As nature often has it, [Flo and Mildred] had a child who did not want to join them in their all-day pursuit of enlightenment and a better mung bean. Instead, [Madeline] became very good at cooking and cleaning and sewing and bookkeeping and minor household repairs. She was the one who changed the lightbulbs. When only ten, she got herself a waitress job part-time at the Happy Goat Cave, a fine establishment of three tables, some tree stumps, the owner (KatyD) and a resident goat. Madeline managed to earn enough money that if the sand-dollar art had a slow month or two, they still managed to get by.
All the other children on Hornby were homeschooled, but Madeline preferred to get up at five every morning and walk to the harbor, where she took a ferry to Denman Island, the bus across Denman, the ferry to Vancouver island and then the bus that took her to a real school…This earned her the reputation for being eccentric, but the happy hippies of Hornby were tolerant of Madeline, if a little wary. Mostly they felt sorry for Flo and Mildred, raising an oddball like that.
Foxes who build factories and make “finger” food. Marmots who have talents as cryptographers and like garlic toast. Bunnies who join clubs, drive cars, wear bonnets and (want to) keep children as pets. Hippies. What’s not to like? Well, if you like Uncle Wiggly, you might not like this, but if you like the sardonic take that Robert Lawson gave his animal characters, you might well like this.
The story begins, more or less, on Luminaria Night1; Madeline has come home dejected because, while she’s won three prizes her first year in a “normal” school, and wants to show up all the mainstream kids who snub islander children, the school’s asking all the girls to wear white dresses and white shoes. To compound the problem, Prince Charles2 himself will be handing out the prizes, and Madeline knows that her parents will not only refuse to buy her white shoes, but have a few choice things to say about that representative of an outmoded and no longer necessary social structure giving out the prizes. And sure enough they do. Thankfully, Madeline picks up a waitressing shift at the local cafe where she works, and is walking home making shoe-shopping plans, when things take a turn for the nasty.
Foxes, who wish to open a factory for canning rabbits and ‘by-products’, have kidnapped Madeline’s parents in order to blackmail Madeline’s uncle, a renowned cryptologist, into decoding the recipe cards left the foxes by a gifted vulpine chef, now deceased. Madeline seeks out her uncle, to explain the problem and get his help, but, already ill, he collapses into a convenient and complete coma after she finishes blurting out the problem.
Left to her own devices, Madeline falls in with Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, who’ve just moved down to the rabbit town for the greater cultural opportunities, such as hat shopping and club membership. As this is the Bunnys’ first detective case, astute readers will guess that they don’t so much deduce the location of Madeline’s parents, but stumble across the solution with the help of the Bunny SWAT Team masquerading as hounds, a terror for any self-respecting fox.
After the excitement of her parents’ release, Madeline realizes at the last minute about her school ceremony! Mr. and Mrs. Bunny not only get her there on time, but stay to attend the ceremony AND make sure she’s got the requisite white shoes. True, Mrs. Bunny’s knitted them of used dental floss, but the thought counts, and it makes a nice conversation starter for Prince Charles, who not only listens but takes her seriously3.
I personally love this story for all the subtext. Not least the discussion of why some people can understand animals, but also because I’ve known enough people like Madeline’s parents to appreciate both their ideals and what Madeline’s trying to do. Madeline has grown up on Hornby Island with her hippie parents, who were living “not one hundred percent legally4” in Canada. Her parents scoff at the mainstream culture, and while as an adult I can understand their viewpoint, I suspect that kids will sympathize with Madeline. Who wouldn’t be exasperated with parents who say things like “You see how our consumer culture has infiltrated everything? God I wouldn’t go to some ceremony given by people whose raison d’etre is to pressure children into buying shoes they don’t need to stand in front of some pointless outdated symbol of colonialism?” Despite their mutual exasperation, Madeline does end up returning to her human parents, despite the Bunnys’ offer of refuge with them as their “pet”.
It’s a fast-moving mixture of whimsy and practicality, and best of all the author doesn’t talk down to the kids at all (that I can tell. I’d love to hear from kids who’ve read the book.)
1to celebrate the summer solstice, all the locals light ‘luminaries’ (candles in decorative paper settings) and hang them about on display
2the story’s set in a Commonwealth country, remember?
3no, I’ve no idea what the real Charles would do under those circumstances, but it’s a nice touch
4Yes, apparently Hornby, and other nearby islands, served as refuge for draft dodgers while the U.S. was engaged in the…er…police action in Vietnam.