Friday, April 9, 2010

Like good library patrons, they don't steal, they borrow

A basic Google search for norton borrowers brings up two academic papers (neither of which is completely available online ... those pesky academics!) in the first 50 results: "Mary Norton's 'Borrowers' Series and the Myth of the Paternalistic Past," "Mixed Messages: The Problem of Class in Mary Norton's Borrowers Series;" as well as a blog post from the Oxford University Press that ends with the statement that the novel can be interpreted as an allegory of the Holocaust (although this post also equates the Borrowers' utter dependence on their "human bean" hosts to the relationship between small children and adults, which I can see young readers identifying with). I then admit to briefly perusing the academic database JSTOR for additional ridiculousness and located an article from the October 1968 issue of The British Medical Journal comparing the Borrowers (themselves, not the book) to cancer (which you can read on the Journal's website simply by registering). People, people, please! The Borrowers is a book for children. Can we simply enjoy it for what it is?

What I most enjoyed in this 50+-year-old tale of the tiny family of Pod, Homily and daughter Arrietty living under the kitchen floorboards of a creaky old English mansion almost passed me by. Once the Clock family (so named because the opening by which they leave their home and venture into the house proper to do their borrowing is next to the big grandfather clock in the front hall) is exposed and the ratcatcher is smoking them out, the story -- as told by Mrs. May, the now-grown-up sister of the boy who discovered them -- ends ("he never saw them again"). The young girl, Kate -- who (in a slightly creaky framing device) is hearing the story from Mrs. May -- is frustrated by the lack of resolution, but Mrs. May tells her (I'm paraphrasing here) that stories don't have endings. I liked that.

Was author Mary Norton the first to imagine little creatures living amongst us? Little creatures (not necessarily human) who are only visible to (or believed by) children? I don't know enough about the long history of children's literature to say for certain, but the trope has sure shown up frequently since then (and of course, I can't think of any right now, except for Elise Broach's Masterpiece).

The Borrowers is read by a British character actress named Rowena Cooper. (As I will watch -- and listen to -- pretty much anything wearing an English accent, I'm pretty sure I've seen her in something listed here. I suspect she's one of those character actresses who just slips unnoticed into a part and does the work.) Cooper is delightful to listen to in this story, as she begins reading with the starchy propriety of Mrs. May -- who is teaching the tempestuous Kate how to crochet -- and then relaxes into the exciting story of her brother meeting the Borrowers. The three Clocks are nicely portrayed: steady and loving Pod, snobbish yet anxious Homily, and the breathlessly adventurous Arrietty. Cooper gets to demonstrate that most British of narrator skills -- class distinction -- in the characters of the housekeeper Mrs. Driver and the ratcatcher as they work to eradicate the Borrowers.

I was inspired to listen to this by Fuse No. 8's Top 100 Children's Novels (April 12 will bring the list to its completion); coming in at 74. I vaguely remember reading this as a child, but I may be mixing it up with all the other "little people" stories that are out there. I'm intrigued to see what the talented Hayao Miyazaki will create with his upcoming animated version of the book. Miyazaki's work is always amazing.

No comments: