Tag Archives: mary norton

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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Fear makes you tiny

Good friends of ours are finally coming to the end of an extensive house renovation that’s pushed them down to the basement, the four of them in one room with a makeshift kitchen and beds. Now and again they’ve emerged dazed, squinting at the brightness of daylight, and shaking the plaster dust from their hair. “You’ve been living like the borrowers,” I said to my friend, and she laughed and agreed. Later I sought out the book and showed it to N to see if she’d be interested, and now we are well into this 1952 Carnegie medal winner by English author Mary Norton.

I remember loving this novel as a child — the teeny-tininess of the people and their things, the dressers made of stacked-up match boxes, the postage stamps hanging like portraits on the walls, and also the story within a story within a story: as the book opens, an old woman named Mrs. May tells “wild, untidy, self-willed” Kate about the miniature people she learned of in her own long-ago childhood. But it wasn’t Mrs. May who saw the borrowers first-hand; it was her little brother, who’d been sent to Great Aunt Sophy’s in the country to recover from rheumatic fever. Through the night he would hear an old grandfather clock striking the hours. “And, under this clock, below the wainscot, there was a hole….” From here the story dips beneath the floor, through dark and dusty passageways, to the place where the borrowers live.

I recall trying this book with N some time ago, but the complexities around whose story it was seemed a little beyond her. She needed a clearer entry point back then, so that she could go hand in hand with her protagonist through the book. Now, she follows every twist and turn, regularly pointing out that what the borrowers are doing is certainly not borrowing.

“I mean, I don’t think they ever bring any of those things back, do they?”

She’s quite intrigued by Arrietty, only child of Homily and Pod Clock, who longs to know what it’s like upstairs, outside, or even in the far away lands where other borrowers have gone. The Clocks are the only borrowers left in the house by the time the story starts, and for Homily and Pod it’s a point of pride to remain. Not so for Arrietty. “I know we’ve managed to stay on when all the others have gone. But what has it done for us, in the end? I don’t think it’s so clever to live on alone, for ever and ever, in a great, big, half-empty house; under the floor, with no one to talk to, no one to play with, nothing to see but dust and passages, no light but candlelight and firelight and what comes through the cracks.”

But the world outside is dangerous. So much so that only men creep out to borrow necessities for survival, scuttling across floors and climbing curtains and risking being seen by “human beans.” Women and girls stay in their dark, safe places with the house creaking and groaning above them.

N’s eyes widened at this. “You mean girls can’t borrow?” she asked. “Just because they’re girls? That’s not fair.” That’s what Arrietty thinks too, of course, but she’s grown up hearing about the disappearance of her cousin, Eggletina, whose curiosity got the better of her. One day she sneaked upstairs “in a blue dress and a pair of button-boots … yellow kid with jet beads for buttons. Lovely they were.” Eggletina never returned, but her legend grew. “It just broke up your uncle Hendreary,” said Homily at last. “He never went upstairs again — in case, he said, he found the button-boots. Their only future was to emigrate.”

This is essentially a story of fear and of freedom. Early on Mrs. May tells Kate that the borrowers were not always so tiny. “It was because they were frightened that they had grown so small. Each generation had become smaller and smaller, and more and more hidden.” Arrietty doesn’t want to live in fear. When she finally gets outside, she discovers how glorious it is to run. “You could never run under the floor: you walked, you stooped, you crawled — but you never ran.” She marvels at the giant coloured stones and the waist-high blades of grass; she picks a primrose and holds it like a parasol. And then something glitters nearby. “It was an eye. Or it looked like an eye. Clear and bright like the colour of the sky. An eye like her own but enormous. A glaring eye.”

And that’s where we left off this morning — tasting freedom, Arrietty had been seen.

The Carnegie Greenaway Living Archive tells me that Mary Norton was born in 1903 in London, and raised in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, the setting she chose for The Borrowers series (there are five books in all). She was short-sighted, and mesmerized by the tiny creatures she’d see crawling in the grass, set against the blurred back drop of the larger world. She was a secretary, an actress at the Old Vic Theatre Company, and then a wife and mother before she started writing children’s books. Her first was The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons, published in 1943, and followed up by the sequel Bonfires and Broomsticks. Good old Walt Disney merged the stories into the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks and of course (given the success of Mary Poppins) set it all to music. I love the early cover shown here of The Magic Bed Knob. It reminds me so much of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s books, and especially for his own Mrs. Armitage on Wheels. So I did a search for Waldo and Quentin together, just to see what would come up. I digress slightly, but here’s what I found at nationmaster.com, under the heading “practical joke”:

“The American humorist H. Allen Smith wrote a 320-page book in 1953 called The Compleat Practical Joker that contains many examples of practical jokes. A typical one, recalled as his favorite by the playwright Charles MacArthur, concerns the American painter and bohemian character Waldo Peirce. Peirce was living in Paris in the 1920s and ‘made a gift of a very small turtle to the woman who was the concierge of his building.’ The woman doted on the turtle and lavished it with care and affection. A few days later Peirce substituted a somewhat larger turtle for the original one. This continued for some time, with larger and larger turtles being surreptitiously introduced into the woman’s apartment. The concierge was beside herself with happiness and displayed her miraculous turtle to the entire neighborhood. Peirce then began to sneak in and replace the turtle with smaller and smaller ones, to her bewildered distress. This was the storyline behind Esio Trot, by Roald Dahl.”

I love how things go around, and come around.

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