Sunday, 24 June 2012

June 2012: Tove Jansson's "Moominland Midwinter" and "The Summer Book", and our July book

We spent June in Finland: first we visited the dark and wintry northern forests with the Moomins, before travelling on to explore an island in the Gulf of Finland during a long light summer.  Our books were Tove Jansson's charmingly eccentric Moominland Midwinter (1957), together with her semi-autobiographical story The Summer Book (1972).

Several of us knew and loved the Moomins and were delighted to have a chance to return to them; for others amongst us they were entirely new, and rather strange - even confusing - and unlike any other children's book we have known!  But the story grabs you and pulls you in: in the end it doesn't matter that you don't know who the characters are: you just begin to accept them.  The story of young Moomintroll waking early from hibernation and discovering an unfamiliar and rather frightening world going on around  the sleeping Moomins gives children the opportunity to share in his fears, before retreating to the safety of Moominmamma's comforting, dreamy presence.

The illustrations that bring the Moomins to life are so important, and Jansson's artistic heritage and talent shine through on every page.  

As a companion piece, The Summer Book is fascinating.  It reinforces Jansson's ability to capture the most powerful personality traits and re-cast them so that they are immediately recognisable, either as Moomins or as the humans on the island.  The grumpy grandmother and her relationship with her perky grand-daughter was brilliantly described, and the story encompassed melancholy, hope and innocence as well as some savagery.  Neither was Jansson afraid to address impending (arguably actual) death - as she had done in Moominland Midwinter with the story of the squirrel who appears to freeze to death.  

The Moomins offer serious writing for children - the books don't talk down or mollycoddle.  But Jansson also offers a safety net if the anxiety gets too much - if children are worried about the squirrel they can turn to a later page to discover it alive and well!   The same safe haven is not available to readers of  The Summer Book.

The "foreign-ness" of both books is quite striking for native English readers - also true of the illustrations.  The independent Little My in Moominland Midwinter was particularly admired.  To those who have never experienced truly deep and dark northern winters, it is clear that the climate was clearly of enormous influence and importance to Jansson - waiting for spring to arrive assumed a significance that was quite new to us; Moomintroll celebrating the coming of the new sun with golden ribbons in his ears was utterly charming.

Jansson teaches us to prepare for winter and to prepare for death - it's a certainty that both will come in the end.

Our next book is E Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure Seekers: being the adventures of the Bastable children in search of a fortune (1899).  Sadly, in a sign of the times, the library service in Bath & North East Somerset no longer keeps sufficient copies to supply our book group - luckily, several of us have our own copies that we can use instead!

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