February’s Big Picture
by David Elliott
Despite middle-grade and school-sanctioned sanitizations of ancient mythology, we know that the Greek gods were a randy, violent bunch who loved abusing their power to wreak havoc on the uppity mortals who dared shake their fists at the gods’ capricious ideas of poetic justice. Readers will certainly find more poetry than justice here; there’s nothing half-blooded or Disneyfied in David Elliott’s energetic, multi- voiced verse novel retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. “Whaddup, bitches?” welcomes Poseidon, whose voice is as treacherous and irreverent as one might expect from the punitive god whose actions set tragedy in motion.
His opening narration has a rolling bass rhythm that occasionally ex- plodes into a gleefully naughty rhyme or pun as he explains the setup: how he first helps King Minos by sending a white bull from the sea and then punishes the king’s attempt to deceive the god by causing Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, to lust after the animal and give birth to Asterion, her bull-headed son. “Now you’re grossed out?” Poseidon taunts, “Well, Life’s not for wimps./ Sometimes gods are gods/ And sometimes they’re pimps.” At Pasiphae’s request, Daedalus is drawn into the drama; he engineers his four-line rhyming stanzas as carefully as his contraptions, crafting a cow suit for Pasiphae to consummate her whim, and later a labyrinth when Minos’ beloved human son is killed during an athletic competition in Athens. Minos then vents his grief and anger by consigning the guiltless Asterion to be his vessel of revenge against the equally guiltless Athenians. Arrogant Minos therefore clearly emerges as the villain of the piece; Poseidon is too much fun to resent as he consistently challenges notions of propriety and does everything he can to convince readers that he is happily in charge of events.
In a quirky twist, though, Asterion gets all of reader sympathy; gentle de- spite his horns, the bull-boy is himself bullied. His development is cannily handled as he poses surprisingly relatable identity questions at each age of his life: at three, he riffs on “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with the full knowledge that his mother loves him; at nine, her protestations that he is special fall short as he begins to feel the social stigma of his physiognomy; as a young teen, he becomes an aggrieved and melancholic maker of lists, noting what he loves and hates, questioning who he is and isn’t. Finally, at seventeen, he is pushed to the brink of despair and cruelty by the loneliness and betrayal he suffers at the hands of the father who despises him.
While the poetry begs to be read aloud for its beats and voices, the novel makes clever use of typography and book design. The page turns are expertly handled to manage reading pace and highlight mic drop lines and single words. The shapes and lineation of Asterion’s ottava rimas and Pasiphae’s randomized syllables chart their descents into meandering instability, while the background color of the pages of Asterion’s poems after entering the labyrinth darken gradually along with his environment and his thoughts.
Brief, useful notes explain both the liberties taken with the myth and choices of form for each character. Nods to Hamilton are inevitable, but whether or not Lin-Manuel Miranda had anything to do with inspiring what we hope will be a trend of transforming old stories into hip-hop gold, all readers and educators can say at this point is keep ’em coming. (See p. 265 for publication information.)
Karen Coats, Reviewer