Goodenough Gismo

  • Gismo39
    This is the classic children's book, Goodenough Gismo, by Richmond I. Kelsey, published in 1948. Nearly unavailable in libraries and the collector's market, it is posted here with love as an "orphan work" so that it may be seen and appreciated -- and perhaps even republished, as it deserves to be. After you read this book, it won't surprise you to learn that Richmond Irwin Kelsey (1905-1987) was an accomplished artist, or that as Dick Kelsey, he was one of the great Disney art directors, breaking your heart with "Pinocchio," "Dumbo," and "Bambi."

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This image is a spiritual and political Rorschach test. The friend who sent it to me (and made it her holiday card) wrote on it, "Isn't this an amazing picture, so apt for the terrible year that has wounded so many angels?" She is liberal, so I can imagine what she means, and I can also imagine a very different interpretation.

But the image speaks, enigmatically, for itself. To me, the blindfolded angel looks like a captive. Have the boys caught it, the way they might have thrown a stone at a bird?


Good boys have rescued an angel. They are in over their heads, which why they look so solemn, but they are going through with it. I don't know why they would have been carrying a stretcher, so I assume they made it from what they found.

(By the way, there was a fascinating controversy about this painting a few years ago, when it was used on the cover of the memoirs of a man who died at Dachau -- but with Nazi armbands on the boys. There is more at

michael reynolds

Oh, please, I think the answer is obvious: the boys are going to cook and eat the angel.

The boy in front is smug because he won an argument with the boy in the back, either over the method of cooking, or over the question of who gets a drumstick.

To me the angel seems a bit scrawny and if the boys had the luxury of time they might have decided to fatten him up a bit, put some meat on those presumably hollow bones. But boys will be boys, and they're never known for patience, so I imagine our angelic friend will be gutted, spitted and turning over an open fire before you can say "jimmy crack corn."

Mmm. Who doesn't salivate at the thought of fresh angel cooked over a wood fire, served up on paper plates alongside mounds of coleslaw and butter-drenched corn on the cob?


The boys were put up to it. The last thing they want to be doing right now is carrying a wounded angel around, but their parents or teachers or elders of some sort insisted they help out. The angel knows this but has faith anyway & is peaceful & content knowing that everything will turn out fine for the angel in the end & the boys will grow from the incident one way or another.

(Gosh - that is telling. I'm such a blubbering optimist)


Oh Michael -- you're such a gourmand. You'll eat anything.

Alison -- see what an amazing "test" this is?!

Richard Lawrence Cohen

Two boys were teasing a homeless man who was walking toward their village. They threw stones at him and he fell to the ground, at which time a change came over him: he revealed that he was an angel, come to test them. Now the boys have to bring him to their village to be cared for, and they'll have to explain what happened, which is why they look so glum.

If they were going to eat him they'd be happy and he'd be dead, not wounded.

michael reynolds

Maybe they value freshness in their ingredients. Maybe angels are like lobsters. Didn't think about that, did you?


I came back here again to look at this picture, and for some utterly mystifying (to me) reason I'm still struck by and stuck on how differently the two boys are dressed. I'm especially fixated on what the kid in the front is wearing, especially. I can't put my finger on the cause (which irks me!, but it keeps setting off a bell in the back of head.

Maybe it's just the bats in the belfry ...



That should be "the hat, especially".


Reader_iam, the first boy is dressed like a priest (haven't we seen that hat in Rome??) or like a member of some severe religious cult -- not Amish, but something set apart like that. FWIW, the painting was made in Finland at the turn of the last century.


That should be "the hat, especially".


Sorry about the double post. I'm just have all kinds of weirdo posting problems, here and everywhere else, including my own freakin' blog.

(Grump. Grump. Grump.)

There, out of my system. Sorry!

Re: Hat.

Hm, well I get the priest reference, but I think there's something more specific that's trying to emerge.

(Not just bats***, I hope.)


Looks to me like the angel's head is bandaged (rather than her eyes being blindfolded). And she seems a willful if weary rider on the stretcher-like thing. My guess is she fell from heaven because she's a bad angel. Now she's talked these boys into hauling her around--they're none-to-pleased about it but they gotta do it because, well, she's and angel.

Thus the meaning would be: we all must haul around that which is fallen--those parts of ourselves (and even those parts of our society) that should be good but we somehow screwed up.

Now what does that interpretation say about me? At least I don't want to eat angel...

Richard Lawrence Cohen

Michael, are you saying that angels aren't kosher?

Seth Chalmer

The taller boy is scary. Maybe because he sees us out here, while the smaller, be-hatted boy doesn't.

I find it noteworthy that even though the boys are definitely boys, and not adults, the angel is smaller than both of them.

And when I look at the angel's face, I can't help but see a hint of a secret smile. I think in some way, whether or not the boys know it, she's really in charge.


To get more in the spirit of things:

The angel echoed Jesus' words "Suffer the little children to come unto me" and they did. Now look who's suffering!


