links to:

 Smoky Zeidel for WORLDPRESS.COM

Malcolm Campbell for GOODREADS.COM



Soul Stories: Safari to Mara & Aria of the Horned Toad, by Elizabeth Clark-Stern;
osted on August 2, 2011 by Smoky Zeidel at 

Take a deep, cleansing breath, and relax. Now, picture yourself on the Masai Mara, one of the great plains of Africa. Feel the warm earth beneath your feet. There are a million stars blazing in the ebony sky, casting moonshadows over the great plain. Here the distant snorting of wildebeest; the cackle of hyenas—the rumbling roar of the lion. Take another deep breath, and smell the slightly sweet and not unpleasant scent of animal dung, sere grass, earth.

Can you see it? Hear it? Smell it? Feel it?

This is exactly how I reacted to Elizabeth Clark-Stern’s wondrous short story, “Safari to Mara,” one of the two stories in Soul Stories: Safari to Mara & Aria of the Horned Toad.

“Safari to Mara” is the story of Mara, the 10-year-old daughter of a Masai tribesman, and her journey to find her place in the world that is rapidly changing. Mara’s grandmother wants her to shave her hair and prepare to become the wife of a traditional Masai tribesman. But Mara and her parents have different a different idea. Mara’s father, a safari tour guide, takes her to work with him as his assistant. Shortly thereafter, her mother dies of a fever.

When Mara sees a baby zebra orphaned when his mother is snatched by a crocodile, Mara sneaks the baby, also wounded by the croc, into the back of the safari jeep and takes him home. Grief-stricken over the loss of her own mother, the young girl nurses the zebra orphan, whom she calls Lo-Lo, back to health. What follows is a beautiful tale of the devastation of loss, the power of friendship, and what it means to find home.

Clark-Stern’s words place the reader right in the heart of the story setting. “I do not like this safari tent cabin,” Mara says. “The floor is made of thick mats, no Earth beneath our feet … The tent cabin smells of a thing my father calls ‘cleanser.’ Our house of grass and Earth and dung smells of grass and Earth and dung. I cannot see the sun, the moon, the stars, in this dark cloth house. In our dung house I can see all of these things through the tiny hole, so we always know who is gone, who is here in the night sky.”

I will not spoil the story by saying how it ends for Mara and Lo-Lo. I will say, however, that rarely does a story make me cry. I shed copious tears when “Safa to Mara” drew to a close.

The second story, “Aria of the Horned Toad,” is very different from the first. This story is not set in the real world, but rather, a fantasy world created by the young, imaginative Beatrice, the super smart Reese, and Reese’s little brother, Elmer Per. All three children are battling their own demons: Reese and Per’s parents are in jail on drug charges, and Beatrice’s mother is plunging into the dark depths of alcoholism.

The story opens with Beatrice dreaming that a horned lizard—what she calls a horney toad—crawls out of her right eye. When she awakens, she searches for, and finds, the horned toad, whom she names Custard.

But Custard is no ordinary horned toad.

“‘He’s magic,’” Reese says.

“‘How can you tell?’” Beatrice asks.

“‘Just look at him. He’s harboring a great secret.’”

What follow is a grand romp through fantasy land as the children search for the Dreammaker, hoping he can mend their troubled parents through dreams of love for their families and loathing of their vices. Along the way the children meet and befriend Captain Sublime and his giant pet bats Praline, Ecstasy, and Valentine. But is Sublime the dreammaker? Or does he want the children for his own sinister purposes?

“Aria of the Horned Toad” reminded me of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass with a bit of The Wizard of Oz thrown in. But make no mistake: this fantasy is all the creation of Clark-Stern, and a truly golden fantasy it is as the children learn, like Mara in the story before them, the power of friendship and the devastation of the loss of a parent (because while Mara lost her mother in death, Beatrice, Reese, and Per have lost their parents to crime and addiction). They also learn a hard lesson about being responsible for your own actions, and how no matter how badly they may want it, they cannot change the behavior of others.

Soul Stories: Safari to Mara & Aria of the Horned Toad is an exquisite book written with heartfelt, poetic prose. The plots are engaging; the children in both stories loveable, brave, and flawed. I wanted to hold them, to protect them; yet all the while, I wanted to travel with them through the world of their stories to help them learn what they must learn. I wanted to walk out onto the Masai Mara with Mara and Lo-Lo; I wanted to sleep on Custard’s belly and listen to him sing, for he, too, is searching for acceptance, to be loved for who he is and not what he should, or could, be.

This book is pure magic. I not only recommend it highly, I beg you to read it. You will not be disappointed.

 Smoky Zeidel is an author and editor whose passion is writing about the natural world.
She has published five books: two novels, two books on writing, and her collection of prose,
poetry, and photographs, "Observations of an Earth Mage."


Soul Stories: Safari to Mara & Aria of the Horned Toad, by Elizabeth Clark-Stern; posted on August 2, 2011 by Malcolm Campbell, Read in August 2011, for

Like the mentors and magical helpers who guide seekers through unknown worlds, author Elizabeth Clark-Stern captures readers in her well-woven net of spell-binding words and hauls us on board a book of dreams.

In "Soul Stories" we discover two novellas about two young girls-each with an absent mother and a strong father-who must find within themselves the wisdom and courage to understand the harsh realities of the adult world. Each girl has a wonderful guide. In "Safari to Mara," Mara rides a zebra named Lo Lo into her future. In "Aria of the Horned Toad," Beatrice rides a toad named Custard into her present.

In the heat of the African plains, Mara finds solace in the land that cradles the Masai. In the heat of central Texas, Beatrice finds solace in a river of dreams that flows unseen through the streets of Austin. Mara feels abandoned. Beatrice feels unwanted. Their souls cry out to be filled with love in Africa where going on safari might mean watching cruel nature take its course and in Austin where coming home at dusk might mean staring at a mother's empty chair at the dinner table.

In "Safari to Mara," Clark-Stern immerses readers in a dazzling landscape of predators and prey where life and death manifest as an infinite dance. It's a lot for Mara to absorb and comprehend. In "Aria of the Horned Toad," she serves readers a thirst-quenching eye-opener of well-shaken reality and make-believe. It's a difficult puzzle for Beatrice to put together.

In her Masai world, Mara is on the cusp of womanhood where she is expected to prepare for marriage. She has other ideas. She seeks a future wide enough for larger dreams. In her Austin neighborhood, circumstances force Beatrice to shoulder adult-level responsibilities before she is done being a child. She is willing to do what's required of her, though she seeks a here-and-now where children can be loved and safe.

These extraordinary stories are for dreamers and for those who want to become dreamers. They speak to the pure child in us. They can be read to children on dark and stormy nights and spun into tall tales around summer campfires where the dark forest around us encourages us to believe the veil between reality and dream is thin veil. Wherever they are read, told and re-told, the disparate yet similar stories in "Soul Stories" are a joy to the ear that hears the spell-binding words and to the mind's eye that sees Clark-Stern's beautiful, deeply moving worlds.

Malcolm Campbell is a grant writer for museums and other nonprofit organizations.
His published work includes "Sarabande," "Garden of Heaven," "The Sun Singer,"
"Worst of Jock Stewart" and "Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire."