Friday, March 14, 2008

Mary Norton

Bedknob and Broomstick
by Mary Norton
Recommended Age: 8+

This was originally two books, titled The Magic Bed Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks. The first book is about the three Wilson children, Carey (about 10) and Charles (about 9) and their 6-year-old baby brother Paul, who looks like an angel but is really a mischievous little devil. The three of them are being raised, apparently, by a single mother who works full-time, and during their summer holidays she doesn't have time to look after them at home, so she sends them to an old aunt's house in Bedfordshire (same region as in her Borrowers novels).

There they soon discover that their next door neighbor, a proper British lady who teaches piano lessons and works for the Red Cross, is also a real-live, broomstick-riding witch. Learning to be one, anyway. In order to make sure they keep her secret, Miss Price enchants one of Paul's bedknobs so that, if they twist it one way, the bed will fly them anywhere in the world they wish (provided there is room for the bed to land) and, if they twist it the other way, it will take them to any period in English history (beginning with the Norman conquest of 1066). The spell can only be broken if the children renege on their promise to keep Miss Price's secret.

What you would expect is more like Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It, where the children go on one ill-starred but hilarious adventure after another, and finally realize that they're better off staying away from magic. What you get is something else. They don't have quite as many adventures, and they're much more serious ones (well, at least one of them is). In The Magic Bedknob they only go on two adventures with the magic bedknob, which is a surprise because there are three children to begin with, so only two of them actually get a wish (though actually, Paul is the only one the spell works for).

First baby Paul wishes to go to where his mother lives, so he can see her. The bed ends up in the middle of a street outside the house, which is locked, and their mother isn't there. There they are at dusk in a London street in a brass bed and pajamas, while the fog rolls in and passersby wonder at the scene. Things go from bad to worse when a policeman barks his shin on the bed in the fog, and takes the children to jail until he can get hold of their mother. Fortunately the children manage to escape on the bed again, and the next time they convince Miss Price to come with them.

She brings along her broomstick just in case, and they go to a Pacific island that is supposedly uninhabited and enjoy an idyllic day. But at evening they find out that the incoming tide has cut them off from the bed, and then they discover that the island is inhabited after all, with cannibals who intend to cook and eat them, and a witch-doctor who engages Miss Price in a magical showdown.

The result of this hair-raising incident is, long story short, the Aunt's maid walks in on three filthy, sunburned children in tattered pajamas and a bed saturated in sea water that is running all over the floor. The maid quits, the Aunt sends the children home...but Paul keeps the bedknob, just in case.

The second book, Bonfires and Broomsticks, begins two years later when the same three Wilson children are about to be sent away for another summer holiday, when they discover an ad in the London Times indicating that Miss Price wants to board a couple of children for the holidays. They prevail on their mother and end up in Bedfordshire once again, where (their aunt having died and her estate having been auctioned off) Paul's old brass bed, minus one bedknob, is now in Miss Price's bedroom.

Of course, Miss Price has sworn off magic by now. But the children once again prevail on her to let them have one more wish, since they never got to go back in time. They take their best shot at getting back to the time of Queen Elizabeth (Shakespeare, and so on), but instead they turn up in 1666, the reign of Charles II, a week before the Fire of London. They turn up, in fact, in London near where the fire started, and this confuses them because they expected to land in Bedfordshire where they started.

Wandering around lost in 1666 London, they encounter a professional necromancer named Emilius Jones (who is actually a very nervous humbug - nervous because he could be burnt at the stake if any of his clients, suspecting that he was a humbug, decided to turn him in for doing sorcery). At first Mr. Jones is terrified by their strange appearance, but eventually they coax him back to the 20th century with them (the story, I believe, takes place in the 1940s). Whereupon Miss Price and Mr. Jones take a fancy to each other, and after returning him to his own time, Miss Price decides to go back and check up on him.

It turns out that he is about to be burnt at the stake for witchcraft during the hysteria following the Fire of London. So the conclusion of the adventure is fairly gripping, with a dash of romance and, finally, a bit of melancholy as the opportunity to fly magical adventures on the bed is permanently taken away. Plus there's a lot of historical color, such as the scene of a 17th-century London riot and a comparison of standards of hygiene at different points in English history.

I am even more confused now than I was, before I read this book, as to whether the movie I remember is Mary Poppins or Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I'm sure I've seen both of them. I know that Dick van Dyke singing "Chim-Chim-Cheree" and Julie Andrews flying with the aid of an umbrella are from Mary Poppins, and that Angela Lansbury played Miss Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. But I also have a recollection of a rugby game played by cartoon animals and I'm pretty sure it was in one movie or the other, yet I can't for the life of me remember which. It certainly wouldn't be like anything in the book Bedknob and Broomstick, but I have a feeling that movie was wildly different from the book. [UPDATE: Tons of readers have contacted me to assure me that the cartoon rugby scene was in the Bedknobs film.]

