“This here hill is full of animals,” says Tim to Louie, two of the human characters in Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson. This statement is true of the hill, which boasts rabbits, squirrels, mice, woodchucks, skunks, moles, and deer. The statement is also true of the book, which is about a rabbit family and their critter friends. If you like animals, especially those found in the country, you will treasure this tale.
The book begins, as all good stories should, with the excitement of change: “On every side there arose a continual chattering and squeaking, whispering and whistling, as the Animals discussed the great news. Through it all could be heard again and again the words, ‘New Folks coming.’ ” Lawson then backtracks to introduce us to the plethora of creatures living on the hill, which he deftly depicts by revealing how they react to the news. Each subsequent chapter moves the animals closer to the arrival of the human folks, until the day they finally arrive, and then Lawson reveals how the everyone reacts to one another.
For all its potential for drama, there were actually only a few moments when I felt great angst. There was the scene where main character Georgie (a rabbit) fled a dog and was chased to the bank of Deadman’s Brook. There was another scene where Willie Fieldmouse jumped from a window sill onto a rotten water barrel and fell into frigid water. My breath became hurried during those times and the scene where “the night air was rent by the hideous sound that brings a chill of dread to the heart….”
Mostly I felt as if I was strolling through the countryside and getting to know its inhabitants. There is Mother, worrying and working herself into a perfect frenzy. There is Father, carrying himself with the dignity of a Southern gentleman but also constantly talking about the good old days–which is why the other critters know to cut short conversations with him. There is Uncle, cynical and alone in his aging years. One grows to love them, the way one loves human counterparts.
In other darker ways, life on the hill is also amazingly similar to our modern human world. For example, the animals have overcome bad economic times, hope for more bountiful times, but also await the arrival of new folks with mixed feelings. Gardeners back then and now put out traps and poison and even use guns to drive off animals. Even those who were less aggressive often grew only skimpy gardens and discarded mostly inedible garbage. Yet there were also those, the ones the animals hoped would come, that produced lavish gardens and waste. When the new folks do finally arrive, they are heralded first as saviors but then there is that night….
Rereading Rabbit Hill as an adult, I felt at times as if being lectured about the welfare of animals. Or at least as if realism were stretched (such as when the new folks erected a statue of the patron saint of animals) to make a point. Perhaps it’s only as an adult that I have become less permeable to morals in books, for I don’t recall ever feeling those sentiments as a younger reader of the book. Rather like Georgie, I thrilled at the arrival of new folks and the potential for adventure.
This small criticism aside, I was amazed to discover that Robert Lawson wrote Rabbit Hill way back in 1944 and yet it never felt dated. It is a beautiful and gentle story that needs to be on the shelf of anyone who loves animal books.
Reprinted from Allison’s Book Bag. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2010.