Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer (1962)

In a recent Slate article about this book, a father and mother disagree on the appropriateness of this book to read aloud to their young child.  The argument stems from the moral ambiguity of the story.  Three robbers  hold up stagecoaches and steal untold treasures, which they hoard, causing fear and mayhem in the process (I would imagine some murder took place as well, although the book doesn't go that far).  In one particular stagecoach, they find a beautiful blonde orphan girl named Tiffany - an unusual name in 1962 -  who is on her way to live with a wicked aunt (or so she says; we never meet said aunt, who may be pining away for her, n'est ce pas?).  They take Tiffany back to their lair, and, like three men and a baby, they all become a family, which in turn causes the robbers to adopt more and more lost and orphaned children, until a whole village of lost children grows up around them, to honor them for all time.  

Interestingly, TIFFANY comes to us in English by way of French, and is a version of Epiphany.  Of course, if you believe names have meaning in literature, an epiphany is "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience"  - as Tiffany was to the three robbers; her appearance was an epiphany to them, which ultimately changed their lives.




Except they don't actually return the money they've stolen.  Instead, they use it to help other people.  Which on one hand is honorable, but on the other hand, would leave Aesop making a sour face.  

Of course, we all love Robin Hood, but at the very least, he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and that was his idea from the very beginning.  The Three Robbers have other ideas, more Smaug-like than Hood-like.  They steal from everyone they can, and hoard it.  It's not until Tiffany shows up that they decide to do some good. 

Gangster movies from the 1930s often had similar plots.

If the story is morally ambiguous, the illustrations are kick ass.  They are heavy, colorful illustrations, almost but not quite cartoons.  Lots of black and blue, with bright splashes of color here and there - a huge red axe, a big full yellow moon, the blonde Tiffany.  The text is sparse but not in a poetic way; more blunt and colorful - a perfect match for the illustrations.



The illustration of the orphans all in red with a dark, upright figure leading them on, has to be a play on the more famous similarly dressed orphans of Madeleine, led by their own dark, upright figures (in this case nuns rather than robbers).   He's definitely the right age and nationality to have at the very least been aware of the first Madeleine, which was published in 1939.   NOTE:  I always thought Madeleine was an orphan.  She's not!  She's in boarding school.  So that diverges from The Three Robbers.  But I still think the picture is on purpose.


The Three RobbersThe Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Robin Hood story of sorts, in which a little orphan girl turns the hearts of three robbers. It's the kind of story that on one had has an honorable ending - the three robbers use their ill gotten gains to adopt more and more orphans - but Aesop is rolling over in his grave somewhere in the mountains of Greece. What's the moral here? Robbing from the rich - or this case everyone -to give to the poor is a good thing? But it's a morally ambiguous story with kick-ass illustrations. They are heavy and colorful, with lots of black and blue in the background, and bright splashes of color here and there - a huge red axe, a big full yellow moon, the blonde Tiffany. It's almost but not quite a cartoon; given a bit of a makeover, Rocky and Bullwinkle could easily walk into this book. The text is sparse but not in a poetic way; more blunt and colorful - a perfect match for the illustrations. Little villains and villainesses to be might enjoy this book; I know I did.


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