Rabbit Hill

Rabbit Hill

Puffin Newbery Library
by Robert Lawson
Publisher: Puffin Books
Mass market paperback, 128 pages
Price: $7.99

It's sometimes helpful to remember the historical context of a given Newbery Medal winner to understand why it was chosen. This is certainly true in the case of Rabbit Hill, Robert Lawson's fun romp through the world of rabbits, porcupines, skunks, mice, and other animals awaiting the arrival of new adult tenants of the house on the hill.

The story is surprisingly basic: the animals are anxious to see what kind of Folks are going to inhabit the big abandoned house on which they used to depend for food and protection. The new Folks get there, and it turns out they're really nice and generous, and soon their bountiful garden is feeding everyone, and everything ends happily ever after.

Really, that's it. In the hands of a lesser author, that kind of book wouldn't be worth reading. Lawson's talking animal tale is definitely worth reading for two reasons—his sense of humor, and his illustrations. One of those horrible people who's really good at more than one thing, Lawson drew his own pictures, highly detailed and hilarious, so we see the animals exactly as we're supposed to.

We also hear them exactly as we're supposed to, which is where the humor comes in. A master of dialogue, Lawson bestows on each animal just the kind of voice he deserves, from Uncle Analdas's hillbilly dialect, to Phewie Skunk's use of words like "garbidge", to the noble Southern drawl of Father Rabbit. What happens to the animals is for the most part of secondary importance and interest to what they say and how they say it.

There is one chapter in which Little Georgie Rabbit gets hit by a car, and another after it in which Uncle Analdas spreads rumors that Little Georgie is being tortured, which are surprisingly dark given the rest of the story. Some young kids might be put off by these incidents, but they all end happily and are really more funny than anything given Uncle Analdas's eccentric jabber.

So if the book is funny and well-illustrated, why is it surprising that it won the Newbery Medal in 1945? Because that's all there is to it—no one learns a huge lesson, no one grows up, and all the bad stuff turns out to be okay in the end. No one's every really in danger, none of the animals get shot or trapped, and the Folks are so nice they contribute willingly to the animals sustenance.

Which is precisely why it won in 1945. World War II was winding down but still raging, after years of Great Depression and World War the American people were tired of not having plenty, and they were in need of some kind of hope. Rabbit Hill is lighthearted and blithely optimistic, and if it wasn't what people needed it was certainly what they wanted.

Years later it's still fun, but it doesn't seem to have much to do with reality. There's no animal vs. human conflict, no real tension between the characters other than humorous squabbles, and no true danger (or at least no danger that can't easily be rectified or prevented). The animals talk and are funny, but they're a bit one-dimensional.

Still, there's nothing inappropriate here, and Lawson writes and draws well. It's a fun book, well worth a read (preferably out loud by someone who can do all the different voices and accents), and pleasantly escapist. Just don't expect to come away from Rabbit Hill a transformed person, or enlightened about anything in particular other than the fact that Uncle Analdas can't read.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Exodus Rating:
Summary: Cute animals stress out about the new human tenants of Rabbit Hill, but their worries are all for naught.

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