by Roderick MacLeish
In my previous post, I discussed one of three books that influenced me as a child. This book, “Prince Ombra” is the second. While the hero is a child, the enemy is unclear throughout the majority of the story. There is no one thing or person to defeat, just an ever-present evil that consumes the world if not fought back once every thousand years. When it comes, it challenges a single “hero” and does so by taking the form of the hero’s worse fear. This time, the hero is just a child named Bentley. That is probably the reason I initially picked up this book on my regular library visit that afternoon: great big evil vs 9-year-old child. We were allowed to check out 3-5 books each visit. I was probably not reading that much, I simply liked to pick out five so if I didn’t like one I had others to choose from. Turned out I really like “Prince Ombra”.
While I certainly liked the idea of a kid being the hero in a long line of previous warriors and heroes, I really came to love his friend Slally. There are always friends and supporting characters in stories, but Slally was different because she was the first to have an obvious purpose. In my eyes, she brought value to EVERY sidekick, best friend, mate, what have you. She was there to remember his story and tell it in the future as well as be his friend and confidante. This was a game changer to me because the story is told from her perspective which takes the certainty of the hero’s success away as well as shows the reader that we all play important parts; even just listening and remembering is important. In fact, storytelling is important. I was in awe with such an important side character. As adults, we certainly know the value of all our supporters, friends and family alike, but as a child, there were hero and villains; the end. Stories were often too simple and didn’t often leave much room for anything but winners and losers. Perhaps the Scooby Doo cartoons I used to watch should have taught me this lesson, but they didn’t, they were too fun and silly. Plus, the doom of the world wasn’t resting on anyone’s shoulders, which is how life can sometimes feel to us, even as children. Another reason Slally was so cool, is because she has a speech impediment and so did I at the time. I immediately loved her “handicap” and how she was still seen as a valuable friend. While I did not feel that my little speech problem inhibited me at all, I had never met a character in a book who had one so I instantly bonded with her.
Decades later I purchased this book to reread. I enjoyed it all over again. The darkness, the depression, the chain reaction of one person’s misery to another, and of course the excitement of Bentley’s journey. I lent it out to friends and family to see what they thought. Feedback was pretty similar; everyone enjoyed it, despite the repetitiveness when describing the doom and evil. Some said it dragged a bit, but everyone liked the concept. For me, I think the dragging and repetition worked well for a child trying to grasp the storyline and plot, and as an adult, I felt it was rather realistic. Life can often feel like an upward journey with little to no excitement.
But why did this book stay with me after all these years? Well, that I cannot tell you without giving away part of the ending. I had many nightmares when I was young. I had trouble sleeping and often called to my parents to save me from an all too real terror. While I read “Prince Ombra” I wondered what would my greatest fear be? What would face me if I were Bentley? Which nightmare was the worst? I had so many to choose from. This alone made me read on to find out what Bentley would have to fight. When I reached that part of the story and Prince Ombra takes its form, I was shocked to find out it was indeed my absolute worst fear, and one I had no idea how anyone could battle.
For the friends and family who read it, this was an interesting thing to discuss. As a child, I was just happy to learn others my age had similar worries. Sometimes we need to escape, sometimes we need to relate. Up to this point, fears and worries were all in forms of villains and monsters with very clear purposes that could be defeated by the right hero. “Prince Ombra” brought forward the idea of just a general badness and darkness that does, in fact, take over if you let it.
Much like “Out of the Bug Jar” I was taken to new levels of possibility, both good and bad. Tooth fairies can be cranky old men in jeans, heroes can be kids, very important roles can be filled by handicapped people, and evil isn’t always something you can simply strike at to make it go away. If “Out of the Bug Jar” was my introduction to fantasy worlds beyond castles and dragons, then “Prince Ombra” kept me there. Once again, the author drew outside the lines and offered something not just entertaining, but thought-provoking as well.