Storying Compassion: Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories (2008) by Reinhardt Jung

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Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories by Reinhardt Jung, illustr. Emma Chichester Clark (2008) [First published, 1998]

Suggested age range: 9 and up

(Egmont Press, 107 pages)

“A deep sigh stopped him in his tracks, a sigh which seemed to come from the rock itself” (p. 20).

Some books for young people have the potential to stir in readers a greater sense of compassion for others. A contemporary illustrated edition of Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories (2008) by Reinhardt Jung beautiful demonstrates how stories can generate social sensitivity and alert readers to the importance of noticing the unnoticed. Based on my own experience reading this incandescent collection of short illustrated stories, I can attest to the way in which the book can elicit a deep response from the reader. Each story illuminated a deep idea or truth that was implicit within the tale, but became clear and real to me, the reader.

Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrations add an important dimension to the stories by depicting these multi-layered moments visually. The sometimes odd Bambert, a writer who “saw the world through the eyes of poets and writers,” lives alone. He enjoys looking out his attic window at night, “holding quiet conversations with the moon, for the moon, which seemed to know as many stories as Bambert himself, acted as a mirror in which he could see the world.” It is through writing his stories that he finds joy.  He ultimately decides to send the eleven stories from his Book of Wishes, via paper hot-air balloons out into the world, so that they can become true in a sense:

“Making a story come true would mean letting it out of the book to go off into the world and look for its own setting, searching for cities, riverbanks, sea shores: places where it could come to life in real human beings, against real landscapes and within real walls.”

Though Bambert keeps his characters the same in the stories, he allows the settings to be shaped by the location where they land. He sends the tales in hopes that those who discover them will situate the stories within a unique setting and return them to Bambert. There is space for a twelfth story, but Bambert is waiting for this story’s shape to emerge. When the cold weather finally sets in, Bambert releases the stories and “was happier than he had ever been in his whole life.” It is several seasons later, however, before Bambert receives the first story back from another country—and at this point Reinhardt Jung’s book delivers Bambert’s rich tales to the reader.

Certainly, Jung’s characterization of Bambert invites readers to consider this melancholy man’s point of view, a perspective we might not normally take the time to consider in the busyness of our own lives. Bambert’s sense of humanity is finely tuned; it is an awareness deep with concern, compassion, and at many times, hope.

His first story returns from Ireland, and focuses on a whale returning to the bay to thank the grandson of the man who rescued him as a young whale from certain death. It is a beautiful event when the boy sees “an ancient eye” staring at him out of what he think is a huge rock. The boy takes water from the sea, and pours it “carefully over the open eye like salty tears, to keep it from drying up in the wind blowing off the land.” The whale then begins to communicate with the boy through his thoughts, and the boy hears, “I was looking for you—you who are different from the others, my friend—and now I’ve found you.” It was a hundred years earlier that the boy’s grandfather rescued the whale in the middle of the night, and returned him to the sea, to safety, from his hunters. Now old, the whale assumes the grandson is the grandfather and says,

“I have looked for you ever since that day. You haven’t changed at all, but I have grown old. I wanted to see you once again, to thank you and say goodbye.”

It is a beautiful story—the tale of how a child reached out to a creature in its childlike state, and saved it from those who only valued the life of a whale for what it could give. It is the heart of the grandfather as a child that we applaud, and we discover his compassion through his grandson’s interaction with the whale. Interestingly, the character of the grandfather does not appear directly; his character emerges indirectly through the memory of the whale and the boy’s father’s description at the conclusion of the story.

This first tale of Bambert’s reminds us of the importance of respecting and caring for those creatures with which we live on the earth. My own spirituality has generated in me a love for animals and for the natural world—a love that urges me to treat them with respect. Though children, like adults, can be cruel towards the natural world and its creatures, many children seem to have a clear sense that we must act with love. This is how the boy in “The Eye in the Sea” operates, and how his grandfather before him responded. In this way, the tale reflects another important idea—that adults can transfer their own love and concern for the earth to their children. And this is powerful.

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