Valley News By Katie Beth Ryan / Staff Writer
Forty-six years ago, a group of children on a playground in Saxtons River, Vt., were the first to hear the story of Wobar, Roxie the cougar and the ghost of Simon, a Revolutionary War soldier, a tale now recounted in Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet, Henry Homeyer’s new book for children.
Homeyer, the Cornish gardening expert, was a 20-year-old Dartmouth sophomore, hired to run the village’s playground program for the summer. He spent his days supervising games of softball, kickball and Red Rover for 120 children.
One day, by 3:30 in the afternoon, “I’d run out of stuff to do, and they were there until 4,” Homeyer recalled last week in an interview at his home. So he made up the story on the spot, and watched a group of antsy children grow transfixed by the tale of Wobar, a mustachioed boy gifted with the ability to communicate with wild animals, and to run as fast as one, but who can’t manage to stay out of trouble in the tiny hamlet of Woodstown. Wobar is more at home in a place like Grantham Mountain, where he meets and befriends a cougar named Roxie before setting out on a quest to find a Native American calumet that, when placed in the right hands, can end all wars.
“Kids would go home and tell the story to their other brothers and sisters at the dinner table. They would share it with their parents,” Homeyer said.
“A reader wants to go to the next chapter,” he added, “and a kid would want to come back the next day,” to see where the story would pick up.
Wobar and Roxie’s tale has gone through various iterations, but the characters and plot in Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet are essentially the same as Homeyer told them on the Saxtons River playground.
After meeting on Grantham Mountain, Wobar and Roxie find refuge in a house haunted by the ghost of Simon, a Revolutionary War soldier who was given a calumet, or peace pipe, by a Native American, who believed that giving the calumet to Gen. George Washington would end the Revolutionary War and all future wars. But the calumet was stolen. Already on the run more than 200 years later, Wobar and Roxie travel to New Orleans, where they believe the calumet was taken by one of Simon’s soldiers, to search for the instrument and give it to the president of the United States. The journey takes them from Woodstown to places like New York and St. Louis, via freight train, bus and shipping crate, always trying to stay one step ahead of the people who would capture them and send Wobar to reform school and Roxie to a zoo.
Wobar and Roxie’s exhausting cross-country journey in search of the calumet parallels Homeyer’s own quest to bring the story of the mustachioed boy and his feline friend to the page.
After telling the story on the playground, Homeyer received some kind words from parents, who told him to commit it to paper. He finally did 16 years later, in 1982, having returned from several years in Africa, where, among other things, he served as director of the Peace Corps program in Mali. As he wrote the story, Homeyer had input from various young readers, and he submitted a peanut butter-and-jelly stained manuscript to Harper & Row and several other publishers, with plenty of optimism.
“I was so convinced they would call me right up that for two weeks, I didn’t want to leave the house,” he said. A couple of months later, Homeyer received a rejection letter from Harper & Row, followed by others from each of the publishing houses he contacted. So Wobar and Roxie were set aside in a drawer, occasionally emerging to be shared with readers like Joshua Yunger, Homeyer’s stepson, who devoured the manuscript by flashlight late at night (and who would eventually illustrate Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet). Homeyer also brought Wobar to the attention of Trina Schart Hyman, the Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator and Lyme resident, who unsuccessfully tried to shop it to publishers.
Eventually, in 2005, Homeyer shared the story with his friend and mentor, the late columnist Nardi Reed Campion, who was immediately captivated. That was “very encouraging,” Homeyer said, “because I valued her opinion very much. She was a fabulous writer and a fabulous human being. … Here was a woman in her 80s who was laughing and captivated by the story.”
Campion gave Homeyer some suggestions to make the story stronger, and he mentioned Wobar to Carole and Ib Bellew at Piermont-based Bunker Hill Publishing, which had published some of Homeyer’s gardening books. They were “cautiously interested,” in Homeyer’s words, but were sold on the project after Carole Bellew shared Wobar with a 9-year-old girl who devoured the novel.
With Wobar finally in book form, Homeyer returned to Saxtons River two weeks ago for a book release celebration at Main Street Arts, where children and their parents wore stick-on mustaches, in a nod to Wobar. The celebration “brought back a lot of memories of being a young man, at age 20, and being in a small Vermont town,” Homeyer said. “To go back to Saxtons River and shake hands with some of the people who knew my playground kids was wonderful.”
Now that Wobar has made it to the page, Homeyer believes the sky is the limit when it comes to getting Wobar in readers’ hands, and perhaps on the silver screen.
“I really believe that Wobar is going to be marketed nationally,” he said. “I think it will be a great movie. I think (Steven) Spielberg should do it.”
And though Wobar and Roxie find themselves in many scary, sometimes life-threatening situations in Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet, the novel remains a hopeful story, perhaps an extension of Homeyer’s own optimistic worldview.
On Wobar’s book jacket, Homeyer’s biography says that he “dreams of a real calumet that can end all wars.”
Henry Homeyer will read from “Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet” at 5 p.m. on Dec. 7 at the Dartmouth Bookstor in Hanover. For more information about the book, visit www.henryhomeyer.com.