Nostalgia, Ghosts, and Storytelling: The Gawgon and the Boy

“Let him alone,” said The Gawgon. “Poets don’t like to be questioned, especially when they don’t know the answers.”

Having previously turned to various mythologies, pulp fiction novels, and fairy tales for inspiration, in 2001 author Lloyd Alexander found himself inspired by something different: his own childhood in Philadelphia, just before and at the very beginning of the Great Depression. The result, The Gawgon and The Boy, is something very different for Alexander’s novels for children: a bittersweet story of family, disappointment, lies, and storytelling, nostalgic and sharply realistic all at once.

As such, the book might come as quite a surprise—it took me a moment to adjust when I encountered it during this reread. And yet, despite the major differences between this book and every other Lloyd Alexander book, fans will notice several similarities: the gentle humor, the obsession with adventure and mythology, and the constant examination of the need for stories, for poetry, for art.

Though I do have to warn you: to quote another book I read as a kid: there’s death coming, and some of the wrong people die.

The Gawgon and the Boy is narrated by David, aka The Boy, who lives with his parents, an unsympathetic sister who may be one of Alexander’s most realistic teenagers ever, and assorted other relatives who wander in and out of the house or live close enough to be visited often. As the novel starts, David is recovering from pneumonia, very slowly. His mother, still terrified by memories of the great 1918-1919 influenza, refuses to let David go to a hospital and instead insists on nursing him at home.

As far as David is concerned, this has one great advantage: it means missing school, which he hates. The darkly hilarious description of school that follows seems almost certainly pulled from Alexander’s own grim memories, especially the part where David confesses that he spends his entire time at school doodling and paying no attention, except when he’s forced to play soccer. As he notes:

Dr. Legg assured us, whenever he addressed the assembled school, that Rittenhouse Academy was preparing us for the great battle of life. We would be ready to conquer empires or run for Congress.

My father had more modest expectations. If I studied hard and seriously applied myself, he told me, I might, like Uncle Rob, get an office job with the Pennsylvania Railroad.

David has not been applying himself, although he has been spending a lot of time doodling and telling himself stories where he turns himself into powerful, brave and clever hero. His mother, concerned, discusses tutoring options with family members, one of whom, the elderly but still tough Aunt Annie, agrees to tutor David for free. The two quickly bond, even after David slips and admits that some of the other relatives call her a gorgon—pronouncing it “Gawgon.” Fortunately, the elderly Aunt Annie is amused, not insulted, and retaliates by calling David “The Boy”—and immediately immersing him in history lessons that are more like stories than lessons.

It’s the best way to reach David, who immediately begins to drag these history lessons into his own secret imaginary life—an imaginary life that soon starts to star a rather younger Gawgon as an adventurer as well, in stories where until now, he has been the only hero.

The Gawgon continues to teach David geometry, literature, and history, even handing over some of her most precious books. David continues to lose himself in imaginary adventures. Other family crises come and go: the Great Depression hits; uncles disappear; his father’s business begins to fail; and, as I said, some of the wrong people die. And David is now enough into his fantasy life that when he makes a new friend, he cannot bear to think of himself as someone who isn’t a hero, someone who has been failing. And so, he tells her a lie. And the question of exactly when and if he will return to school—and what grade he will end up in when he does—continues to hang over him.

And although David rarely says this out loud: something else worries him. He doesn’t want an ordinary life. He wants adventure. Hearing about the Gawgon’s life gives him more than a touch of hope that yes, he can have it. After all, her own life has been, to put it mildly, unconventional: as a young woman she ran off with a rather unreliable young man, merrily travelling through Europe following various odd passions until, pregnant, she returned to Philadelphia, seeing said man only once more after the death of their child. Since this is still a kid’s book, Alexander draws a veil over the specifics, but it seems fairly clear that the liaison lacked any legal sanction. The man died as a war correspondent, and although the text more than hints that he would not have returned in any case, the death continues to affect Annie years later, and in turn, affects David.

And then, finally, a touch of fantasy shows up. But telling how would ruin things.

I’ll be honest: I have no idea whether or not I can recommend this book to kids or not. It is slow going, at first, filled with various digressions and other stories, meandering the way life often does, especially after a major illness. It is often indulgent, perhaps Alexander demanding payment from editors for earlier issues.) The death, if not exactly unexpected or, when you think of it, tragic, hits hard, as does the tragic side story of a World War I veteran suffering from severe shell shock—what would now be called PTSD. Though that story is another part of the book that seems pulled from real life, and along with Alexander’s negative experiences in World War II, probably helps to explain his negative attitudes towards war, a theme that he never left out of any of his books. Parents should also be warned that the text contains one adult joke, but one that will almost certainly pass right over the heads of young readers.

On the other hand, the book grows more compelling as it goes on—it’s the sort of book that definitely rewards rereading. And Alexander’s portrait of a lonely, imaginative boy who slowly grows more and more lost in his imagination is a beautiful one, as is his portrait of the Gawgon and the growing friendship between them. And if it’s a largely sad book, it is not without its subtle moments of humor—I’m not entirely sure that Alexander was capable of writing an entire book without telling some sort of joke.

And I have a special fondness for this book, largely because I used to do the exact same thing that David does when as a child: take elements from other stories and overheard statements and misunderstood words and mangled them up into my own tales. Still do, as it happens.

So I guess I will recommend this book after all. It may not be the typical Lloyd Alexander book; it is definitely not the typical children’s book. But if you know a young budding artist or a writer—or you are a young budding artist or writer—you can do much worse than this book.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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