Tag Archives: Mrs. Armitage on Wheels

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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The surprise package

We came home from the holidays to find a package waiting for us — two books sent by relatives in England. I was thrilled to find them, because these were the same relatives who’d introduced us to a couple of now-favourites,  Mrs. Armitage on Wheels and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.

The books inside the package were I Believe in Unicorns and The Dancing Bear, both by English author Michael Morpurgo. I noticed the first came with a CD inside, and since I had a cold and was achy and didn’t feel much like reading aloud, I put the disc in the player, climbed in bed with N, and listened. As we lay there, I remembered a conversation I’d had with the woman who’d sent the books. Two of her children had difficulty reading, and audio books were a great discovery for them — a way into the world of stories that allowed them to appreciate the richness of language rather than struggle their way through it. Whether you read well yourself or not, there is something wonderful about being read to. You can close your eyes and let your imagination form its own images for the story. And yet, as with reading, you still to need to work, and focus, to hold the thread of the story.

Within moments, both N and I were drawn into this tale, about eight-year-old Tomas who hates school, books and church, but loves the outdoors. “Sometimes I’d go off with Father, feeding the bees in winter, collecting the honey in summer. I loved that, loved being with him, doing a proper job. But although I never told him so, I much preferred to be on my own. Alone I could go where I wanted. Alone my thoughts and dreams could run free. I could sing at the top of my voice. I could soar with the eagles, be wild in the woods with the deer and the boar and bears and the invisible wolves. Alone I could be myself.”

But Tomas’s mother shuffles him off to the library one day, because she’s heard there’s a new librarian who tells wonderful stories to any children who wish to listen. Tomas doesn’t, but he goes against his will, and to his surprise discovers a real live unicorn among the books and children. “He was sitting absolutely still, his feet tucked neatly underneath him, his head turned toward us. He seemed to be gazing straight at me…. And his eyes were blue and shining.”

At first Tomas is let down with the discovery that the unicorn isn’t real at all, but carved from wood and painted. But then the librarian — the “Unicorn Lady” — perches on the unicorn to tell the story of Noah, and Tomas is transfixed. “You could tell she believed absolutely in her stories as she told them. So we did too.”

Anne Anderson's 1934 Match Girl illustration

One day she shows them a copy of her favourite book — The Little Match Girl — but the cover is scorched and tattered, and the spine is held together by tape. When Tomas asks if the book has been burned, she tells them about a time in her childhood, in a far-off country, when “wicked people ruled the land, wicked people who were frightened of the magic of stories and poems, terrified of the power of books…. Books make you want to ask questions. And they didn’t want any of us to think or dream, and especially they did not want us to ask questions.” This book, she tells them, is one her father saved from a huge bonfire of books. He plucked it from the flames and ran with it, and soldiers chased him and beat him but he would not let go of it.

“This was the book he saved,” she says, “so that is why it is my favourite, most special book in all the world.”

I Believe in Unicorns is a beautiful layering of stories, unfolding one after another, but each working together as a whole. After the librarian tells of her father and the book burning, war comes to Tomas’s valley, though his own father has promised him it never would. I could see N’s expression change as Tomas described the planes overhead, glinting in the sun, and the bombs falling far away, and then closer.

“That’s what happened with Opa,” she whispered, referring to my father’s childhood in occupied Holland. I nodded, and we kept listening.

Dad, about the age of Tomas, celebrating liberation with his brothers in Holland

I won’t give away more, because this is a story well worth discovering if you haven’t already. And while it’s very much a book about a boy who hates books learning to love books, it never feels preachy. The story is completely engrossing — we enjoyed listening to it so much that now we’re reading it for ourselves, and the grainy sketches by Gary Blythe are a fine accompaniment. Once in a while N stops me to ask a question — “Will war come to Toronto?” — and though the questions are sometimes difficult to answer, it’s quite something to see the process at work: a book opening a mind; stories connecting to everyday life.

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