I guess both "books" in Bedknob and Broomstick were very popular in their day, but together they make a single book that, as such, is really better than either of them separately. A whole-hearted recommendation!

The Borrowers books
by Mary Norton
Recommended Age: 8+

In the 1950s Mary Norton wrote The Borrowers and followed it up with four sequels: The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft, and The Borrowers Avenged. If you've only seen the movie, starring John Goodman and Jim Broadbent, you may be in for a surprise. [EDIT: Harry Potter film fans may be interested in seeing Mark Williams and Tom Felton in this movie as well.] The books are about as different from the movie as it could possibly be, without changing the concept altogether. In both, however, the title characters are very little people who live inside the walls and under the floors of human dwellings, and the particular Borrowers in question are Pod and Homily Clock and their daughter Arrietty. They form an uneasy alliance with a "bean" (a human being), specifically, a boy. And their fortunes also become intertwined with a rough-around-the-edges Borrower lad named Spiller. There the similarities end.

The Borrowers

Mary Norton's original book begins with a little girl who spends time every afternoon working on a quilt with a very old widow who boards in her parents' house. The girl complains about how a crocheting needle disappeared off a bottom shelf overnight, and the old lady (Mrs. May) wonders whether this house has borrowers too. The girl becomes curious, so the old lady tells her a story that her little brother told her many years ago.

She and her brother and sister were raised in India, but during a trip to England the brother contracted rheumatic fever and was sent to a great-aunt's house in the country to convalesce. While he was there, the younger brother (who grew up to be a Colonel in the British army and died a hero's death in an uprising in India) supposedly saw borrowers and actually got to know them and make friends with them. The old lady does not claim to believe his story necessarily; she has reasons to think he was teasing about the whole thing; and yet she's not sure...and at the end of the story, you're more "not sure" than ever.

The story itself is about the Clock family, the last 3 borrowers left in old Aunt Sophie's big house in the country, where they live off the little things left unattended by the invalid aunt, her cook/housekeeper Mrs. Driver, and the gardener Mr. Crampfurl. Their daughter Arrietty, however, longs to spread her wings, since only her father is allowed out of their little house under the kitchen floor, and the only sign of a larger world she has ever seen is the view of a grassy bank, through a grate on the side of the house.

The borrowers don't realize that there's a boy recovering from fever in an upstairs room, until the boy "seen" Pod Clock borrowing something from his room. At first the Clocks are terrified, but the boy turns out to be friendly and helps them borrow things, in return for which Arrietty reads to him. But soon the servants find out about the borrowers and lock the boy up and hire exterminators, and the boy does what he can to help the Clocks escape, but he never sees them again, nor does he know whether they escaped.

Later Mrs. May herself, as a girl, visited the same house (while her brother was away in India) and never saw the borrowers herself, but she had a feeling they may have gotten away and set up a new home nearby. But on the other hand, the only evidence she has for their existence in the first place is the word of her brother, who was known to make up stories to tease his sisters, and a diary supposedly left behind by Arrietty... who wrote her "e" exactly the way Mrs. May's brother did...

So at the end of the story you're left not only unsure whether the Clocks escaped from the exterminators, but also unsure whether they ever existed at all. The whole story is a tease, and there is no climactic swashbuckling escape like what makes good cinema for the Goodman/Broadbent people. But there's also a bit of wistfulness in it. You want to believe in it partly because it's something that connects you to the memory of a nice little boy who grew up to be a brave young man who died a long time ago. And you sense that the old lady misses her unnamed brother and likes to think about his Borrowers, even if she thinks he made them up.

This book won the Carnegie Medal as the U.K.’s most distinguished children’s book of 1952.

The Borrowers Afield

This is the second of five enjoyable Borrowers books by the author of Bedknob and Broomstick. After the ambiguous ending of The Borrowers, you might have wondered how Norton would reintroduce the story of the Clock family, 6-inch-tall-or-so Pod and his wife Homily and their daughter Arrietty. In the first book, their long-ago happenings (set around 1909 or 10) were narrated to a little girl called Kate by a seventy-ish aunt, Mrs. May, based on Mrs. May's recollection of a story her (now deceased) younger brother used to tell her about the little people who lived under the kitchen floor of their elderly aunt's house in Bedfordshire. And, of course, the story ended rather uncertainly, with the unconfirmed hope that the Borrowers escaped being gassed by the ratcatcher and got away to find a new home - unconfirmed, as neither Mrs. May nor her brother ever saw them again, and Mrs. May has reason to doubt they even existed.

