Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'The Wainscott Weasel' Aged Well

Going back and reengaging with media you liked when you were a kid is always a dicey proposition. Assuming you're not one of those people who is perfectly happy to swallow the things you're fed without having any analytical thoughts outside nostalgia, seeing stuff from your childhood always produces a mild cringe response: is it actually good? Will I still like it? Am I about to ruin my own childhood?

I am, as you all know, very aware of this situation. While I've never been particularly nostalgic or sentimental, there are things from my childhood that I really really liked, and when I think about going back to those for an article like this, I get nervous. What if they suck? What if I'm about to realize that this book for which I have incredibly fond memories is actually awful?

You may even recall that this happened not too long ago with the book A Walk in Wolf Wood, one of my absolute favorites when I was a kid. I liked it so much my third grade teacher gave it to me as a present. Only I read it a few months back, and as the article will show, it really didn't hold up at all.

All of this is to say that when I realized I really ought to write an article on one of my other childhood favorites, The Wainscott Weasel, I approached the idea with fear and trembling. I remember this book being so good, you guys. I loved it. I spent days fantasizing that I was actually a cute girl weasel so that I could marry the cute boy weasel protagonist of the story, Bagley Brown. We'd be weasels together, or something. My childhood fantasies were pretty inspecific about what happened after the wedding.

Anyway, I love this book, and I was really worried that reading it again, now that my critical faculties are alive and kicking, would taint my memories forever.

As it turns out, I needn't have worried. The Wainscott Weasel is a legitimately great book. In fact, instead of putting it down and wondering what the hell I was thinking, I ended up putting it down and wondering what everyone else was. How is this book not a classic? Why has this not spawned an entire culture of people who think it's just the best thing ever? People talk all the time about how good Charlotte's Web is, why don't they talk about Wainscott Weasel the same way? It well deserves it. Honestly, I don't know why this isn't more popular, but I do know that it really ought to be.

The basics are these: The Wainscott Weasel is a beginner's level chapter book written by Tor Seidler and with gorgeous illustrations by Fred Marcellino. It takes place in the enchanting world of Wainscott, a quaint little bit of woods in a seaside town where the weasels have it much easier than weasels everywhere else. The reason for this is called the "Double B" - it's a long tunnel that stretches from the local farmer's chicken coop all the way to the woods where the weasels live. This tunnel ensures that instead of scrounging for food in the wild like normal weasels, the weasels of Wainscott just have to send a party down the tunnel every day, after the hens have laid their eggs but before the farmer has gone to collect them. That way they can take just as many eggs as they need, and no one is the wiser.

You might think, given this ingenious setup, that the book would be about something terrible happening to the Double B and the weasels having to work together to save themeselves. It is not. Actually, the Double B plays very little role in the book itself, except as background for our protagonist. Our hero, Bagley Brown, Jr. is the son of the weasel who invented tunnel and for whom it was named. No one knows what happened to Bagley Brown, Sr., just that he disappeared right around when the second tunnel (first one caved in) was finished and his son is kind of weird.

Our story is actually about Bagley Jr. coming into his own as a hero and becoming the kind of weasel that anyone would be proud to know. It's a bit of a strange story, but I would argue that's what makes it special.

We're introduced to Bagley through the eyes of two particular weasels: Zeke Whitebelly and Wendy Blackish. Zeke and Wendy are sweet on each other, but they have very different views of Bagley. Zeke, being a local brash youth sees Bagley as a pretentious idiot who puts on airs and wears an eyepatch as an "affectation" because his father died. At the start of the book, Zeke is annoyed that Bagley thinks he's so much better than Zeke, even though this is not actually the case.

Wendy, on the other hand, isn't from around here, so her understanding of Bagley is as a famous weasel whose father did something really special. She has a mild crush on Bagley for most of the book, and even when she falls for Zeke, she still holds a soft spot for Bagley, seeing him as "romantic" and "sensitive".

What makes this book so interesting is that, ultimately, neither interpretation is particularly accurate. Bagley's sensitive and a little aloof, but he's mostly preoccupied. Alongside mourning his father and being generally terrified of everything - which makes him one of the first children's characters with PTSD I ever encountered - Bagley is busy bemoaning the fact that he's gone and fallen in love with a fish. That's right, this is a book about a weasel who is in love with a fish and who goes to extraordinary lengths to save his lady fish love.

