– The Wandering Wombles
The Wandering Wombles begins with a crisis moment for the Wimbledon Womble community: a new road, combined with ever larger and louder lorries, is causing so much noise within their Burrow that the very tunnels are shaking and falling apart. Great Uncle Bulgaria initially indulges in the overly optimistic hope that perhaps—just perhaps—the noise will also irritate the Human Beings so much that they will decide that they really don’t need all of those things in the lorries, and shut down the road. Great Uncle Bulgaria may well be the wisest of the Wombles. But truth be told, he doesn’t always have strong insights into humans.
Fortunately, his creator does.
A few more incidents convince the Wombles decide they have to move before the collapsing burrow kills them all. Poor Bungo and Orinico find themselves turned into Special Agents—poor Bungo because, being Bungo, he’s desperate to tell the rest of the Burrow how special and wonderful he is and can’t because this is all Top Secret, and poor Orinico because Special Agents have to be fit, which means exercise and diet, two activities not high on Orinico’s list of Favorite Womble Activities. I believe nearly everyone can sympathize. Their task: find a new home for the Wombles, which means exploring all of Britain. The home has to be both safe from lorries and be in a location where the Wombles can continue working—in other words, continue their jobs of picking up and recycling trash.
Their journey has multiple terrors—London traffic, London road signs, the English Channel, and sheep. And, more alarmingly still, an unexpected kidnapping. And the Loch Ness monster, who turns out to be a friendly sort of Water-Womble with a decided Scottish accent.
The Loch Ness Mons—I mean, Loch Ness Womble—is not at all pleased with Humans, finding their constant attempts to track her down with cars, cameras, helicopters and even submarines very invasive. “They’ve no manners,” she says sadly. “No manners at all.” This is difficult to argue with. Under the circumstances, the Loch Ness Womble cannot exactly advise the Wimbledon Wombles to move to Scotland to enjoy peace and quiet. (See what you did, tourists?) And worse, being in Scotland means—gasp—having to listen to bagpipes. This is all very distressing.
Meanwhile, back in the Womble burrow, the Wombles find themselves, gulp, actually sinking thanks to the noises and weight of the lorries, meaning that the Wombles may have to move even sooner than they anticipated. And if you are thinking, this means the Wombles just have to explore Buckingham Palace, or more specifically its grounds, then you have already grasped the Womble mindset. If you are also thinking that this might end including an encounter with Her Gracious Majesty the Queen for a second book in a row, you are also in the Womble mindset. Wombles, incidentally, for all their environmental activism, are decidedly Royalists—that, or Beresford realized that her child readers would love to visit the Queen and decided to indulge these readers with some fantasy moments. And if you are finally thinking that this all led to disguising Tomsk as a Buckingham Palace guard complete with the silly hat, and a scene that suggests that just perhaps the London police force is not as attentive or observant as we all might hope, then you might just be a secret Womble.
As you might be guessing, this turns out to be a lot of fun. Abandoning her slow, year long tale of the changes of seasons for a more rigorous plot allowed Bereford to stretch the feeling of suspense throughout the book, and she also has considerable fun introducing poor Bungo and Orinico to the Real World. And in many ways, choosing those two as explorers only underlines the critical importance of this mission: if you are desperate enough to send Bungo and Orinico, neither of whom exactly earned heaps of approbation in the last book, you are desperate indeed. Even readers new to the series, reading about the extensive and sadly necessary training regime the two must undergo, can get a general sense of alarm.
The Wondering Wombles also introduces a new character: shy bookworm (and later scientist) Wellington. Wellington has some major issues in life: for one, he is often so caught up in whatever he is reading that he misses his Womble meals (given the general Womble fixation on food, yes, this is a Big Deal). For two, he finds it very hard to concentrate on anything that isn’t a book. (I think almost everyone reading this post will sympathize.) Thus, he is not particularly good at the usual Womble duties and even had a search party looking for him once; he has sadly concluded that the rest of the Wombles must hate him as a result. Wellington, a side character here, will later rise to prominence in the series as Beresford realized how well he could stand in for a young, uncertain child—more typical of her readers than the often brash and confident Bungo.
But this apparently also meant losing one character: Alderney, the sometimes reckless young girl Womble whose job was to take a trolley around filled with food to all of the other working Wombles. It’s not exactly that I’m disappointed to see Alderney, who like the other two female Wombles, was restricted to a more traditional girl’s role, leave the series, except that this does leave us with only two women characters: Madame Cholet Womble, who takes another side role here, and Miss Adelaide Womble, who does at least get one showdown scene with the Scottish Wombles later in the book. Notably, they are constantly placed in the ranks of the “older” Wombles, which is why Madame Cholet runs the kitchen and Miss Adelaide runs the Womblegarten, and why they are not the first to be selected for adventures. And while both gain the rare honors of titles (the only other person with a title is Great Uncle Bulgaria), in some ways, their titles of Madame and Miss serve to isolate them just a little bit from the Womble family. Bulgaria is an Uncle. Miss is a teacher.
I may be reacting in part because it seems a bit odd to see this gender disparity in a book otherwise so fixated on the importance of caring for the environment and sharing everything you have, even food. The environmental message is in some ways slightly toned down here, replaced by adventures on the road, and in other ways greatly increased: destructive Human activities are described as not merely creating hard work for Wombles, but as potentially fatal. The sighs of the Loch Ness Womble for earlier days, when Water Wombles could be free to play and enjoy their cleaning and recycling activities, are all too real, and the picture drawn of Wombles suffocating and almost dying as their home collapses above them, thanks to the human desire for more and more goods transported by lorries, is all far too real. It was a message Beresford would intensify in the next Womble book.
Mari Ness is not overly convinced by statements from Buckingham Palace assuring young readers that Her Majesty, the Queen, has not in fact entered into secret negotiations with fantastical furry creatures who live underground.