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Sarah Linquist's story is entwined with her Christmas book

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2011 - This is a tale of two stories or perhaps a story with two tales? One is glorious and charming and mysterious and available at Left Bank Books or online for $40. The other is courageous and compelling and creative and ends both tragically and somehow optimistically at the same time.

Both involve a journey. Both have a memorable heroine. Each is worthy of note, offering moments that are familiar and comforting and others that are wondrous and new.

These are the stories of St. Louis mural-artist-turned-author Sarah Jean Linquist and her children's fable, "Onward is Best, A Christmas Journey." The book, which is beautifully bound and illustrated, has all the markings and makings of a true Christmas classic. Published within just the past couple of weeks, this oversized book truly is hot off the presses and meant to be shared with the whole family.

The release of this book really is the postscript of the life of one of St. Louis' most talented artists. Though her name may be unfamiliar to some, her art is surely well known to all who dwell or even visit St. Louis. Her signature creations have helped one of city's prized jewels sparkle, for her work served as the designs and sets of the St. Louis Muny Opera since 1998 when she become the head of the painting department and served as master scenic artist.

But Linquist's brush did not stop there. Along with her husband, Robert Fishbone, himself an artist, Linquist created murals that still exist around St. Louis. One of the most famous is gone from city streets. "Lindy Squared" -- Charles Lindberg in a clear portrait from a distance, gray blocks close up -- graced the side of the old Lion Gas Building at Ninth and Chestnut streets downtown.

But there is still the wild and playful scene of spring moths and cats and butterflies on the side of the Willert Home Products building at 4400 Park Ave. And it was Linquist's artful hand and imaginative spirit that created the cut-out paintings in the Oneg Room at Central Reform Congregation. (These originally hung in the cafe at the Jewish Community Center.)

Linquist began working on the book after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years ago. After her first chemotherapy treatments, Linquist discovered that the medication had left her with peripheral neuropathy, which numbed her hands and feet to the point that, as her husband put it, "Sarah could not tell silk from sand paper, which is a real challenge for an artist who paints."

To help strengthen her fine motor skills, she began cutting paper and using her cuttings to create a scene. The scene, in turn, reminded Linquist of her childhood. In a letter she wrote to a potential agent in December 2007, she described the book's origins:

"The illustrations were the impetus for this [book] project," Linquist wrote. "As a child growing up in Chicago, I was treated to an annual December trip Downtown to see the Christmas windows at Marshall Fields. I have a vivid memory of plastering my face into the cold glass and blocking out all of the world with my hands until I was IN the enchanted, sparkly world. With this in mind, I strive to create a sense of wonder in the lands through which Dolly travels. Each environment mixes found objects and elements handmade in a simple way."

Vivid and impossibly detailed, each set offers a complicated terrain that pulls the eye in one direction and then begs for attention from another. Trees of shredded sheet music, doilies and stamps. Metal Land that features antique jello molds, bottle tops and boot stands. Wood land of rulers and cigar boxes, tops and puzzle pieces, paddles and wooden shoes.

"You could play 'I Spy' with the illustrations," Fishbone says. "These miniature sets are made up all of sorts of materials from all over. Sarah would bring stuff back from trips and find things around the house or when we were out. She was always gathering pieces to incorporate into her work."

While this is a beautifully and richly illustrated storybook, it is first and foremost a story, the kind that sat on her shelf as a child.

As Fishbone tells it, her parents gave each of their daughters a full set of the original "Wizard of Oz" books, a story that echoes through "Onward is Best," just as the author herself does.

"Sarah always dressed for an occasion and always found occasions to dress up," he says. "She had an amazing closet."

Hers was a world filled with friends and family, fun and excitement. Every challenge was an opportunity in her eyes, and she always found the positives, Fishbone says. "She had several phrases and 'Ain't life grand?' was one of them."

Through all of her efforts, she continued her cancer treatments and kept her optimism, Fishbone recalls.

She went on to offer her vision of the story:

"The book, with the working title "A New Home for Christmas," is a suspenseful Christmas fiction of a journey through strange and magical lands. The over-arching theme concerns the anxiety of leaving home and venturing into the unknown. The main character, Dolly, a wooden doll, succeeds by using the resources of her surroundings, by being perseverant, and by developing trust, love and self-reliance."

As she worked on the book, Linquist made copious notes and journal entries about details and ideas she had. She often asked her three sisters for their input. She wanted the book to become a family tradition, one that inspired grandpas to pull toddlers on their knees and have teens lingering at their feet, moms and dads, cousins and kids, everyone together sharing Dolly's adventure.

Linquist lost her battle with cancer in June 2010.

But her story does not end there.

Enter her family -- her husband, her three devoted sisters, her niece -- and her friends. Together, they set about completing Linquist's vibrant visions and the result can be found tucked into every page of this book.

Her sisters, Kate Adams of Texas, Suzanne Linquist of Oregon and Ann Linquist of Wisconsin, finished the text based on the journal entries Linquist had written. Her niece, Carrie Ehrfurth, designed the book's layout and format. Her friend, Ian Wasserman, shot more than 4,500 pictures to provide the 100 exquisite shots that bring the pages to life. And her devoted husband meticulously and lovingly oversaw the entire project through publication with the help of another friend, Left Bank Bookstore co-founder Barry Leibman.

The book's story begins in Santa's workshop where we meet a quirky little doll named Dolly. She has flaming red curls, a "good wooden brain" and a tremendous fear of leaving Santa. While the other toys are eager to enter the wrapping room and make their journey to the special child Santa has chosen for them, Dolly is skittish. She envisions a girl who mistreats her: one who draws on her face and cuts her lovely red curls.

And so when the opportunity presents itself, she escapes. The book then takes us on her journey through unfamiliar worlds, each offering Dolly challenges and, ultimately, lessons to help her grow and find her way. She befriends a delightful and devoted dragonfly, who buzzes in her ear and accompanies her without hesitation, and a curious and complex creature, called a Prinx, who loves popcorn and divulges information as he likes.

We visit Popcorn Land, Metal Land, Paper Land, Teddy Bear Land, Wood Land and Desolation Land. The illustrations were created by developing three-dimensional sets that were then photographed, Fishbone explains. Throughout the book, Linquist drew on her considerable talent and vast experience as art director for the Muny.

At several points, the story takes interesting turns -- one leads into a two-dimensional tunnel. Linquist had sketched her vision of the tunnel and later her husband discovered it and her niece developed it.

"We expanded the text rather substantially to reflect all of her ideas," he says. "It went from 8,000 words to 14,000. Her sisters handled the text -- they were very close."

The story is peppered with a number of quatrain-esque rhymes. These four-line poems advance Dolly's journey and reveal truths that she must learn. Sometimes they instruct her, other times they offer clues, and still others provide material Dolly uses to respond to her situation, relying on her "good wooden brain."

One of the most memorable poems comes when Dolly meets the Prinx in Metal Land. Here she learns a bit of etiquette from the Prinx who nudges her with his nose and seems to conjure Sarah Linquist herself to the page:

"No sitting down and moping,
No head deeply bowed.
You must shine in Metal Land.
No pouting is allowed."

Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer. 

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