We travel to the Austrian Tyrol today, sometime at the turn of the 20th century for a tale based on a childhood holiday of Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeline books.
This larger than life artist grew up a difficult child, packed off to the Tyrol aged 14 to work in his uncle’s hotels. He was sacked from several of these and after apparently shooting a waiter his family had enough and exiled him to America.
By 1934 he had become a successful New York restaurateur, but kept with him something of the Tyrol with him, and was persuaded by a friend to write a book based on his childhood after he saw the many drawings lining his apartment walls.
There is something quite beguiling about his artwork, which has a naive, outsider art feel. Martin Salisbury describes his work in his book 100 Great Children’s Picture Books like this: ‘Bemelmans’ extremely limited – at time appalling – draughtsmanship is somehow always surmounted by the exuberance and charm of his vision.’
Bemelmans said that he had no imagination either, writing throughout his career from his own experience. Which is underselling it rather. The world he creates may have a foot in reality, but he creates an atmosphere of fantastic unreality.
Beginning with the train ride that takes Hansi through the thick drifts of snow up a mountain to the village where he is to spend Christmas with his uncle, aunt and their daughter Lieserl, we are drawn into a world born out of deep nostalgia.
Despite the chilly setting, everything about this story is cosy. Hansi is a young boy and so we see him mostly wrapped up in layers of furs to keep out the cold, or tucked in under layers of furs on the back of the sledge.
The meandering narrative passes much like a childhood holiday, appearing to stretch on without end. There is time to eat of course; soup and dumplings cooked over a crackling pinewood fire; wonderful raisin filled Gugelhupf cake and Lebkuchen biscuits decorated with the children’s iced drawings.
And there is plenty of fun to be had in the snow, although not for the family’s short legged dog who is attached to a pair of skis and sent flying down the mountainside.
Buried deep in the snowy mountains the children visit one of the cabins uncle Herman looks after. With little more than the chimney visible it is known as a ‘root shack’ because ‘like a root it is deeper in the ground than it is out of it.‘
Hansi might be roughly hewn but like all good Christmas books succeeds in recalling the magic of your own childhood holidays, even the ones you never experienced.