Tuesday 22 January 2013

Me and Momma and Big John

Me and Momma and Big John by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by William Low (Walker Books)
HB RRP $ 29.95
ISBN 9780763643591
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

This story was inspired by Carol Hazel, a mother who became an apprentice stonecutter to support her children. It’s about the building of the largest cathedral in the world, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, also known as ‘Big John’ and Saint John the Unfinished, because it is still unfinished today due to delays since the laying of the first stone in 1892. After World War 2, forty years passed before building started up again.

The stonecutters and carvers of the Cathedral stones were apprentices drawn from the large population of unemployed people. They were taught by masters brought from Europe to teach the art of stonecutting which stopped it from dying out as well as creating work for people in desperate need.

John’s Momma has lost her job at the factory but has trained for a new one - a stonecutter for ‘Big John’. It’s hard for John and his siblings to understand how his mother works so long and hard on one stone. But Momma knows her stone ‘just like her babies’ faces’. She can ‘smell it in her sleep’.

Momma takes her children to see the great Cathedral. First they visit the area where the workers are using their tools to chip and shape; where the ‘tools make music on the stone’. Then the family looks at the light filtering through the stained-glass windows. They listen to the sound of voices as they lift and float to the ceiling before joining their own to the music.

Then Momma shows them her stone. They watch as the stones are lifted by a crane up to the tower. Building a Cathedral is ‘an art’, Momma tells them. John has seen art before. It always has the artist’s name beneath it. How will everyone know that this stone is his Momma’s? But Momma knows that even one stone becomes something grand within a building of this kind.

William Low’s superb illuminated artwork embraces the elegance of the text to create an outstanding publication for collectors and readers of all ages. There is a generous amount of information on the Cathedral and its history at the end of the book.

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