Jun 20 2013 5:00pm

Miniaturized Wilderness Survival: The Borrowers Afield

The writing and publication of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers Afield was almost inevitable. The Borrowers, after all, had left readers with multiple questions: Had the Borrowers survived? If they had, would Arietty ever get a chance to meet other Borrowers and make friends—and potentially more little Borrowers? (Even at age eight I worried about this last question—her prospects did not seem too bright.) Would her mother ever stop worrying? And above all—

Did the Borrowers really exist?

The Borrowers Afield opens with the grown-up Kate, a full sized human being, trying to answer these questions. Mrs. May has inherited a small cottage near Firbank Hall, the large house that was the setting for the previous book. This in turn means that eleven year old Kate (I know, confusing, but stay with me) and Mrs. May have the chance to go to Firbank Hall and look for Borrowers on their own. To their disappointment, they find that Firbank Hall has been converted into a school (a common fate for many of the great English country homes after World War II), and they cannot find a single trace of the Borrowers. But their stop at the cottage proves much more fortunate, as Tom Goodenough, the old man there, bitter and angry that he must now leave the home he has lived in for decades, remembers the Borrowers—and is willing to talk to Kate about them. Even better, he has Arietty’s diary—the very diary that may have been written by Mrs. May’s brother, or may, indeed, be a real relic of the Borrowers.

Tom knows additional little details about the Borrowers—including the fact that they prefer to live in tidy houses, since that way they won’t have a problem finding stuff, limiting their very real danger. (This has the very strong sound of something added to the story in the hopes of stopping children from dropping small objects here and there for Borrowers to find.) More importantly, he knows what happened to the Borrowers after their flight from Firbank Hall: a terrifying and exhilarating stay outdoors.

Exhilarating, that is, for Arietty, who has always longed to explore. For her, most of the trip is an adventure, and even all of the nightmarish elements (insects, grass, pollen, crows, living in a boot) only help to make the glorious moments more glorious. Her mother, Homily, distinctly out of her element, does not do nearly as well. At her husband Pod’s request, Homily tries to be practical and brave, but living without meat, fire, and other necessities terrifies her. The lack of fire also means no hot tea, which in turn means that the family isn’t just dealing with fleeing their home; they’re also suffering from caffeine deprivation. No wonder all of them are cranky. The discovery that someone has entered the boot that they are sheltering in while they were off searching for other Borrowers and food hardly helps the situation. No wonder Homily wants to return home.

The “somebody” turns out to be Spiller, a rather wild Borrower apparently living entirely by hunting, an activity that horrifies Arietty. (Enter another small moment aimed at children and even grown-ups who don’t spend much time wondering where the meat on their table comes from; Norton is clearly not a vegetarian, but she does believe in awareness.) Spiller doesn’t talk much, and his attempt to please Homily by giving her a cricket doesn’t help much. Once he saves Arietty’s life, however, things improve.

At least through summer and fall. As winter arrives, however, problems mount: Spiller vanishes; the family nearly runs out of food; and their boot is picked up by a gypsy called Mild Eye, while they are still in it. (It’s a very nice gentleman’s boot even if it was unaccountably left outside in the rain. This never really gets explained.) Fortunately for the Borrowers, no human is inclined to believe Mild Eye’s story, and the Borrowers soon find themselves rescued by Spiller and Tom Goodenough. Tom, it seems, is collecting Borrowers, and he can even offer the family a home.

The Borrowers Afield is beautifully written and engrossing, even suspenseful. Norton excels at creating tiny details, and showing the joy Arietty takes in nature and, later, sledding. But something seems off with Arietty’s meeting with Spiller. Arietty, after all, has never met another Borrower other than her parents; in the last book, she had faced the terrifying possibility that the three of them might be the last Borrowers left on earth, and that she might spend her last years alone. Indeed, the very likelihood of this possibility had been exactly why Homily had agreed to allow Arietty to go Borrowing in the first place—a decision that in turn led to Arietty’s friendship with Mrs. May’s brother, which in turn led to their near discovery, which in turn led to this flight and the subsequent deprivations and danger.

After all this, I somehow expect Arietty, at least, to have more of a reaction to finding out that she is not, as she thought, all that alone, that at least one other Borrower is still alive. Perhaps she believed that all along; still, her reaction to meeting Spiller seems somewhat dimmed, especially since this is only the second person apart from her parents that she has ever spoken to. Homily’s reaction is almost as bad: ok, yes, I can see that having someone arrive with a cricket is not the best introduction in the world, and Homily has met other Borrowers. But in the last book, Homily had faced the reality that they might never see other Borrowers again, and that Arietty might grow up alone. In light of that, her reaction seems somewhat off.

And the end seems vaguely unsatisfying. Oh, certainly the ending seems happy enough, with all three Borrowers reunited with friends and family, and Arietty gaining new friends in Spiller and Tom Goodenough. But I couldn’t help wondering: why, given that Spiller clearly knows that another family is nearby, and that Homily and Pod at least are not particularly good at living outdoors, does he not tell them about this family? If Lupy is so against and so terrified of humans knowing anything about the Borrowers, why does she continue to live in a cottage where a boy is well aware of their existence?

