My son turned six in March, and among the many presents he received on his birthday — Hot Wheels tracks, Lego sets, a bag of eerily gelatinous sand — was Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. This gift came from me, intended as the latest in a string of Dahl books that my wife and I have read to him in recent months: Matilda, The Magic Finger, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though I’d never heard of Danny before buying it, its description seemed right up my son’s alley: a young boy and his dad exact vengeance on a wealthy twit by stealing all his pheasants. Who doesn’t like pheasant theft?
We’d steered him towards such storybooks about a year ago, when we introduced E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to his steady diet of picture books. I wasn’t sure how he would take to Charlotte, with its rural setting and homicidal barnyard talk (“Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer…there’s a regular conspiracy around here to kill you at Christmastime”). But, like Templeton the rat slurping at a rotten egg, my son happily ate it up. He also enjoyed White’s Stuart Little, though it nearly bored me into a coma. But what I found dull and episodic, he thought of as cool. After all, Stuart is a mouse who drives a wind-up car.
After years of reading picture books to my son, this transition has been, like so many as a parent, an instance to make me stop and see that the kid is growing — like a lost front tooth or the need to buy bigger shoes. To be sure, he still likes children’s books; Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss remain very easy sells. But he approaches these longer, sparsely-illustrated stories with a new and eager seriousness, as if each is its own small project. When I ask him if he’s in the mood to hear Charlotte’s Web or Danny, it’s like asking if he wants to head outside to tinker with the car. “Sure,” he’ll say after a pause, his head cocked in consideration. “Yeah, let’s read it.”
Unlike the way he interacts with an Elephant and Piggie book or If I Ran the Zoo — a kind of wouldja-look-at-that sort of romp — his engagement with White and Dahl has been vastly different. There’s so much more to follow in these books, and so much he can’t understand. “I eased my foot off the accelerator,” says Danny as he tries to drive a car. “I pressed down the clutch and held it there. I found the gear lever and pulled it straight back, from first into second. I released the clutch and pressed on the accelerator.” What six-year-old (or, for that matter, 36-year-old) can keep such action straight? And why would my son sit still for it? If that scene had come in a Willems book, he would have squirmed like a worm on a hook. Any sustained lull in a picture book usually spells doom; a mild desperation comes over me when things aren’t “fun” enough, and I can feel my son growing restless.
But with White and Dahl and others, a lack of entertainment has not been a problem. Their books send my son to a different mental area — a deeper, spongier chamber. With no foxes in socks or bifocaled elephants, he’s forced to focus inward, where he creates the pictures himself. This is, of course, no revelation; it’s what reading is. But to see a child venture into this place for the first time has been both heartening and strange. What is he seeing in there? An animated version of Quentin Blake’s artwork? A chaotic Peter Max jumble? Something more cinematic? There is no way to know.
And it ultimately may not matter. I’m beginning to think that when my wife and I read these books to him, the story itself is somewhat beside the point. I suspect that the real draw, for him, is not just the chance to find out what happens in the next chapter, but to nestle in beside us on his football-shaped beanbag chair. Because Dahl doesn’t just make our son think differently; he draws him to us. There’s something about having to direct the action himself that makes him nudge in closer as we read. It’s as if, finally forced to explore a story without the guidance of pictures, he wants us to be near — like when he’s walking through the house after it’s gotten too dark to see.
My fondest memories of my father have to do with the same moment in my own childhood, when he read me Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. My dad had been in a classic-book-of-the month club, and his Mark Twain volumes were sturdy, slipcovered editions with plates of N.C. Wyeth art. I doubt I understood much in these books beyond their characters’ bare actions — the fence-painting, the river-rafting, the girl-irritating — and I remember almost nothing from them now. But the feeling of being on my dad’s lap, his voice deep and sonorous above me, has stuck with me through the years. His reading enabled a warmth and a closeness that otherwise wasn’t much there. He could’ve been reading the dictionary, and I would have sat there, rapt.
