ASHLEY AND THE DOLLMAKER – by Jared James Grantham, MD, Leathers Publishing, Division of Squire Publishers, Inc, 4500 College Blvd, Leawood, KS 66211, 1-888-888-7696 © 2004, ISBN: 1-58597-270-3, 118 pages.

Review by Del Meyer, MD

Jared James Grantham, MD, from Dodge City, has not only become a Kansas University Distinguished Professor of Medicine, but also a writer of children’s books. This is his second book, continuing the delightful story of Ashley and the Mooncorn People.

The tale actually begins with a final episode in the story of the Mooncorn People’s miraculous rescue of their children and restoring them to their previous healthy state. They then return to Belgium from whence they got lost 100 years ago.

As the summer now is far spent, Ashley’s thoughts turn to starting in that newly built school about one mile from their house. She had hoped to ride a bus to school but her parents decreed that she would walk like the other school children from their area. “But how will we get past the spooky house we always avoid?” Ashley asks. “It’s a nice walk or bicycle ride down Windsor Drive. You’ll have friends to walk with you,” her mother replied.

Before the first day of school, Ashley’s mother took her and several of her friends on the long walk on Windsor Drive to school. In about three blocks, between 79th and 80th streets, ran a tall black wrought-iron fence. Inside the fence stood huge trees surrounded by thick underbrush. About halfway along the block a gate marked the only entrance into this small suburban forest. A narrow, winding path led from the gate through the dense trees to a white two-story Colonial house that was barely visible from the sidewalk.

Ashley asked, “Mother, does the old lady you told me about live in that scary place?” “Yes . . . her name is Iola Taylor. She has lived there all her life, about 100 years, I think.” A friend of Ashley immediately blurted out that he heard she was a hungry, wicked witch. “I’m pretty sure she is not a witch, and she doesn’t eat little kids on their way to school, or I would have heard something about it.” Ashley’s mother told the kids that if they were that afraid, they could walk on the other side of Windsor Drive.

The school kids would detour to the other side of the street before they reached Mrs. Iola Taylor’s house in their walk to and from school for several weeks. Not having seen anyone come and go, they braved the same side of the street, but walked a little faster. After a while, they became braver. Ashley and her friends made up a verse they chanted as they went by.

            Who’s afraid of the wicked witch,

                        The wicked witch,

                        The wicked witch,

            Who’s afraid of the wicked witch,

                        The wicked witch of Windsor?

They then gathered some fallen branches and dragged them along the iron bars as they skipped along chanting their verse. They changed their pace to just the right speed so the clicks of the sticks hitting the iron bars beat in perfect rhythm with their chant. When they reached the end of the fence, they laid their sticks down to pick up for the other direction on returning to school.

Then one day on their return from school, they noted the twigs were gone. One of the kids thought they saw movement behind one of the curtains in the house. They hurried a little faster home that day.

However, one day, a fierce Kansas hailstorm blows Ashley against the gate of the weird house with the wrought iron gate, skinning her knees. Drenched, she runs to the porch to escape the elements when the old lady, 106 years old with gnarled hands, opens the door and invites her in to dry off. The storm has blown out the electricity and with no lights she gets a candle. Ashley sees a room full of dolls, so real she could almost hear them talk. Iola, as she insisted to be called, invited Ashley to return and hear their stories. Ashley runs home in relief. Thereafter, she frequently returns after school. Every day Iola tells the story of the people that each doll stayed with until they find their way back to Iola’s. The lady keeps Ashley spell bound with tales of the dolls, each of which has the gift of speech that only Mrs. Taylor could hear.

The story of each doll’s travel to some girl’s house and eventual return is very fascinating and illuminating of the human condition. One doll brought two neighbors together after a Kansas Tornado. Probably the most heart-rending story concerns a town on the Arkansas River that was segregated. Grantham gives a very realistic picture of Keystone, a town in segregated Oklahoma as it was a hundred years ago—separate churches, schools, neighborhoods, and drinking fountains. White and black people went their separate ways. Sheila, a little girl who was blind, sat on the square when the weather was nice and began to recognize people by their voices and would greet them as they passed by.

Every year the black community was invited to the white church after the service for a doll drawing contest. But they had to sit in the balcony. A secret artist donated two dolls to the church for this annual event. Ashley immediately knew who that was. This year Sheila could afford a ten-cent raffle ticket. After the church service, her number was drawn. When she went down the aisle to the front of the church where the pastor examined the ticket, he declared Sheila the winner of the white doll. Sheila removed the ribbon and lifted the lid of the box. Her greatest wish had been answered. She was almost too excited to proceed. She lovingly slides her hands under the paper and begins examining her doll with sensitive fingers painting a picture she could not see. She explored the doll’s arms, legs, dress and then her hair growing ever more excited as she bonded with her new friend. “I will name her Twadie,” she thought, after one of the nice ladies who speaks to me on the street corner.

When someone shouted for her to hold up her doll so everyone could see her, Sheila reached into the box and grasped the doll pulling it out of the box and to her chest in one easy motion. There was a collective gasp from the audience and then stunned silence, as if all the people had suddenly been swept from the church with a giant broom.

After a few awkward moments someone spoke, “There’s been a terrible mistake.” As people mumbled, Sheila spoke out as tears streamed down her cheeks: “I want you all to meet my new best friend, Twadie. I love her so much already. Thank you all for making this happen.”

“You see,” Iola explained to Ashley, “Sheila had opened the box containing the black doll. How could she know her precious friend was black? Someone had made a mistake. Or else the dolls had changed boxes, and who would believe that?” Iola said with a mischievous smile on her face as she resumed her story.

The pastor motioned for Sheila’s parents to come to the front of the church. “This is a terrible mistake,” he whispered. “Somehow the dolls got mixed up. I think we should exchange them now. Surely Sheila wants the white doll, doesn’t she?”

The pastor approached Sheila, explained the mix up of the white doll with the black doll, and offered to make an exchange. “Wouldn’t you like to do that?” Sheila looked puzzled as she pulled Twadie’s face close to hers, giving her a long kiss on the cheek, caressing her hair, smiling broadly, then asked the pastor, “What is black?”

After a moment of prayerful reflection that seemed an eternity, the pastor slowly stepped to the lectern and extended his upturned palms to the heavens. In a full and resonant voice, he said, “My brothers and sisters here below and in the balcony above, we have witnessed today the work of God Almighty spoken in the voice and lived in the spirit of this beautiful child. Though young Sheila cannot see as you and I do, she has a truer vision of our soul’s inner spirit than any of us with two good eyes. For the love of God is blind to the color of our skin, a difference between us that too often leads to hatred and bitterness in a world that would be better served by acceptance. Oh, that we should all be as gifted as our beloved Sheila!”

The people said “Yes, YES,” as a new spirit of expectation began to rise and the white doll was won by a dark-skinned girl named Addie in the balcony. And in the days that followed, all of the people of Keystone walked on both sides of the street together, shared the drinking fountain in the park and sat together in the churches as though that was the way it had been for a long time.

The other doll stories are not only entertaining for children, but also for adults. And the most magical of all is the final story of the Dollmaker’s final scene. It’s worth ordering the book just for those last two chapters and a wonderful final climax. Jared Grantham has not only distinguished himself as a professor, but also as an author of children’s books.