens”), lots of magic, and a plot that switches up and down only to all come together nicely in the end — though perhaps it’s a bit too tidy, suggests one of the characters.

The basic premise is this: the evil Duke has his own niece, Saralinda, captive in his castle, and a young Prince, named Zorn, has come to save her. Of course, the Duke is as likely to kill someone for their eye color, so all attempts to save the beautiful Saralinda have ended badly. He’s killed everything — even Time, because the “cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried.” He’s proud of this:

“The castle clocks were murdered,” said the Duke. “I killed time here myself one snowy morning. You still can see the old brown stains where seconds bled to death, here on my sleeve.”

The fourth principle characters is the Golux, a strange, batty man who comes when people are in peril — but we’re not sure how helpful he’ll be. In this case, the peril is twice as much, for both Saralinda and the Prince are in trouble — or maybe the peril is apportioned 50% to each.

The story is fun, yes, but what really makes this book a delight is Thurber’s verbal agility (the book is replete with internal rhymes and follows a slick rhythm) and clever humor, and I tell you it’s one of the best books to read out loud. Here’s the Golux introducing himself to the Prince:

“Not so fast,” the Golux said. “Half the places I have been to, never were. I make things up. Half the things I say are there cannot be found. When I was young I told a tale of buried gold, and men from leagues around dug in the woods. I dug myself.”

“But why?”

“I thought the tale of treasure might be true.”

But, anyway, here are Carter (7) and Holland (5) (much thanks to my wife who asked many of the questions):

What kind of book is this?

Carter: A romantic book.

Holland: A beautiful book.

Who is Saralinda?

Holland: The Princess.

And what was going on with her?

Holland: She was stolen. By the guy.

Was he nice?

Holland: Yes.

He was? I thought he was mean.

Holland: Well, he is nice. He was just mad. Right?

Would you be the Duke’s friend?

Holland: Yep.

But he kills people. Would you like him to do that to you?

Holland: No. I’d just zip away from that bullet.

Hmm, okay. Do you think Saralinda was happy?

Holland: No.

Carter: Yes.

Uhh. The whole time?

Carter: No. Just at the end.

Thanks for the clarification. What was your favorite character?

Carter: The Gollux.

The Golux can do crazy things. What would you like to do with the Golux?

Carter: Take me to a pipe to go into Mario World.

Holland: I’d have him make me a mayo sandwich with cheese.

Did it end the way you thought?

Carter: I was afraid.

Holland: No. I thought it would say “Z.”

What?

Holland: “Thze end. I thought it would say The End.”

Oh, yeah. That was surprising. Did you think Saralinda and Zorn were happy?

Carter: They have weird names.

What do you think they’d name their kids?

Carter: Zoralinda.

And, your favorite part?

Carter: When the jewels turned into tears.

Holland: The cheese.

There was no cheese.

Holland: The cheese cake.

Do you want some cheese, Holland?

Holland: Yeah.

These two will be back soon.

5 thoughts on “James Thurber: The Thirteen Clocks

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    LOL This is hilarious, Trevor:) Well done to Mrs Mookse for her aplomb! I could use her in my library lessons when some of the kids …um… interpret things in ‘unexpected ways’.
    I was a bit older than your two when I read this (by myself) but I remember it well. That edition looks gorgeous.
    *mutter* I wonder what became of our copy? I bet one of my sisters has got it *frown*.

  2. These boys! This is one of my favorites we’ve read aloud to them (though I think they connected more easily with Thurber’s Wonderful O). When I read it I was laughing through most of it. Thurber writes so vibrantly. You should probably get to his short stories…

  3. K says:

    I like this!

  4. Scott W. says:

    Wonderful. I hope your kids will do more of these. I’d love to see how they’d react to Thurber’s “The Topaz Cufflinks Mystery.”

  5. sshaver says:

    Thurber is a first-class writer underestimated as a first-class humorist.

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