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October/November 2008
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Rainbow on the Road, by Esther Forbes (1954)

ESTHER Forbes's 1954 novel, Rainbow on the Road, falls barely on the non-fantasy side of borderline. It is a Doppelgänger tale with pronounced supernatural elements—appearances of the devil, ghosts, clairvoyance, etc.—that are mostly explained away. Yet a Halloweenish, spooky atmosphere suffuses much of the narrative.

Set in New England in the early 1800s, Rainbow tells the story of Jude Rebough, a journeyman limner who travels about the countryside supplying to personal demand the desired countenances to fit the figures and backgrounds he has brought ready-painted. Such work is now called "folk art," but in its time and place it served necessary purposes. Rebough is often mistaken for the notorious highwayman, housebreaker, and ladies' favorite, Ruby Lambkin, who may in fact be an embodiment of Rebough's darker self.

Forbes is best known for her YA novel, Johnny Tremaine, and among fantasy readers for her treatment of the seventeenth-century New England witch craze, A Mirror for Witches. This latter novel is a subtle and penetrating study far superior to Arthur Miller's turgid anti-McCarthy allegory, The Crucible. To Rainbow Forbes brings the same understanding of history, grasp of rural detail, and knowledge of village life that she brought to her witch novel, and the result is a gracefully written picaresque story with a largish cast of sharply drawn characters and a deep love for the northern landscape. One feels her affection for her materials in every well-turned sentence.

Rainbow is a book to admire—and to savor.

—Fred Chappell

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