Thursday, July 30, 2009

Four Moomin Books

Moominland Midwinter
by Tove Jansson
Recommended Ages: 10+

The little creatures of Moominvalley have always hibernated through the winter. This time, for some reason, Moomintroll wakes up a little after the New Year, and stays awake for the rest of the winter.

At first, it's a hard adjustment for him. With the rest of his family sound asleep, he struggles with loneliness and boredom. The sharp cold, the snow covering everything, and the deathly silence of the garden fill him with melancholy. He yearns for the sun, which doesn't rise above the horizon for weeks. And when company does show up - lots and lots of uninvited company, driven into Moominvalley by an especially harsh cold snap - Moomintroll feels protective of his family's home and belongings.

So while this winter in Moominvalley is filled with characters and incidents, the main conflict of the story is fought between Moomintroll and his winter depression. It is wonderful to see him discovering things about winter that many of us take for granted. Discovering its beauties and its joys, accepting its differences from the other times of year, and opening his heart to a crowd of strange and sometimes prickly new people, Moomintroll grows up a little during this story.

This is the sixth book in an award-winning series originally written in Swedish by a Finnish author, who also illustrated a long-running comic strip based on the same characters. In it, she introduces some new characters who may include some of your favorites. Too-ticky turns the bathing-hut into her winter home, together with a family of invisible shrews. Unflappable, philosophical, she serves as a sort of emcee, introducing Moomintroll to all of winter's spectacle and the motley company that fills out the cast. We also meet Sorry-oo the dog, the Dweller under the Sink, an evolutionary Ancestor of the Moomins, the absentminded Squirrel with the Marvelous Tail, and a Hemulen who dresses like Charlie Brown, among others.

Of Moomintroll's old friends, only the aggressive Little My shares his experiences, including ski lessons, a search for a missing Little Creep, surviving the Great Cold, and celebrating the return of the sun. And while Moomintroll struggles with his winter blues and anxieties, he gives joy to anyone who has ever been oppressed by winter's darkness. I, for example, laugh every time I consider Moomintroll's remark: "I intended to punish the sun by staying at home until he comes back." It is a book to brighten one's gloom, to lift one's spirits, and to chase away one's sadness while acknowledging that it is real. It is, in short, a book that may help as many children as it entertains.

Tales from Moominvalley
by Tove Jansson
Recommended Ages: 10+

This collection of short stories about the happy Moomins and their friends dates from 1962, the year after Tove Jansson broke off her involvement with the Moomin comic strip (1954-75). These sweet, funny, often wistful tales contemplate such topics as anxiety, jealousy, restlessness, wanting to be left alone, and the drawbacks of having too vivid an imagination.

In "The Spring Tune," our carefree friend Snufkin loses a thread of musical inspiration when a hero-worshiping Little Creep crashes in on his solitude. This story cleverly makes the point that you must let other people be themselves.

"A Tale of Horror" is told of a young Whomper who doesn't mind the boundary between reality and make-believe. After frightening his parents with a story out of his own imagination, he gets sent to bed without his supper. He only learns his lesson when Little My gives him a taste of his own medicine.

"The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters" features a lady whose insides are twisted up by a constant sense of impending doom. She tries to confide her fears to a friend, the Gaffsie, but comes away feeling more alone than ever. Only when the worst really happens is she set free from her anxieties.

Moomintroll catches "The Last Dragon in the World," but the tiny creature seems to prefer Snufkin. This triggers Moomintroll's jealousy and a test of Snufkin's friendship.

"The Hemulen Who Loved Silence" seeks seclusion after a career of punching tickets at a pleasure-ground. After a stormy summer ruins the pleasure-ground, the Hemulen retires to a gated park. His quest for peace and quiet leads to a gently ironic destination.

"The Invisible Child" comes to live with the Moomins after being frightened into invisibility by an ironical old lady. Too-ticky brings her in hope that the Happy Family's light touch will bring Ninny back. The solution is surprisingly funny.

Then Moominpappa runs away to learn "The Secret of the Hattifatteners," silent wandering creatures who are said to lead a wicked life. Possibly the most psychologically profound story in this collection, it depicts lost people whose lives are an endless search for sensation - any kind of sensation that may fill their emptiness, overcome their numbness. The question is whether Moominpappa must become one of them in order to understand them.

Good old Sniff makes his last appearance in this series in "Cedric." When Sniff regrets giving away a beloved toy dog, Snufkin tells him an instructive story. But of course, the materialistic Sniff completely misses the point.

Finally, "The Fir Tree" finds the Moominfamily celebrating Christmas for the first time. Though they customarily hibernate right through it, this year they are awakened by all the fuss their neighbors are making about it. Struggling to understand what the holiday is about, they get entirely the wrong impression from the way everyone carries on about the decorations, gifts, and food. It's the ultimate satire on "missing the point of Christmas."

This is a children's book that can be profitably read by adults. It offers insights into emotional and ethical problems that grown-ups may understand better than kids. But it does it through the characters that inhabit a cuddly, fanciful version of northern Finland. The resulting stories combine depth and substance with lightness and generosity. Fans of L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, Astrid Lindgren, and the Rootabaga stories of Carl Sandburg will take great pleasure from this book.

Moominpappa at Sea
by Tove Jansson
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the penultimate book of the Moomin series, we see not just Moominpappa at sea, but Moominmamma, Moomintroll, and Little My as well. But in another sense, the words "at sea" especially describe Moominpappa's frame of mind. Life has become too comfortable in Moominvalley. He has lost the sense of being useful to his family. So, dreaming of a lighthouse rock in the middle of the Gulf of Finland, he packs up his family and sets sail. Moominmamma shows how deeply she understands her husband when she says of Pappa's island: "That's where we're going to live and lead a wonderful life, full of troubles..."