Because of this dynamic — the storybook’s drawing of the child to the reader — I feel closer to my son when we’re reading Roald Dahl. For all the talk of the importance of reading to your child — often eat-your-peas harangues that have more to do with a fear of future failure than enjoyment of the actual act — the emotional and physical closeness that reading facilitates doesn’t get much play. But given my own Mark Twain memories and what happens on the beanbag chair, I’ve come to consider such closeness to be vital and unique. I can think of no other time that my son will sit, his head propped on my shoulder, for a half an hour or more. That I can sense the drama popping in his mind as I read is an obvious added bonus. Reading storybooks has put us at the neat intersection of stillness and excitement.
My wife is currently reading him Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which, as I understand it, takes Charlie into 2001 territory. Meanwhile, we’re closing in on the end of Danny the Champion of the World; we should finish in a couple of days. It’s a quiet, almost sad little story about fighting your own insignificance. But, of course, my son just likes to hear about pheasant poaching and making a rich guy mad. As I’d hoped when he unwrapped it on his birthday, he loves Danny, and begs pathetically for more when I stop reading for the night. Sometimes I give in and read another page or two. All I ask in return is that he’ll remember it fondly 30 years from now.
Things don’t change much. I thought somebody ought to know.
–E.B. White (Letter to Stanley Hart White)
When I was on a vacation in the Virgin Islands with my two brothers and my 70-year old mother — an exceptional hiatus from our lives with family and children, just the four of us, to celebrate my mother’s milestone birthday, our good fortune that we had had her in our lives for such a long time — I happened upon a collection of essays by E.B. White, a book that the house owners had left on the shelf. I had read White’s autobiographical piece, “Once More to the Lake” in college, but here I was, a man in his late-40s, again under its spell. Throughout our time at that lovely house under the clear skies, overlooking the deep-blue Atlantic Ocean, I kept returning to his rumination on summer memories.
Written in August 1941 and published originally in Harper’s, the story is deceptively simple. White takes his son to a camp for a short vacation. It is the same camp, by Belgrade Lake in Maine, where his father had taken him many times when he was growing up, over 30 years before. He writes, “I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot.” Except for the sound of outboard motors on boats, a mid-century technological advance — a “petulant, irritable sound” that “whined about one’s ears like mosquitoes” — he found it to be the same place. “Once More to the Lake” is not a psychological exploration, except for one recurring detail. As White sees his son engage in activities that he himself used to do — baiting a fish hook, pulling on a bathing suit — he transposes identities, imagining himself as his father to his younger self. The jarring illusion keeps returning.
For a true story that takes place in the early 1940s, there is no mention of Hitler’s insane aggressions, concentration camps filling with prisoners, or mass murders, although White had some awareness of these far-away tragedies and his country’s anxieties about its role in a hostile world. Although “Once More to the Lake” does not mention them, I cannot help but feel that the longing for the familiar place of one’s childhood, a place of “peace and goodness and jollity,” is motivated in part by grim adult fears. Imagine the Harper’s reader of 1941, worried over atrocities reported in world news. Witness his Walt Whitman-like exuberance:
Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottages with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky, the little paths over the roots of the trees leading from camp to camp and the paths leading back to the outhouses and the can of lime for sprinkling, and at the souvenir counters at the store the miniature birch-bark canoes and the postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked.
The language of unperturbed continuity is a balm to the agitated adult brain: the indelible patterns of the time, “unshatterable,” “fade-proof,” “forever and ever,” “summer without end.” There is also the jab at the idealisms to which memory is vulnerable: the postcards that present a sunnier version of the place, a fixed image, the awareness of fabrication.
Of course, I was re-reading this essay while I myself was on a summer vacation. At times I read it on the beach, supine on a towel, while my mother sat in a fold-up chair beside me. I was not with the nuclear family I was raising, but with the family in which I was raised, 30 years after the last teenager left home. We were all in character, the usual roles we had occupied since childhood. The bookish one, I was immersed in literary adventures, my obsession with language, while my brothers snorkeled near the coral reef and, coming up for air, called out their discoveries to my mother, like excited teenage boys. It was my own version of White’s jarring illusion. My mother was the same as always, but slower, more hesitant to venture onto the shifting sand. I found myself mulling over the essay when we crowded into the vehicle that careened over the island hills, my brother Mike driving like a fiend, adding his wicked cackle to each roller-coaster descent while the rest of us gasped at his recklessness. Without my own children to attend to, I had an uncommon amount of time for reflection. Re-reading White’s essay, I felt the pull of a deep pattern, that I struggled to name, that brought me back to my childhood.
