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Children's Corner
Bob Hoover
Children's Corner
'Redwall' series author Brian Jacques tries hand at seafaring fantasy tale

Tuesday, March 27, 2001

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Brian Jacques has written 13 best-selling children's novels about a place called Redwall, populated by talking mice, rats, badgers and other woodland creatures that are thrust into epic battles of good vs. evil.

The first "Redwall" book was published in 1986, and the series has catapulted Jacques, a former longshoreman and milk-truck driver in Liverpool, England, to fame and fortune. Fans of the series are legion and scattered around the world. His books are available in 19 languages, and a new PBS animated "Redwall" series is set to begin airing this spring.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that the 62-year-old Jacques (pronounced "Jakes") began his first non-Redwall book. Titled "Castaways of the Flying Dutchman" (Philomel, $22.95), the book details the adventures of a mistreated young boy named Ben and Ned, his loyal black Labrador. As the book opens, the two are attempting to survive the horrific journey of the Flying Dutchman, a ship whose captain is a madman intent on reaching a distant port where he believes riches await.

But raging seas and storms make it impossible for the captain to reach his destination. Angry at his fate, the captain blasphemes God for his ship's misfortunes. At that moment, an angel appears and sentences the Flying Dutchman to sail the seas through all eternity. But the angel takes pity on Ben and Ned, plucking them from the doomed ship and commanding them to undertake a different type of eternal journey: traveling through space and time helping people in distress.

This seafaring tale is connected via poems to two successive stories, one quite short and the other longer. In the book's middle section, Ben and Ned learn that they can communicate with each other through telepathy. They also begin to understand the job given to them by the angel as they help a sheepherder save his flock in 17th-century Tierra del Fuego. The third and longest section of the book focuses on Ben and Ned's effort to save a 19th-century English village from destruction by greedy industrialists.

"Castaways of the Flying Dutchman" is an eccentric book that strains credulity at times as it lurches through the centuries. But the book is rescued by Jacques' trademark swashbuckling style that defies the reader to put down the book until the last page is complete.

Jacques also understands how to create characters -- both good and evil -- who ring true. Ben and Ned are wonderfully real characters.

Because Jacques first began writing stories for students at a school for the blind in Liverpool, his books are incredibly dense with details of color, food, dress and the natural world. His newest book is no exception, and Jacques' fascination with detail will help readers feel as if they, too, are traveling with Ben and Ned.

"Castaways of the Flying Dutchman" has received generally good reviews from book critics. But it's the fans whose opinions count with Jacques.

Unlike some writers, Jacques is a natural raconteur who derives great pleasure from meeting his fans during the extensive book tours he does with each new novel (he's currently in the midst of a monthlong U.S. tour for "Castaways of the Flying Dutchman"). And, while he doesn't pander to fans, Jacques also is happy to make them happy if he can.

For example, although Jacques already has written a sequel to "Castaways of the Flying Dutchman," he's also completed another "Redwall" novel, which will be published in the fall. In addition, he's written a Redwall cookery book containing recipes for some of the savory dishes in the books. All of the recipes have been tested by Jacques, who loves to cook in his spare time.

He says he has no plans to stop writing the series, no matter what else he does. Some writers might complain about being chained to a series, but not Jacques.

"Millions of kids want to see more 'Redwall' books," Jacques said in a recent interview. "I just can't disappoint my 'Redwall' fans."

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