Gorky Rises by William Steig
Illustrated by William Steig
The story begins with Gorky, a green frog, concocting a magic potion at the kitchen sink. After decanting it into a glass-stoppered bottle, he says an incantation (“Auga-looga, onga-ouga”), communes with nature, and falls asleep in a meadow. “Whatever had kept him fastened to the earth let go its hold, and Gorky’s slumbering body rose in the air, like a bubble rising in water, and moved off in an easterly direction.” Floating high above the earth, he encounters two fearsome kites, a hot air balloon, migrating geese, a lightning storm. He performs aerial acrobatics for the earthbound creatures who gawk up at him in amazement. “What the doodad was keeping him up there?” they wonder. Night falls and he ponders the imponderables, realizes his loneliness. As dawn breaks, he pours out his potion drop by drop and descends jerkily to earth. His distraught parents are overjoyed to see him again.
William Steig was intrigued by transformation and by journeys of self-discovery, and it should come as no surprise that Pinocchio was his favorite children’s book. In Steig’s Caldecott Medal winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a young donkey is transformed by a magic red pebble into a boulder. He is locked in his isolation, through the changing of the seasons, until he is able to undo the charm. The book ends, as most Steig books do, with a joyous reunion with family. In Abel’s Island, a beautifully crafted chapter book, a newlywed mouse is separated from his beloved Amanda by a freak storm which deposits him upon an island. He spends a year in solitude, devising methods of escape, battling his nemesis – the resident owl, and discovering his talent as a sculptor.
Steig grew up in a tenement neighborhood in the Bronx, son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, in a household bubbling with creative intent. His parents, a housepainter and a seamstress, were Socialists and their politics gave him a sympathy for the underdog that never faded. His art and his children’s books portray his belief in the fundamental goodness of people along with a kind of pragmatic optimism. His characters are free spirits who approach the world with an innocent sense of wonder and a delight in the strangeness of it all. They marvel at the beauty of the universe, whether it be Gorky reveling in the scent of roses or Shrek infatuated with his stunningly ugly princess.
Steig was a patient and disciple of Wilhelm Reich, the radical Austrian psychoanalyst whose practice revolved around orgone, the universal energy source. Viewed by some as a visionary and by others as a charlatan, Reich ultimately died in a penitentiary on a charge involving interstate commerce of his orgone energy accumulators. Steig never lost his belief, and he spent a daily half hour in his orgone box for fifty some years. If this contributed to the unique sophistication, beauty, and joy of his books, it was time well spent.