And although on one level I’m pleased to learn that Eggletina was not, in fact, eaten by a cat, that very discovery seems to rob the books of what had been a very real fear, while not necessarily providing that much relief or reassurance for readers. Eggletina had, after all, been only a very shadowy figure in the first book, so having her pop up alive does not have quite the wow factor it could have.

Reading this, I’m struck by something else: the way The Borrowers Afield is a children’s book mostly about adult characters. Only three children appear in it: Arietty, Spiller, and Tom, and of these three, only Tom is really a child—and he is barely in the book. Not to mention that in his first appearance he is an old man heading to a nursing home. His entire “child” appearance lasts for only a few pages. Spiller lives entirely on his own, feeding and caring for himself. (In the next book we find out that he even runs a sort of a business.) Spiller has, granted, had to do this for a long time—to the point where he is no longer comfortable talking to others—but that very length of time places him all that more firmly into the adult world. Arietty is fourteen, on the edge of adulthood by any standard, and shares most of the plot and her time with her parents. Her moments alone are few. And although she still has to obey her parents, she is also listened to and counted in on the family decision making. In some ways, indeed, they are more of a team than a family, and this story is as much Homily and Pod’s story as it is Arietty’s.

It’s not that adult characters can’t or shouldn’t be in children’s books; they are, after all, a significant part of a child’s world. And for child readers, seeing adults grow and change or admit they’ve been wrong can be deeply satisfying. It’s just somewhat odd. I’d almost characterize The Borrowers Afield as a young adult novel, except that it doesn’t quite feel like that, either, especially because in the framing story, Kate is gathering the story together to tell to her children, doing so by remembering what people told her when she was a child. The Borrowers are something that only children can really believe in, it seems. Oh, certainly, some of the adults notice a few odd things, or wonder, but the only two humans who have spoken to the Borrowers so far in this series are kids. I guess I can only conclude that, like the best of children’s books, this is really a book for all ages.

Mari Ness’s ongoing coffee addiction makes her particularly sympathetic to the caffeine withdrawals in this book. She lives in central Florida, with ample supplies of tea and coffee on hand.

1. HelenS
Small correction: Arrietty has two R's.
2. MargaretM
I loved these books as a child. I remember making "borrower houses" in cupboards and other items I imagined them using.
3. a1ay
There was a very good BBC adaptation with Ian Holm! as Pod.

Also, of course, Pterry's related "Truckers" trilogy; basically Borrowers with a bigger cast, living in a department store rather than a house.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@HelenS -- Auugh! Blame it on lingering childhood resentment of the first book.

@MargaretM -- That's awesome! Did you just imagine the houses or did you actually build something similar to a doll house?

@a1ay -- And I think T. H. White did something with tiny people as well, although I think his version was meant as a sequel to Gulliver's Travels. It's certainly something that catches the imagination.
5. Bayushi
T.H. White wrote Mistress Masham's Repose, which featured Lilliputians, yes.

It's been a few years since I read these books, (my local main library has them, so sometimes, I'll go dip into them.) What I always remembered best was Spiller wearing mouse skin the way some British books had gamekeepers wearing moleskin. And it never occurred to me until just now to wonder if moleskin is mole-skin or if that's just what they called it.
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
I'm under the impression that moleskin is a type of cotton, and the internet confirms that, but now you have me wondering if the cotton replaced the actual wearing of mole skins. Hmm.

I'm going to guess no, just because cloaks/clothing made of mouse fur tended to make a tremendous impression on people because of the effort involved in collecting/curing/stitching so many, so they tend to show up mostly in myths/fairy tales alongside other improbable clothing, and moles aren't that much larger. But I'm more than willing to be corrected on this one.
7. Margaret M
@ MariCats, yes like a doll house made out of "found" objects in a cupboards. Including wooden cotton reel stools from my grandma as per the book's description.
Beccy Higman
8. Jazzlet
I have a friend who does mole catching among other things and he is curing moleskins at the moment. I don't know what he intends to make with them, but a waistcoat wouldn't take that many skins, the ones he showed me were about 7" by 3".
9. a1ay
Mistress Masham's Repose is a classic - well worth a read. Like the Once and Future King, it's definitely a postwar book: the Lilliputians are initially comic, but when they start discussing things with Maria (the girl who finds them) they start to sound like Olaudah Equiano - lots of talk about slavery and freedom. The Lilliputians are physically small - and so represent all the other nations who are economically and militarily weak - and their culture's different and seems ludicrous to us, but the point's hammered home again and again that this doesn't make them any more foolish or less worthy than normal humans. In a way White's Lilliputians are the reverse of Swift's, who are physically small and mentally and morally small as well - locked in ludicrous religious dispute and obsessed with ceremony.

And though there's an adult narrator, who talks down to the reader in a rather Hobbitish way, he says some fairly unvarnished things as well from time to time. "So, you see, it is always best to go down fighting, and if anybody ever tries to beat you, you should fight them til you die."
10. John Cowan
What makes mole skin, or rather mole fur, special is that it has no natural direction. A cat's fur, for example, has a definite "right" and "wrong" way that you pet it, but a mole can back out of a tunnel gone wrong without messing up its fur. Moleskin fabric is indeed made from cotton and comes in two styles, German and British. The German kind has a pile with the same non-directional property as mole fur; the British kind starts out the same way, but the pile is clipped short. During the 19th century, notebooks were sometimes covered in British moleskin; the Italian company Moleskine uses this variant of the word as its trademark for notebooks.

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