I told you it was a little weird.

The bulk of the story goes like this: while Wendy and Zeke are dancing around each other (literally) and falling in love, Bagley is moping because the fish he loves, Bridget, has asked him not to come around anymore. She wants him to forget about her because she's a fish and he's not, so it could very obviously never work. Meanwhile, the town is having its hottest summer in years, and a drought has meant that the pond where Bridget lives is shrinking day by day. This is a problem. Bridget and the other pond residents, including Paddy the bullfrog who is great, are being preyed on by an osprey (a large bird of prey that eats fish).

The osprey's nest is up there on one of those telephone pole platform things, and it wreaks havoc on the local wildlife, eventually killing for sport rather than just food. When Paddy comes to Bagley for help, he decides that the only thing to be done is to move the osprey's nest and save the pond, even if it means confronting his own fears.

Those fears being, of course, of heights, open spaces, and large birds. Bagley's father, who died when he was little, was carried off in front of him by a large owl. The owl also clawed out Bagley's eye, leaving him traumatized and with very poor depth perception. Anyway, his mission is to save the pond, and the way he does it is positively ingenious. Even better, when Bagley can't finish the job himself, the other weasels rally around him and help.

There's something really lovely in that. While a book about the weasels saving themselves would be more standard for this genre, I love that The Wainscott Weasel is ultimately about the healing powers of altruism. Bagley isn't saving himself, he's saving Bridget. The other weasels don't even know about Bridget and have literally no motivation other than helping their friend. And that makes this story go from good to great.

The point of the story, the crux of it, is that there's no way Bagley Brown will ever be able to move on from what happened to him if he doesn't confront it. But without any particular reason to do so, he's stuck. He's not going to confront it for his own sake, and there's no one in the story who really knows enough about him to encourage him anyway. What ends up healing Bagley is his desire to help someone else, to help Bridget.

Plus, we're treated to a story about one character helping another with no thought of reward. Bagley doesn't see Bridget before he does this. He doesn't talk to her after their one conversation very early on in the story. Heck, at one point he finds out that she has a fish husband and had fish babies. He does it because he cares about Bridget with no thought of her returning his affection. He does it because he can and because he should, and that is what helps him overcome his fears. I mean, in order to save the pond, Bagley has to do such ridiculously daring things as brave a beach covered in humans, climb a telephone pole, and face down an osprey. He does it all not because he has to or because he thinks it'll make him well, but because it's the right thing to do.

I think this is why, as a kid, this book meant so much to me. It cemented for me that the really heroic acts aren't the ones we do to save ourselves, but the ones we do to help others. This is of course not to say that narratives about self-preservation aren't good or important, but just that there's a special place in my heart for stories of altruism. Bagley Brown is a very good weasel. The best of weasels, actually, precisely because he doesn't think there's anything all that special about him and yet he does such wonderful things.

And it's his kindness and self-sacrifice that inspires the other weasels to do the right thing too. They see that Bagley has different priorities than they do, and instead of scorning him, they decide to help. Heck, there's a scene where an entire wedding gets up and goes to help Bagley save the pond. That's amazing!

The Wainscott Weasel is a weird little book, sure. It's about a weasel with one eye who's in love with a fish. But it's also a book about how helping other people can make you a better person. It's about how one act of kindness can change an entire culture. Bagley is kind to Bridget and then to Paddy, and that helps the other weasels to want that too, even though technically speaking both Bridget and Paddy are food to them. It's just really good. The story, but also the morality. It's good in an uncomplicated way that is so easy to forget in the real world.

I wish this book had more of a following. It's a rare thing to read something like this again and be blown away just as much as when you were a kid. Hell, I might like it more now than I did then. I certainly appreciate the philosophical underpinnings more. But mostly I like Bagley. He was a good hero for me to have. A character who is willing to risk his biggest fears without any ulterior motives, just the knowledge that it would help someone else. That's who I wanted to be as a kid, and I hope that's still who I want to become.

The best kind of stories are the ones that only get better with time.


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