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Herbert Rowbarge

Review

Herbert Rowbarge

In their third month of life, abandoned twins Herbert and Otto suffer their first and gravest misfortune (excepting, perhaps, parental abandonment): infant Otto snags a plucky pair of adoptive parents, leaving forgotten twin Herbert to languish in the Gaits County orphanage. As Herbert “Bertie” Rowbarge drifts from the tyranny of the orphanage --- the matron's tactic for wrangling backwater Ohio's flood of abandoned children? Lock misbehavers in the cellar --- to the drudgery of best friend Dick Festeen's farm to the garish exuberance of his own amusement park, the protagonist does all he can to escape his emotional incompleteness. Or, at the very least, to dull his anguish with the whirl of merry-go-rounds and the perfume of corn dogs and cotton candy. Enraged at his own twin daughters' togetherness and deranged with grief for the sibling he can't remember, Herbert flings himself into the creation of his personal amusement park, the Rowbarge Pleasure Dome, and its merry-go-round featuring twin pairs of every animal.

"HERBERT ROWBARGE's imagistic prose will plunge you into all the gleeful repression of Pleasure Dome itself, till the merry-go-round's music jangles in your ears and the parking lot's coarse tan grit lodges between your teeth."

That's where HERBERT ROWBARGE stagnates. Even though the novel flits from Bertie's nineteenth-century infancy to each of the World Wars to the glitter of 1950's consumerism, Herbert and daughters Babe and Louisa always flee the same old sorrows, grasping for the same old solace in the same doomed coping mechanisms --- no matter what year it is. Thus, some of HERBERT ROWBARGE's vignettes suffer the taint of redundancy, and the novel at times resembles a reverse Groundhog Day. Instead of confronting various challenges on the same (repeating) day, Herbert flees the same heartache every day for the rest of his life.

Even the novel's abundant symbolism sometimes drifts into stagnation. HERBERT ROWBARGE cycles through symbols like it cycles through psychological turmoil; the merry-go-round's twin animals, for instance, might not impart the same emotional wallop on page 200 as they did on page 20. Then again, perhaps Bertie's --- not to mention the reader's --- ongoing affection for the twin carousal lions could deepen the symbol's poignancy. For some readers, that is.

Don't get me wrong, the idea of the Rowbarge Pleasure Dome pierces deep to the pixelated, Day-Glo heart of Generation CandyCrush. In the age of the smartphone, most of us need look no farther than our back pockets for a surge of sensory pleasure, and I'll welcome any warning against the complacency this Technicolor escapism can encourage.

But while Herbert flees his heartache in the whirling merry-go-rounds and blaring fluorescence of a small-town amusement park, his twin daughters Babe and Louisa rely on buttered roles, brownies crunching with walnuts and ice cream sundaes gobbed in hot fudge to mask their loveless family life and opulent malaise. And throughout HERBERT ROWBARGE, Babbit recounts the twins' reliance on this gustatory white noise with a faint --- and, on occasion, not-so-faint --- edge of mockery. Sure, this tinge of derision targets the Rowbarge twins' reliance on sweets as an emotional panacea, not the ooey-gooey delights of hot fudge sundaes in and of themselves. But in a society already glutted with body-shame, I only hope young readers can perceive this distinction.

On occasion, HERBERT ROWBARGE's dramatic irony will clench every muscle fiber in your body. Fingers clamping around the novel's pages, you'll plead for Herbert and Otto's much-deserved reunion, gritting your teeth against yet another missed encounter. And, on occasion, the lavish stuffiness creeping across Babe and Louisa's lives takes on all the horror of confinement. Similarly, the tinge of uptightness drifting through ROWBARGE's prose only heightens these flashes of sumptuous claustrophobia.

So if you're hankering for an afternoon of frolicsome denial, forget about beating your latest CandyCrush score. HERBERT ROWBARGE's imagistic prose will plunge you into all the gleeful repression of Pleasure Dome itself, till the merry-go-round's music jangles in your ears and the parking lot's coarse tan grit lodges between your teeth.

Reviewed by Alison Stewart on June 12, 2017

Herbert Rowbarge
by Natalie Babbitt

  • Publication Date: December 6, 2016
  • Genres: Children's 8-12, Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • ISBN-10: 1250075106
  • ISBN-13: 9781250075109