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The Animal Stories of Thornton W. Burgess

In addition to the Uncle Wiggily stories which I reminisced about the other day, I read many of the animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess, which my parents got for me. If I were not reading one of the Wiggilys, I would be reading a Burgess story, or maybe one of the Oz books. I do remember telling one of the girls who were riding in our car pool to school, that I had a crush, or whatever I called it, on Ozma, the lovely princess of Oz, so I must have been reading them at six or seven, too.

I did not know anything about Burgess, though on the back cover of the books, it might say that he had wanted to be a naturalist, and then turned to writing stories about various animals and birds, with a background of having known more about their natures than most children’s writers. The stories were very entertaining, though sometimes with an unsettling part, as I will elaborate below.

There were so many of the stories, each named for one of the woodland or water creatures. The book were all listed in one of the title pages, so I could ask my parents if they would get me this or that one. They always looked, but some were just not available in the bookstores or department stores where they would buy them for me. This was of course before computers, and before online sales, and I think that it was more fun that way.

I think that the first of these Burgess books was “Mother West Wind and Her Children.’ That was a simpler book, with little tales in each chapter. The children of Mother West Wind, were the Merry Little Breezes, and they would have a little role in some of the stories, being able to tell the animals what important news they had learned in traveling around the various locales. Then Burgess began to write each novel about a different animal or bird, with the various other characters often being in the story as well, and then having their own book about them.

The books came with lovely illustrations, most I think done by Harrison Cady, who drew wonderful pictures. There was a colored cover, and then various drawings inside. As I recall, most of the animals and birds were almost always wearing a little outfit, maybe a top hat, or overalls. Granny Fox, my favorite character, wore a bonnet and a pair of spectacles, but do not be misled, she was very smart; and she lived with young Reddy Fox, whom she tried to impart her wisdom to.

Other animals who inhabited these stories, as I remember them, included Unc’ Billy Possum, Jimmy Skunk, Prickly Porky the Porcupine (my brother thought it was porkypine, which was cute in itself), Johnny Chuck (he met a nice girl chuck named Polly, and later on, when their friends had not seen him for a while, they found them together with some shy baby chucks peering out of a safe place they had built for them, with a very cute illustration accompanying). There was Jerry Muskrat (that was a good book), and Paddy the Beaver. Billy Mink, and Bobby Coon, and Little Joe Otter, who was drawn wearing a pair of overalls, and carrying a fishing pole. Peter Rabbit (I was surprised that he had the same name as the rabbit in the Beatrix Potter stories).

Old Man Coyote, who was very smart. Buster Bear. Danny Meadow Mouse. Grandfather Frog and Old Mr. Toad, who were usually at the Smiling Pool or the Laughing Brook. Longlegs the Heron, which was the book which I always asked for, but my parents could not find, but my girlfriend found for me as an adult. Lightfoot the Deer. And then one of my favorites, Blacky the Crow, and then his cousin Sammy Jay. There were also various birds, such as Mr. Redwing, Mr. Goshawk, Jenny Wren, and then Ol’ Mistah Buzzard, who had traveled up from Virginia, and surveyed the scene, but was never an unsettling figure, he was actually rather wise.

The wood animals lived in the Green Forest or the Green Meadows, and sometimes traveled to the Old Pasture. They interacted with others, in a way that seemed to evince their animal personalities. The little ones, like Danny Meadow Mouse and Peter Rabbit, might say hello to Reddy Fox or Granny Fox, but they would be careful to stay near their home in the bramble, or a convenient hole to dive into.

Nothing really bad ever happened to the animals in a Burgess stories, but there of course was the danger of being a smaller animal. And Burgess, I suppose like Felix Salten, who wrote the Bambi stories, wanted to teach children about the evils of hunting. That was a lesson I did not need; I never had any desire to hunt or shoot an animal, so I did not like those parts, which were not that frequent, but disconcerting to an impressionable child. Poor Lightfoot the Deer, in a story which I was looking forward to, spent most of the chapters trying to evade hunters, and a hunting season which seemed to keep returning. He was okay, but it was traumatic. Eventually, Burgess left that theme, and Lightfoot met a cute and shy doe, and they were happy together

In another story, Blacky the Crow, who mostly looked out for himself, was impelled to save some ducks from being shot by hunters who had set up a duck blind, something I did not know anything about. Blacky realized what was going on, and at the last minute, he cawed loudly enough to get the ducks to fly away to safety.

But the most unsettling chapter involved one of my favorites, Reddy Fox. For some reason, Burgess was rather critical of Reddy, referring to him at times as “boastful.” Foxes are one of my favorite animals, so I always rooted for him. There was a farmer around there, Farmer Brown, who never played a role, but his son, Farmer Brown’s boy, did, and he would sometimes carry a gun.

Reddy Fox had kept stealing eggs, I think, so Farmer Brown’s boy went hunting after him. Reddy Fox was not as alert as he should have been. Drummer the Woodpecker saw the boy with his gun, and tried to warn Reddy, by pecking loudly. The chapter, with the absolutely ominous title which I have never forgotten, and which disconcerted my brother, too, was “Drummer the Woodpecker Drums in Vain.’ Well, Farmer Brown’s boy shot him, in the leg. Reddy had to go off with Granny Fox to stay in the Old Pasture, until he could recover. That whole set of chapters was so upsetting to me, and I imagine to the other readers of the Burgess stories.

There was a much nicer moment in the book titled “Old Granny Fox.’ It had been a hard winter, and there was little food around. Granny Fox was losing strength. Reddy Fox promised to try to get them some food. He looked everywhere, but could not find anything for them to eat, and he was was very weak, too.

Finally he caught one fish in an almost frozen pond. He started to eat it before he realized, and then dropped it out of his mouth and took it home, minus the one bite, to Granny Fox. She immediately realized what had happened, and was touched that Reddy, who sometimes was not too responsible a young fox, had thought of her more than himself. That was the end of that little section, and things were all right. The lesson was beautifully rendered by Burgess. If you can find a picture of Granny Fox and Reddy Fox, or any of the cover drawings, you will get a sense of the charm of the stories, and how Harrison Cady’s illustrations so greatly enhanced them.

So despite the occasional upsetting parts, most of the stories were filled with charm, and entertaining and sometimes poetic writing. There were a few moral lessons, but not heavy-handed. I remember a chapter entitled “A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed.’ And another one, “All’s Well That Ends Well.’ I pondered both of those aphorisms. For a five or six year old boy, stretched out comfortably on the floor, or on the lounge chair outside, eagerly turning to the next chapter to find out what happens next, and to learn all about the various animals and their environs, and their personalities, reading the Burgess novels was mostly a very enjoyable experience, which is why I remember all of those details today. I guess that some children still read them, as at least most of them have been reprinted in large paperback editions.