Monday, April 30, 2012

I am a reader: The Book That Changed My Life Carnival

Happy to be linking up to The Book That Changed My Life Carnival at Modern Mrs. Darcy.
Head over to Anne's site to read about more people's life-changing books!

I don't remember when I first read Watership Down.

I know I borrowed it from the library, that first time and many times after. So many books I remember only vaguely, by the stamp of some emotion they left on my soul long after title and author were erased by the endless succession of library books devoured and returned.

But Watership Down I remembered. Watership Down I checked out and read over and over, until finally, in high school, I used a birthday gift card to Borders to buy my very own copy.

For those of you not familiar with this classic, Watership Down follows a group of rabbits as they escape the destruction of their warren and travel across the English countryside to make a new home.

As with the best animal books, the rabbits talk and have some human characteristics but still retain their essential rabbitness. They are not merely miniature humans in fur suits but very definitely Other.

The story of Fiver, Bigwig, and their companions teaches many lessons about bravery, friendship, perseverance, brains-over-brawn, faithfulness...the usual suspects.

From it, however, I also learned a sad lesson--a necessary one, perhaps, but a truth parents wish their children never had to learn:

Nice people aren't always nice. Evil doesn't always wear a black hat.

(Spoilers beneath the bunny.)

Perhaps the greatest lasting impact of the book:
My succession of pet rabbits.
In a pivotal scene in the book, our rabbit heroes stumble upon a warren filled with fat, sleek, friendly rabbits. After weeks of wandering a hostile landscape, escaping death by predator and weather alike, and worrying about how they will start a new warren without any female rabbits, this place and its co-ed inhabitants seem like heaven to our hero rabbits.

They are given a warm welcome, and several of the group argue that the journey should end here, that they should assimilate into this warren and cease the search for a new home.

There's only one problem: it turns out the nice, friendly fat rabbits are trying to kill them.

There's more to it than that, but the point is this was, if not the first book, than the first book I remember reading that presented evil in such a nuanced light.

Most children's books follow the simple moral duality of old westerns. White hat/black hat, good witch/bad witch, Superman/Lex Luthor. The main story arc of Watership Down follows the same formula--later the rabbits steal female rabbits away from an evil, openly oppressive warren and an epic bunny battle ensues.

Life for a little kid is like that, too. Everyone you know is nice to you. If you have a teacher you think is mean, that teacher becomes the Mean Evil Teacher and you see no redeeming quality in her at all. Life is as black and white as the Wicked Witch of the West versus Glinda the Good Witch.

But slowly you come to see the gray in life. The Mean Teacher turns out to be the best one you've ever had. Your best friend betrays you. The worst criminals are the ones who can masquerade as normal and friendly. Normal people are capable of committing terrible acts in the name of "the greater good."

This last is what those fat sleek rabbits were really guilty of. They grew fat and sleek because a farmer spreads food for them in a nearby field--but in exchange, he periodically places snares there and kills them. The rabbits hope that our heroes, unaware of the danger, will not be cautious and will be snared and killed, sparing their own number for a little longer. They have traded freedom for convenience and try to kill fellow rabbits so that they can maintain their lifestyle.

The lessons are chilling and many. But as with the best books, I never consciously defined these lessons until re-reading the story many years later, with waaaay too many hours of critical reading classes under my belt.

It is, at its heart, a good Story. And that lesson, too, is important: that power of Story to captivate the heart as well as the mind, to cross the barriers of time, space, culture (and even species!) and speak to us all.

Perhaps it was in Watership Down that I first learned how seamlessly Story and Teaching could be woven together.


  1. Interesting. I never read Watership Down: it was never assigned reading and the story didn't real grab me. But when you describe it like this, welllll then. I'm adding it to my list :)

    Thanks for sharing, Katie!

    1. It's one of the earliest books I remember reading...I don't think I read it before I was at least seven, but I might be wrong even about that. My mom recommended it to me; I was and am a sucker for animal books.

      Your children that are in the 7-9 y.o. range might enjoy it, though keep in mind their tolerance for Scariness--I mean, it starts off with no one believing Fiver's warnings that something terrible is going to happen and then the whole warren is gassed to death to make way for urban sprawl. The Brits don't pull any punches.

    2. Ooo, thanks for that. Our scariness tolerance is pretty low around here. We can't even make it ten minutes into a Disney movie, and not for lack of trying!

    3. Yeah, that hadn't even occurred to me at first but when I think about it, it's a bit scary. I read them around that age but I know children's tolerances vary greatly.

      Although--we were never allowed to watch scary movies (after a traumatizing incident involving my little sister and Wasp Woman), but we read pretty much any book we wanted. There's a big difference between reading about things--violence, monsters, sex--and seeing them. Sometimes it's scarier and sometimes less so. But the last thing I want to do is accidentally traumatize someone!

  2. I've never heard of "Watership Down", but it looks like one I might have to look in to! Thanks for the heads up (and the lovely comment)!

    1. You're welcome! I meant it. ^_^

      Watership Down is old (well, 1972) and British and somehow I just always assume it's better-known than it is. It certainly deserves to be better-known--one of those children's classics that's equally deserving of adult attention.

  3. Watership Down is one of my favorites too. I read it aloud to my sister when I was 11 and she was 8. We were both completely hooked.