Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Old Granny Fox by Thornton Burgess (1920)

I still have the pink set of Thornton W. Burgess Bedtime Story Books (although Old Granny Fox was green, and Longlegs the Heron was purple; I don't know why).  They are beloved to me.  I don't remember my parents reading aloud to us very often; they may have done so that I've forgotten about.  But I do remember my dad reading Thornton W. Burgess to us; I think this was an author from his childhood that he shared with us.  I sort of remember Old Granny Fox  and Reddy Fox being favorites of mine.  Old Granny Fox is occasionally preachy and pedantic, but more in a slightly annoying way than detracting in any way from the book; it's full of little moralistic asides in the form of homilies from wise old Granny such as "You'll find as on through life you go / The thing you want may prove to be / The very thing you shouldn't have / Then seeming loss is gain, you see." and "A boasting tongue, as sure as fate / Will trip its owner soon or late" (which is true).  Burgess is clear about how Nature works; animals eat one another, Winter is a time of starvation.  Granny and Reddy steal and eat some chickens in one chapter, and here is how he describes it:

CHAPTER XXV: A Dinner For Two    Dark deeds are done in the stilly night,
   And who shall say if they're wrong or right?     —Old Granny Fox.
"It all depends on how you look at things. Of course, Granny and Reddy Fox had no business to be in Farmer Brown's henhouse in the middle of the night, or at any other time, for that matter. That is, they had no business to be there, as Farmer Brown would look at the matter. He would have called them two red thieves. Perhaps that is just what they were. But looking at the matter as they did, I am not so sure about it. To Granny and Reddy Fox those hens were simply big, rather stupid birds, splendid eating if they could be caught, and bound to be eaten by somebody. The fact that they were in Farmer Brown's henhouse didn't make them his any more than the fact that Mrs. Grouse was in a part of the Green Forest owned by Farmer Brown made her his.
You see, among the little meadow and forest people there is no such thing as property rights, excepting in the matter of storehouses, and because these hens were alive, it didn't occur to Granny and Reddy that the henhouse was a sort of storehouse. It would have made no difference if it had. Among the little people it is considered quite right to help yourself from another's storehouse if you are smart enough to find it and really need the food.
Besides, Reddy and Granny knew that Fanner Brown and his boy would eat some of those hens themselves, and they didn't begin to need them as Reddy and Granny did. So as they looked at the matter, there was nothing wrong in being in that henhouse in the middle of the night. They were there simply because they needed food very, very much, and food was there."

She then wrings the neck of several hens, although Burgess doesn't describe that in detail.  But you know those chickens are dead.  

I like this about Thornton Burgess.  His books have the same flavor as Bambi or Watership Down, but a much lighter tone. But there is still that whole idea of ecology and nature being red in tooth and claw.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Some of my childhood favorites were the animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess.  I remember that Granny Fox and Reddy Fox were two of my favorite characters (I also liked Billy Possum and Jimmy Skunk, and Old Mr. Toad).  They are a big moralistic and pedantic; Old Granny Fox has morals about good living as well; she's full of homilies.  But they are still strong, simple animal stories, a lighter version of Bambi or the child that grows into Watership Down.   Burgess also has an ecological heart; he's very much of the Theodore Roosevelt school of hunting and wilderness ecology.  Old Granny Fox is definitely not for every child, but I still think there is value is these old fashioned books.  

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