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herdboy of hungary

19 february 2023

Herdboy of Hungary (1933) is a strange book. Presented as the memoir of its narrator Sandor's boyhood, it may bear some resemblance to author/illustrator Alexander (Sandor) Finta's young life. Its opening chapters tell how young Sandor learned to carve, and to read by carving small wooden letters. Finta himself would grow up to be a sculptor of some distinction. But bored by school, Sandor (in the book at least) starts acting out, and his family sends him off to the plains to learn to be a cowboy.

"Lonely and simple is the life of the Hungarian plainsman," says Sandor (21), and the book devolves into a collection of stories about horses and birds till Chapter Seven, "In Which a Hurricane Breaks the Monotony" (127). When the narrative isn't drab, it's weird; though Herdboy of Hungary is not badly written, and Finta (or perhaps his collaborator Jeanette Eaton, who presumably consulted on the text) can tell some good and suspenseful yarns. The book ends very oddly, out of tone even with its weirder parts: as if the narrator didn't know how to get himself out of his own childhood except in fabulous fashion.

Finta's illustrations, which ought to be the main attraction, are awkward, out-of-perspective things, unpleasant to look at. Honestly, I have no idea why anyone thought children would be drawn to this book, though the Junior Literary Guild evidently did, because they brought it out via Harper & Brothers in a very handsomely produced deluxe volume. But people in 2113 will probably be wondering why children's publishers issued some of the stuff they do nowadays.

Finta, Alexander. Herdboy of Hungary: The true story of Mocskos. In collaboration with Jeanette Eaton. Illustrated by the author. New York: Junior Literary Guild / Harper & Brothers, 1933.