I first discovered Rein Poortvliet’s work in a thrift shop. The book was called Gnomes, and it was not on the shelves with the other second and third hand books, but in a glass case with crystal figures and nice jewelry, you know, where all the small, pricey, and easy-to-swipe items are kept. If I recall correctly, the book was $20. That was a bit much to spend on a thrift shop book, but I fell in love with Poortvliet’s artwork and I had to bring Gnomes home with me.
Now as I think back on my original discovery, imagining that dusty thrift shop, it is as if Gnomes was a diamond found in a coal heap; a nugget of gold in a gravelly creek bed; a rose in the weedy yard of a condemned house. The thrift shop wasn’t as bad as all those, but in my memory, the magic of the book dulled and uglied everything around it.
Gnomes was written by Wil Huyen and illustrated by Poortvliet. Originally published in Dutch in 1976 and translated to English in 1977, it is, as its title indicates, a book about gnomes. I wish I could show you here the colors, the style, the wit, the genius, and the artistry contained in this book. A mockumentary, the author and illustrator follow and study gnomes, recording their habits and ways, and, “…after twenty years of observation…the time has come to put our findings and experiences on paper, having received permission…from an authorized council of gnomes….” By the way, according to Huyen, it took the gnome council five years to approve the request.
I did not set out to review Gnomes here, just tell you how I was introduced to Poortvliet, but the book is so fascinating, I must share with you just a few tidbits of gnome facts (See? This is how we end up with book reviews on old books! Rediscovery!).
In 1976, there were six known types of gnomes:
Woodland Gnomes (“…probably the most common. But this is difficult to verify, as he is not fond of showing himself to man and has many escape routes….”)
Dune Gnomes (“…a fraction larger than the woodland gnome…avoids contact with man ….”)
Garden Gnomes (“…lives in old gardens, even those hemmed in between the new houses….”)
Farm Gnomes (“…conservative in all matters….”)
House Gnomes (“…often inhabit historic old houses….”)
And finally, the Siberian Gnome (“…has been most affected by crossbreeding…associates freely with trolls….the less said about him, the better.”) Oh, my!
Gnomes live to be about 400 years old, leading healthy lives and “…have few emotional problems.” Their weddings are modest, with most of the planning focused on the honeymoon, during which they travel by bird, fox, or wolf, and spend nights snuggled in “…hollow tree trunks, rabbit holes, or uninhabited birds’ nests.”
Gnome couples always produce a pair of twins.
Half of the text in Gnomes is type-written and half is hand-written and it is incredibly charming. There are illustrations to go with the researchers’ findings on each page—-it is an illustrated book—-and it provides every detail a thoroughly researched book should: gnome habits, homes, pets, diet, traditions, allies, enemies, histories, lore, biology, homes, crafts, livelihoods, medicine, and so on.
I will depart from describing Gnomes here; you simply must go to the library and borrow this book or buy it on Amazon.