White writes, “It’s hard to say why a certain thing takes hold.” Since I was a boy, whenever I found a book that I loved, I became deeply attached. Almost obsessively, I pored over it, drawn to the secret, submerged patterns of the work, the sentence-rhythms that bring it to life, the difficult-to-define sense of “the voice,” that inner authority and coherence, mysterious and pulling as faith. The drawback of this literary craving is that I have read fewer books than the average writer, the best of whom are voracious readers. Indeed, I am a voracious reader, just of the same small set of books, over and over again.
This habit was particularly intense when I was growing up. Like any habit, there were rituals. The setting was important. I had two favorite places where I liked to read. My first perch was the cherry blossom tree in front of my grandparents’ home in Secane, Penn., a suburb outside Philadelphia, where I often spent stretches of time, especially in the summer. The boughs of that old tree seemed perfectly formed to cup my eight- or nine-year-old body. I loved the feeling of solidity, the bark rough against my skin, as I leaned with a paperback book in my hands. Suspended above the earth, with the barest awareness of gravity, I loved the airiness that surrounded me. No one could see me. I was alone with my book. Best of all, I loved the period when the pink blossoms made my perch into a cotton-candy world. The light would shift and there would be a pink glow on the page. I would be alert to sounds on the ground: my grandfather’s pickup truck coming into the driveway; the clink of dishes in my grandmother’s kitchen, the window just a few feet away; the familiar sound of them bickering about chores and errands; sometimes, the intrusion of a teenage cousin’s voice when he came to visit and steal a Fig Newton.
The second favorite spot was a lawn chair made of braided plastic straps softened with age. The chair sat in the middle of a campground. Every summer my grandfather arranged this compound of tents and trailers and vehicles, in a campground called Buttonwood, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. On long weekends my mother and father and we three boys, and my aunt and uncle and their eight children, and sometimes a great aunt and uncle, or my father’s parents and their teenage children, would come to stay. There was a shared screened-in kitchen and a campfire space surrounded by chairs, for talking and singing under the stars. In the background, as I turned the pages of a book, I would hear the sound of adults drinking beer; my father’s hearty laughter; the clink of horseshoes; cousins breaking into the kitchen to steal marshmallows and chocolate squares which were supposed to be for s’mores; my grandmother, who didn’t love camping, sitting under the shade of a trailer awning, turning the pages of a romance, enduring. More distantly, from the pavilion by the bay where the teenagers hung out around a juke box, there was the sound of the ’70s: Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Mama Cass’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
At first I read and re-read paperback comics: Archie’s gang, Nancy and Sluggo, and Peanuts. By the time I was eight, at my grandmother’s urging, I had started reading childhood classics: The Little House books, Louisa May Alcott, E.B. White, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Borrowers. Charlotte’s Web was my favorite. Never bored, I would recline in that lawn chair, eating pretzels, immersed in the story of Wilbur and Charlotte.
Early summer days are a jubilee for birds. In the fields, around the house, in the barn, in the woods, in the swamp — everywhere love and song and nests and eggs. From the edge of the woods, the white-throated sparrow (which must come all the way from Boston) calls, “Oh, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!” On an apple bough, the phoebe teeters and wags its tail and says, “Phoebe, phoe-bee!” The sing sparrow, who knows how brief and lovely life is, says, “Sweet, sweet, sweet interlude; sweet, sweet, sweet interlude.” If you enter the barn, the swallows swoop down from their nests and scold. “Cheeky, cheeky!” they say.
The book, an indispensable component of my happiness, celebrated the same continuity of experience that surrounded me as a child. White’s words transported me into the summer days of the story-world, but it also moored me to that familiar grassy spot in the sun, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, reassuring me that a kind of constancy was possible.
