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1.05.2014

Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey (2000)

Retold and Illustrated by Robert Byrd

Dutton Children's Books

"...Francis was not simply a charming, eccentric lover of nature," writes Robert Byrd. "To see him only in that dimension trivializes his outlook on life."

I think Robert Byrd is an interesting illustrator. He really prefers to illustrate characters either head-on or in full profile, which gives the pages a simplistic tone, but at the same time he fills his backgrounds with so much wonderful detail it is almost overwhelming.

The opening page is of a verdant landscape, in which several types of trees are captured, receding into the distance, rocks and hills and distant birds, a thousand and one blades of grass, and there stands the saint, looking out at us with equanimity, a wolf to one side, a bunny to the other.

It reads to me as though Saint Francis is a stand-in for Adam, the first Man. We learn in Sunday School that Adam gave all of the animals their names, of course, but it is Saint Francis, we learn in this story, who called them his "little brothers" and reminded them of how precious they are, "from the tiniest mouse to the powerful great gray wolf."

It is while Francis ponders in his 'eden,' that he hears the loud, sad braying of the donkey, and asks why he should be so unhappy.

"You would cry out yourself, if your work was as hard as mine. Ever since the beginning of time, we donkeys have carried heavy loads on our small backs, and people and animals have made fun of the way we sound."

And so Saint Francis begins his tale, which begins at the dawn of creation...

Creation
It has the form of one of Kipling's Just-So stories, as we discover that the Donkey was at first an extremely proud animal, with short ears and a small tail, who spent these early days of Creation waltzing about and mocking the elephant, ridiculing the giraffe, for their extreme and comical features. Then a band of monkeys get together and decide to teach that Donkey a lesson, by pulling out his ears and tugging on his tail, and them finally - if that weren't bad enough - his is cursed by God Himself:

"...you shall always laugh, but your laugh will be an ugly sound. And when my creatures hear your loud, ridiculous 'Hee-haw! Hee-haw!' they all will laugh at you. You will always do the hardest work, carrying heavy loads for the rest of your days, wherever you go."

This does not cheer the Donkey up, to know of this long ago curse on he and his kin. But Saint Francis assures him, that is only the beginning of the story. There is redemption to be had, of a kind, and it is wrapped up in the Christmas story, as the donkey is called upon to carry a very important traveler through the desert.

Several times the donkey stumbled,
but he did not fall.
I love desert wildernesses, and Byrd does an exquisite job of rendering it is as much detail as he paid to those verdant pastures at the offset. The sands and the rocks of the desert are done with so many shapes and shades, it feels like a living place.

The quest is an epic one, pushing the beast of burden to the absolute limits of his abilities, but finally bringing Mary safely to Bethlehem, and is witness to the birth, to angelic encounters, to shepherds and wise men bearing gifts.

And in his own heart, in his very own way,
the donkey knew what he had done,
and he was happy.
"But the little donkey in the stable had no gift to give," said the Donkey sadly.

"Well," said Francis, "surely you can see that by carrying Mary and the baby Jesus, the Christmas donkey had truly given the most wonderful gift of all."

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