Monday, July 21, 2008

Rabbit Hill

Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson is another classic children's book that I never read as a child. And I thought I was well-read!

I think I would have really enjoyed Rabbit Hill, since one of my favorite children's books was another talking animal one - the original Bambi, by Felix Salten. And a few years after that, I also loved Watership Down. I wonder if Richard Adams read Rabbit Hill as well as The Tale of Peter Rabbit as a child or young man?

Anyway, Rabbit Hill is definitely an old-fashioned story, and rather slow-paced, as Alicia noted. As an adult, I didn't mind the wordiness and lack of action so much (especially since the story is only 128 pages long). But the things that I really enjoyed in this book as an adult are probably things that a lot of kids would not be interested in or wouldn't even notice.

I loved the comparisons between the different people that lived on Rabbit Hill (which was also the name of Lawson's country home in Connecticut, I gathered), especially the difference between "planting folks" (gardeners) and others:
Then evil days had fallen upon the Hill. The good Folks had moved away and their successors had been mean, shiftless, inconsiderate. Sumac, baybery, and poison ivy had taken over the fields, the lawns had gone to crab grass and weeds, and there was no garden (p. 14).
I spent a little time wondering if the animals were really better off with people living on the hill and actively managing the land. I know that many of the animals in the story (like rabbits, groundhogs, moles, and fieldmice) do benefit from human agriculture, and especially like to eat some of the species in lawns and gardens, but is there really that much of a gain? What if the new folks didn't plant a vegetable garden? And what about today's suburban enclaves of asphalt, golf-course grass, and gravel with a few yew bushes or yuccas and day lilies? These landscapes must produce a huge net loss when it comes to biodiversity and small creature population. Though I have heard that vegetable gardening is getting more popular again.

I really enjoyed all of the descriptions of ecological succession, with wars and economic changes and people and farms, factories, and gardens coming and going, and the rabbits continuing on, adapting to the Black Roads and various folks' dogs and cats.

Although Father Rabbit's verbosity did occasionally get on my nerves, in general I really liked the language and the tone of the story. The "free garbidge" that the skunk loved was a nice touch, and I squealed when Phewie the skunk goes on to mention that Deer was "not above a mess of garden sass* now and then" (p. 24). The discussion of "Reading rots the mind" was fun, and I thought it was cute that the woodchuck (i.e., groundhog) was named Porkey. I did think the story got more exciting as it concluded.

I wonder if Rabbit Hill won the Newbery in 1945 because Americans really needed comforting stories of home at that point in time. It is a comfortable book, with its vision of little creatures living in harmony with (at least a couple of well-read) humans on a picture-perfect farm. I want to go spend a quiet weekend there, eating garden sass and watching the animals come out at dusk.


*garden sass = garden sauce, an old-fashioned term for vegetables that I blogged about a few years ago. A little more research on the term shows that "garden sass" (instead of sauce) was already being used by 1856, as in this Lea & Perrins ad for Worcestershire sauce:
Lexicographers tell us there are various kinds of sauce, some of which are exceedingly appetizing, while others are difficult of digestion. The old Colonists, and even modern Yankees and Virginians, speak in their quaint rustical way of “garden sass,” under which term they include all culinary vegetables.
In 1947, in the Secrets of New England Cooking, Ella Shannon Bowles and Dorothy Siemering Towle noted that:
Garden sauce and green sauce were old English terms dating from the time of Beaumont and Fletcher and perhaps before. Corrupted in New England to garden sass, it included all the vegetables raised in the garden. At one time some of the vegetables were classified as short sauce, others as long sauce, but these finer distinctions have been lost, and in northern New Hampshire and Maine, even today, garden sass is the accepted term for all garden vegetables.
I think this sentence in Lawson (and Bowles and Towle a few years later) are around the last print references I've found to "garden sass," except for the recent works that refer to it as an antiquated or no-longer-used term.

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