After the semi-dark, semi-historical Johnny Tremain, I welcomed a story about animals - surely much lighter. Indeed most of the book was. It is an easy story about a variety of animals that live on a hill by an old house. The house has been vacant for a while and because of the lack of "Folks" the animals have been experiencing a food shortage. Happily, the animals rumor network reports that new Folks are coming.
Father rabbit is a "southern gentleman" (p. 13) who uses very large words every time he speaks. This, along with another key event, raises the Read Independently level a couple of grades. even the other animals use some odd phrases which were probably common in the mid-1940s but sound a bit odd now. Such as "high time" which is thrown around a lot in the early pages of the book, referring to the animals relief about new folks coming, it's high time.
Mother rabbit is a worrier and even worries about, "A horrid rumor which had circulated recently, concerning a man who had attached a hose to the exhaust pipe of his automobile and stuck it down folks' burrows. several families were said to have perished from this diabolical practice." (p. 28)
Well, if you've got a Father and a Mother rabbit, you must have rabbit children - you know what they say about rabbits and there are a couple of stereotypical (but tasteful) references in this story. One of their children is the central character, Little Georgie. A significant event involves Georgie being dispatched to carry a message to Uncle Analdas. I thought this was one of the most fascinating parts of the book as Father prepared Georgie by quizzing him on all the dogs he would encounter along the way. Georgie had done well memorizing the route and proved it by reciting to his father, "...house on Long Hill: Collie, noisy, no wind; Norfield Church corner: Police Dog, stupid, no nose; ...". I found it unfortunate that the author chose to use the "s" word in what to this point had been a delightful book. I know "stupid" is not really on the bad word list but my 6y10m son thinks it is and I want to maintain that belief for a while longer.
On the other paw, one thing i was glad to see was that on his journey Georgie overcame his temptation to get distracted and instead heeded the instructions his father gave him. I also appreciated that Father rabbit corrected young Willie Fieldmouse and told him to call Porkey, "Mister Porkey, [because he] is one of the very oldest and most highly regarded members of oru community and as such he is entitled to a certain amount of respect from flippant young people." (p. 66-67)
There are a couple of humans who are caretakers of the property. Even they are excited like the animals when the new Folks arrive. I found it somewhat judgmental that as they spied on the arrival they predicted what the people would be like. On page 71, Tim says, "...There's an awful lot of books, ... People that read books much seem to be queer-like. Grandpa always said, 'Readin' rots the mind.' // "Oh, I don't know," Louie observed, "I knew a feller once read books a lot and he was real nice. Died a couple of years ago." Even the animals got in on it. Phewie the skunk said, "I've never seen one [human] that shape and size that didn't set out the elegantest garbidge!" (p. 73)
Once the people get moved in Tim and Louie offer to set animal traps and put a fence around the garden but are denied. The new Folks really have a soft spot for the animals. They demonstrate this in Chapter 8 when they rescue willie Fieldmouse who fell into the rain water barrel and nurse him back to health. Of course, the animals don't know what's become of willie during his recuperation and assume the worst. Mole tears up the lawn in a fit of grief and anger. This gives the caretaker a bit of anger but the land owner takes it in stride.
Soon after Willie returns to the hill, the animals have a meeting, as is their custom, called a Dividing Night, in which they determine which animal families will receive which parts of the garden and agree not to touch anything until a specified date so that the growth will not be impeded before full maturity.
It is during this meeting that Georgie is hit by a car and carried away by the Folks. The animals believe he is dead - I did too and again began to question the selection process for this award. A full five pages are devoted to the mourning of little Georgie before Willie reports he saw Georgie through the window. DUH! - of course the Folks are nursing him back to health as they did Willie - why didn't I see that coming?
So now the book is redeemed in my eyes, but the animals still aren't sure and begin to circulate all sorts of terrible theories like they're holding him hostage to make sure the animals don't bother the garden and many other crazy scenarios. If a young child misunderstood and thought the theories were truth it could be mildly upsetting.
In the end it is a really nice, Happily Ever After ending and the night the animals were going to harvest the garden the Folks unveil a statue of St. Francis of Assisi (patron saint of animals - not well explained) and set out a buffet for the animals and Georgie returns. The animals are so impressed they agree never to touch the garden. The people continue to feed them and all live in harmony. While it's not directly spelled out - the message is so clear - the people demonstrated trust and faith in the animals, the animals were worthy of the trust and rewarded. Sounds like utopia to me! Although initially its just coincidence that the animals hadn't touched the garden and the night of the feast is the night they were going to touch it - I was reminded of the saying the greater the responsibility the greater the reward and to whom much is given, much is expected. A concept I often tried to teach my teenagers - without success.
So two main take-aways from this book:
My garden is so pathetic because I have it fenced
If I had a teenager at home, i'd let them read this book to their younger sibling
The book is heavily strewn with nice, monochrome brown ink sketches, primarily of the animals. They are well-done, recognizable and not scary or weird. I noticed the audio version at the library and picked it up too. We heard most of the book on the CDs in the car while running around doing back-to-school shopping. The audio was nice. The voices were distinguished enough so it was easy to follow. The voice was clear and strongly accented - yet it still lacked a bit of pizazz. It's fine to check out for free - but it's no award winning audio and I wouldn't spend any money on it for your family's collection.