Trains, Planes, and The Borrowers Aloft

N and her dad are having a Father’s Week rather than a Father’s Day. They left Thursday night on the train for Winnipeg, a two-night trip in a sleeper cabin, and an adventure to remember. The trip home will be by plane — N’s first flight, with a window seat, we hope, and a view of the patchwork world below. I can’t wait to hear her impressions when she comes home, and I have already dug up a little passage to read to her, about my opa’s first flight. After a long and difficult war, he came to Canada with his family by ship, and never expected to be able to return to the Netherlands. So his first flight was a dream come true, and he kept a little notebook of what he saw.

“It is a beautiful sight,” he wrote. “The river goes like a snake through the land…. I feel superb.”

N and J packed a journal too, in which to write and paste memorabilia, and brought along the first Harry Potter for their reading material, since we’ve all been feeling a bit nostalgic about our “Potter summer” last year.

It means that the book we were in the middle of will likely go unfinished, and I’ve been feeling a bit uneasy about that. But the trouble is — it’s boring. I cringe as I write that, because I know, as a writer, how much time and effort goes into creating a story, and it always irritates me when people blow it off as meaningless. So here is a meager attempt to articulate our disappointment.

The book in question is The Borrowers Aloft by Mary Norton. We read and enjoyed The Borrowers, about the tiny Clock family, “borrowing” from their ordinary-sized housemates to stay alive and unseen. The Borrowers Aloft started out well, following the stories of Mr Pott and Mr Platter, who are each creating model villages. Mr Pott is a retired railway man who lost his leg years before, saving the life of a badger attempting an ill-fated crossing. Pott misses his work, and makes his village because he loves to, and people flock to see his tiny creations — houses made of cigar boxes, hung with tiny Pott-painted paintings; a model train and railway; little people made of builder’s putty, dressed in little clothes. Mr Platter — a builder and undertaker who lives nearby — copies Mr Pott because he smells opportunity, and hopes to make money from his venture.

Had the story gone on being about Pott and Platter, I think we would have loved it. And N liked the idea of taking a train book on her train trip. But soon the Borrowers move into Pott’s cozy miniature village — Pod, Homily, and daughter Arrietty — and the magic of the story dissipates. Which is so strange, because you’d think they’d be the most magical characters of all.

I had been finding the story tedious for some time, and I suspected N was too, so one night I asked her, choosing my words carefully: “Do you like this book?” She hesitated, but answered, “Mmmm … not really.” And when I asked why, she put it perfectly. “It’s the Borrowers. They’re just not very interesting characters.”

It’s true! A well-rounded character has got to be more than tiny. Lovely Pott is kind and creative and lost in the miniature world he creates — or perhaps just in the creation of it — and Platter is greedy and selfish but sharp and ambitious. By contrast, Pod, Homily and Arrietty are far less well defined. They are small. They move into Pott’s village, hoping they won’t be seen, but eventually Platter spots them and kidnaps them for his own village. And the last half of the book traces their plan to get away. Which — shameful as it might be — we will not be in on, even if it involves a balloon ride above a river going like a snake through the land.

What do you think? Is it right or wrong to not finish?


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6 responses to “Trains, Planes, and The Borrowers Aloft

  1. Marilyn

    Well, I know how you must feel. As the mother of writers, I know how long and hard they work to create their stories, and when I am trying hard to finish a book I am not enjoying, I, too, feel guilty. But then, I think, reading is supposed to be fun, so when the book is not to my taste, I put it away and hope someone else will enjoy it.

  2. Marilyn

    How exciting for J and N to take a trip together. The notebooks and scrapbooks will be full and the camera will be bursting with pictures.

  3. jim

    It is rare that I do not finish a book. Not guilt but it seems such a waste to start and not to finish. But of course wasting time finishing what turns out to be a boring book only compounds the waste.

    Here’s hoping N experiences on such a marvelous initiation into traveling will find their way one way or another into this blog——

  4. Lenny

    Our gang just returned from a trip to Scotland and young E experienced his first air travel. Takeoff turned out to be the highlight – I thought his eyes would pop out of his head if they got any bigger.

    Thinking of you today – good luck on the Trillium – fingers crossed – well-deserved recognition no matter what.

    • kristendenhartog

      Thank you for your good wishes Lenny! It would have been wonderful to win, but the whole experience was amazing. And I’m proud to have hosted winners Nick Thran and Phil Hall on this blog!

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