Mary Norton’s The Borrowers Aloft begins on an odd note for the series: not a word about Kate, who up until this point has been the main narrator and transcriber of the stories about the Borrowers. Instead, it starts by telling us about two model villages. In this case, “model” means little, like dollhouses; but try as I might, the only image I could think of was the replicas of various U.S. cities in Legoland Florida. (Which—off topic alert!—everyone should go see. Back on topic.) The first of these model villages is Little Fordham—the place Homily, Pod, and Arietty were trying to reach at the end of the last book—owned by Mr. Pott. The second is Ballyhoggin, owned by Mr. Platter. (You can all take a moment to quietly groan at the puns.)
Norton assures us that a third village, built by a young girl, also exists, but that this third village wasn’t very important—before going right ahead and mentioning it again in the next paragraph. But as it turns out, she’s right: the village is never mentioned again, with the focus returning to the two rival model villages, the Borrowers, and—if you couldn’t tell from the title—balloons.
Not that the two model villages have exactly equal rivalries. Mr. Pott has built his little model village out of an obsession for trains, even managing to pick up a little electric locomotive. Assuming that the early stories of the Borrowers probably take place in the early 1900s, the timing of the electric toy train just barely works—Lionel issued its first electric train locomotive in 1903, and it makes sense that someone as passionate about trains and badgers would have one of the first ones. Nonetheless, adding electric anything to the stories of the Borrowers somewhat threw me for a bit; I was used to thinking of Pod, Homily, and Arietty living in a pre-electrical age, a feeling only strengthened when the three later share an awestruck moment of wonder while watching electric lights. Anyway. Mr. Pott is into trains for love, not money; he charges a nominal admission to visitors, but children get in for free.
Mr. Platter, a thoroughly unpleasant man who prefers to rent to the elderly so he can make money on their funeral expenses later, is most definitely in it for the money. His wife, Mrs. Platter, has been trying to supplement their income by providing cheap teas, but since potential customers keep hopping over to see Mr. Pott’s place, the venture is not going well. Mr. Platter decides to build a model village of his own, making multiple trips over to Mr. Pott’s village for a bit of spying. On one of those trips, he sees the Borrowers—and decides that he must have those in his own village. A few pages later, the Borrowers are kidnapped.
This has happened in part because of greed (on Mr. Platter’s part) and boredom (on Arietty’s part.) Told to be still and accept her lot in life as a Borrower, Arietty, tired of crawling and hiding, has instead made friends with yet another human, Miss Menzies. (It’s kinda miraculous that more humans don’t know about the Borrowers by now.) As with her first friendship with a human, she is punished severely for this. The Borrowers spend months imprisoned by Mr. and Mrs. Platter, with seemingly no chance to escape. Pod falls into a severe depression. Homily is indignant about the clothes and food given to them—the Platters do seem to think of the Borrowers as cats, or rather, creatures lesser than cats.
It again takes Arietty to come up with a solution—one you might guess from the title. A balloon.
Fortunately, they don’t actually have to build a balloon—the Platters have already manufactured some for publicity purposes. Equally fortunately, they don’t exactly need to search for helium, since the house is connected to gas. (Very fortunately for child readers Pod spends time thinking about just how dangerous it is to use heating gas to inflate a balloon. I don’t know if this completely stopped any attempts to fill balloons in this method, but, maybe?) The problem is the basket and tying the basket to the balloon. Fortunately they have the net that captured them on hand—and a music box.
In a way, this kidnapping only emphasizes the point made in the earlier books: for Borrowers, getting seen is the ultimate danger. But something deeper is going on here. The Borrowers finally have the seemingly idyllic life: a little home made to their size, a train to ride on, various bits of food (even if Homily is unhappy about eating scraps meant for the trash), and, for Arietty, not one but two friends. Everything is, as is proper for Borrowers, borrowed. They did not, after all, build their little home or the train, and their food is most certainly borrowed.
At the same time, unlike proper Borrowers, who stay within walls and pipes and under floors, sneaking out only on rare occasions to Borrow things, Pod, Homily, and Arietty are once again living in a Proper House, as they did for such a short time in the first book, almost completely out in the open. Just as the doll furniture of the first book got them into trouble, living in the house does too: they are easily spotted by not one but four humans.
Lesson learned: every time the Borrowers try to live in miniature houses, instead of inside walls and pipes where Borrowers belong, they get into severe trouble. It’s as strong an argument for staying in your proper place as any in children’s fiction (which, when dealing with this issue at all, is more generally concerned with the issue of figuring out what, exactly, your proper place is) and somewhat astounding for a book featuring one character continually desperate for freedom and adventure, who spends much of her kidnapping engrossed in London newspapers instead of helping her father create an escape plan.
Which is why at the end, Pod realizes that they can’t stay in the house, however much Homily may like it, however much Arietty realizes that she’s found a friend. “You can pay too high for a bit of soft living,” Pod notes, and for the Borrowers, this is all too true.
The book also has a nice hint—rather more than a nice hint, really—that Arietty and Spiller might marry some day. Arietty is, after all, nearly 17 by this point, and Spiller is pretty much the only one around not related to her, so it’s just as well that she’s developed feelings for him. And not completely “you’re the last Borrower on earth” feelings, either; Arietty genuinely likes Spiller, and likes the idea of travelling with him. At the same time, it’s a reassurance to child readers that the Borrowers will continue.
As will questions. In this book, most notably, er, how does the narrator—presumably still Kate—know anything about any of this? Not that the model villages are too far away from the original house, but none of those characters appear anywhere in the story. Which leads to the related question: how exactly did Tom Goodenough learn the end of the story in the previous book, The Borrowers Afloat? After all, the book ends with an agreement that no Borrower, except for the not exactly talkative Spiller, will be talking to humans anymore, and Arietty has stopped writing in her diary. And once again, the book ends with the Borrowers on the move, their destination uncertain.
Note: the ebook edition of The Borrowers Aloft also includes an extra short story, “Poor Stainless,” set in Firbank Hall during the days when the house was filled with borrowers, about a young borrower who disappears for a few days and the hunt for him. It’s an amusing short story perfect for nighttime reading.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.