Ever notice the way you put something down right there and when you come back it’s completely gone? Or the way that you know you filled the salt shaker or sugar bowl or cat food bowl and then two minutes later, it’s half empty again? (Ok, in the case of the cat food bowl, we all just might be able to think of a mundane explanation.) Or the way pins and needles and other small things are always disappearing?
Kate certainly has, complaining to the elderly Mrs. May that things always seem to be missing. A smiling Mrs. May tells Kate that she thinks they are in the house. By they she means The Borrowers.
As Mrs. May explains, the Borrowers are very small people who generally live inside the walls of houses, or in pipes, or behind cupboards, or in other small and dark places, coming out to “borrow” things when large people—“human beans”—can’t see them. In a sense they are rather like the little house fairies of English legends. One character even thinks the Borrowers are fairies, although the Borrowers sharply disagree. They are all too mortal, all too human, although that is probably not a word they would use. And most of them, like most humans, don’t believe in fairies. They do, however, believe in “borrowing” things. I put the word in quotes because, as noted in the book, what the Borrowers call “borrowing” we would probably call “stealing,” although the Borrowers firmly state that “stealing” is only “stealing” if a Borrower takes from another Borrower. Otherwise it’s “borrowing,” and, after all, human beings are only around to give the Borrowers people to borrow from. They own nothing, not even, really, their names.
Mrs. May knows this not because she has ever seen or met a Borrower—she hasn’t—but because, she tells us, her sickly brother has. Which is almost, if not quite, the same thing, it seems.
The Borrowers her brother meets are a family of three: Pod, the father, responsible for most of the “borrowing,” Homily, the mother, nervous but skilled at creating a home from borrowed objects, and their daughter Arietty, curious about the world, but trapped behind the gate that guards their home. She is desperate to leave.
In response, her parents tell her about other Borrowers who have left. The stories are not exactly encouraging, but do nothing to dampen Arietty’s desire for a change. Surprisingly, it is the nervous, terrified Homily, after retelling various horrific family stories, who supports Arietty’s wish to go outside and learn how to Borrow. After all, Homily notes, things are different for Arietty: she has no friends to play with, no social interactions other than her parents. And what happens to Arietty if something happens to Pod and Homily? Arietty needs to learn how to care for herself. She needs to get outside. It’s a powerful argument, enough to persuade Pod to take Arietty on the next Borrowing trip. It’s not Homily’s fault exactly that everything goes wrong. After all, before that, quite a few things go right.
From Arietty’s point of view, this includes meeting up with a Boy—Mrs. May’s brother—who is able to bring them dollhouse furniture and other luxuries to improve their lives. More importantly, this gives Arietty, for the first time in her life, a real friend, someone to talk to other than her parents. (It seems to benefit the Boy as well, who is very lonely—lonely enough to need any friend, even imaginary ones.) Her dazed parents initially go along with this, until everyone remembers just why Borrowers are supposed to stay out of sight: getting noticed is not good for Borrowers.
The Borrowers is about many things: family, security, insecurity, and identity. Arietty, for all her enclosed life, has been brought up in the certainty that some things just are. Borrowing, and her initial encounter with a real human—Mrs. May’s younger brother, unnamed in the text—forces her to confront her assumptions and her viewpoints. Arietty has always assumed, for instance, that the world has many more Borrowers than large humans, and advances several excellent arguments for this—mostly dealing with the amount of things and food that big people must consume and eat. Mrs. May’s brother counters this claim by telling her of the hundreds and thousands of humans he has encountered. A stunned Arietty has to admit she only knows three Borrowers. She finds herself challenged, as well, on issues of morality—Mrs. May’s brother is firmly on the side that “borrowing” is “stealing,” although this show of morality does not prevent him from helping out the Borrowers by stealing—that is, borrowing—dollhouse furniture for their use. And she finds herself physically threatened.
