Friday, January 4, 2008

Richard Adams

The Plague Dogs
by Richard Adams
Recommended Age: 14+

The author of Watership Down is otherwise mostly known for this book about a pair of dogs who escape from a cruel, scientific-research facility in present-day England. Rowf is a big black bear of a dog who was repeatedly sent to the brink of drowning in a big metal tank. Snitter is a friendly terrier who, after a tragic accident took his master out of the picture, was sold to an experiment in brain surgery. Together, this deeply wounded pair of animals elude capture, spark a media frenzy and a political head-hunt, take part in some astounding accidents, travel with a wild fox, and try to see if they can live as wild animals without human masters.

But it’s no good. With starvatioin closing in on one side, irate farmers and citizens on the other, and armed paratroopers dropping from above, the dogs stand little chance. Over all, then, it is a gripping, heartbreaking tale of survival against the odds, and of honest creatures struggling to escape from the backstabbing duplicity of mankind.

But this book is also several other things that may make it difficult to read. It is a sometimes shrill document of environmental politics. It is a distasteful exposé of bad government and bad science. It reveals hard truths about human nature, and about nature in general. It has some distinctly unattractive characters, particularly including a sleazoid journalist who ends up being one of the “good guys” (hard as that is to believe). And it also has a tendency to maunder on and on about topographical and geographical features that mean nothing to anyone who hasn’t been in England’s Lake Country; a deal of dialogue in the thick Geordie accent which, even filtered through an “Americanized” version of the book, is sometimes hard for non-Brits to follow; a name-dropping, classical-education-flaunting tendency to cite great works of literature that none of us have actually read IN THEIR ORIGINAL LATIN OR GREEK; and some daring experiments in closing the distance between the narrator and the reader which, in some cases, risk a bit too much. Also, frankly, some of the language describing the scenes in or around Parliament were a bit too subtle for anyone who does not have an intimate familiarity with British politics; and I personally felt it as a triumph when I recognized a German quotation (melody and all) from one of Schubert’s songs – but I majored in music, so that’s scant comfort for many of you.

My overall verdict, therefore, is mixed. The Plague Dogs is a terrific book, but it is also a tough one to get through unless you know everything that Richard Adams knows. It comes as a bit of a reward when, near the end of it, a couple of characters talk about the author as if behind his back. My advice is to do your homework, read lots of stuff, and learn to love dogs...then read this book.

Watership Down
by Richard Adams
Recommended Age: 14+

Don't be deceived by the title. The book has nothing to do with a shipwreck, or any kind of vessel whatever. Watership Down is a place--a pleasant, natural place, whose threatened inhabitants include a group of young rabbits. Hazel, Fiver, Pipkin, Hawkbit, Bigwig, Dandelion, and other friends break away from their "Owsla," flee the destructive encroachments of men, and set off in search of a new home.

It is a long, arduous, and perilous journey. Along the way they are menaced by predators, frightened by mysterious machines, tempted by the deadly allure of farm-grown vegetables, and thrown into conflict with a very regimented community of rabbits. In between frights, fights, and flights, they share their rabbit folklore (particularly, the adventures of legendary rabbits' rabbit El Ahrairah), and begin plans for their new home.

The climax is a battle in which the rabbits transcend the limits of their cowardly, helpless kind--and in which the spirit of El Ahrairah makes his presence known.

This book is a beautiful story of friendship, courage, danger, and the search for a place to belong. It tells how individuals with different strengths and weaknesses come together to make a wonderful whole. And it creates a fascinating insight (however imaginary it may be, it is still fascinating) into the minds and social structures of the rabbit. Once you've read this book, you'll think differently about rabbits.

Don't be taken in by the animated movie based on this book, in which a certain group of rabbits sported swastika armbands, etc. I do not believe this is an allegorical book. I think you can simply enjoy it as a drama and adventure about the lives of creatures who can only count up to four and who have only two natural lines of defense--to freeze, and to bolt. It is enough to experience the anxieties, sorrows, hopes, and triumphs of this group of determined, furry friends, and the mischievous magic of El Ahrairah. There is no need for any more than that.

This book won the 1972 Carnegie Medal, the British equivalent of America’s Newbery Medal.

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