by Mary Norton
Published by Harcourt Brace
Illustrated by Beth Krush and Joe Krush
The Borrowers is about a family of tiny people, just a few inches high, who live under the floorboards of an old country house in England. Pod and Homily and the thirteen-year-old Arrietty exist and furnish their miniature home by "borrowing" scraps and oddments from the house above. Their surname of Clock is taken from the grandfather clock in the hall which for generations has guarded the entrance to their home. At one time there were many other families of Borrowers living about the house -- the Rain-Barrels, the Boot-Racks, the Linen-Presses, and the snobbish and lazy Overmantels, among others (Homily loves to gossip about them, given half a chance), but now, for one reason or another, they have all either "emigrated" or died out; leaving Pod and Homily with a certain pride in having been able to hang on, through care and good management, and Arrietty with a longing for fresh air and sunshine and being able to swing on twigs like the birds.
But one night Pod returns from a borrowing trip with the awful news that he has been "seen" by a boy, and he and Homily have forebodings of disaster.
The first and last chapters are told by an elderly lady, Mrs May, to a young girl, Kate. Mrs May's younger brother had told her the story when they were children. He had been staying in the house, on a visit back to England from India, when he saw Pod borrowing a doll's teacup. In between the first and last chapters, which act as a frame, the story is told in direct narrative from Arrietty's point of view, largely in dialogue. And it's a terrific story indeed, of mystery and danger and suspense, with a climax that makes my hair stand on end even though I know what's coming next.
By the end of Chapter 2 we have not only begun to know Pod and Homily and Arrietty, we have also begun to care what happens to them. Among other things The Borrowers is a portrait of a family; their personalities (none of them perfect) and the ways they get along together (or sometimes don't) bring them vividly to life and straight into our hearts. (There's a certain comfort in meeting familiar, fallible people in books, the comfort of knowing we are not alone and that maybe we are okay after all.)
Homily, the mother, is skinny and sharp-nosed. She grumbles and mutters, bangs the pot lids when she's annoyed, and works tirelessly at keeping the house looking nice and the family well fed. She is sometimes silly and hysterical and she has a tendency to self-dramatize; and, unfortunately, her greed for material possessions eventually brings disaster upon them. Yet her faults somehow make her all the more lovable. On the other hand, Mrs Driver, the housekeeper, is entirely horrible and hateful. How Mary Norton manages all this, channeling the reader's sympathies this way and that, I haven't the least idea. It is something of a marvel, and the book is an acknowledged masterpiece. Her sure hand with humour could have something to do with it. We smile benignly and knowingly when Homily flatly refuses to get out of bed for an unexpected night-time visitor because she's wearing a nightdress with a patch in the back; and besides, she's furious that just this once she has left the supper dishes unwashed. Mrs Driver does not get off so lightly: we chortle with glee when the policeman lifts a sceptical eyebrow and makes a witty crack at her expense when she goes gabbling on about "dressed-up mice" under the floor.
The rare and brief descriptive passages -- as in Arrietty's first vision of sunlight on the pale washed stones of the hall floor, her walk in the grass under the cherry tree, and her meeting with the boy, in which she glimpses, through the grass, an enormous eye -- these are exquisite, shimmering images, close to poetry in their inspired choice of word and detail.
The Borrowers could be a masterpiece for the charm and ingenuity of its miniature world alone -- the family uses champagne corks and cotton reels as kitchen stools; their living room is carpeted cosily with a sheet of deep red blotting paper; and they have a settee made from a velvet-lined trinket box with the lid open. But of course there is more to it than that. To me its most striking feature is the irrational and violent fear that the huge, powerful human beings have of these tiny harmless people. The efforts of Mrs Driver and her cronies to exterminate them are nothing short of grotesque -- and yet, unfortunately, are completely credible.
It could have been mere coincidence that the infamous Amritsar massacre came to mind, and it would be fanciful to suggest that Mary Norton had any such intention, though the plight of India in the years leading up to independence had attracted widespread sympathy among ordinary Britons. It is more likely that a wider meaning is intended, one that applies to all sorts of situations in which powerful human beings brutalize or kill the defenceless and the weak, from mice to men. In other words, it asks us simply to live and let live.
Another theme, of more immediate and personal concern to young and older readers alike, is Arrietty's longing for freedom, in direct conflict with her parents' natural desire to shield her from harm. Such parent-child conflicts will always be with us, human nature being what it is, and understanding both points of view can help to ease the tensions.
