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Agnes the Sheep

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by William Taylor

            As the capstone of a study of their community, a class at St. Joseph's Convent School receives an assignment to take an in-depth look at the needs of the elderly in the community. The students may choose their partners for the assignment - except for Joe and Belinda, who appear to be the bane of their teacher's existence.  Unhappily paired together for this assignment, the two befriend old Mrs. Carpenter and her god-sent (11), "yeti"-like (41) sheep, Agnes.  Joe and Belinda successfully interview the eccentric old lady, who later extracts a promise from them look after Agnes the sheep if Mrs. Carpenter dies.  When Mrs. Carpenter dies, the two are faced with the challenge of rescuing Agnes from Mrs. Carpenter's greedy relatives, who try to sell Agnes for her wool and for mutton.  It's a daunting task, since Agnes is anything but gentle.  Indeed, Mrs. Carpenter's sign, "'Beware of Dog. Enter at Own Risk'" had been hung with Agnes the sheep in mind.

            William Taylor has a talent for aptly and humorously depicting his characters' flaws.  Joe cannot resist speaking, even when speaking lands him in trouble.  When he hears about the assignment, for example, Joe reckons aloud that his teacher is "one of them oldies (3)" herself.  Of a managing disposition, Belinda can't resist adding her opinions; their comments insure that they are paired together.

            Some of Taylor's characters are caricature-like in their depiction.  If Belinda and Joe are the students who make their teacher's life miserable, Belinda's mother, Mrs. Wiggins, fills the parent equivalent of that role.  Mrs. Wiggins constantly finds fault, and the teacher's day would not be complete without a written complaint from her.  Mrs. Robinson, the teacher, says with dismay that since the year began, she's had "more effort from [Belinda's] mother . . . with all her notes (6)" than she has had from Belinda and Joe. 

Another caricature-like depiction is Father McIntosh, the quintessential Roman Catholic priest.  Agnes, who is on the loose, hides under the church steps.  When Father McIntosh descends the stairs, Agnes pushes upward against the stairs, scrambling to get out, with the result that Father McIntosh and the stairs are propelled into the air:

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!'" yelled Father McIntosh as the steps fell on top of him.  "It's a bloody earthquake," following which he was knocked briefly unconscious.  He was just coming around . . . when Belinda and Joe found him. . . . "Help me home, my children.  I feel a mortal need for a drop of the hard stuff after that little to-do.  The voice of God all right," said Father McIntosh. (62-3)

Through his characters, William Taylor takes an irreverent peek at the world.  When Mrs. Carpenter dies, Joe persuades some of his classmates that a cannon would play a part in the funeral service, in keeping with Mrs. Carpenter's former life in the circus as a human cannonball.  The decedent "would be sped on [her] way to heaven from a gigantic cannon that was to be set up in the gardens of the Presbyterian Church.  After all, wasn't that the only way that Presbyterians were likely to get into heaven (44)?"  Taylor doesn't limit his irreverence to poking fun only at Presbyterians, however.  As students in a Catholic school, Mrs. Carpenter is surprised to discover that Belinda and Joe don't know the meaning of the name Agnes ("Lamb of God").  She says bemusedly:  "'And you two don't know the meaning of Agnes? Lamb of God? My goodness gracious me.  It seems the Holy Roman Church isn't doing much better than the education system.'" 

A review of this book by a New Zealand library[i] states unequivocally that the book is set in New Zealand.  For the reader, however, this perception of the setting might be more difficult to establish, since Taylor never specifically states the novel's location.  This could account for the fact that a review in The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books places the tale in Australia.[ii] 

Taylor does include cultural markers, however.  These markers include numerous words  (nicking, bloody, mate, mutton) and several vernacular passages:  "'D'ya seat, mate?'" (for "Do you see it, mate? [86]).  Houser (1991)[iii] notes that "The New Zealand dialect may bother some, but it is so far into the story that readers will surely continue."  While her assessment of the placement of the vernacular is correct, but it is unfortunate that Houser appears to find the dialect disconcerting.  On the contrary, the vernacular passages, in conjunction with other cultural markers, give a nice flavor of New Zealand and its people.  Other cultural markers include Belinda's statement that she is part Maori (21) and a mention of a display of "Cook Island tomatoes" in the grocery store. 

In addition to the Esther Glen Award (1992) and the Premio Andersen award (1998, Genoa, Italy) for Agnes the Sheep, William Taylor has received many other honors for his writing.  These include the Margaret Mahy Lecture Award (1998), the AIM Senior Fiction Award,[iv]  and White Ravens 2003 (for Scarface and the Angel).[v]

 



[i] North Shore Libraries: Book Reviews. n.d. Review of Agnes the sheep. http://www.shorelibraries.govt.nz/TopPicks/Reviews/.

 [ii] Hearne, Betsy. 1991.Review of Agnes the Sheep, by William Taylor. The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 44 (7): 179.

[iii] Houser, Donna. 1991. Review of Agnes the Sheep, by William Taylor. Voice of Youth Advocates 14 (2): 104.

[iv]Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series 94. William Taylor.

[v] Storylines: Children's Literature Foundation of New Zealand. n.d. William Taylor. http://www.storylines.org.nz/profile_results.asp?isSearch=true&id=65.

 

 

 

Taylor, William. 1990. Agnes the sheep. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0-590-43365-2

 

This review was written for a graduate course at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

 

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