Book Review: The Borrowers, Book #1, by Mary Norton, published 1953, 192 pages, Lexile 780, Grades 3-7 Please note: this book is not yet in the Pageturner library and requires student requests per class for purchases to be made.

BOOK ILLUSTRATION: Arriety's room, made from two Cuban cigar boxes:

First published in 1953 (ye gods and little fishes, that’s pretty nearly when I first read it), this is the first in a series of five charming novels, replete with detailed illustrations in black and white. Most may have heard of the Borrowers, a race of tiny folk that live under the floorboards in old homes, or in abandoned badger sets, or in old shoes. There was even a nursery rhyme you may recall:

"There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
 She had so many children she didn't know what to do;
 She gave them some broth without any bread,
 Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed." 
--Mother Goose
 (In perhaps a wildly inappropriate aside, let me add that I once worked at a luxuriously upper crust men's clothing store called Rogers Peet, gone a half century since, on Boston’s Tremont Street, in the very heart of the old city.  At that time, the Kennedys had for decades owned a brick mansion literally just up a hilly side street from the store, which was so posh cash transactions were considered gauche and therefore verboten. My job was to sit upstairs in a lockable wired cage while currency was whisked up to me in pneumatic tubes, and I counted out change to send back down to the sales personnel.  Of course, women weren’t allowed on the ground floor, either, but I still recall the endless rare kindness of my supervisors. Goodness, this comment is practically bearded and I have yet to make my point!  So. In sunny weather I sometimes took my lunch across the street to a compact, tree-shaded cemetery--and cracked hard-boiled eggs on Mother Goose's headstone. She didn't seem to mind, and she was, for me, at once both familiar and good company. Her tombstone read: "Here lies ye body of Mary Goose wife to Isaac Goose; aged 42 years. Decd. October ye 19th 1690 / Here lies also Susana Goose ye 3d aged 15 mo died August ye 11th 1687."  Almost three centuries later, no one could mistake her.)
 Our story opens with Mrs. May, a boarder and maybe a distant relative, at Kate's house. Kate is presumably the author herself, Mary Norton. The house described, including its name and location, was Mary Norton’s childhood home. In the next book in the series, it will have morphed into a school, which also happened in real life. (We’re taught to write what we know. We’ve previously seen, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, how that can work so very well.  Does this cause one to wonder about Norton’s capacity to ‘see’ her Borrowers--?)  Our scene opens:
“'Where’s your work, child?” asked Mrs. May one day, when Kate sat hunched and silent upon the hassock. 'You mustn’t sit there dreaming. Have you lost your tongue?' 'No,” said Kate, pulling at her shoe button, 'I’ve lost the crochet hook.' They were making a bed-quilt—in woolensquares: there were thirty still to do. 'I know where I put it,” she went on hastily; “I put it on the bottom shelf of the bookcase just beside my bed.' 'On the bottom shelf?” repeated Mrs. May, her own needle flicking steadily in the firelight. 'Near the floor?' 'Yes,'said Kate, 'but I looked on the floor. Under the rug. Everywhere. The wool was still there though. Just where I’d left it.' 'Oh dear,' exclaimed Mrs. May lightly, 'don’t say they’re in this house too!' 'That what are?' asked Kate. 'The Borrowers,' said Mrs. May, and in the half light she seemed to smile."

