catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 6 :: 2009.03.13 — 2009.03.27


A lasting impression

Many books we read as children don’t quite hold up in adulthood. I remember someone once telling me she read Anne of Green Gables as an adult and was surprised to find it to be so much more “juvenile” than she remembered. But The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is one of those children’s books that have remained as profound for me now as when I first stumbled upon it when I was young. Sadly, the book has been long out of print, but I was lucky enough to receive it as a birthday gift one year from my husband, who had found it at a library book sale.

I am enthralled by the clever puzzles, witty wordplay and tragicomic characters of Ellen Raskin’s stories. A writer, illustrator and designer, Raskin is best known for her Newbery Medal-winning children’s book, The Westing Game. She also designed the book cover for the first edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. But for me, she’ll always be the brilliant mind that created The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues.

The story begins with seventeen-year-old Dickory Dock, an art student in Greenwich Village who takes on a job as a painter’s assistant, only to become “paint-sorter, brush-cleaner, treasure-keeper, spy, detective, and once again companion to murder.”

Garson, the painter who hires Dickory, teaches her not only how to paint but how to see. “The primitive painter meticulously draws in every brick on a building because he knows the bricks are there,” he says. “But the creative artist can suggest bricks with a few strokes of his brush. The creative artist is concerned, not with facades, but with the inner structure, with the truth of what he sees.”

The story raises complex issues about the purpose of art. Should an artist paint what others want to see or the truth of what the artist sees? What are the risks and consequences of doing either?

This theme of seeing past facades also becomes part of the novel’s game when a local police chief enlists Garson’s skills as a painter to help him solve a series of crimes. In Sherlock Holmesian fashion, Garson and Dickory play-act under the assumed identities of Detective Noserag (Garson backwards, almost) and Sergeant Kod (Dock backwards, almost), collaborating to unmask the identities of several criminals. But as the story progresses, the real mystery lies in the person of Garson, whose superficial paintings and strange behavior lead Dickory to question his underlying honesty.

Even Dickory herself is more than what she seems, as she matures to discover who she is as an artist. Her whole life, Dickory has long endured ridicule for her name, to the point that she dreads introducing herself. Throughout the story, nearly every character she encounters pokes fun at her, including Chief Quinn, who chants new versions of the “Hickory Dickory Dock” rhyme each time he sees her. “Don’t be sore,” Chief Quinn tells her. “Not everyone can make people happy just by telling them their name.”

Garson tells her, “Worry less about your name, and more about who you are and who you want to be, and what Dickory Dock will stand for.”

When Dickory learns to see past facades into the deeper nature of people and situations, she discovers something that leads her to solve the biggest mystery of all (a profound plot twist which I won’t divulge here). More importantly, though, it leads her to see beyond her own exterior to understand her role. She realizes that, much like her funny name, she can bring laughter and healing to the other characters. Through her, Raskin suggests there is another purpose to art, perhaps the greatest of all-compassion. It’s only when the characters accept the truth that their art can speak to the humanity of another person.

There’s whimsy in Raskin’s stories, which appeal to children for their fun and to adults for their cleverness. But there’s darkness, too, in the serious themes and story elements. As a child, I identified with Dickory’s insecurities and dreams, and as an adult, I have to say that many of those feelings and questions have only become more relevant. How do I discern truth from the clamor of the world? And once discerned, how do I accept it? It’s the complexity of these questions and the beauty with which they’re conveyed that make this story one I’ve never outgrown.

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