Dusty's Reviews > The Borrowers Afield

The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton
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Dec 14, 2011

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bookshelves: read-before-2007, read-in-2011
Read from December 11 to 12, 2011 , read count: 2

While rereading Mary Norton's Borrowers series I find myself torn in two directions. In one direction there is nostalgia. The books were already unfashionable when I devoured them in the early 1990s, and although they're not entirely forgotten (due mostly to film and TV adaptations of the first book), they're not nearly as well-known as I think they should be. Norton is a talented storyteller, and The Borrowers Afield is a yarn of remarkable adventure -- imagine the lost-in-the-great-backyard scenes from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. And it isn't afraid to push developing readers in their vocabulary. Wouldn't it be great if all eight-to-twelve year-olds were introduced to words like halcyon?

But in the other direction there is reluctance. The Borrowers Afield is smart and inventive. But it also vaunts the heteronormative nuclear family and, I think, British imperialism in ways that today make me uneasy. Norton pokes a lot of fun at Homily, the hysterical mother character, who's out in the wilderness for the first time in her life and screams at moths, worms, and centipedes. She also screams when she first sees Spiller, the Tarzan-like borrower who saves her life, because he appears "uncouth, unwashed, dishonest, and ill-bred" -- in short, he reflects the depths "to which borrowers must sink if ever, for their sins, they attempted to live out-of-doors." The fact that Spiller has dirt on his face and is described with darker features is important. For though the book was written in the 1950s, it is set in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when British colonial expansion in places where people's skins are darker hit its zenith. It's true that Homily later grows fond of Spiller, but her affection has a lot to do with the fact that Spiller braves "the bush" and retrieves the meat and other supplies that permit Homily and her family to erect a bourgeois bubble around themselves in the middle of the wilderness. Not unlike the way Brits turned their eyes away from violence in India and Africa because the exploits there brought home such tasty new foods, such handy raw materials.

I like the series. I really do. But I can see why I -- male, white, and middle-class -- would have identified better with it than a lot of other young readers probably would. The book provides an imaginative escape for some readers, absolutely, but at the cost of reminding others of their oppression.
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12/12/2011 page 124
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