Implicit in these sentence-rhythms is the promise at the heart of Charlotte’s last words to Wilbur at the end of the story:
“Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall, Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you matter a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The long sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awaken, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days…”
The words are both beautiful and reassuring. They are both true and also illusory. Fern will stop visiting the barn. Charlotte will die. My grandfather will get cancer and become the first great lesson in loss in my life. My father’s alcoholism will worsen and he will leave my family. My parents will eventually divorce.
My brothers and I and my mother stayed at the remote villa on St. John’s Island for seven days. We began our days with bacon and pancakes by the pool, endless discussions about which beach to visit that day, the elaborate daily business of applying sunscreen, before pulling together beach equipment and driving over the hills to whatever destination we had chosen. The days were filled with snorkeling and swimming, following sea turtles, and boating; the evenings with making pina coladas, playing cards, and talking about our lives and families. During the stretches of open time that came with that intimate family vacation, I did read other books. There was a biography of the friendship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and Dorothy Parker’s short stories. But I kept returning to “Once More to the Lake,” in the same way, once upon a time, that, trance-like, I had read and re-read Charlotte’s Web.
“It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back,” White writes in “Once More to the Lake.” “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another.” Again and again in his homilies, essays, and children’s novels, his writing has a distinctive temporal swath, enfolding multiple, glorious days, reliably similar, into a single declaration. This is how it always was, he seems to insist.
There is a certain verb construction that White uses, that I suspect is the source of the story’s hold on my attention. Linguists refer to it as “the habitual aspect.” Writers call it “the continuing past.” It is a way of depicting activity that occurred usually, ordinarily, or customarily. The habitual aspect is marked by words like “used to” or “would” or, with the right clues (“I remembered…”) the simple past tense of the verb. Interestingly, the habitual aspect does not occur in all languages. One linguist found that it occurred in only seven of 61 languages studied (including English). What would one’s reality be like without this vehicle of nostalgia?
Anticipating his first adult sight of the lake, White leans on these language-grooves formed from memory and experience:
I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless, remembered how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent lingered through the screen. The partitions in the camp were thin and did not extend to the top of the rooms, and as I was always the first one up I would dress softly so as not to wake the others, and sneak out into the sweet outdoors and start out in the canoe, keeping close along the shore in the long shadows of the pines. I remember being very careful never to rub my paddle against the gunwhale for fear of disturbing the stillness of the cathedral.
The sense of time is indefinite. White is describing habits that attached to all the mornings in the camp of his youth, the rituals that occurred as his family slept and it was just the world and him, the lone perceiver. Re-reading such passages in “Once More to the Lake” recalled my earlier devotion to Charlotte’s Web, where the same rhythm of the continuing past, seemingly insulated from change, beguiles. Consider his description of the barn, another of the holy places he celebrates:
Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm, delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.
As a student of creative writing throughout high school, college, and graduate school, I recall being cautioned against the use of the habitual aspect, if not judged and reprimanded. The habitual aspect, I was told, led to a kind of mushiness. It lacked that sharp, time-bound specificity admired in contemporary writing. The consummate stylist and arbiter of English usage, White relied on it heavily. Indeed, I would assert that the habitual aspect — verb tense of fables — is inseparable from his voice, a voice insistent on nostalgia. A theme in his early pieces for Harper’s and The New Yorker was the intrusion of progress. In a 1938 essay, he recounts the noise of the Sixth Avenue El, destined to be replaced by a subway:
Here was a sound that, if it ever got in the conch of your ear, was ineradicable — forever singing, like the sea. It punctuated the morning with brisk tidings of repetitious adventure, and it accompanied the night with sad but reassuring sounds of life going on — the sort of threnody that cricket and katydid render for suburban people sitting on screened porches, the sort of lullaby the whippoorwill sends up to the Kentucky farm wife on a summer evening.
The lovely word “threnody” resonates. Derived from Greek and Proto-Indo-European roots, it is a “wailing ode” in the form of a song or poem, an artistic form that enshrines memory at the same time it foreshadows endings. It is a paradox to which the human soul is bound, attracted, and forever bedeviled. The word “lullaby” reminds us of the comforts of this repetition. The “sad but reassuring sounds of life going on,” the “repetitious adventure:” these are the language-pillars in White’s literary architecture.
