A Peculiar School, by J. Schlenker – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

A Peculiar School, by J. Schlenker.
Olive Hill. KY, Binka Publishing, September 2018, trade paperback, $11.95 (326 [+ 2] pages). Kindle $4.99.

“Miss Ethel Peacock strutted and proudly displayed her plumage as she paced around the waiting room of Mr. Densworth Lion. She had come unannounced, but she was so excited about the idea she had received in a dream, that she dared not lose any momentum. She could have called ahead, but what if he refused to see her? No, she decided not to risk it.” (p. 3)

This is an animal fantasy, but not a furry one. The peacock plumage is on the male, but hey, this is a fantasy. Besides, Jerri Schlenker knows that.

“‘A peacock? A peacock, you say? What is a peacock doing here?’ Mr. Densworth Lion asked his secretary, in disbelief.

‘Technically, she’s a peahen. Her husband is a peacock. That is, if she has a husband. I don’t think she does as she introduced herself as ‘Miss’. But together: they would be peafowl,’ his secretary [a lioness] corrected.

Mr. Densworth Lion uttered a slight roar of impatience.

‘She’s a teacher at the aviary,’ his secretary added.” (pgs. 3-4)

This is at Cub Academy, run by principal Mr. Densworth Lion, in a nature preserve. The animals are civilized; Mr. Lion wears eyeglasses and sits at a desk with papers and a candy jar upon it.

But not too civilized. Or, not into the 21st century:

“‘What I propose. Mr. Densworth Lion, is that we use your school as a model – a model for a bigger school, a university of sorts, one that houses all animals.’

‘All animals?” he roared. ‘We teach cubs here – lion cubs. Such a proposal is ludicrous.’” (p. 11)

Mr. Lion will not even listen to Miss Peacock’s proposal for a school in which all animals are treated equally. Well, maybe not the animals domesticated by humans, like dogs and cats. They’re different:

“The dog barked for a good solid hour almost every night. What was he trying to say? Since dogs had taken up with humans, their language had become garbled and unrecognizable. It was obvious the humans didn’t understand them either as every night the human came out on the porch and yelled something to the dog in the scrambled tongue of humans.” (p. 13)

The human is a zookeeper, of a zoo at the edge of a forest in which the Cub Academy is located. The next day after her turndown by the lion principal, Miss Peacock – or Ethel, if we may be informal – is visited by her friend, Miss Luce Pigeon. Ethel tells Luce more of her dream of an animal school than she had the chance to tell Mr. Densworth Lion; perhaps luckily, because peacocks come from India, and Ethel’s dream of an animal school was vaguely Hindu led by an enlightened Yuga.

“‘Such a school would certainly be an enlightened thing.’ Ethel sighed. ‘Maybe I’m just a silly old peahen. Me. Densworth Lion said it was not in an animal’s nature to get along, in fact, quite the opposite.’

‘He’s wrong there.’ Luce said, reaching for another macaroon.

‘I would truly like to believe that is so. Do you really think so, Luce?’

‘I don’t think so, I know so,’ Luce said with a satisfied smirk.


‘I don’t understand. What do you mean? How do you know so?’ Ethel asked with a puzzled look on her face.

‘There is a whole group of animals, different ones, living and working together where I live in the city – some old, some young – a badger, a tiger, a hyena, and an orangutan.’

Ethel sat motionless for a full moment, not believing her own ears. These were the animals she saw staring down at her from the moon. Truly this was a sign, but erring on the side of caution, she asked, ‘Is this gossip, hearsay, some wild fantasy, something perhaps made up during a drunken spree with the bongo player?’” (p. 31)

Luce explains that the animals (also a polar bear) are escapees from the city’s zoo who are hiding out together in the tunnels under the city. They have been forced to cooperate to survive, but are miserable. Ethel is sure that this group is meant to become the nucleus of her dream school – if she can get the flighty Luce to introduce her to the filthy, sullen animals, if she can clean them enough and encourage them into enthusiasm for her school, if she can present them to Mr. Densworth Lion as a symbol of success, if, if, if

I’m unsure if A Peculiar School is supposed to be a comedy or an exercise in frustration. Or both. Everything that can go wrong does, but Ethel perseveres. There are also Unexpected Surprises.

The reader has to ignore how much the animals are not living close to nature, and how blind the humans are to not be aware of them. Here Ethel decides to bring a present to the hiding animals (she comes from a Hindi culture where you always bring a small present when you go visiting):

“‘I don’t know what I have they would like. We will have to make a stop. We will take a little side trip to Squirrelly Emporium. It’s on the way. Well, nearly on the way.’

‘The squirrels have an emporium?’ her friend asked.

‘That’s what they call it. It’s not as big as the shops in the city, but it winds in so many different directions. They have been squirreling away various trinkets for years. They have a rather large inventory.’

‘An inventory of what?’ Luce asked.

‘Oh, of this and that. Mostly that. Things discarded by humans, a lot of arts and crafts, a lot of things made from nut shells. Believe me, you can find about anything there. Things you would never expect to find.’” (p. 40)

In the emporium, they hear of an owl that is trying to translate Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from English into Animal, but is stymied by “Some new language he is not used to humans using.” (p. 45) Comedy plus frustration.

The cover of A Peculiar School is by the author; an exercise in Photoshop of animal photographs, two taken by Chris Schenkler, the author’s husband, at the Cincinnati Zoo. The book has the air of a family project. Sometimes it seems overly cute; Schenkler has a fondness for alliterative names for her minor characters: Mr. Sebastian Squirrel, Mr. Oliver Owl, Mr. Filbert Fox, Ms. Rhonda Rabbit, Mr. Ronald Raccoon, Mrs. Betsy Bear. On the whole, though, it is an enjoyable read; good for all ages. Recommended.

Fred Patten

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