Baie Verte and the Five Chinese Brothers

What caught my eye, as we were driving about the Baie Verte area, was a single row of colourful cottages by the sea just across a lush field of grain. On a different day, in a different light, the colours of the cottages would have been vibrant, the scene like something out of a children’s storybook with a title like Nancy’s Day by the Sea. Maybe that’s what my obsession with the ocean is all about; maybe I’m trying to relive some storybook that was read to me when I was a kid.

Funny thing is, I don’t remember ever being read to. I mostly remember me doing the reading and what I remember most about a lot of books were the covers. If a book had good artwork on it’s cover then I’d stare at if for a long time, taking it in, not trying to figure out what the story was about, but just enjoying the artwork.

But there is only one book I remember from my childhood and I remember it so vividly that it’s like the story happened: The Five Chinese Brothers. Politically incorrect by today’s standards, to be sure, but I loved that book, and still do. It was written by Claire Huchet Bishop in 1938. Comically cringeworthy, the assumption is that since they’re Chinese you can’t tell them apart. The story doesn’t say they were quintuplets, just that they were brothers.

The brother who could swallow the sea

Five Chinese super beings

Each of the brothers has one unique and extraordinary ability, a superpower, really, and the one that got himself into trouble was the one who could swallow the sea. A little boy nags the brother to swallow the sea so he can run about and pick up the helpless fish off the ocean floor. The brother relents, swallows the sea, but the boy won’t  come back when signalled; the brother, unable to hold the sea any longer, lets go and the boy drowns and the brother is arrested and condemned to die. 

The townspeople try several ways of executing the brother but fail each time because each time they are unwittingly trying to execute a different brother with a different ability.

When my kids were growing up I made sure I found The Five Chinese Brothers to read to them. I read a significant proportion of the library’s children’s collection to my kids, so I doubt it had the same impact on them as it did on me. But for me, I couldn’t read it often enough and I measured other books by the magic I got from it.

Hoping for a story as good as the Five Chinese Brothers

I would leave the library with huge armloads of books that I would read over the next three weeks and then go back for another load. I spent a lot of time in libraries looking for children’s books, sitting in those little chairs, checking out the covers and the stories and being excited about getting home to read them to my kids, always hoping I would find other stories as great as The Five Chinese Brothers. Now I spend a lot of time with Elaine exploring the Acadian coast ― Acadie― and stopping when we see a great scene and hoping we’ll find a story as delightful and magical as the The Five Chinese Brothers.