But the habitual aspect in White’s work is never a safe tense, insulating a timeless, recalled world. It always serves as a background for disruption. Throughout Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur luxuriates in the rhythms of barn life at the same time he fears that he will be killed by Zuckerman. Against the beloved patterns of the seasons, Charlotte, his friend, will die in the corner of the pigpen, alone. The habitual aspect may be the antidote to anxiety. But patterns finish. The rhythm ends in grief. The grooves betray.
The most brilliant writers, I believe, write from a sense of urgency. They are trying to figure out a perplexing problem or knot in their minds. Something must be corrected about the world, or saved. E.B. White has three known versions of his visit to Belgrade Lake, which forced him to grapple with the past from different angles. There is the “Pamphlet on Belgrade Lake,” which he wrote in 1914, when he was a teenager. A second draft of the reminiscence appeared in a letter to his brother, Stanley Hart White, in 1936, when he was 37. “Once More to the Lake” was published five years later. Not mentioned in this final version of the piece, which I think White finally got what he wanted from this recollection, was that both of his parents had died a few years before it was written.
The penultimate image in that third version is the thunderstorm over the lake, “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe:”
Then the kettle drum, then the snare, then the bass drum and cymbals, then crackling light against the dark, and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills.
After the storm, White’s son decides to join some friends and go swimming. He pulls on his icy, wet swimsuit, which had been hanging on the outdoor clothesline. There is a last transposition: a middle-aged White, grief unspoken, sees his son wince as he pulls the icy suit over his genitals and “suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”
He had never laid out the paradox of pattern and disruption so starkly.
The hills of St. John’s Island are steep. They are terrifying to drivers unused to them. It was not uncommon to reach the top of one and believe you were on a cliff-edge high above the earth. There would be a moment, when my brother drove us to this or that beach or restaurant, when we would careen over a hill and for a brief moment have the illusion of falling off that precipice, until we could again sense the hard asphalt beneath the car, the direction of our gaze shifting from a freefall to the ground of the descending hill. Mike, who had been to the islands many more times than I had, had fun with this illusion, excitedly narrating our ascent then screaming at the pinnacle when, for a second, no one could see the future, save the void. In the back seat, trapped in his roller-coaster narrative, my mother clutched my arm, I held my breath and squinted, both of us on the edge of terror, but laughing, all of us together in this bright summer memory, delighted.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Probably mine was the only Swedish-New Mexican family in the Canadian suburb where I grew up, the only house where the shelves were cluttered with Scandinavian gnomes and Hopi kachina dolls. We lived far from any relatives, and our nuclear family unit formed a country all our own, with a specific culture, language, and mores. My father was a professor and my mother had been a teacher, so our country’s currency was books. We liked nerd humor. Sometimes we spoke in fake German accents for no reason. We were odd.
I may have been the oddest. In a neighborhood dominated by youth soccer and hockey leagues, I was a delicate child who flinched at every revolution of the tether ball, with a vocabulary not so much precocious as inappropriate to the time and place. For a while, I decided it would be cool to have a signature oath, something I read in a book, so I took to exclaiming “Blood and bones!” whenever the occasion seemed to call for it. My best friend, who managed to be smart without geekiness, withstood this for exactly one day before sighing wearily, “Please stop that.”
But I couldn’t stop — as soon I dropped the oath, I’d come up with some other weird behavior. I was too used to taking my cues from books. When I read Heidi, for example, I felt an electric surge of recognition. Not because of her pious personality or love of nature, but because Heidi, gone to live with a rich family far from home, squirrels away white dinner rolls in her room to bring back to her grandfather, not realizing they’ll grow stale before she can return to him. The perplexed family opens her closet one day to discover a cache of old bread on the floor.
I was absolutely the kind of kid who would hide stale dinner rolls in her room.
Childhood, as I knew it, was rife with secrecy and weirdness, with actions that made sense to you but not anybody else. It’s no wonder that I fell in love with Moomin.
