Murderous books, and stories told on skin

posted in: Francois Place | 11

The Last Giants By Francois Place (original title: Les derniers géants), winner in the picture book category of the 1993 Prix Sorcières, is a fictional account of a 19th-century naturalist whose discovery of a race of giants ultimately leads to their destruction, despite his personal sensitivity and respect for them.

In 1849 Archibald Leopold Ruthmore purchases a very unusual piece of scrimshaw; it appears to be a giant’s tooth intricately carved with all sorts of images, including a map showing a land of giants.

The hopeful explorer sails to Calcutta, before travelling on to Burma, where Ruthmore and his group of porters tackle water rapids and dense jungle. An attack by a head hunting tribe leaves Ruthmore’s entourage decimated. Those who survive desert their leader, but Ruthmore refuses to give up his dream, and continues on alone to eventually discover a mysterious valley inhabited by nine giants and giantesses.

They were covered from head to foot – including their tongues and teeth – with a dizzying maze of extremely complex lines, curves, twinings, spirals and speckles. Given time, one could discern recognizable images within this fantastic labyrinth: trees, plants, animals, flowers, rivers, oceans – a veritable symphony of the Earth that echoed the music of the nightly invocations.

Ruthmore lives with the giants for almost a year, taking meticulous scientific notes. He is generously welcomed into their society and responds with warmth and an open mind. Eventually, however, Ruthmore returns to “civilization” and publishes his findings. Having raised enough money to mount a return expedition, Ruthmore sets out once more to find his friends. But this time his journey ends in tragedy not triumph.

Deep within me, I could see how my stupid determination to reveal the secret of their existence had brought about this terrible calamity. My books had killed them more surely than a regiment of artillerymen. Nine Giants who dreamed of the stars, and a little man blinded by his lust for glory: that was our entire history.

A thought provoking book about the power of knowledge, the ethics of science, about what it means to be human, and mankind’s role in the greedy desecration of the earth, this is the first book I’ve read this year that I’ve wanted to buy multiple copies of just to give away to people (the last book I felt like this about was Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls).

The story is beautifully and evocatively written. Indeed, when I first read it, I was so convinced by the text that I had to double check that this was a fictional work, not a republished 19th century account from a real explorer. Perhaps the fact that Warner Bros have optioned the film rights to this book tells you something about how thrilling the story is. The fact that that The Last Giants is also one of Michael Morpurgo’s favourite ever books perhaps tells you something about the heart and storytelling of this special story.

Francois Place’s subdued watercolour and pen illustrations are haunting, appropriately old-fashioned and ungimmicky. They look just like the plates hidden behind tissue you might find in a beautifully musty book in an antiquarian’s shop. Place has also illustrated Toby Alone and Toby and the Secrets of the Tree, two utterly brilliant, award-winning chapter books by Timothee de Fombelle.

If you’re looking for a picture book for older, thoughtful readers, or for one to provoke conversation when talking about scientific exploration, or simply a book with an exciting story suffused with just enough magic to take your breath away but leave you believing utterly in every word on the page, The Last Giants is for you.


Inspired by the tattoos worn by the last giants, the girls and I decided to tattoo each other. Using cake decorating pens the girls went wild with doodles all over my arms and hands.

There was something hugely satisfying for them in drawing all over me – this was an activity they went at with such gusto I was a little bit taken aback!

M didn’t want any tattoos, but J was delighted to get some (she’s always enjoyed painting all over herself if given half a chance).

The tattoos were barely visible after a good soak in the bath, and certainly were completely gone after a couple of days.

Whilst drawing tattoos we listened to a mixed bag including some sea shanties Ruthmore might have sung on his epic journey across the oceans:

  • The Coasts of High Barbary – a favourite of mine since I was a child, and part of the reason why I’ve always wanted to learn the accordion.
  • The Drunken Sailor – the version we listened to was performed by us singing along to The Windjammers
  • I’ve Got You Under My Skin by Frank Sinatra – clearly not a sea shanty, but a song that seemed to go well with the tattoos and lingering echo this book has left inside us.

  • Other activities we could have done inspired by The Last Giants include:

  • Making your own pretend scrimshaw, using fimo
  • Dedicating a notebook to scientific observations – Make and Takes has a nice post on starting a science observations journal
  • Visiting the exhibition, Human Zoos, currently on at the musée du quai Branly, a French museum dedicated to once-colonised cultures (click here for an article from the Guardian about this exhibition)

  • Today’s post is my latest contribution to Gathering Books’ Award Winning Book Challenge. I’m really loving the challenge so far – already I’ve discovered some exceptional books as a result of taking part. To discover some other award winning books, do check out the March round up of reviews from bloggers taking part in this challenge.

    11 Responses

    1. Elli

      Sounds interesting from an anthropological point of view. If you can, google some images of Burmese/Thai tattoos – they’re amazing (in a rather scary way, especially if you see how they’re traditionally executed).
      Elli recently posted..Get a Move On

      • Zoe

        Wow, Elli, I’m kicking myself now for not researching these tattoos – the fact that there is a tradition of tattooing in Burma/Thailand makes this story even more believable. Yes, this is definitely a book for anthropology students and for anyone interested in how attitudes have or haven’t changed to indigenous/ uncontacted people around the world.

    2. choxbox

      Wow Zoe. A powerful story indeed – how did M and J react to the not-happy end?
      Off to see where I can check a copy out here in India. So miss the libraries of London 🙁

    3. choxbox

      Also is the language – ‘a veritable symphony of the Earth that echoed the music of the nightly invocations’ – Amazon says it for ages 4 and up – isn’t the imagery a tad too complex for that age group?
      Curious to know what you think!

      • Zoe

        Hi Choxbox, J sat for the story several times because M was listening too, and seemed to enjoy it – I don’t think the sorrowful ending really went it on a conscious level. For the language this is definitely a book aimed at older kids – it’s quite long, and yes the language is not plain and simple. We read it as bedtime stories a couple of time and it must have taken 20 minutes or even more to read it in one go. M was subdued by the ending, but it hasn’t stopped her from listening to it again. But then I’ve never not read something to M because it is sad or contains strong emotions – this book might not be an easy read for children who are frightened by sad things.

      • Zoe

        Yes, I’d say so Maeve. Do let me know what you think of the book when you get a copy. I’m always very interested to know what people make of books I recommend.

    4. choxbox

      Thanks Zoe!

      I agree – some children are fine with anything while others might not be able to stomach scary stuff (sometimes even get put off reading itself if they find something too frightening). Only the parent will know what is okay and has to pick books accordingly.

      • Zoe

        Thanks Se7en! The tattoos were so simple and yet we had a really great time together – kids were SO excited to be drawing on mummy. Much more exciting than drawing on paper!

    5. Myra from GatheringBooks

      I have fallen in love with the book – and this is just by reading your thoughtful and thorough review. My social scientist spirit is likewise awakened by the narrative which I feel I could connect to and resonate with in multiple respects. I also have a 12-13 year old tattoo around my left ankle, so body art is something that I am also very fascinated with. I just checked our community library’s online database/portal – we have it here! But it’s still not available for loan, I might have to wait for a few more months. Thank you dearest Zoe for leading me to this book. Beautiful!
      Myra from GatheringBooks recently posted..March AWB Reviews

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    CommentLuv badge

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.