Barbara Ann Porte,
Beauty & the Serpent:
Thirteen Tales of Unnatural Animals

(Simon & Schuster, 2001)

A collection of short stories is no unusual thing. Tying them together into a unit that flows smoothly from beginning to end is a harder job -- and one Barbara Ann Porte has mastered with Beauty & the Serpent.

The "13 tales of unnatural animals" alone would make this a worthwhile read. But Porte has linked them through the central character of Mrs. Lavinia Drumm, head librarian of Ernestine Wilde Alternative High School, whose notion of school discipline is handled primarily through a gift for telling tales.

In an age when teenagers often require flashing lights and pounding rhythms to keep their attention, Mrs. Drumm can hold them spellbound with the spoken word. Her gift for narration turns even the most obstinate students into avid listeners. Oh, that it was truly so!

It doesn't hurt that there's something a bit odd -- perhaps even fey -- about Mrs. Drumm.

The stories themselves are varied, often creepy or unsettling. From the devil's own puppy to the mysticism of fanatical snake-handlers, the collection relates an intriguing set of animal-themed yarns. There's an eerie summoning, a foxy facade, a flock of misunderstanding, a rooster-rattlesnake crossbreed and more. Some are based on older stories, while others sprang from Porte's fertile imagination. In either case, they're best discovered in Mrs. Drumm's library, from the master storyteller herself.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 18 September 2004

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