The Borrowers, Mary Norton

Whenever I head “home” to visit my family, I always find myself sucked into their bookshelves. It’s not that I don’t bring my own books to read (during one memorable visit, I read eight Sookie Stackhouse novels on the sly); it’s that every room in my parents’ house is filled with books refusing to be ignored.

The rooms my brother and I used to call our own? Now, an office and a guest room, both lined with shelves fairly trembling under the weight of what I like to call “hobby” books, but are in actuality my parents’ professional tools (in my mother’s case, theology and grassroots politics, in my father’s, theatre, music, and biographies). In the upstairs hallway, the shelves are mostly  poetry, plays, and extremely well-loved children’s books. In the living room, it’s the classics and beautifully crafted research books, while the sun porch is overflow for a hodgepodge of left-overs. Even the dining room has become home to my old childhood bookcase, filled, at Christmas time, with our most beloved holiday books, and the rest of the year, with my dad’s massive Shakespeare collection.

It’s impossible not to get distracted in a house like that. I also find that while I don’t have a lot of free time while I’m here, I do have many pockets of fifteen-minute windows when I’m just…waiting. Inevitably, over the course of my stay, I pull out a book or three in every room of the house, and when I find myself stranded with too little time to do anything useful and too much to just stare blankly out the window, I’ll pick one of them up.

This week, I’ve been mostly pawing through old books from my childhood. There is just something so dear about the worn covers and the places where I folded pages down or spilled (yes, I am terrible to books). The first one I pulled out after I arrived was The Borrowers. I must have read this fifteen times when I was a kid (although somehow, I never realized it had sequels – go figure), and last summer, I went to see the Miyazaki film based on it (The Secret World of Arrietty) which tickled my desire to reread it when next I had the chance.

Having done so, I can say with greater confidence that, although I adore Miyazaki’s work, the movie is not as enjoyable as the book. One thing I did notice coming back to the text was that the pacing for both was surprisingly similar; when I was at the theatre, I felt like it was dragging a bit, but when I pulled out the novel, I realized it’s just one of those stories from another era of children’s fiction. The pace is slower, and the setting is lavished upon. It actually makes for a beautiful adaptation to a visual art form, but the story didn’t translate quite as well (or perhaps that had something to do with it going from British book to Japanese script to American script – something may have been lost in this game of Telephone).

The story embraced me immediately. It brought me back to this warm, happy ball of childhood when a house had so much potential for mystery and exploration. The Borrowers were as real as could be to me again, at least for a few minutes (at which point, the reality of setting the table and checking on dinner returned).

It was a charming fireplace, made by Arrietty’s grandfather, with a cogwheel from the stables, part of an old ciderpress. The spokes of the cogwheel stood out in starry rays, and the fire itself nestled in the center. Above there was a chimney-piece made from a small brass funnel, inverted. This, at one time, belonged to an oil lamp which matched it, and which stood, in the old days, on the hall table upstairs. An arrangement of pipes, from the spout of the funnel, carried fumes into the kitchen flues above. The fire was laid with matchsticks and fed with assorted slack and, as it burned up, the iron would become hot, and Homily would simmer soup on the spokes in a silver thimble, and Arrietty would broil nuts. How cozy those winter evenings could be. Arrietty, her great book on her knees, sometimes read aloud; Pod at his last (he was a shoemaker, and made button-boots out of kid gloves – now, alas, only for his family); and Homily, quiet at last, with her knitting. (pg 20)

There is a quality to books like this that inspire so much ingenuity. As a child, I would read the descriptions of the Borrowers’ home with rapt fascination. When I finished, I would try to build houses like theirs myself (ostensibly for my dolls, but since I didn’t care much for the dolls themselves, they were almost permanently boxed while I constructed). This was less about the plot to me than about the world that could be created. I was fascinated by the repurposing of materials to create something special – a skill that came in handy when I taught preschool and had a limited budget.

As much as I love books that are being written for young people now, I can’t help but be a little nostalgic for the novels of my youth (which were, incidentally, of my parents’ youth as well). They might not have been the most riveting adventures, but they straddled the line between reality and make-believe in a way I find utterly charming and nearly impossible to reproduce.

4 thoughts on “The Borrowers, Mary Norton

  1. Beautiful book review! It was so fun to hear about your parents house and childhood memories. I’m determined to have books in every room of my house while my children are being raised. I think it’s a fantastic idea.

  2. I am still old fashion and love the smell and touching real books. When I was a kid I use to cherish going to the library and reading all the Doyle books, then Verne and finally Doctor Doolittle. It is a shame that books are being replaced in the minds of our youth who do not seem to like anything with more than one hundred pages unless it is the Hunger Games, Vampire extravagances or Harry Potter.

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