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Gina Berriault's Posthumous Fable
Roxane Farmanfamaian -- 6/26/00
One colorful parrot,
two illustrated editions.
National Book Critics Circle Award winner Gina Berriault, who also won the PEN/Faulkner, the Rea and the Commonwealth gold medal for her collection Women in their Beds, died suddenly last summer, but not before finishing an eco-fable from her hospital bed called The Great Petrowski. Not only is Berriault the book's author, she illustrated it herself with tinted line drawings reminiscent of Ludwig Bemelmans of Madeline fame.
In the same difficult-to-categorize niche of adult allegory as Jose Saramago's The Tale of the Unknown Island (Harcourt) and The Little Prince (newly re-released by Harcourt), The Great Petrowski is about a homesick parrot who becomes an international opera star, and then uses his fame and beautiful voice to save his native rain forest and all the creatures of the earth.

Already the book has had an unusual publishing debut. Though Jack Sh maker at Counterpoint Press had published Berriault for two decades, she decided in November '98 to offer Petrowski to Guy Biederman, a neighbor and friend, and publisher of small Thumbprint Press in Fairfax, Calif. Seven months later, she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. "I took her the galleys in hospital, mainly to cheer her up," said Biederman, "and Gina started rewriting--right on her deathbed."

Berriault died before she could see the book in print, much less straighten out her pre-publication agreements, so the executors of her estate, her longtime partner, Leonard Gardner and her daughter, Julie, made arrangements for both Thumbprint and Counterpoint to issue editions. The first, a paperback black-and-white edition of 750 copies appeared from Thumbprint in early spring and is being distributed by Bookpeople. The second, a color edition by Counterpoint, shipped the last week of May, with an initial print run of 11,500.

Convinced that the book is impossible to appreciate, let alone adequately describe, unless you can actually hold it in your hand, Sh maker said Counterpoint is sending out more than 200 finished copies to independent booksellers, judges for the prizes Berriault won and reviewers. "Whenever appropriate, our reps are showing this to children's book buyers," he said, "but this book should not be in the children's section. It should be in the literary section with the rest of Berriault's work." Sh maker observed that if Berriault is not as well known as her award-winning talent warranted, it is because she had only five books in print. "Gina was very reluctant to let manuscripts go," he said.
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