Happy Families Are All Alike…and Different
(Michael di Capua Books) Random House, 1965, HarperCollins, 1996
Reviewed by Seana Graham
For some reason at this time of year, I’m often drawn to some quiet, meditative tale, and this year is no exception. The poet Randall Jarrell wrote several children’s books toward the end of his life, among them The Animal Family. It begins with a hunter living alone by the sea and the quiet rhythms of the story draw us slowly into a reality not completely our own. Although in our terms he might be described as self-sufficient, he is also lonely, and though he is comforted to hear his mother singing to him in his dreams, there is no one to share his life with.
In spring the meadow that ran down from the cliff to the beach was all foamwhite and sea-blue with flowers; the hunter looked at it and it was beautiful. But when he came home there was no one to tell what he had seen—and if he picked the flowers and brought them home in his hands, there was no one to give them to. And when at evening, past the dark blue shape of a far-off island, the sun sank under the edge of the sea like a red world vanishing, the hunter saw it all, but there was no one to tell what he had seen.
Luckily for him, this situation is about is about to change, for one night he hears a mermaid singing. Humming her song to himself, he tries to memorize it, thus beginning the process of wooing her. We are in somewhat familiar fairytale country now, the theme of the man and the nonhuman wife. If we’ve read a bit in this genre, we know that this is very likely to end badly, as most other weddings with magical brides tend to. But Jarrell gives us an early clue that he is after something different here. The hunter lures the mermaid in closer and closer, singing her own song to her, but when she is close enough for him to see her (sidelong) and the song is almost over, he stops in the middle of a note. And after a silence, she laughs and finishes the song for him. That laugh gives us a glimpse that there may be a happier resolution to their story.
The mermaid comes to live with the hunter. Her relatives do not approve, but the mermaid is searching for something beyond their ken. She loves the land because it is (and she and the hunter must grapple to find the word here) different. And this is just for starters. I’ve come across few books that embrace difference so lovingly and willingly. The mermaid explains a bit more about it toward the story’s end. She is telling him what it is like for her people, the sea-people:
“When it storms for the people, no matter how terribly it storms, the storm isn’t real—swim down a few strokes and it’s calm there, down there it’s always calm. And death is no different, if it’s someone else who dies. We say, ‘Swim away from it’; we swim away from everything.
“But on land it’s different. The storm’s real, here, and the red leaves, and the branches when they’re bare all winter. It all changes and never stops changing, and I’m here with nowhere to swim to, no way ever to leave it, or forget it. No, the land’s better! The land’s better!”
It is their mutual capacity to embrace difference, the mermaid and the hunter, that allows them to create their very unusual family. Although you can peek ahead by looking at the chapter titles, I will follow the lead Maurice Sendak gives us in his illustrations and reveal nothing.