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May 2006
 
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Lazy Bear Lane, by Thorne Smith

THORNE Smith's reputation rests on such mildly naughty 1920s and 1930s novels as Topper and The Night Life of the Gods. His typical protagonists were conventional folks whose dull lives were transformed by supernatural intervention into a riot of cheerful inebriation, discreet (offstage) sex, and the confounding of cops and judges, with dialogue that wandered away whenever a point threatened to come into sight.

Smith's only children's novel, Lazy Bear Lane, hews in part to the pattern, but has to substitute food for the adult pleasures of gin and canoodling. Elderly couple Peter and Mary are glumly starving in their dull little house, reduced to eating a stew made out of cuttings from a seed catalog, when a bear knocks on the door. Lazy Bear, who modestly admits to being magic, turns them back to the small children they once were and sends them out to find adventure. They are soon joined on their travels by Mr. Budge (whose own sole magical attribute is the much-appreciated one of a refilling picnic basket) and four abandoned circus performers: a female equestrian, a sad clown, and two timid talking lions.

Their travels take them to a bleak Christmas scene in the slums of Winter Town, where it is always winter; to an outdoor church service where the organist also teaches hunter avoidance classes to local deer; and to a flying ship crewed by penguins. Constant throughout are descriptions of meals, humorous poetry recited by Peter, and typically Smithian wandering/pun-filled conversations from all hands. As with his adult novels, the humor is tinged with melancholy never far below the surface: when someone says that the sad clown, Mr. Bingle, is "happy in his own strange way," his reply is that "I amI'd much rather be sad than not funny."

—Dennis Lien

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