Book Notes: Animal Family

Books call us. They find their ways into our lives when we need them, like children or friends, though we might not realize until later exactly why.

Several months ago, my sister the wondrous children’s librarian gave my family The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell. I love her, love her taste in books, and loved the sweet small book. For some reason, though, I put the book on the shelf and left it there.

Then, on my way to bed a few nights ago, my eyes already at half mast, I reached for a book of poetry from the shelf. My hand veered of its own accord, traveled down a few spines, and came away with this instead.

I read it to myself over the next day, savoring the strange story of a lonely hunter who meets a mermaid. Jarrell does not writes of anything as typical as love or passion. Their mutual fascination comes through in the way that they learn bits of each other’s languages and histories, trying to understand the perceived oddities but, eventually, simply accepting them. “The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; and they lived together and were happy.”

The hunter begins to long for a larger family. He brings home first a baby bear, then a baby lynx. Later, the lynx and the bear find a baby human. There is little sense of a typical family hierarchy; the bear, lynx, and boy don’t belong to the hunter and mermaid, even though the hunter and mermaid do typically parental things like make sure the young animals stay safe and fed. Jarrell only uses the word “father” once, on the second to last page of the book. Rather, all the characters belong to each other, and to the family. Somehow the family achieves a sense of absolute belonging and intimacy while still allowing all the members to lead their own lives and follow their own dreams. A bear needs a very different life than a mermaid. Yet, in this family, neither gives up what is important. The bear hibernates, the mermaid goes for visits to the sea. Being loved has nothing to do with being controlled in this family, which is an idea that is both strange and fascinating to me. I’m still mulling it over.

On the same day that I read this story, Maurice Sendak, who illustrated this text, passed away. His black-and-white drawings are spare and evocative, the perfect companion to Jarrell’s simple prose. Of course that is nothing more than coincidence, but Sendak’s death at that time contributed to the feeling that the book came to me via serendipity. As I said before, books often do feel this way to me. Or, at least, the best books do, because the writer manages to both tell a wonderful story and tell a truth that the reader recognizes and relates to. Jarrell’s homage to familial love is such a gift.

I noticed later that my sentiment was echoed in the quote on the back cover: “I had not known that I was waiting for The Animal Family, but when it came it was a though I had long been expecting it.” P.L Travers, The New York Times Book Review

Thank you, universe or book gods or fate or serendipity. Thank you, sister.

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