As with all good fairy tales, The Animal Family starts with that classic phrase “Once upon a time…”
Once upon a time there was a hunter who lived alone in a cabin between the forest and the sea. It was a beautiful cabin and a beautiful meadow, and the sea and the stars and the forest surrounding his home were no less so, but there was no one with whom the hunter might share this beauty. One day, his attention was caught by someone singing out at sea, by the rocks that lay just outside his cove. The voice was like a woman’s but it sang in no human language, and when he dared approach the first time, the singer dove into the water and swam away like a seal. The hunter, having learned patience while tracking prey, took his time becoming acquainted with the singer, a mermaid with a sense of adventure and taste for the different like no other of her kind. Before too long, she moved into the cabin with the hunter, though she never learned to like sweets or cooked food, or sleeping under the blankets.
They were happy together, despite their differences but what is a family without children? First the hunter brought home a bear cub, who proved loving but, well, messily bearish. Then he brought home a lynx kitten, who proved just as loving but neatly catlike. Both animals required adjustments on the part of the hunter and of the mermaid. The bear’s first hibernation came as a shock to the mermaid who believed it to have died. The lynx’s proudest “kill” of the hunter’s mother’s lace handkerchief, one of his only mementos of his parents, was bittersweet for the hunter. After a time the hunter began having a strange dream, in which he saw his long-dead father, with himself as his father’s shadow, and his also deceased mother with the mermaid as her shadow, but he, a small child in the dream, lacked a shadow. The mermaid suggested that the hunter wanted a child, but where to get one? Needless to say, the hunter and the mermaid could not have a child themselves.
One day, the lynx and the bear brought home a child of their own: a real human boy, who had been carried ashore in the boat that still held his own dead mother. The story ends, with the family now complete; not a family that most of us would have, but a family nonetheless.
Jarrell is better known as a poet than a prose writer, though it shows in this book clearly; I’ve always thought it read like poetry. It’s not a deliberately tear-jerking story, though I suspect that people who are susceptible to such things will need to have tissues nearby. Bittersweet, perhaps? Certainly the descriptions of the mermaid’s struggles to learn about the land, and to explain her love of the land to her family in the sea, are often amusing, as are the hunter’s struggles with learning how to say useful phrases in Dolphin and Seal, in case he is swept too far out to sea to swim back to shore. A ordinary household, if you discount the fact that only two of the five are truly human, going about its business and accommodating the differences of the members. As the boy thinks of the hunter and the mermaid:
The two of them were different from him, different from each other, but then aren’t a boy’s father and mother always different from each other, different from him? The difference between the hunter and the mermaid were no greater, to the boy, than the difference between his father’s short hair and trousers, his mother’s long hair and skirts, is to any child.
Maurice Sendak’ illustrations add to this dreamlike air; these are not the brightly colored, cartoonish drawings which he did for Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, but the black-and-white shadowy illustrations used in Higglety-pigglety-Pop and The Juniper Tree.