Pat O'Shea, The Hounds of the Morrigan (Holiday House, 1985)

I wish I could say that The Hounds of the Morrigan is one of my favorite childhood books, but I can't, lest I be caught like the United States senator who, when asked his favorite childhood book cited Goodnight Moon. (He might have been more convincing had he not been about 17 when it was published.) The Hounds of the Morrigan was published too late for me to have loved it as a child, but I can safely say that it would have been one of my favorites.

Ten-year-old Pidge and his sister Brigit, 5, are launched into a strange and wonderful adventure when two things happen: Pidge discovers an ancient and magical manuscript in a used book store in Galway and two very strange and unpleasant women rent their neighbor's glasshouse. These women are two of the three aspects of the War Goddess called the Morrigan, and they mean trouble. The manuscript page turns out to have an evil serpent, Olc Glas, imprisoned in it by St. Patrick, and the Morrigan wants that page.

Pidge and Brigit's task is to travel through a world that is like Ireland overlaid onto Faerie to find a lost pebble with a drop of the Morrigan's blood on it, with which they could destroy Olc Glas. Pursued by the Morrigan's hounds, the children encounter a host of figures from Irish legend and lore, many of whom assist the two but some of whom try to hinder their progress. Throughout their journey, the Morrigan observes them and waits, because she too wants that pebble to regain her old power. It is precisely because she lacks her former strength that she is not free to wreak havoc on the world.

The book is packed with whimsy and humor, from the first fumbling attempts of the hounds, who sometimes appear as people, to divert Pidge on his way home to Galway, to an earwig with a Napoleonic complex, to the spider family who practice acrobatics and dance while the father spider plays flute, bodhran and uilleann pipes simultaneously, and more. At the same time, there is deeply reverent and magical undercurrent in the story, and Pidge and Brigit are transformed by their experience. It's beautifully written, and the story flows along, cutting from one subplot to the next, but always maintaining the flow and the continuity. It's a long book, longer than one would expect for many children, but well worth the read.

It's hard to say who this book is for, but it is definitely one of those that appeals across the age spectrum, including adults. Once you pick it up, you'll find it hard to stop, and you too may wish it could have been a childhood favorite.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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