Well, in this the second book, Mrs. May inherits a cottage on the estate of her old aunt's house. While making arrangements to take it over from its current occupant (an elderly, former gamekeeper named Tom Goodenough), she lets young Kate sit in the cottage weaving thatch with Goodenough and listening to him weaving stories about the Borrowers, which he supposedly heard direct from Arrietty after her family moved into his cottage.

Old Tom tells about the hardships the Clocks endured after being driven from the big old house, living out of doors, taking refuge in a (slightly improved) cast-off boot, gathering food and water, worrying about the upcoming winter, and making the aquaintance of a wild young Borrower named Spiller who lived in the hedgerows, spoke as little as possible, and had the uncanny ability to blend in with his surroundings and, well, just disappear right in front of you. Arrietty loved the outdoors, but her mother Homily was very insecure about it, and Pod was on the lookout for better digs. But then disaster struck in the form of a gross old gypsy named Mild Eye who found his lost boot and three little people living inside it...

In the end, of course, they were living snugly in Tom Goodenough's cottage, where Tom (a boy, at that time, living with his gamekeeper grandfather) learned the whole story from Arrietty, who had a weakness for talking to human beings. And they have company: a family of cousins with whom the Clocks got along not very well at all.

By the way, I've noticed that the movie and the jackets of all the books always refer to human beings as "human beans." This is just plain silly. The only time a borrower used that term [so far] was early in the first book, and that person was immediately corrected by the more literate and knowledgeable Arrietty. It was a one-time gag, not an ongoing feature of the story.

The Borrowers Afield is an even bigger and more well-rounded adventure than the first Borrowers book. And one virtue of Ms. Norton's writing is that she avoids redundancy and never narrates anything unnecessary. An example is that, unlike the first novel whose Mrs. May/Kate narrative "frames" the central story about the Borrowers, in The Borrowers Afield the Kate/Tom Goodenough story-line (where he's telling her about the Borrowers) doesn't come back at the end. It's hinted at, though, because the book ends with Arrietty coming out of their hole to talk to young Tom, and you already know that she told him everything.

The Borrowers Afloat

The third Borrowers book picks up where Afield left off. Of course there isn't much left for Tom to tell Kate, so that storyline is left behind as soon as the adventure gets underway, and at the end (instead of returning to the framing narrative, or even suggesting it as in Afield) the "big people point of view" shifts to Mrs. Driver the cook and Crampfurl the gardener back at the old house where it all started. Structurally this is a little odd, but the story itself is at least as gripping, real, and satisfying as any of the others.

The Clocks have hit the limit of what they can endure living with Uncle Hendreary, Aunt Lupy, their three boy cousins and girl-cousin Eggletina. But what really gets them on the move again is the fact that suddenly Tom and his grandfather have to move out of the house, at least temporarily (since the grandfather is going into the hospital). A house with no humans = a famine for borrowers. So Pod, Homily, and Arrietty get set to move out, and with the help of Spiller they escape from the closed-up house down a drain in the laundry room floor. After traveling interminably through the drains they finally come out on the banks of a river, where Spiller - a virtuoso borrower - actually has a boat made out of a wooden knife box, which he uses to float loads of borrowings up and downstream.

He also has an old iron tea kettle for shelter along the riverbank, and this is where he leaves the Clocks while he goes on a boating-borrowing expedition. While he is gone, however, the river floods and the tea kettle floats away with the Clocks in it. They fetch up in a snag of tree branches held in place, in the middle of the river, by a submerged barbed-wire fence. It is there, while they are waiting for Spiller to come downstream and spot them, that they are spotted again by Mild Eye the gypsy, who is determined to capture them this time...

You'll just have to read it to find out what happens next!

The Borrowers Aloft

The fourth Borrowers book finds the Clocks living in a miniature village built to their size. It's part of a retired railway worker's hobby/craft project, a little replica of his town complete with wax figures that resemble frozen Borrowers. A good long portion at the beginning of the story is told from the point of view of Mr. Pott (the railroad guy) and his friend, Miss Menzies, a spinster who believes in fairies and helps him make the little wax figures and their clothes and such, as they gradually become aware that some of the little people in their model village are actually alive.

Of course Arrietty ends up making friends with Miss Menzies, which is why she is so shattered when a neighboring couple (the Platters), who are jealous of the success of Mr. Pott's little tourist attraction (not that Mr. Pott cares about the tourists), steal or kidnap the Clocks and imprison them in their attic for the winter. The point of view shifts back to the Clocks at this time, as Pod, Homily, and Arrietty work out how to escape from the attic before spring, when Mr. Platter intends to put them on display in a glass cage where they will live the rest of their lives.

