Do Borrowers really exist? After leaving the question decidedly open in the first book, and seemingly answered in the affirmative in the second, author Mary Norton opened The Borrowers Afloat with still more questions, reminding us that once again, the Borrowers exist—if they exist at all—only in second and third hand stories told to children eager to believe. AUUGH.
As in the previous books, The Borrowers Afloat begins with this framing story, as elderly Mrs. May talks first to her attorney and then to Kate about the cottage she just inherited and the Borrowers who may or may not have lived there and in the nearby great house, Firbank Hall. It also starts on a rather cruel note, with several remarks about Mrs. May’s age; the attorney even tells her that at their age, it’s wiser to plant flowers than fruit. Ouch. Mrs. May’s surprisingly gentle response, under the circumstances, is that she intends to leave the cottage to Kate, and therefore, she does need to plant for the future. By what is probably not a coincidence, the Borrowers Pod and Homily, too, want to leave a home for their daughter, and although they aren’t planning on planting anything, they do need to plan for the future.
As Mrs. May and Kate reconstruct the story, Pod, Homily and Arrietty have just arrived at the cottage used by the groundskeeper after a summer and fall of terror and paradise. Paradise, at least, for Arrietty. Not making the mistake of assuming that children would read these books in order, Norton then repeats the last section of the last book verbatim, anchoring the beginning of the story in a moment of safety and comfort. The potentially joyful resolution, however, turns out to be considerably less joyful in reality. Yes, the three other Borrowers have found a home and other Borrowers to socialize with at long last, and the text suggests that just possibly Arrietty might be able to find friends among her cousins. But it becomes clear that although Hendreary and Lupy will certainly let the three stay there, they have the distinct status of poor relations. Hendreary points out that the cottage does not offer a lot of borrowing opportunities, and tells Pod to stay at home; Lupy bullies Homily into unpaid and thankless work; Homily realizes that their relatives have essentially stolen her furniture and have no plans to return it. Arrietty feels trapped all over again. Even Pod’s helpful shoemaking skills can only do so much to alleviate the situation.
So when they learn from human Tom that the humans in the cottage are about to leave, closing up the cottage for indefinite reasons, they seize the opportunity to go. Arrietty, indeed, is almost grateful for the opportunity to leave, even if she has found a friend in Tom. Their exit from the cottage is not entirely without excitement—most notably a terrifying encounter with a ferret—but soon enough they are making a slow journey down a stream, thanks largely to Spiller.
Spiller reveals a tiny bit more about himself on the journey: too restless to live inside a human home, he makes his living by trading among the Borrowers—which does imply that far more of them are still around than the first book had suggested. Still, all of them except for Stiller are too terrified, and lack the transportation, to do a lot of socializing, and—perhaps fortunately in a book already filled with numerous side characters—Pod, Homily and Arrietty don’t meet any of them on their journey. They do, however, encounter Mild Eye—the man who had almost captured them in the previous book. Mild Eye is fishing—technically poaching—and Homily gets caught on his fishhook, requiring rescue again.
If the previous books had borrowed (sorry!) from World War II, this book instead seems to be fighting against the conformity of the 1950s, especially in the complaints from Homily and Arrietty. This in turn leads to a problem, however: the previous books had dealt directly with fear, and the decision of the characters not to allow fear to rule their lives. Here, the characters are focusing on the need to find full employment and avoid boredom. These are important things, but they don’t have quite the same urgency as the fears of isolation, disappearance, and death.
Like its predecessor, The Borrowers Afloat has a distinctly transitory feeling about it, only heightened when the book ends with Pod, Homily and Arrietty never reaching their destination. The book also ends with the now usual sense of uncertainty and danger: the humans of Firbank Hall have just found more things that once belonged to the Borrowers, suggesting that Borrowers are very real (the ongoing unanswered question of the series). But then, how, exactly, has Tom learned this part of the story? Pod, Homily and Arrietty have left his house, after all, without telling him where they were going. On the one hand, this is a distinct hint that the three survived to tell their tale. On the other hand, it’s another suggestion that Tom is just making the whole thing up, either to amuse Kate or himself, or because he has begun to believe his own tales. As the book reminds us, Tom’s neighbors believe he is insane, and diary or no diary, this may all be in his head—especially as he admits to having met Mrs. May’s brother, whose handwriting is so suspiciously similar to the tiny handwriting in Arrietty’s diary.
Despite these suggestions, the existence of the Borrowers seems somehow more certain in this book—which makes it all the odder that this somehow seems less satisfactory than either of its predecessor. Perhaps because this is another book ending with the Borrowers on the run, just as their existence had seemed settled; perhaps because none of the main characters seem to change that much. Indeed, Homily seems almost to have regressed back to the quavering person we first met. To be fair, trauma—and Homily has endured a lot of trauma—can do that to people, and Norton had witnessed enough of that in her life to make it seem real in her fiction.
This is another book of uncertainty, of change, of fear, with the occasional joyful moment—outside at last! A full egg to eat and share! The pace, too, seems slower, even though I was surprised to realize that more happens in this book than in the first two books; it just doesn’t feel that way. And the rather abrupt ending suggests that Norton already knew she would be writing another book in the series. Nonetheless, if you’ve read this far, you should probably continue.
Mari Ness cannot believe that three books in she still doesn’t know if the Borrowers exist. She lives in Florida, where something—not necessarily the Borrowers—is consuming the cookies in her kitchen.