Tove Jansson, who created Moomin, understood that secrecy and strangeness are endemic to childhood. She was born in Helsinki, the daughter of Swedish-speaking parents, a sculptor father and an illustrator mother. In the recently re-published Sculptor’s Daughter, a charmingly oddball collection of childhood memories, Jansson describes idyllic summers spent on an island in the Gulf of Finland while her parents made art and entertained a ragtag string of companions — a geologist; a woman who tried to decoratively re-tile their front steps, rendering them unusable; a monkey named Poppolino. The child Tove roamed around the island by herself, always independent, apparently never lonely. At one point, she took to following the geologist as he worked, unnerving his girlfriend, who turned around and yelled at the child to go home. Tove didn’t care, and kept following until she and the girlfriend had an argument: “I went a little closer and humiliated her by saying the most terrible thing of all: amateur! You’re an amateur! You’re not a real artist!”
To be a real artist was to Jansson the most important, the only, thing. As an adult, after art school, she drew political cartoons for a number of places, most notably the satirical, anti-fascist magazine Garm. In these cartoons, she sometimes drew little trolls in the margins or by her signature, creatures that evolved into a series of children’s characters called Moomins. The Moomintroll family featured first in a series of books, then in a comic strip that ran in newspapers; both were wildly popular. The books became bestsellers in Finland and the U.K., bringing Jansson — who spent much of her life living on a remote island with her companion the artist Tuulikki Pietilä — an income that didn’t deter her from continuing to work feverishly.
The Moomins remain especially popular in Finland, where it is a matter of national identity (some Finnair planes have Moomin characters painted on them) and in Japan (my brother just bought me some Moomin T-shirts at Uniqlo). In North America, though still popular, the Moomin books never attained quite the same reach. I’m sure that I was the only kid in my neighbourhood reading the books, and I still come across many people who’ve never heard of them at all.
Jansson would be 100 years old this year, and a flood of publications is coming forth to commemorate the anniversary. In addition to Sculptor’s Daughter, there is a breathlessly appreciative, slightly jumbled biography by Boel Westin. The Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly has been issuing the comic strip versions of Moomin in beautiful new editions, and New York Review Books has been republishing her acute, surprising, adult fiction. Jansson was far from forgotten, but the breadth of her achievement is now clearer than it has ever been before.
Moomin is called a troll, but he looks like a hippopotamus that can walk on its hind legs. He is pale, with no special powers or attributes. He lives in Moomin Valley with a family evidently modeled on Jansson’s own — creative, eccentric, welcoming to strangers. Moominpappa is kind but self-involved, forever preoccupied with writing his memoirs or a novel. Moominmamma is unflappably warm, always rustling up meals and producing snacks and tummy powder from her handbag. An assortment of creatures fills out the cast, some semi-realistic, others truly strange, like the Hattifatteners, mute, wordless white beings that look a bit like ambulatory mushrooms. Some of the characters have edgy qualities through which Jansson’s leftist leanings and wry sense of humor can be discerned. Moomin’s close friend Snufkin is an anti-establishment nomad who disdains all possessions except his pipe and hat. Hemulens are self-absorbed depressives, and even the male ones wear dresses. There is a philosopher muskrat who makes a study of unnecessary things.
The universe of Moomin is sometimes magical, with a hobgoblin hat that can change Moomin into an ugly version of himself, but it is also cozy, a paracosm where danger is slight and the next meal of pancakes is never far away. Yet despite the hominess, the key feature of the Moomin books is a thrumming note of melancholy. Wistfulness colors many of the scenes, as well as a sense of restlessness that undercuts the security of the family, the valley, the home. Moomin is often struck with sad-ish feelings that he can’t define. Finn Family Moomintroll captures a typical moment this way: “It was the end of August — the time when owls hoot at night and flurries of bats swoop noiselessly over the garden. Moomin Wood was full of glow-worms, and the sea was disturbed. There was expectation and a certain sadness in the air, and the harvest moon came up huge and yellow. Moomintroll had always liked those last weeks of summer most, but he didn’t really know why.”
