Source of book: Audiobook from the library
This is another book that I loved as a kid and wanted to share with my own kids. My youngest daughter loves rabbits (and Hello Kitty), so this book seemed like a natural choice that she might enjoy.
Rabbit Hill was written in 1945, in the waning days of World War II, and it is clearly a product of that atmosphere. The Allies would have face the task of rebuilding Europe after the catastrophe and figuring out what to do with the formerly isolated Japan. In addition, the armed forces were integrating (finally), and the Civil Rights Movement was gaining steam. To that end, Robert Lawson wrote an animal tale that faced the fears and hopes for the future.
The house on the hill has been vacant for years, and before that, the tenants let everything go to seed. No garden, no lawn, the fields neglected. The animal residents of the hill have suffered hard times.
But now, there are new folks coming! Who will these new folks be? Will they be cruel hunters? Will they be animal lovers? Will it be a time of plenty, or of fear of death?
The characters are memorable and charming as I remembered them. Little Georgie the rabbit is the main protagonist. He is a bit cocky and distractible - befitting his age - but he is athletic and strong, enjoying his speed and youth. His mother is a chronic worrier, while his father is a “Southern Gentleman,” always speaking in highfalutin’ language and boring everyone with his tales of how much better everything was in the Bluegrass Country. Uncle Analdus, who Georgie is sent to fetch, is a cantankerous and hot-headed old man, but he has a lot of knowledge which may prove useful to new challenges. There are other animals too: Willie the field mouse, who is the spy for the rest (because he can climb the rain barrell and see in the window of the house); Mole, fiercely loyal to his friend Willie; and the hilarious Phewie the skunk, connoisseur of garbage. (The kids laughed most at Phewie’s lines.)
When the New Folks arrive, there is uncertainty as to how things will play out. They seem nice, but they have a cat. They are planning a large garden, but will they be willing to share with the animals? Many signs point toward them being benevolent, but when Georgie is injured by a car and taken in by the Folks, conspiracy theories tear apart the harmony of the hill. In the end, however, it is St. Francis of Assisi who wins out, and Lawson shows a vision of cooperation and harmony.
The audiobook version we listened to was narrated by Barbara Caruso, who did a fine enough job. The only problem was a certain amount of scratching and skipping on the CD, due to hard wear. That is always a risk with children’s audiobooks, we have found.
I am glad that we own this book, though, because part of the charm can be found in Lawson’s illustrations. (He worked as an illustrator for other authors as well.)
Just one note, however. It is strongly implied (although not stated) that the Folks’ cook and housekeeper is African American. In the original version, the illustrations of her tend toward a caricature. In editions published since 1970, these are omitted, which is just as well. Sulphronia is a minor character - and positively portrayed - so the offensive pictures distract rather than enhance.
It was nice to revisit this book, and the optimism that it contains. Perhaps we will never see harmony on this level worldwide, but the 70 years since have been good to Lawson’s hope. After centuries of fighting, Western Europe has had an extended run of peace. Japan has become an ally. It is a testament to those who worked so hard in the aftermath of the war to sow peace rather than hatred. Lawson’s choice of St. Francis of Assisi is thus doubly appropriate. He is the patron saint of animals - and his love for them during his lifetime is rightfully legendary. But he also was and is the bringer of peace.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.