Saturday, 30 November 2013

Top Shelf Books #7 - The Animals Of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann

Next up to The Top Shelf is:

The Animals Of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann, 1979

‘For most of the animals of Farthing Wood a new day was beginning.’
Colin Dann was The Favourite Author when I was a kid.  As an animal-lover, he was exactly right for me.  I first came to this children’s classic in a bit of a roundabout fashion, first I saw the cartoon (which I eventually learned to loathe), then got one of the sequels (which having read again as an adult I kind of disdain), but finally I experienced the original novel, which I still enjoy now.  The text is occasionally a little clunky, but the drama more than makes up for that.  The Animals Of Farthing Wood is exciting and heart-breaking and funny.

Admittedly, the cover of the edition I have is utterly naff and I have never liked it.  It's a faux-cartoon cover.  It's trying to look like the TV series edition (spit spit) but isn't even authentic.  It's just cartoony, cutesy and totally wrong for the tone of the book.  The drawings inside, by Jaqueline Tettmar, are quite different.  I’m not keen on illustrations in novels because they tend not to add anything the text isn’t already adequately achieving, but here, used very sparingly, they are realistic depictions of the creatures in the story, creating little reality checks.  Since the characters can seem so human it’s useful to have these illustrations to remind us how different they all are.

I’ve already covered some thoughts on this book here and here but I’m going to attempt to have some new ones.

The story is reminiscent in some ways of The Hundred And One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, which is no bad thing.  The main characters have to travel across country (becoming famous in the animal community) in order to save lives from the cruelty of man.  The main characters are animals who can converse with each other but can’t be understood by humans and who despite some anthropomorphism are still realistic animals only capable of feats an animal could physically achieve.  Also Fox is a similar character to Pongo, both strong and determined, dashing hero types, but able to be weakened by flagging spirits.  Pongo is more pompous though.

 Anyway, enough of that. 

The story is enthralling.  A band of very different animals join under an oath of mutual protection to flee the destruction of their home in hopes of a better life.  They make different friends and enemies as they travel, in constant danger until they reach the fabled animal reserve.  Due to the oath they have to travel at the pace of the smallest, weakest creatures, which places the stronger animals in more danger but strengthens the brotherhood between them.  The entire journey is fraught with general jeopardy, but they face a few particularly major perils, some natural like a surging river and a vicious bird of prey, but mostly from man, including a fire started by a cigarette, a vengeful farmer, a fox hunt, a motorway and pesticides. 

‘‘Hurry up, Fox!’ Kestrel called, as he hovered above them, his eyes turned towards the fire.  ‘The flames are racing this way!  Quickly, quickly!’
Weasel, having watched the plight of the rabbits, knew that the water would completely cover his low-slung body if he endeavoured to walk across.  So, with grim determination, he entered the dark water and began to swim towards the island.

Toad and Adder were quick to follow him, and, keeping their various pairs of eyes fixed firmly on the little island where their friends were cheering them on, they struck out bravely.

Adder undulated swiftly through the water, only his small head above the surface, and as he neared land, Fox and Badger were running back across the causeway for their third load.

While Badger carried the young rabbits, Fox managed the small hedgehogs.  As they stepped towards the brink again, the fire was roaring at them from both directions.

‘You’ll have to swim for it too!’ Fox panted to Hedgehog and the other adults.  ‘No time to come back again.’  As he and Badger raced for safety, the flames burst upon the hedgehogs, who leapt in one bunch for the water.’

There’s no defined bad guy (just one reason this book is far superior to the sequels) but thoughtless and cruel humans are figures of fear to the sometimes-bewildered animals, even those without malicious intent (though not all humans are bad, fire-fighters have their uses and naturalists are perceived with awe).

These perils lead to the occasional death within the band of animals (although the deaths are not so gratuitous as in the sequels – okay I’ll stop griping about those now) which heightens the urgency of the drama and gives a realistic tinge back to what is a fanciful conceit.  The most arresting part of the story (says me) comes towards the end of the first section and at the start of the second, in which Fox is separated from the rest of the band when struggling to cross the river.  This whole sequence is breathlessly dramatic and heart-breaking, but the most chillingly gripping moment of the entire book has to be the fox hunt.

Some of the characterisation might appear a bit obvious on the surface – the pompous owl, the cunning fox, the timid mole, but it’s very sharp and the main cast are rounded and it’s a joy to watch them interact.  They each have weaknesses and personal agendas, they bicker and mock each other but throughout they always come back to their oath, showing that heroes take all different types.  Particularly enjoyable is the balance of power between the leader Fox, unofficial deputy Badger and thinks-he-should-be-deputy Owl.  Fox makes an interesting lead.  He dedicates everything to the oath despite it being so recent.  This willing and dedicated self-sacrifice is entrancing.  But without any doubt, Adder is the best character.  Acerbically witty and clearly intelligent, he deliberately advertises his own cold, heartless and sarcastic nature, but is revealed on several occasions to be selfless and gallant, a fact he is quick to hide.

The Animals Of Farthing Wood has a strong conservation moral, though it isn’t overbearing, it’s the drive behind the story.  It also has a lovely theme of tolerance and friendship.  All in all, it’s pretty much a must for every child’s reading list.

What are some of your favourite books for children?

1 comment:

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