Norton herself later said that the much of The Borrowers came from the uncertainty of wartime London, of hearing the stories of people who, like the Clock family, had spent their time hiding in walls, sneaking out only for necessities, terrified of the people who shared their homes—and who, like the Clock family, had watched relatives and friends vanish, possibly to escape, possibly to death. Perhaps one of the most moving moments comes when Arietty, thanks to Mrs. May’s brother, finally does hear from another Borrower, Hendreary, only to hear that Hendreary was under the impression that a third Borrower, Lupy was staying with the Clocks for a visit. But Lupy never arrived. It is a devastating moment.
Thus, when Homily discusses the dangers of going out, she is not speaking as an overprotective parent, but as someone who has seen her peers vanish, who has gone from a large social network, complete with regular parties and distinct social strata, to nearly complete isolation. (It’s tempting to wonder if this is why she and Pod have only one child, even if the practical reason is to ensure that Norton doesn’t have to handle too many characters.) Homily thinks—she hopes—that some of the Borrowers have escaped through gas pipes or other devices; that is, after all, what people say. She thinks—she fears—that another Borrower, a young girl apparently very much like Arietty, was eaten by a cat. But she doesn’t know. (Well, she’s pretty sure about the cat.) This uncertainty has its benefits—Homily can retreat into a comforting fantasy where she can tell herself that everything will be fine, where if she can just keep Arietty inside, everything will be safe. But that fantasy is a fragile one, frequently broken. And this—and the reader’s awareness that yes, the little Borrowers can easily be eaten by cats or picked up by humans or killed in any number of ways—makes Homily’s fears very, very real.
Which is why my eight year old self read the ending, where Mrs. May reveals that the Borrowers might not exist after all, and felt completely, absolutely, cheated.
Oh, it had been set up from the beginning. The first chapter, which establishes that this is a story in a story, also establishes that Mrs. May’s younger brother—the only human to see and talk to a Borrower and talk about it—also has a habit of telling impossible stories, even if his sisters believe that he also has the ability to see things that others cannot. And the ending somewhat softens the other terror of the ending—that the Borrowers might not have escaped. The idea that all three died while trying to leave the house is considerably easier to deal with if none of them ever existed.
Nonetheless, the ending infuriated me so much that I immediately wrote a little story of my own about a little girl living inside walls who came out and captured a robot and killed a witch. The story was panned by pretty much everybody for poor spelling and bad robotics (“ROBOTS don’t kill WITCHES” was one unkind review) and for not making any sense (“It’s SO STUPID they’re going to SEND YOU BACK A GRADE AGAIN” was the general assessment) but MY little girl was REAL, and that knowledge comforted me a bit.
A bit. How could, I asked, any writer have me go through this wonderful book and then tell me it wasn’t real? I felt cheated. (It didn’t help that I’d previously read a couple of the books in The Littles series, which also featured tiny people living in walls, who were, despite their mouse tails, completely real. At least within the book.) And so, sulking, I went on to read other books, even as the sequels gleamed at me temptingly. The sequels, I told myself, would just tell me once again that Borrowers don’t exist—and that wasn’t something I wanted to read.
These days, I can appreciate what Norton is doing here, the subtle interplays between the real and unreal, between what is story and what is reality, and the various ways stories can be told. In a very real way, The Borrowers is about storytelling—Mrs. May, her brother, Pod, Homily and Arietty all tell stories throughout the book, to explain things, and to survive. The trick is to see which stories are real—and how. I can also appreciate that Norton sees no need to spell matters out for children, or talk down to them, in a nice understanding of their reading abilities.
And so for once in this reread we have a book that I like much more as an adult. The Borrowers, contrary to my childhood memories, is a lovely, lovely book. If you haven’t read it, try burrowing into it some time. At the very least, you might find yourself realizing that all of those little things that keep disappearing in your house haven’t really disappeared. They’ve just been borrowed.
Still scarred, Mari Ness has never dared write a story featuring both robots and witches since. She lives in central Florida.