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6 march 2015
Rabbit Hill remains quirky and hard to categorize 70 years after it won the Newbery Medal. I will probably forget the overall plot arc and character names by the time I finish typing this paragraph, but there are odd touches and attitudes in Robert Lawson's picture-assisted chapter book that I may never forget.
Rabbit Hill is an animal-human community fantasy – as I was telling someone while reading it, it's basically Animal Farm without the satirical critique of Communism. Actually, flip as that sounds, I wonder. Rabbit Hill predates Animal Farm by only a year, and though it's unlikely that George Orwell would have read Lawson's book, there's something interesting and Zeitgeisty in the conjunction.
Lawson's animals are wild, though, not farm animals. More specifically, they belong to the odd class of commensal animals that inhabit human homes, human farms, or spaces broken up and disturbed by humans. Lawson's rabbits, mice, moles, woodchucks, deer, skunks and foxes live on the scraps and surplus of human settlement, and sometimes make greater depradations. When the novel begins, there have been no "Folks" around for a while; the abandoned farmstead has meant lean times for these creatures. But of course, Folks may mean danger as well as sustenance. There are no truly wild large predators in Lawson's long-settled New England, but there are dogs and cats, and there are people with guns.
There's thus much philosophical discussion among Lawson's animals about the "quality" of the Folks who will move into the old house – including at one point some discussion of whether they'll be book-readers, since readers are known to be "queer" (84). The best people come without dogs or cats, and (important to the skunk Phewie) they have easily-accessible garbage cans. They come especially without the paraphernalia or extermination ("traps or spring-guns, poisons," 83). The Hill is full of legends of human cruelty: even, most disturbingly, the story of Folks who killed families of burrowing creatures with car exhaust (28); this book appeared in 1944, after all, and one wonders how much Lawson intended juvenile readers to connect suburban garden defense with European genocide.
Readers, it turns out, are animal-lovers, who promote interspecies harmony, a sense that habitat must be shared. (Shared even with carnivores, which leads to the awkward provision of baby chicks for fox and skunk to chow down on.) A key scene, repeated for emphasis, involves the new Folks nursing a wounded animal back to health – a practice initially suspect (what are they doing with little Willie or Georgie?), but which comes to command the animals' trust.
Dio's history of Rome includes a brief comment on the fear that Pyrrhus's war elephants struck into Roman soldiers. At first terrified, the Romans regain composure
by reflecting on the mortal nature of the animals and the fact that no animal is superior to man, but that all of them in every way show inferiority, if not as regards strength, at least in respect of intelligence, they began to take heart. (Book Nine)The bad people in Rabbit Hill do likewise, and see themselves at continual war with non-humans. But the book, author, and readers transcend this primeval interspecies power struggle to create a truly benevolent animal farm.
Lawson, Robert. Rabbit Hill. 1944. New York: Puffin [Penguin], 1977. PZ 10.3 .L39Rab