But as the title suggests, they soon figure out a way of ballooning out of the attic and back to Mr. Pott's village, where they find Spiller waiting for them. And by the way, during the course of these last 3 books, it has become increasingly obvious that Spiller and Arrietty are going to fall in love. Toward the end of The Borrowers Aloft it begins to happen in earnest, as Arrietty (during the balloon ride) declares that she wants to marry Spiller someday, and Spiller (when Pod finds him in their little cottage) looks as if he's manfully concealing a lot of powerful emotions and would do anything for Arrietty.

The Borrowers Aloft ends with a bonus Borrowers story, a little thing called "Poor Stainless" narrated at some indefinite point in the Clocks' history. Arrietty and Homily are doing needlework together and Homily is talking about old times when she hits on the story of Poor Stainless, from back in her girlhood living in the big old house when there were lots of families of Borrowers living there. Stainless was the youngest boy in a family that lived in the pantry and ate lots of vegetables and therefore had wonderful complexions. The adults loved Stainless but the other kids thought he was a rotten little bully, and then one day he up and disappeared. Everyone searched for him high and low, and the search was an adventure unto itself (indeed, it's most of the story). All kinds of borrowers were encountered, close-calls with the humans were had, and finally when hope had been given up, Stainless turned up again, back to his bullying ways.

Apparently he had slipped into the pantry to borrow some parsley when Mrs. Driver, the cook, came in and he jumped into one of her shoes (which for some reason were on the counter) to hide. She picked up the shoes and put them in her basket and went to town, where Stainless climbed out again in a candy shop and stayed there, living off sweets, until Mrs. Driver and her basket showed up again to give him a ride home. The whole searching fiasco was a waste of time, because he was living the high life (to the envy of all young borrowers). But Stainless paid a price for his debauchery. His complexion was never the same again!

This fantasy of little people is one of the most intelligent, well-thought-out, consistent, and exciting fantasies I've ever read. They're just good stories, and the characters are wonderful. I think it's in the front rank of creative achievements for younger readers, along with the talking animal stories of The Wind in the Willows and the wizard-school stories of Harry Potter.

The Borrowers Avenged

The last of the Borrowers stories, written in 1982 (about 30 years after the first book in the series!), isn't really an ending. It's simply the last one Mary Norton wrote, and when it's over, it seems a pity she did not live to write more.

It was a little longer and slower-paced than the others, but a gripping story nevertheless. The nefarious Platters, the couple who tried to catch the Clocks in The Borrowers Aloft and turn them into a tourist attraction, are back, trying to recapture them. Meanwhile Pod, Homily, and Arrietty have moved into the rectory of a little village church, while their cousins Lupy, Hendreary, and little Timmus live in the church proper. Spiller, the laconic, outdoorsy one that Arrietty kind of loves (a big part of her heart longs for the outdoors), helps them, as does another borrower living in the rectory, a lame, artistic, aristocratic young fellow named Peagreen or Peregrine. While a vague sort of love triangle develops between Arrietty, Peagreen, and Spiller, the Platters get closer and closer to capturing their prey, culminating in a breathtaking climax in which the Platters break into the church to get young Timmus, Arrietty's favorite cousin, who (the Platters know) has gotten trapped inside a locked cabinet.

Miss Menzies and Mr. Pott also return to the story, and other human beans (that term is used regularly in this book, in contrast to the earlier stories) appear... such as the caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Whitlace (whom the borrowers call Witless) and the slightly psychic Lady Mullings. There are also ghosts in the rectory, which forms a mysterious and sad sort of subplot (at least, it's a subplot if you realize the connection between the three ghosts). Of course the story has its usual hairraising escapes and acrobatic adventures, and inventive uses for big-people things by little people.

It's also a step back in history, to a time before refrigerators, thermos bottles, and automobiles were widely used. This reminds me of a scene in the same author's Bedknob and Broomstick, in which the sorcerer from 1666 comes to the 20th century and, after walking around town for a while, is terrified by the sight of a passing automobile - he runs and hides as if from a monster! This isn't surprising from his point of view, since he's from the 17th century. But what is surprising is to think that you could spend all day walking around a mid-20th-century town and only see one automobile!

Unfortunately the ending of The Borrowers Avenged kind of leaves you hanging as regarding Arrietty's romantic involvements. It's still kind of unclear which boy-borrower she will choose for her mate, if either of them; when the story ends, Arrietty has made Spiller furiously angry (in a way you can only be angry at someone you love) but Peagreen, who looks like he's getting closer to her, predicts that Spiller will get over it. And another thing that left me unsatisfied is that the relationship between Arrietty and Timmus was sort of starting to develop, and things were happening to Lupy and Hendreary that suggested that (in the future) Arrietty might end up becoming a sort of adopted mother to the boy. I suppose Mary Norton may have been planning another Borrowers story, but it never appeared, and she died ten years after writing this one. Alas! I would like to see more!

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