Jack and his mum live a happy enough life in their cottage by the sea until, on the day she becomes ill, Jack meets the Grim Reaper himself striding along the beach towards the cottage. Jack struggles with Death, breaks his scythe, imprisons him in a nut and tosses him into the sea before returning home to find his mother recovered. He also finds that he can’t break eggs, slice vegetables or wring the rooster’s neck, while in town the shops are empty of everything that requires the death of anything.
Maddern’s retelling of this traditional, Midas-like tale, which was passed to him by traditional Scottish storyteller Duncan Williamson, is concise, conversational and highly effective. In providing a resolution that underlines the necessity of death without being too blood-chilling, it provides a reassuring addition to the literature on this ineluctable topic. The text is conveyed in a spidery script that treads beside or undulates over the gentle, pastoral, full and half page illustrations. Poignant little background details like the missing member of family photographs and the frieze in Jack’s kitchen add reminders of mortality.