I read Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet at age eight or nine: the first novel I can remember reading under my own power. I believe that I had borrowed it from the the Cohasset Public Library, but I can’t recall how I happened to choose it. I like to think that a cool grown-up suggested it to me, either directly or through a recommended-reading shelf. I do remember how completely it entranced me, though, and so I reread the book this past week for the very first time since then with this memory, plus that of a few distinct plot details.
I quickly discovered that I had not remembered — and, indeed, could not have possibly picked up on while so young — the book’s particular voice. I had recalled the tone as straight third-person adventure-story, perhaps retroactively flavored by all the science-fiction novels I would proceed to soak in after this one, but I now find that memory flawed. From cover to cover, Mushroom Planet uses the tone and cadence of a fable, something meant to be read out loud, or even recited with improvisation. The narrator, while not exactly a character, nevertheless has presence during the telling; she seems to herself jump in surprise when something surprising happens, for example, and generally share in the changing emotional state of the main characters. It reminded me of the narrative voice in The Hobbit, and, more recently, that of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
But in a salient coincidence, I have been spacing out my current reading list with visits to a large volume of collected Native American folklore I purchased a couple of years ago, all recorded oral-tradition tellings. The similarity in tone between those stories and this one struck me. Given Mushroom Planet’s dedication page revealing that the author both wrote the book as a present to her young son and named the main character after him, I could only hear the novel as a transcription of one kind of oral tradition that lives on within my own culture: a bedtime story.
This carries into the content of the fantasy as well. When I was a kid, the set-up of the green-ink newspaper ad that David discovers hooked me completely: wow, what could it mean? How come only David’s family found it, and how did funny little Mr. Bass, who placed the ad, know that its only respondent would be a space-crazy boy David’s age? Reading it as an adult, the answer was clear: because it couldn’t possibly happen any other way! The story belonged to the real-life David of 1954, tailored just for him (and his best pal, Chuck, who also stars in the tale) by a woman with a rare storytelling ability, and comprising wholly sound fable-logic no stranger than you might find in a legend about Glooskap.
What did I remember, from my first visit to Basidium-X, so long ago? The surreal, perhaps magical-real way the prose transforms the boys’ little sailing-scrap “spaceship” into a real spacefaring vessel, for one. Yes, Mr. Bass does explicitly bolt on his own engine and paint the craft with a magic sealant, but these feel like stagecraft. The story breezily describes the mock, junk-built control panel the boys made as somehow able to steer the ship, and nobody wonders about this, and it feels just fine. I absolutely recall how, as a kid who’d eaten quite a lot of 1970s children’s television, I felt a set-up coming on for how this would turn into another treacly story about the power of imagination, and then the rocket literally flew into space, because of course, what else do rockets do? How thrillingly rule-breaking it felt!
Something else I remembered, but only once I encountered it again, towards the end of the book: the amazing but disturbing image of old Mr. Bass, his work on this world done, carried aloft by the storm, vanishing into the cloudy Pacific sky. As soon as this began to unfold, I did indeed remember how very haunted I felt by this on my first read-through, so long ago. How masterful of Cameron not to allow the boys to see this sight themselves; first they hear a chuckling radio announcer read it as a local weird-news item, and then they happen across the little boy who witnessed it first-hand. They tour his empty house, and David quietly asks Mr. Bass to come back, and he does not come back. It all has the feel of sadness and mystery of a grandparent passing away, just vanishing from a child’s life with no rational explanation.
This story holds up quite well, 60 years on, and I hope kids still read it. The most obvious dated element involves the near-complete lack of women in this universe; the only female character we see at all (on either planet!) is David’s mother — who, yes, appears as a significant secondary character separately from her existing on a higher level as the book’s author. (And how wonderful and touching I found it, reading it now, that the story’s epilogue includes a depiction of David telling the story of his amazing flight to his mother, who hangs onto his every word while she sips her coffee!) Mr. Bass’s conviction that only a boy could possibly answer his ad sounds rather off-key today, as well. I could see couching a read-through of this book with a little bit of history, remarking on the marvelous advances our culture has seen both in space exploration and in social equality in the many years since a creative librarian first told this story to her enthralled little boy — and how much more territory remains for us to see, in both cases!