Thursday, November 17, 2011

Magnus at the Fire by Jennifer Armstrong illustrations by Owen Smith

Text copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Armstrong
Illustrations copyright © 2005 by Owen Smith

Magnus is one of a trio of gray stallions that pull the heavy steam pumpers. These horses are “strong as oxen and fast as the wind.”  It is hard work but a good life.  The horses do not want for food or shelter, and they are treated kindly.  After ten years on the job for Magnus, progress arrives in the form of a motorized fire engine, rendering the horse drawn engines obsolete. The motorized engines are more cost efficient, so the horses are retired and put up for sale. 
It is not that simple for Magnus, being a fire horse is his life. He is conditioned to spring into action once the fire bell rings.  Initially, after his retirement, Magnus is perplexed by the fact that he is left behind.  Then he begins leaping over the fence surrounding his pasture and running to the fire when he hears the bell clang, even outracing the motorized engine. A taller fence is built, but Magnus simply busts it down. The captain becomes increasingly irate with Magnus who he feels is becoming a nuisance.
One day the engine breaks down on the way to a fire. The firemen and bystanders attempt to push the motorized engine, but it is simply too ponderous.  The fire is burning out of control, and the Captain realizes that only Magnus is powerful enough to haul the engine. Magnus is retrieved from in front of the fire, where he stands, waiting.  Even without the aide of his two partners, Magnus attempts to tow the engine. It is a struggle but with the encouragement of onlookers chanting “Pull Magnus! Pull!”  and the firemen pushing from behind, he is able to successfully haul the engine to the fire. It is to be his final job as a fire horse. Magnus is then sent to live out the rest of his days comfortably in an apple orchard, surrounded and loved by children.
I love to look at art, but to my chagrin, I am a novice when it comes to art critique.  The extent of my analysis is usually limited to the three following responses, “I like it, it’s pretty;” “I don’t like it, it’s not pretty” and “Huh?”  I give Owen Smith’s illustrations my greatest seal of approval -“I like it, it’s pretty!” In  all seriousness, Smith’s stunning oil paintings are so incredibly lovely that even I can come up with more than one response to describe them.  His depictions of the horses are the most majestic I have every seen; my scans simply cannot do them justice.  There are quite a few double page spreads which I can’t even fit on my scanner.  And the end paper. . . . Well, you will simply have to read Armstrong's  great historical story to see for yourself.  Read Magnus at the Fire and I am sure you and your kids will be chanting like mine at every read, “Pull, Magnus! Pull! Pull, Magnus! Pull!”

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