Maybe it seems funny to praise a series of children’s books for their melancholy. But when I think about what drew me to Moomin, I’m sure it was this sense that even a lovely summer night can have a certain sadness in the air. Classic children’s books like Charlotte’s Web or Where the Red Fern Grows help acquaint children with the sorrows that exist in life. But the sadness in the Moomin universe is more a facet of temperament than event; the books presume that children are already familiar with it, and locate it within themselves.
We say the phrase “a happy childhood” as if it’s a given, as if we understand it to be the most desirable thing. But the richly varied experiences of childhood, even at their most positive, must be more complicated than happiness. Moomin is a reasonably happy character — he’s not hapless or neurotic, at least — but his emotions range across a complex moodscape where happiness, as a label, doesn’t necessarily apply. What Moomin feels is often inarticulated; not quite sadness or happiness, but rather childhood emotions and moods that are not categorized or perhaps even nameable by adult language. When he comes across a giant ruby stolen by two tiny mice-creatures and hidden in their suitcase (a combination of the criminal, the magical, and the ordinary that is typical of Jansson), it strikes him as both beautiful and fearsome; “crimson flames shot out of its heart and it seemed like a great black tulip with stamens of fire.” Moomin first wishes his friend Snufkin could see it. And then “he stood there a long, long time while time grew weary and his thoughts were very big.”
Time grew weary and his thoughts were very big. It is a large world to experience and Moomin, like many children, has neither the language nor the perception to understand it completely. Sometimes they don’t know why they like things, or why they don’t. Sometimes they are overwhelmed. The Moomin books acknowledge this state without disparaging it or explaining it away. It simply exists. In her 1961 essay, “The Deceitful Writer of Children’s Books,” Jansson wrote that “the immature reader is often spellbound by what is unspoken and disguised. This risky but meaningful undercurrent is not incompatible with the child’s own inaccessible sense of mystery, tenderness, and cruelty. And fear.” In Moomin, I didn’t stumble upon a strange new universe; I found an atmosphere that matched the strangeness I already felt inside.
Jansson, who lived to be 86, produced many non-Moomin stories, as well as paintings, drawings, and other artwork. She also wrote adult novels, the best of which are The Summer Book and The True Deceiver. Not coincidentally, the two books have a great deal in common — both center around a relationship between an older woman and a younger one that is intricate and anti-sentimental. And both are infused with landscape, an island in summer in one, a small town in winter in the other.
The Summer Book is, I think, a perfect novel. The plot is simple to nonexistent: a six-year-old girl named Sophia spends the summer with her grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland. They wander about the island, play games, and have occasional spats. We learn in almost casual asides that Sophia’s mother has recently died, and her father seems to spend most of his time sleeping. The girl and her grandmother have only each other, but there is nothing saccharine about their bond. Amid the quiet descriptions of nature are conversations that hint at philosophical, religious, and emotional truths. At one point they get into an argument about Heaven, genuinely furious with another. In another scene, Sophia wants to play a game in which she calls the grandmother Mama and grandmother calls her Dear Child; the grandmother changes the subject. As Kathryn Davis points out in her introduction to the NYRB edition, Jansson wrote the novel in 1972, at the age of 60, a year after her own beloved mother had died, so she seems to have placed herself in the positions of both older woman and bereft child, each facing death in her own way. That The Summer Book feels simultaneously idyllic and sad — that it has moments of earthy humor (the grandmother teaches Sophia a song about cow shit) renders it very much a piece with the Moomin books.
The female dyad in The True Deceiver is darker and weirder. In a remote, wintry village, a reclusive children’s book artist, Anna, takes in — or is taken in by — a wolvish younger woman named Kati. As with The Summer Book, both women seem to have sprung from Jansson’s life — the older one burdened by her need to respond to her public; the younger woman wild, determined and willful — as if she had sprinkled herself across the pages. The relationship is taut and tension-filled. As you read, it’s almost impossible to get a handle on either character, to know where you stand with them or where they stand with each other, and the result is both infuriating and fascinating. It’s a mystery novel with no corpse or detective, only a palpable, unsettling feeling of criminality. It examines the prices of solitude and community without landing squarely in favor of one or the other. The two women, both outsiders, grow fiercely bound together and, like Moomin, they may not even know why.