The question of "borrowing" versus "stealing" is somewhat left up in the air for the reader to decide. On balance, I think the story concludes that it is a matter of degree. Up to a certain point, it seems to say, "borrowing" odds and ends, and certainly leftovers which would otherwise be wasted, is harmless (in fact, schools using The Borrowers as a literature text nowadays often see it as recycling, and therefore admirable). But there is a line, and it is definitely crossed when the boy begins to help with the borrowing. Homily is delighted with her posh new furniture and her only regret is that she has no neighbours to show it off to . . . But Pod, with his wisdom and innate caution, is uneasy, fearing no good will come of it. And, he wonders to himself, what is the need for all these fancy things anyway? The lesson is one of moderation and of the evils of materialism gone mad.
The Borrowers has often been imitated, since "little people" in general are thought to appeal to children. But to see it in that narrow way misses the mark, for Pod and Homily and Arrietty are as much real people as any other characters in fiction and the reader grows to love them dearly. They happen to be small, and that happens to be an unusual circumstance which allows the writer to explore some good and bad things about actual human beings. Which is to say that The Borrowers is far more than a cute, whimsical story of little people and their ingenious miniature world. It also has the curious quality of seeming to be infinitely adaptable to the changing times.
The window of opportunity for The Borrowers is quite small, approximately age nine to age twelve, give or take a year or so. All too soon young people get caught up in more important matters: peer pressure, romance, other sophisticated things. It's not an awful tragedy to miss out on the great books of childhood. But it is a gift to read and appreciate them before the window closes. (If it's read at the right time, however, it can become a favourite for reading over and over, regardless of age.)
There are two last things I'd like to mention: loose ends, and reading aloud.
Mary Norton leaves loose ends all over the place. Some are picked up in one or more of the sequels, others are not. Why? A hint is given by Mrs May towards the end of The Borrowers, when she says to the anguished Kate, who wants to know more, "Stories never really end. They can go on and on. It's just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them." The loose end was almost certainly a device used deliberately by Mary Norton, an invitation (or a prod) to the reader to keep on imagining and wondering. And in truth, The Borrowers Avenged, the last in the series, has the biggest loose end of the lot, leaving up in the air what happens between Arrietty and Spiller . . . but you can tell, really you can, if you sift the evidence and think about it enough. (And since Mary Norton died in 1993, you don't have much choice.)
As for reading them aloud . . . I wouldn't, personally. Some books are too good to read aloud and need to be read in private. The first chapter, maybe, to awaken interest in those who might like it and who might otherwise miss out; but that should be enough, given its last sentence: "And, under this clock, below the wainscot, there was a hole . . . ".
The Borrowers appeared in 1952. The sequels are, in order, The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft (1961), and The Borrowers Avenged (1982). Each one picks up where the last left off. The Clocks live at various times in an old boot; for a while with Aunt Lupy in the wall of a gamekeeper's cottage (but that doesn't work out, Homily and Aunt Lupy never really could stand each other); briefly in a rusty kettle wedged in the bank of a stream; and for a time in a tiny house called "Vine Cottage" in a model village built around a model railway (children are not the only ones who like miniatures). In The Borrowers Aloft they are captured and imprisoned in an attic for an entire winter by Sidney and Mabel Platter, who also have a model village and who plan to blow away the competition in the spring by exhibiting them in a glass cage. They are pining away with no hope of escape until one day Arrietty, an inveterate reader, finds an old Illustrated London News with an article on how to make and fly gas balloons. Intently, Pod walks up and down the pages with her, studying the detailed working drawings; and fired by a new sense of purpose, his inventive mind busily at work, he begins to reassess the contents of the attic with his professional Borrower's eye. I read the whole lot together one recent weekend, in a 700-page Penguin edition of The Complete Borrowers Stories, and can truthfully say that never has a bunch of printed pages made me smile so much or chuckle so often, or dab away so many a happy tear . . . Like I said, some books need to be read in private.
M.A., 4 January, 1998
Order or see more on Amazon by clicking on a title below (all published by Harcourt Brace, and all illustrated by Beth Krush and Joe Krush, as far as I can tell, editions unseen):
The Borrowers, US$16.00 ($11.20 on Amazon at time of writing, 30% off)
The Borrowers Afield, US$15.00 ($10.50 on Amazon at time of writing, 30% off)
The Borrowers Afloat, US$16.00 ($11.20 on Amazon at time of writing, 30% off)
The Borrowers Aloft, US$14.95 ($10.46 on Amazon at time of writing, 30% off)
The Borrowers Avenged, US$15.00 ($10.50 on Amazon at time of writing, 30% off)
The Borrowers, US$6.00 ($4.80 on Amazon at time of writing, 20% off)
The Borrowers Afield, US$6.00 ($4.80 on Amazon at time of writing, 20% off)
The Borrowers Afloat, US$6.00 ($4.80 on Amazon at time of writing, 20% off)
The Borrowers Aloft, US$6.00 ($4.80 on Amazon at time of writing, 20% off)
The Borrowers Avenged, US$6.00 ($4.80 on Amazon at time of writing, 20% off)