Though Harcourt blurbs it as a “first novel,” most of us will probably know that artist and author Ursula Vernon had already published several books, including multiple volumes of her comic/graphic novel Digger and Black Dogs which I take to be intended as the first volume of a series. In one sense, though, Harcourt is correct. Nurk: the Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew is written for a juvenile audience, and is Vernon’s first published venture in that particular field.
Don’t dismiss the book as merely kid stuff, though. The author’s droll wit and ironic sense of humor is clearly evident in a manner that will tickle the fancy of the adult reader as well. Nurkus Aurelius Alonzo Electron Maximilian Shrew (no wonder everyone shortens it to just plain “Nurk”) is an orphan, having lost his parents when they were eaten by owls (shades of Mervyn Peake’s Lord Sepulchrave) under unclear circumstances. He continues to live alone in his family’s former home at the base of a large willow tree on the river bank, loosely watched by a great aunt who “looks in” on him once or twice a week. Though he is quite self-sufficient, he yearns to follow the example of his grandmother, Surka Aurelia Maxine Shrew, whose portrait hangs in the front hall of his home. Surka was noted for her ferocious and adventurous nature, evidenced by the fact that the artist portrayed her holding a sword and a severed head in her hands. Nurk isn’t quite sure he has the courage to achieve his goal, though, and certainly he has never been far from home.
When a grumpy hummingbird arrives to deliver a letter with a smeared address that appears to direct it to “…URK… UPSTREAM” Nurk assumes it is intended for himself and manages to convince the suspicious bird to hand it over. After he opens it and reads a waterstained plea for help, he realizes that it was in fact intended for none other than Surka, who has been missing for several years and presumed dead. In a quandary for what to do now that he has opened and read a letter never intended for his eyes, and that he can’t deliver to the intended recipient, the young shrew seeks advice from his friend the salamander, who tells him to return the letter to the sender. This is easier said than done, since there is no return address or signature. Finally Nurk decides he has no other choice, and prepares for his journey downstream by converting an empty snail shell to a boat and provisioning it suitably, not only with food and drink, but with plenty of clean, dry socks.
Carried by the current, he soon finds himself entangled in any number of small adventures, but the real story unfolds only after he rescues a waterlogged dragonfly princess named Scatterwings. It turns out that Scatterwings herself is the letter writer, and her family needs help to rescue her brother, Prince Flicker, who is being held captive by the Grizzlemole, a blind wizard “half the size of a mountain.” I’ll let the prospective reader discover the outcome of the quest, the nature of the odd difficulties encountered by Nurk on his way, and the wry witticisms introduced by Vernon as she relates the tale. Naturally, the author has provided the jacket art and internal black and white drawings herself, and they complement the story very well.
I believe this book is deliberately left open for sequels in which we may get to meet Surka Aurelia Maxine Shrew as well, and I look forward to the experience. The fact that Nurk reaches the end of his adventures without using a sword or severing any heads does not reflect badly upon him, and I suspect that his grandmother Surka will eventually be convinced of that too (though perhaps not at first.) While Surka may well resemble the ferocious shrew clans of Brian Jacques’ Redwall stories, Nurk has started out more in the character of Kenneth Grahame’s Mole, a mild-mannered creature who follows a yearning in his heart and gets much more than he thought he was seeking. I recommend this book to any reader who appreciates small creatures who can get into terrifying situations and yet see the ironic humor of their self-induced plights.
(Though my hoped for sequel hasn’t yet appeared, much more of author Vernon’s wit and quirkiness has since arrived in the form of her Dragonbreath series, which I can also recommend highly.)
Nurk: the Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew
Harcourt Children’s, 2008 (ISBN: 9780152063757, $16.00)
Also available in audio and for e-readers.