The Wombles to the Rescue opens with happy news indeed: thanks to changes in the Big Road, the Wombles of Wimbledon can at last return to their comfortable burrow in Wimbledon, allowing them to be the Wombles of Wimbledon again. For all of Hyde Park’s many advantages, it just Wasn’t Home, nor was it part of the Womble song. And, further happy news on the environmental front: Human Beings, after the terrors of the last book, are at last learning how to pick up after themselves and not throw quite so much away in random littering places. Of course, as Tobermory notes gloomily, this is in part because Human Beings have been so wasteful that they are now running short on multiple items, forcing them to conserve. And, as Madame Cholet and Great Uncle Bavaria note, with rising alarm, this unforeseen tidiness and conservation means less tossed away food for the Wombles to gather—this just as Human Beings are also merrily cutting back on natural areas, turning these areas into concrete and boring lawns that humans can walk on. Oh, it’s understandable enough that Humans prefer lawns to brambles and woods, but in the meantime, what will Wombles eat?
So terrible is the crisis that Great Uncle Bulgaria is summoned to a conference in the United States to discuss ways for Wombles to combat the growing shortages, taking young Bungo with him. I cannot help but feel a faint sense that this trip has rather less to do with a genuine worldwide Womble crisis, and more to do with a genuine authorial need to get the two most likely Womble leaders and in particular the bossy Bungo out of the plot. Not ones to wait around for American assistance, the remaining Wombles, advised of the problems, set to Wombling their way towards finding a solution. Between regular servings of Madame Cholet’s elaborately cooked meals, of course.
The departure of Great Uncle Bulgaria and Bungo means that more of the book can focus on the other young Wombles: Tomsk, still not one of the brighter Wombles around, now missing his new friend Omsk, but still able to focus on his golf game (unlike many pro golfers, he can now complete the Wimbledon course regularly under par, and in terrible weather conditions) and occasionally come up with a surprisingly practical solution to problems; Orinico, still focused on his stomach and napping, two obsessions that allow him to come up with still more practical solutions; and scientific Wellington, eager to discover new ways of finding oil. (Wombles use oil to keep their doors quiet and easy to move.)
The book also introduces a new character, the rather mysterious Cousin Botany, who hails from Australia and is not exactly forthcoming about what he is doing. Rest assured, oh readers who may be freaking out at the thought of a Womble engaged in Less than Forthright Activities—Cousin Botany is engaged in a project of prime scientific importance indeed which will help save the Wombles.
And this time around, finally, the return of Alderney! Yay! Admittedly, Alderney is still mostly just pushing a cart around serving food while the other Wombles have most of the adventures and discoveries. But at least this time she shows a bit of ambition—she wants to be a cook. Also, she’s joined by young Womble Shansi, another girl, finally giving the Wombles a slightly more even gender feel.
I must admit to somewhat mixed feelings about Shansi. On the one hand, as a character she’s very easy for a child to identify with. Shansi has just emerged from the Womblegarten, a place she loved, and where she was happy and successful, and begins the book feeling as if she is completely incompetent at all adult things. She even manages to—gasp—get herself captured by humans, requiring Wellington to rescue her. (The resulting rescue attempt attracts so much attention that even Great Uncle Bulgaria over in the United States reads about it in the Human Being news. Gasp.) Her struggles feel very real, and very sympathetic, and when she triumphs and discovers that she can still use her artistic talents as a working Womble, this is all highly satisfactory.
But Shansi, who also has a name based on a Chinese place name (taken, like all other Womble names, from Great Uncle Bulgaria’s atlas) is not only shy, but also, unlike every other Womble, often has problems speaking, usually leaving out pronouns and saying things like “Am not clever.” And her reward for her talents? To return to the Womblegarten. Admittedly, Miss Adelaide puts Shansi in charge of teaching Womble crafts, and Shansi loves the Womblegarten more than any other place in the burrow. But it leaves a slightly off taste for me, especially since Alderney is still running around serving food to all of the male Wombles.
Incidentally, within the text of this book, we are told that “Shansi…was rather shy as she had only just chosen her name, which was Chinese.” And that ends her ethnic identification. At the end of the ebook, in the list of characters created for this edition, we are somewhat unexpectedly told that Shansi “came from China on a Womble exchange visit when she was very young in order to learn English in the Womblegarten.” As a kid, I always read Shansi as British—these were, after all, the Wombles of Wimbledon, and the series had always gone out of its way to label other Wombles as Wombles of Scotland, Wombles initially of Australia and then of Wimbledon, Wombles of the Soviet Union, and so on, so if Shansi was Chinese, she should have been a Womble from China, or so ran my little mind. Especially since Bungo, named after a place in Japan, was most definitely British, and even had a nice British accent on the BBC Worldwide Service. Reading the book now I am not entirely sure what Beresford had in mind, but even with the name “Shansi” and the verbal issues, “China” is not exactly coming to my mind.
The hands down disastrous failure of the book is, once again, brought about by Orinico, who this time actually consents to be photographed by Human Beings and, worse, tells them all about growing things underwater for food. Fortunately, Orinico is mistaken for an important scientist and thus, rather than betraying the existence of the Wombles, manages to give a nice lecture to Human Beings about the importance of environmentalism and agriculture and give sensible advice on food shortages.
It is not, however, all environmental lessons: Beresford has a lot of fun with the humor here, both physical and verbal. Her plotting is tighter than usual, giving the book a decidedly zippy feel, in contrast with the somewhat more leisurely earlier books; reading this, I was startled to realize that in fact several months pass throughout the course of the book. It feels as if Beresford is describing mere days, or at most weeks. This is definitely one of the more enjoyable Womble books, perhaps because for once, the criticism of Human Beings is slightly toned down (if never entirely absent), perhaps because it’s always good to see the Wombles thinking and inventing their way through a crisis, or perhaps because, let’s face it: no matter how nice Hyde Park might be, the Wombles belong in Wimbledon.
Since the Womble book immediately preceding this one, The Invisible Womble, is quite quite short, I’ll just slide it into this post as an extra. The Invisible Womble consists of five short stories, filled with puns and jokes, including the story lending its title to the entire book, “The Invisible Womble.” The stories are probably a bit too predictable for adult readers, especially the last, the almost sad story of Bungo’s birthday (don’t worry too much, little listeners), but can provide some excellent bedtime reading for small listeners. Parents should be aware, however, that this is probably not an ideal book to start the series with, since the stories do assume that readers and small listeners have had a basic introduction to the Womble world and know the major Womble characters.
Beresford wrote one more book in the series, The Wombles Go Round the World, which if my childhood memory is accurate is completely awesome because it has a Real Live Yeti. (Who is of course a Womble.) But next post, it’s off to a considerably nastier British author.
Mari Ness managed to get through this entire series without buying any little Womble toys. She feels she deserves some congratulations for this.