Well, I’m finally back from a two-week-long vacation, during which I got almost no reading done at all. This must be the first vacation of my entire life where I took more books along than I read: I hauled four or five and read only one. This horrifying set of events came about because it was, of all things, a family vacation: for one entire week of it, I was in a two-bedroom cabin with ten other people, six of whom were children under ten. (I’ll wait here for you to finish pouring yourself a drink.) Of course I loved the family, and the family time. I loved the place, with the fog curling in over the redwoods. I loved the talking and laughing and wading in the river. But maybe now that I’m home, I can do a little reading?
The last thing I read before I left was a children’s novel by Randall Jarrell, called The Animal Family. After I read some of his critical essays and fell deeply in love with them, I ran across this book by chance at the library and snapped it up. As it happens, it’s one of the loveliest books I’ve read in years, simply but not simplistically written, each word chosen for beauty and balance.
“Say what you like, but such things do happen — not often, but they do happen.” These words serve as dedication or epigram, easing you into this astonishingly lovely story. In the first chapter, a hunter lives alone by a meadow near the ocean. He has everything he needs — he can provide everything for himself — but he is all alone, and a bit lonely, until one day he meets a mermaid. She’s braver than he is, and cleverer, and wants to know all about the land, and after a short while she lives with him in his cabin. She teaches him a language like water, and he teaches her his notions.
“A house is a big wooden thing — that you stay inside at night or when it rains.”
“Why?” she asked.
“To keep from getting wet.”
“To keep from getting wet?” the mermaid said, despairingly.
A few months later, the hunter brings home a bear cub, and the unlikely couple watches their baby grow; soon after, a lynx cub joins them, and they enter on another, completely different childhood. But it’s not until they find a baby boy washed up in a boat on the beach that the animal family is truly complete.
No plot summary, no description could possibly do this book justice. Randall Jarrell was a poet, and this book is quiet and tender poetry. It’s for all ages, and I do mean all ages: children will love it, and it never for one moment talks down to the wisest adult. The prose is exquisite. The story is funny and loving and true. The delicate illustrations, at least in my edition, are by Maurice Sendak, and they couldn’t be more perfect.
I looked around me a lot while I was with my family these last couple of weeks. Three of the six kids are adopted and are of different ethnicities from our nuclear family. Others in that cabin came there by marriage, from very different family systems. We all wash up in families in different ways, by choice or not by choice, and we love each other as we begin to grow up and learn to help and teach instead of hurting each other with our claws and teeth. Say what you like, but such things do happen.