A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
After reading fellow Book Fox RosyB’s essay on the books of her childhood, I began thinking of mine. Having similar interests, we each read animal books, but I noticed something about many of the ones I read: most of the time, the animals died.
Why was that?
Why did so many of the novels, often staged as the author’s reminiscences of a beloved family pet, end with the animal dying, sometimes in violent ways? Not just dog tales, like Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows, but also wild creatures that had been part of the family, such as the fawn in The Yearling and Tarka, the otter.
When I received a Nook ereader for my birthday, I decided to put a few old favorites on it for sentimental reasons. But one I avoided was Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known which was a long awaited gift when I was 6 years old. It was soon regretted, as all of the stories ended with the animal getting killed; shot, poisoned, trapped, often with its mate and offspring. It was a harsh book for such a tender-hearted child as I was, some of the pages are wrinkled from my tears.
Seton was one of those rustic men who “tamed” the American West, wiping out supposed varmints. It can be said that he had a grudging respect for the creatures he portrayed, especially the ones who evaded humans for so long. He was a notch above Jack London, who wrote of dogs in an even more primitive way.
Many of the animal books were set in the early 20th century and the Great Depression, when more of the population lived in rural areas where hunting and butchering was familiar. Perhaps that allowed authors to have their characters face a stark reality that was often the everyday fate of animals on farms. Or has animal life become Disneyfied in the modern world despite the many cable channels devoted to nature programs?
Maybe it was part of a larger lesson for children? A subliminal message to prepare them for adulthood? Life is tough, get used to it! Or it doesn’t matter how loyal you are, those you love will betray you in the end. Any way you think of it, it’s hard to see how breaking kids’ hearts and adding to their stress level is really healthy.
I can think of a few animal books with happier conclusions, Rascal the raccoon was released back into the wild. So was Elsa in Born Free. Black Beauty was rescued and lived out his days in better conditions than in his prime. My favorite childhood book, Lassie Come Home had a satisfying resolution.
I know that sometimes teachers use a kid’s interests to guide them to the Classics. One teacher I had suggested The Red Pony as an introduction to John Steinbeck. Why couldn’t she have steered me towards the more light-hearted Travels With Charley? Both animal stories, but one had a horribly sad ending. I’m lucky I read any more Steinbeck after what happened to the Pony.
As an adult, I try to avoid any books where I know the animal dies. That means no Marley and Me or Edgar Sawtelle. But kids don’t usually know the outcome of books or are unaware of their reputations, so they walk into it blindly, with their tender hearts unprotected. I don’t know if a steady diet of animal characters expiring would cause a child to become compassionate or over anxious.
Since I don’t have children, I don’t know if modern animal novels are less fraught or if kids even read them nowadays. Or are they more interested in dystopian worlds and teens with magical powers? If so, perhaps there are fewer little hearts being bruised from the loss of fictional furry friends.