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Pickle Me This

January 18, 2019

Mr. Mergler, Beethoven, and Me, by David Gutnick and Mathilde Cinq-Mars

My youngest daughter feels she is on intimate terms with Ludwig van Beethoven, because he’s rendered as a cartoon character in her piano book, and while she’s never heard any of his music properly, she’s played several simple songs inspired by his music, and when we picked up Mr. Mergler, Beethoven, and Me, by David Gutnick and Mathilde Cinq-Mars, she was very impressed and excited to learn that other people know about him too.

David Gutnick is best known for his CBC Radio Documentaries, and his first book for children is inspired by one he created about the legacy of Montreal music teacher Daniel Mergler. The book begins with a young girl who has recently arrived from China whose family meets and elderly man in the park, and as the girl’s father and the man talk together, it is shared that the young girl has a talent for music and that the elderly man, Mr. Mergler, has taught piano for many years. Mr. Mergler agrees to take on the girl as a student, and is not concerned that her family does not have money to pay for lessons: “Something tells me that she understands the magic that music can bring to her life. If she does, that is all the payment I need.”

She begins attended classes at Mr. Mergler’s warm and cluttered studio, evocatively rendered in Cinq-Mars’ illustrations. On top of his piano there is a bust of Beethoven, and he’s scowling. When the girl manages to play her songs with no mistakes, however, she begins to wonder: “Was it my imagination, or did [Beethoven] look a little more friendly?”

Now I have written before about my household’s intolerance for books about death, no matter how much I try to infuse our reading with my own morbid nature. They’re having none of it. And so what is so very excellent about Mr. Mergler, Beethoven, and Me is that the music teacher’s death is handled in a way that is neither corny nor devastating, although the girl certainly is sad, of course. But Gutnick shows how Mr. Mergler’s spirit lives on in the gifts he gave his students, in their passion for music. It’s the most delicate balance, but Gutnick achieves it perfectly.

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