 Mrs. May claims never to have seen any of the wee folk, but her younger brother boasted of having had quite a long relationship with the Clock family, people barely a few inches tall who accessed great aunt Sophy's home from under the 200-year old grandfather clock--hence their surname. Mrs . May continues:
''...[P]erhaps because we were brought up in India among mystery and magic and legend—something that made us think that he saw things that other people could not see; sometimes we’d know he was teasing, but at other times—well, we were not so sure. . . .'” Although she claims she never saw them, Mrs. May vividly remembers every detail.
 The Clock family include: Pod, a sweet and steadfast dad, Homily, an often frazzled, sometimes hysterical, yet often keenly intuitive mom yearning to be posh, and their only child, Arriety. (Even the names are adapted from "human beans," although there is usually some mangling in translation, so we can guess that Pod is derived from Bob, Homily from Emily, and Arrietty from--Harriet?) Arriety is naturally lonesome without any other children nearby; play is necessary for children, and at 14 it's a dreadful deficiency. She also pines for the great outdoors, and to live in sunlight inaccessible under the great, groaning old manse. ‘Borrowing’ constitutes their livelihood but also their greatest danger; while they need what 'human beans' have to live comfortably, they can't risk being ‘seen.’ There's the story of Eggletina, for example, a cousin who was ‘seen’ and subsequently eaten by a cat, acquired to effectuate that exact purpose.  Pod is abruptly ‘seen’ when he goes to retrieve a doll's cup from upstairs, theirs having been broken. He had to climb a curtain “with bobbles” to get to it, and then he couldn't get down while carrying it. Suddenly there's a boy--Mrs. May's little brother:
"'…[H]ow do you mean—‘he took the cup’?' 'Well, he’d got out of bed and there he was standing, looking up. ‘I’ll take the cup,’ he said.' 'Oh!' gasped Homily, her eyes staring, 'and you give it him?' 'He took it,' said Pod,'ever so gentle. And then, when I was down, he give it me.' Homily put her face in her hands. 'Now don’t take on,' said Pod uneasily. 'He might have caught you,' shuddered Homily in a stifled voice. 'Yes,' said Pod, 'but he just give me the cup. ‘Here you are,’ he said.'” This is something new and strange, for Borrowers: a ‘human bean’ who seems kind, gracious even, and not at all earmarking them as a kind of invasive rat species!

Thus begins a happy relationship between the Boy and the Clocks. He retrieves for their use all kinds of finely crafted furniture from an old, forgotten dollhouse in the upstairs schoolroom nobody uses anymore. In return, Arriety meets him outside every day and reads to him, as he's bilingual--which, he tells her, makes it harder for him to learn to read (a struggle many students experience firsthand). Homily had once ingeniously turned purloined letters sideways to make ornate, vertically striped wallpaper in their sitting room; after absorbing the alphabet, Arriety had learned to read by tilting her head sideways to study them. Soon, the Boy is pinching increasingly precious items from a locked cabinet in the morning room, including an emerald watch the Clocks hang on a wall, conscientiously keeping the time accurate. An obstreperous housekeeper, Mrs. Driver, gets suspicious, as a maid had formerly been dismissed when items disappeared. She even enlists the aid of an awful groundskeeper, who will soon ridicule her when she claims to have seen rats in costume. Nor will the Boy be there long; he had been sent from India solely to recover from a long illness and, upon recovery, will soon be sent back.
 Some set scenes are visually just breathtakingly beautiful, as when Arriety manages to be outside for the first time, by herself, alone:
"The bank was warm, almost too warm here within the shelter of the tall grass, and the sandy earth smelled dry. Standing up, she picked a primrose. The pink stalk felt tender and living in her hands and was covered with silvery hairs, and when she held the flower, like a parasol, between her eyes and the sky, she saw the sun’s pale light through the veined petals."

Things take a turn for much worse--as they do--when Mrs. Driver happens to gawp at the family through obviously misplaced kitchen floorboards. The Boy had raised the boards with a screwdriver and had been handing down all the items he stole through the breach.  Now, of course, he agrees with the Borrowers that 'borrowing' is not stealing at all. Unless, as Arriety advises him, a Borrower steals from another Borrower. "Human beans' don't count that way.  Actually,  Arriety had thought there were far more Borrowers than beans--that a few beans only existed for the Borrowers' sake. The Boy had painstakingly, perhaps painfully, shown her maps of the world with pictures of ships and such, proving otherwise.  Still, he continued to be gracious, and it was reciprocated.
Soon enough, the Clocks must flee for their lives, and they head toward a badgers' set where their former neighbors, an aunt (who seems to have abandoned her family), an uncle, and 4 boys (their daughter, Eggletina, having been a mouser’s dinner some time before). This, of course, provides an opportunity for a second book.
When Kate pleads with Mrs. May about the Clocks, Mrs. May gives her a little lesson, advice we might all do well to take to heart:
"'You did believe in them, didn’t you? Or was it'—her voice faltered—'only a story?' 'And what if it were only a story?' said Mrs. May quickly, 'so long as it was a good story? KEEP YOUR SENSE OF WONDER, CHILD, AND DON'T BE SO LITERAL. Anything we haven’t experienced for ourselves sounds like a story. All we can ever do is sift the evidence.'” [emphasis mine]