Jansson was an artist and a businesswoman, an idealist and a pragmatist. She initially proposed to a man before making her life with a woman. She felt trapped by the success of the Moomin stories at times, but was too practical to walk away from it. She was able to take whatever strangeness she found in her own life and parlay it into stories, endlessly.
Reading is a tactile experience and never more so than in childhood, as our first encounters with covers and spines and illustrations are imprinted on our minds. My own childhood memories of beloved characters are inextricably tied to specific editions of books; Anne Shirley and Bilbo Baggins will forever look as they did the first time I saw them on a jacket. Jansson controlled the way we’d think of Moomins by including her own illustrations from the start, even in the text-dominated stories. She always knew how a Moomin should look, a Snufkin or a Haffenratter. Her strong visual aesthetic and droll humor were also perfectly suited to the rhythm of comic strip panels. They ran for years in a Swedish newspaper to which my father subscribed; he cut them out, translated them, and pasted them into a binder to me, forming my very own Moomin book, which to this day is probably my favorite gift ever.
These comic strip versions of Moomin are the ones currently being reissued by Drawn and Quarterly Books, a Canadian publisher. Of these, my favorite is called Moomin Builds a House. (It’s about Moomin building a house. Jansson liked directness in titles.) As a host of visitors descends upon his home, Moomin decides to build a sort of cottage out in the woods as an escape. One of the visitors to it is a tiny, obnoxious girl named Little My who plays Lucy to Moomin’s Charlie Brown. She torments him constantly, though in the end, the Moomin universe being what it is, she also helps him out.
Moomin’s house turns out rickety, slanted, hopelessly askew. I wanted one just like it. Inspired, I asked my dad, who was going out to run errands, to bring back a bunch of planks from the hardware store (I guess I meant 2 x 4s? I had no idea what I was talking about) so I could build my own house in our back yard. I was pretty sure I could do it — how hard could it be to nail some planks together into a house? If Moomin could make it happen, so could I.
“Okay,” he said absentmindedly. The planks did not materialize.
So another plan was foiled, just as it had been when I cut up some of my mother’s clothes to make myself a dress with puffed sleeves (see: Anne of Green Gables) and got in trouble. I never made a house. Instead, I used a series of available neighborhood hiding spots. There was a large bush in front of some townhouses down the street that I liked to crawl under. In retrospect, I wonder what the neighbors thought, seeing me dive into their landscaping, but it was Canada, and everybody was too nice to say anything. I sometimes hung out next to some giant boulders in the park across the street. My world was the suburbs, not the Finnish archipelago, and I can’t say it held the same loveliness as Jansson’s own childhood. But I worked with what I had.
I needed the bush and the boulders for the same reason Moomin needed a house: to have a place of my own, to meander inside my own head and see what I could find there. Moomin likes his home, his parents, and his friends, but he sometimes leaves them behind, because “a discovery (next to Mysterious Paths, Bathing and Secrets) was what he liked most of all.” Like the children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Secret Garden and many other books, Moomin’s adventures often begin with a secret place — a cave; a spot by a stream; the house he builds — that only he knows about, a knowledge that feels powerful to him, though he usually winds up sharing it with the rest of the community in the end.
The secret places in children’s books don’t just make children feel special; they make them feel recognized as people, layered and large and complex enough to hold something hidden inside. Perhaps, too, they represent a part of the self that is drawn to strangeness and ambiguity, to unnameable emotions and unrealistic goals, but can be lost as we grow to understand the world better; a part we forget when we have to grow up.
In Comet in Moominland — another direct title — a cave discovered by Moomin and his friends saves his family from what seems like imminent apocalypse. As the seas dry up and creatures flee the valley and a comet nears the earth, the Moomins and their friends hunker down inside it: “They thought everything had been burnt up or smashed to atoms when the comet came down, and that their cave was the only thing left in the world.” What I love is that even once the comet passes, they don’t rush to leave the cave to see what has happened outside. Instead, they stay there together, listening to the silence, not at all worried by the things they don’t yet know.