The Trolls by Polly Horvath

While there are trolls in this book, it’s not a fantasy exactly. Certainly not in the same sense as Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire!

Mr. and Mrs. Anderson have planned a trip to Paris, but the week before they are to leave, with their non-refundable tickets, their usual babysitter comes down with the bubonic plague. The Andersons scramble to find a substitute, but in the end the only person available to come at such short notice to care for Melissa, Amanda and Pee Wee is their Canadian Aunt Sally, whom the children know only through her Christmas cards, of a moose with strings of tree lights draped around its horns.

Aunt Sally turns out to be the sort of freewheeling adult that kids would love to have care for them; naturally testing the waters a bit, the kids resist doing what their parents don’t give them a choice about— practicing the violin, eating their beans, going to bed on time…yet somehow Sally’s combination of cheery acquiescence to the kids’ demands, eccentric escapades and seeming tall tales inevitably result in the children doing exactly what their parents (and presumably Sally) wanted them to do all along. She lets them snoop through her luggage, experiment with her collection of eyeliner, and teaches the girls to put their hair up in beehives. In the midst of all this, she effortlessly segues into a family story about their uncle (her brother) who got out of a music exam by having the tip of his finger bitten off by a clam…and when the children scoff that she’s pulling their legs, insists that “…everyone stuck heir fingers in clams after that. Do you think John was the only child in town afraid of his music exam? Violinists headed for the beach, pianists smeared cat food on their fingers and headed for the cougar-filled woods, calling ‘Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.’ One trumpet player was seen looking for a bear to kiss.”

These tall tales do all seem to be, not so much fictitious in their entirety but heavily embroidered glosses on things that really did happen, finished off with a moral that doesn’t quite work out to be what you’d expect. Especially when they’re considered together as a backdrop of Sally, the children’s father (her youngest brother), and their siblings growing up together. A gentler one involves eating vegetables: when the kids protest they despise green beans, Aunt Sally cheerily offers to eat the lot, but does so with such evident enjoyment that the children are left longing to reclaim their servings.

Edward despised [fiddleheads]…, but your Great-uncle Louis who came for two weeks and stayed for six years, was on a health kick. He made us get up every morning at six to touch our toes. On a really vigorous day, we had to touch other people’s toes. Everyone had to drink sixteen glasses of water a day and chew on sticks for fiber. We kept a large bowl of sticks in the living room, and after dinner we were expected to retire there to gnaw.

Even the titular trolls turn out to have a veiled meaning. Aunt Sally’s been teasing the kids with stories about the trolls all week—you take objects, pets and even people down to the beach on a dark night and the trolls, mouthless and looming, claim what you leave. Permanently. The night before she leaves, Sally finally tells the children about a Halloween trick she and her brothers, John and Edward played on their youngest brother (the children’s father): peeved that they’d had to escort him on his trick-or-treating rounds rather than go to the fireworks in the park, the three left their little brother on the beach “for the trolls”. When they returned a couple of hours later, Robbie had wandered off into the woods. The RCMP mounted a search, and Robbie was found….but:

“But it couldn’t have been trolls,” said Melissa. “Because Great-Uncle Louis said that once you give something to the trolls you can never ever have it back.”
“But we never did get Robbie back. Or Lyla. Or Great-uncle Louis. We thought we would be well rid of him, but a lot of life was gone from the dinner table after he left. We all drifted apart, until finally we grew up and John went to Alaska, Lyla and Robbie went to college in Ohio and settled here and we rarely saw them, Edward drowned at sea, and Grandma and Grandpa died. Now there’s just me on the island and no more family. So either Great-uncle Louis was right and the trolls never do give back what they take, or some acts alter everything forever, but that’s how it was on the island.”

If you liked the general style, Horvath’s written several other books similar to this, some more realistic and some more fantastical. If it’s the tall tales that might be true, perhaps Sid Fleischman’s McBroom series.


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