Besides themselves, the only other characters in the story are the flighty seahorses, the frigid Groke, and the laconic fisherman who lives in a hut at the end of the island opposite the lighthouse. Oh, and of course, the sea itself. On a mostly bare rock swept by winds and waves, the family begins an adventurous new life... only to become discouraged, one after another, by the harshness of their environment, its loneliness, their own fears and unattainable desires.

The seahorses personify the romantic desires awakening inside Moomintroll. As his mother observes, he's growing up; he won't be a little troll forever. His fears, on the other hand, come in the form of the Groke, who freezes everything she touches, and who seeks light in the darkness for no other reason, seemingly, than to sit on it and put it out. The Groke has followed the Moomins to the island, and only Moomintroll knows that it is she who wails in the night, who dances in the moonlight, and whose freezing trail kills plants in Mamma's garden.

Between Moomintroll's struggles with the Groke and his Pappa's battles with the sea, the whole island seems to be in upheaval. No one can figure out how to make the lighthouse work. Mamma becomes so homesick that, for a while at least, she is able to step inside a painting of her garden back home. Little My seems to be there only to poke holes in everyone's conceits. Moving to the island has not solved anyone's problems; it has only placed them against a different background. The solutions will have to come from the people themselves, rediscovering their happiness in each other.

It is remarkable to see the direction this series has taken. To be sure, a thread of melancholy has run through all the Moomin books, supplied perhaps by the very nature of living in the subarctic climate of Finland. But one increasingly senses that, as the series developed, Tove Jansson used it to address her own spiritual and relationship problems, to work them out in a way that would amuse and touch readers of all ages. In her ink-and-paper illustrations, the Moomins appear as crude cartoon figures against a comparatively realistic background. But in spite of their silly, vacant looks, these characters have souls. Perhaps you will recognize them, sympathize with them. If so, you will take much more from this book than the enjoyment of whimsical nonsense. You may even deepen your understanding of people and your appreciation of nature. And you will certainly find in it a tale that engages your senses and touches your heart.

Moominvalley in November
by Tove Jansson
Recommended Ages: 11+

In the last original novel about the Moomins, the Moominfamily itself does not actually appear. One can't help but feel a sense of loss about this. And as much as one may love the company of Moominpappa, Moomintroll, and Little My, it is the loss of Moominmamma that one feels most deeply. Perhaps this is connected to the death of the author's mother in 1970, the year this book was written. This book also signals a growing maturity in Jansson's writing; from this point on all her books were written for adults. So with a sense of bittersweet farewell, we sense the Moomin series growing up and going away forever. Some would even say this book is about letting go.

Don't worry, though. Nothing has happened to the Moomins, nothing (that is) that we haven't already read about in Moominpappa at Sea. But while the Moominfamily is away on their lighthouse adventure, their cozy house isn't empty. Six of their friends just happen, all at once, to come for a visit. They are surprised, disappointed, even in some cases angry to find the Moomins (especially Moominmamma) from home. But they stay anyway, learning to live with each other's peccadilloes and helping one another solve the problems that brought them all to Mamma's doorstep.

First, there's Snufkin, who has turned back from his footloose wanderings in search of a tune. He just wants to be left alone, but everyone needs his friendship. Only when he has helped them all find what they need does the elusive melody come to him.

Then there's a Fillyjonk: one of those tall, thin, long-nosed creatures who cope with their anxieties by cooking and cleaning. After a near-fatal cleaning mishap, she finds herself paralyzed by fear. She correctly guesses that she can't overcome her terrors by herself. The surprise for her is the form her cure will take, as she takes up Moominmamma's apron and shares with others the healing power of food.

A third guest is a Hemulen: the big, bossy type who always wants to arrange other people's lives for them. One day the Hemulen suddenly realizes that his life is pointless. He decides that the thing to do is talk with Moominpappa, who always seems to be doing something interesting. His quest is to find out that it's OK if you can't change the world.

Filling out the guest list are the vain, saucy Mymble; the defiantly forgetful Grandpa-Grumble; and the tiny, scruffy Toft who uses the power of his imagination to conjure things that he describes to himself into reality. As, one by one, each of the guests finds what he or she needs and departs, you will be increasingly moved by what they learn about each other and about themselves. And when the final guest is left, the most basic need will be revealed.

Some might call this a melancholy book. I have even read reviews that accused it, almost, of misanthropy. On the contrary, it is a very warm, comforting, uplifting tale that brings people together, and that may teach us to understand ourselves better. Frequently funny, constantly touching, populated by vibrant and sympathetic characters, and decorated with charming illustrations, it speaks with a poet's knack for bringing word-pictures to life.

My only quibble is this novel's tendency toward run-on sentences (frequently using a comma where a period would be better), an annoying habit that is not evident in any of the other Moomin tales. All the same, I am pleased with it and with Kingsley Hart's sensitive translation work as a whole. And I can now gladly recommend this entire series to all families with sensitive, thoughtful children. I am already looking forward to giving a set as a gift. But when I do so, the best part of the gift will have come from Tove Jansson herself.

[EDIT: See my reviews of the other Moomin books here and here. I would also note that the second book cover pictured under Moominpappa at Sea is misleading. The illustration shows several characters from Tales from Moominvalley who are NOT in Moominpappa at Sea.]

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