The angel represents True Divine Reality which has been wounded by both religious traditionalism and modern secularism, which are represented by the two boys. The first dutifully does his task, with the glumness of the penitent.
The second, recognizing that some transcendent metaphysic must underlie a prosperous society, performs his task, though is angry that he must serve what -- in his eyes -- is nothing but antiquated superstition.

Writ in political terms, the angel is the Center who has been wounded by the ravages of the left and the right and now, due to political realities, must be born by them due to political realities.

It represents the second of the three acts. The first is the one is which the boys injured this angel. And the third will have both boys reformed and the angel, in resplendent glory, ruling over them.


Oh, man, you just blew me away.


De rien, mademoiselle; je suis toujours a votre service. Too bad my editing got sloppy towards the end. In the light of the above interpretation, it is a quite fitting pictorial representation of your blog, though I would prefer that the angel be standing tall, uninjured, radiating such an intense light that the two wayward boys are literally compelled to mend their ways in the face of the sheer awesomeness, purity, and love of the Golden Mean.

A particularly pugnacious rottweiler nipping at the boys' heels to keep them in line would also be a pleasant addition ;)


I thought the blindfold might represent justice.


What would have happened had Gabriel not been able to give the message to Mary at the Visitation? Had Herod gotten wind of the prophesy even before the slaughter of any born boy under the age of two and waylaid the angel before the Saviour could be breathed by the Holy Spirit into the womb of a Virgin?

I have the same vibes as Alan (you're not Catholic, are you?). We carry inside goodness held bound- ourselves defiant regardless of our ability to repent. Like the goodness of Christ caught between the two thieves- one repented. The other, maybe knowing subconsciously the Truth- stuck to the stubborness of man and sin.

I also *(as ever)* see the fragility and pureness of life, curled in the fetal position, at the mercy of human pride.




I can't stop staring at this painting! To me the boys don't look like "good boys" at all, they look rather malevolent. That said, the boy on the right looks to me exactly like a young Bill Clinton (that is not a veiled dig--I was a supporter of Clinton's presidency!). I know there are metaphorical implications of the angel being blindfolded but to me it tooks like the boys are carrying her off against her will and that they are up to no good. I know it was painted in 1903 but it also evokes images of Nazi youth turning on their Jewish neighbors (oy, leave it to me find a shtetl Jew in such Christian imagery!).

One person who would not help with this analysis is the artist himself. I was interested in reading how Simberg would never explain his work, instead hoping that people would see whatever they wish and that his paintings would "make people cry in their heart of hearts." He was also an accomplished photographer and his subjects were often young boys.



I didn't have time to go read much about Simberg, but it's interesting how his painting itself got the message across that it was determined to be ambiguous and you could see in it what you will.

Of course nowadays we immediately get suspicious when someone likes to photograph children. It's not necessarily that, is it? The secret life of boys is something too little explored, but it remains inside every man. These boys look like they grew up in a very stern patriarchal world.

As did my husband. He says the boy on the right reminds him of Omar, his friend who saved his life in Russia. Having known Omar, I agree. Jacques could be the boy in front. In reality he was a sliver taller than Omar, but Omar was one year older, so at a certain point in their boyhoods there could have been this height difference, if they had known each other then. (They were born catty-corner from each other, but then Omar's family moved to the big town.)

peter Hoh

I love this painting, but I don't want to think too hard about it. Sometimes that gets in the way of the experience.

I'm no art scholar, and maybe I have the terms wrong, but this fits into a style of American painting that I call narrative. The artist creates a fertile field for our imagination by showing a moment in some larger story. Often the outcome is ambiguous, as in Winslow Homer's painting "The Fog Warning."

I'm reminded of the work of my favorite living American artist, Bo Bartlett. Check out his kids playing angels in "Estralita" at the bottom of this page:

Here's another of my favorites, "Magical Thinking."


The harsh light of the world is too much for her.
The blindfold keeps her sighted.

The wisp of her smile
Would suggest that she is
A messenger whose message is
Still on its way.
All is still well.
The wound is part of the journey.

The artist, however,
Has seen the gathering storm:
The dutiful attendance to ritual --
The boy in front --
In awkward partnership with
The swelling malevolence,
The phobic anger
And soulless storm
That soon will ravage
The world -- the boy in back.

The angel sees time as will one carried --
Aware of centuries of slaughter,
Fore and aft,
She nonetheless sees
The arrow of her mission
Flying true.

The boys, in their way,
Have ended their torture,
And are now messengers
Of a Peace for which
Their lives
Are soon to be
Laid down.


Whoo. Little did I know what I was unleashing when I issued this invitation!


Peter Hoh:


Phobic anger alone drips with meaning ...

Is there an emoticon for "bow"?


That was Mr. Gobley, actually.

There should be an emoticon for "bow." What would it be?


I have enjoyed reading all the interpretations. Actually, I like Richard's the best! Although in some dark, sick way I was tickled by Reynolds' - what *does* that say about me?

For me there is symbolism about good and evil in the picture. Darkness and light. I see Bush and Cheyney in those little fellows, dragging wounded enlightenment to who knows where ... and boy oh boy, they look sad and guilty for it! "God?" bless America?


I forgot to say how much I love the photograph of you. It reminded me of the time spent together in the flesh - however brief. You are a beautiful woman.


