Helga: Out of Hedgelands, by Rick Johnson – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Helga: Out of Hedgelands, by Rick Johnson. Map.
Seattle, WA, CreateSpace, March 2014, trade paperback $14.99 ([ii] 583 pages), Kindle $0.99 free with app.
The five volumes of the Wood Cow Chronicles are really only four volumes, published between March 2014 and September 2015; with a 37-page appendix only on Kindle, Dragons: The Untold Story, published as volume 5 for readers who want to know more about the backstory of the Dragons in the story. The pricing is designed to encourage the sales of the Kindle editions. The four volumes are vol. 1, Helga: Out of Hedgelands, March 2014; vol. 2, The Overending, March 2014; vol. 3, Silversion, February 2015; and vol. 4, Willowers, September 2015.
Helga was published in March 2014, but carries a 2012 copyright notice. It begins in a small fogbound harbor town, where a stagecoach is just leaving:
“Just outside, Livery Rats scrambled to prepare the Drownlands Weekly for departure. Travelers loaded quickly as burly Dock Squirrels tossed bags and trunks into the rooftop baggage rack. As soon as the baggage was loaded, the Weekly rolled away from the station with creaking timbers and rattling brass, its freshly serviced wheels smelling strongly of snake grease.
Bouncing along the bare track leading away from the Drownlands station, the Weekly rumbled through the sparsely settled frontier of the Rounds. Except for the Weekly and a few cargo wagons, the bone-jarring road was little used. A river of mud when it rained and a dust-choked washboard of ruts in the dry season, the many stones in the Cutoff road gave its only predictable surface.
Three of the passengers in the Weekly on this particular spring day were creatures we will hear much about in this account of former days. There was a strongly muscled young Wood Cow with soft, thick hair and a lively face. Dressed after the manner of her clan – long barkweave jacket and leggings, lizardskin boots, forest green linen shirt – Helga dozed fitfully, her head lolling against the jostling headboard. Although exhausted by her long journey, a smile played across her face. The sound of the rumbling wagon assured her that she was, indeed, at long last coming home.” (pgs. 2-3)
I’ve quoted this at length to give you a taste of Johnson’s writing. Depending on your taste, it’s either incredibly padded and takes forever for anything to happen, or it’s incredibly rich in detail, so much so that you almost object to the action that sidetracks you from the abundant descriptions of the anthropomorphic world in which it’s set – Helga’s world.
Helga and her parents are returning home to the Rounds. (See the map.) Their coach is greeted by crowds of Helga’s friends and admirers. Given Johnson’s writing style, these are described at length: Mianney Mayoyo, a tough and wild-eyed River Cat with two pet lizards on her shoulders; Picaroo “Pickles” DiArdo, a Trapper Dog who had shared her river adventures; Miss Edna Note, Helga’s old Badger teacher; and many others. The sight of so many old friends gives Helga flashbacks, which are also described: escaping with her Wood Cow mother Helbara through the swamps from heavily-armed Wrackshee slavers (a band of Wolves and Weasels) when she was a young child …
Yes, the story is mostly a flashback to Helga’s previous adventures. Helga: Out of Hedgelands (cover design credited to Pepper Graphics) is a richly described story; humorous with mild drama. It is funny-animal rather than anthro, but the abundant, almost overpowering details will draw you into it.
There are problems, however. One is some impenetrable dialect, that is thick enough to jar the reader out of the story. Here is Pickles: “‘Hey-hey, ya lee’tle Bungeet! Stop da chop sputter, or those Wracker’mugs will b’a back at ya ‘gin frighter t’en ever. Shee’wheet … Shee’wheet … Shee’wheet …’” (p. 9) Here is Broken Eye, a Cougar bandit and husband of Slasher Annie: “‘Them’s get’in hot on ma’tail, them’s is – Shouldn’t hav’ lost all ma’crew … ma’victuals …’” (p. 135) And here is Ola, a Wolf flutist: “‘And now yor best coome along with me’, the Wolf had said. ‘Where have yor coome from? The mounts, those awful mounts, I’ll be born. What were yor doin’ there? Aiean, moony a poor body has been lost in those tumbled, coold, wildy mounts and never been foound.’” (p. 172)
Another is Johnson’s habit of describing a character for paragraphs or pages before saying what kind of animal he or she is:
“‘Bad storm breakin’,’ Emil thought, as dark purple clouds swept down off the mountains and spatters of rain began to fall. The storm came up so quickly that Emil had not even noticed the piles of clouds gathering in the distance. Now the flying clouds were overhead and thunder rumbled. CRAAACK! A fork of lightning flashed, striking a towering tree along the path just ahead of Emil. Splitting down the trunk, the largest part of the tree fell across the path, forcing him to climb clumsily through the wreckage as the branches lashed about in the wind.” (p. 15)
What kind of animal is Emil? It’s not until page 17 that he’s specified as “the miserable young Wood Cow”. (Emil is much later identified as Helga’s brother.) This makes it almost impossible to envision him at first.
Other descriptions destroy the illusion by being too human:
“‘It’s a Zanuck, don’t you know!’ the innkeeper called out as Emil entered through the door. A tall Horse, wearing a clean linen cap, the innkeeper was strongly muscular, with arms bulging beneath the tight-fitting sleeves of his shirt as he balanced a heavy serving tray loaded with mugs and plates. A pencil-thin mustache and small pointed beard under the chin added to his look of unfriendly welcome.” (p. 20)
Maybe it’s just me, but I have no trouble imagining a two-legged Horse innkeeper. But add a pencil-thin mustache and a small pointed beard to his face, and the Horse fades into a Human. A Coyote with a red handlebar mustache doesn’t seem to me any more plausible.
Another point of confusion is some vocabulary introduced before it’s defined. The Horse innkeeper calls the lower-class Wood Cow a Zanuck, and a Moose a Poolytuck. These terms are not explained until pages 26-27. Who are FoRoar-2036 and SaRimm-2036? (They are defined much later as Glazier Dogs.)
Still other names can’t be taken seriously, and destroy the illusion. The most important is the wolf monarch of the Hedgelands: Fropperdaft Hafful TaTerribee VIII, Ancient Order of Reprehense, 3rd Degree; Lord Reckoner of Heights; Most Eminent Swellhead of the Keepers; Baron Sheriff of the Forever End; Peerless Berzerker of the Crowning Glory; Grandee of Maev Astuté, and High One of all Hedgelands. Can anyone say that with a straight face? They apparently had better; “A tyrant without peer, his dungeons were eternally full.” (p. 37)
King Fropperdaft VIII of Maev Astuté (“his High Fropperdaftness”) and his aristocracy – Colonel Snart, another Wolf; Bengt Massavo (he prefers Bad Bone), a Climbing Lynx mountaineer; Sky Elks, Glazier Dogs, Stone Ducks, Skull Buzzards, and others — exile the Wood Cows from the Hedgelands, their original homeland. They are forced to venture out into the unknown world to find a new homeland.
Helga: Out of Hedgelands is several interconnected stories. Helga and her father Breister have adventures together and separately, apart from the other Wood Cows looking for a new home. Bad Bone, a childhood friend of Helga’s family who tries to help them, is discovered by the Skull Buzzards, and is forced into a separate exile. The novel switches back and forth between the two and the stories of other beasts who they encounter. There are colonies and trading posts of Sheep, Foxes, Owls, Coyotes, Vultures, Otters, Bears, and more. In the final third of the book, the action moves to ships and the Far North. SEA-LIONS HAVE LOUD VOICES! And in the last fifty pages, Dragons enter the story.
That’s enough of Helga’s story for the first night of her return home to the Rounds. There are still three sequels to come.