Thank you, sweet Tamar. It took an old, close friend -- from high school, no less -- to take a picture of me that I could stand! Of course, she also had to be a photographer.


The boys are definitely malevolent. The one in front represents the clergy, institutional religion. The one behind represents secularism, or the modern "the only god is man" outlook. Between them they have made the angel into a weak, ineffectual defeated creature, no longer able to fly, a sentimental sugary symbol whose only purpose is to decorate greeting cards. The angel represents divine reality, uncorrupted truth, simplicity. The painting is a lesson, saying: this is what we do to the truth, or to God.


I have to admit the first thing I saw was the second boy glaring at me. The first boy seems to be doing his duty and carrying the angel to safety, while the second is looking directly at me and saying "YOU did this." Whatever is going on with the angel is my fault.


That's interesting. I saw the second boy's sullen scowl as "Get away. Don't look. Mind your own business." Protective of the angel, but not necessarily in a good way -- guilty and defensive, not wanting anybody to pry into what they have done or what they are yet to do. My feeling is either that the boys are up to no good, or that they resent the feather-light burden that's been laid on them. I sense that they envy the angel and feel shamed by it, too.


It's so light, in both senses, and they are so heavy and dark. Maybe we all envy the angel.


The angel is wounded, as the title says. She is faith and has suffered a defeat. She is weary. She rests her body by leaning forward on the rails, and she hangs her head. She does not lie down. She knows that the fight is not over.

Both of the boys believe in her but carry her as a heavy burden. The first child, like the angel, is downhearted yet steadfast in his peaceful determination. He looks ahead understanding that his cause will be riddled with battles, that progress will be slow and painful, and that the righteous path will, one day, lead to victory.

The second child suffers a wound deeper than even the angel. He is heartbroken by his enemy and has turned his thoughts to violence. He vows to avenge those who have opposed him. In this moment, he has nearly forgotten the angel and her wounds. His anger and hatred have distracted him from his original course. He will fight the next battle in his own way, letting go of this stretcher and attacking his foes. In doing so, he will let his angel fall.


Sorry about "bowing" to the incorrect commenter--sometimes I forget to re-orient myself to the "commenter-handle-on-BOTTOM-of post" reality.

Can I steal your idea for the "bow" emoticon? Works for me!


The "bow" emoticon actually posted differently than I typed it. So there are probably several possible variations. If you can improve on it, please do!




Oh, very good.


[\o_ _o_
,, (Autumn's bow)


whoops, my bow (Autumn) was suppose to have the commas underneath it to look like feet!!

Tom Strong

The angel is Lucifer.

His blindfold indicates that he has been blinded to God (whom the viewer is standing in for). His secret smile is because the children, though innocent, have rescued him in their naivete.

The boy in front is ignorant of what he carries, and ignorant of God's watchful eye. The boy to the rear has a clue, however, and is disturbed. Awake to the reality of temptation, he has turned his eyes to God - not in supplication, but wanting answers.



Know what you mean. Spent an inordinate time trying to get something to serve as a head. No Dice.

Back to contemplating this picture, to which I keep coming back ... and back.


I like Tom's interpretation.


Maybe I am naive and optimistic, but I think the message is that sometimes the angels carry us and sometimes we carry the angels. I immediately think of this as the angel of justice for her blindfold. I don't think the boys look menacing at all -- just serious because the task is serious. I think they are children, because we are all as helpless and incomprehending as children in the face of most things, the kinds of things that an angel would deal with. But, even children can do important things.

peter Hoh

Over at Salon, Allen Barra has penned "Reading 'Lolita' in Alabama." In it, he offers a defense of art for its own sake, safe from those who would stamp meaning into it.

Of Nabakov, he writes, "He made me forever wary of the book that could be 'explained' in a few choice sentences. Where there was no ambiguity, he made me understand there was no art."

Reading those lines got me thinking about this painting again. It still has the power to be more than some "meaning" to me. It still retains a degree of ambiguity.

That said, let me suggest another reading of the painting.

The boys have just figured out that there is no god. No deus ex machina. No one behind the curtain. No one tallying up good deeds and bad.

There are no angels flying about, unseen, ready to protect us from peril. If they exist at all, they rely on our willingness to bring them into the world.

And if God is present, it's only because we, acting as God's hands in the world, create that presence.

The boys react very differently to this new understanding of the world. The boy on the left seems to shrug his shoulders and continue. His may be a pious response, or it may be a stoic one. Either way, he's ready to plod on, doing what he can.

The boy on the right, however, feels betrayed. And he's angry. He has the look of one about to embrace nihilism. If nothing matters, why do good? In fact, perhaps we ought to make up for all the lost time when we were acting good. We can steal candy from babies and knock over ash bins. And why am I carrying this stupid angel, anyway?

And worst of all, he fears that the viewer might think that he is weak.

The boy on the right is the wounded angel.


"The boy on the right is the wounded angel."

That made me start to cry.


That's beautiful, Peter. We should carry all the wounded angels.

amba, this idea of a piece of art to comment on is so insightful. I wonder if this idea could be repeated again?

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