THERE IS MUCH that is appealing about this biography, written for children by the appreciative daughter of an interesting woman.
Why do I feel so grumpy about it?
Tasha Tudor is famous for her picture books, gentle stories illustrated in the soft colors of Beatrix Potter and the quaint costumes of Kate Greenaway. Here she is seen as artist, mother, farmer and determined recreater of the past. Daughter Bethany recalls a childhood that was a rural heaven of haylofts and farmyard animals out-of-doors, and indoors a dream-world of dolls whose pretend lives were nearly as real as her own. In dozens of fetching photographs we see Tasha Tudor playing with her four children, everyone in costume, in dirndls and pigtails, bodices and sunbonnets, pinafores and pantaloons, pelisses and chemises, redingotes and fathingales. There are no Bugs Bunny T-shirts or flared jeans, no jogging shoes or disco pants. The long skirts billow against spinningwheels and rag-rugs, barns and buckets, settles and mantles, pokers and patty-pans, goats and horses, chickens and sheep. Nowhere in this book do we catch a glimpse of televison sets, Pontiacs, toaster-ovens, washing machines, or any of the other desiderata of contemporary life, although we may darkly suspect that some of them are just off-camera, ruthlessly expunged from this perfect picture of timeless New England.
Off-camera too are the problems of normal life. Briefly Bethany reports her parents' marriage in 1938, but her father's name is not mentioned, there is no pictures of him, and he soon vanishes from the narrative. Of a second marriage there is no trace. I can't help but wonder whether or not this discretion will confuse rather than comfort children. Divorce, after all, is not shameful. A more honest biography might have allowed young readers to see the ups and downs or ordinary life rather than an impossible dream of a sunshiny past, a dream with curious holes in it.
The same flaw mars much of the artist's work. In an early little book, obviously inspired by The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Alexander Gander helps himself to a neighbor's cabbages. But instead of the deadly pursuit of Peter by Mr. McGregor in Beatrix Potter's classic tale, there if forgiveness for Alexander, and cookies and cambric tea. Something important is askew.
Perhaps I am uneasy about this biography because my own old farmhoue is full of copper pans and Boston rockers. (Is it a tender trap? Should we abandon everything and move into a glass and chromium cube?) But my real reservation has to do with sweetness. What is the matter with it, after all? Sweetness unabashed and wholesome, smiling and happy children, bouquets of goldenrod and Queen Anne's Lace? Nothing, except that it is only part of the story. Children are not always sweet. Nature is sometimes red in tooth and claw. Tasha Tudor obviously loves her rugged country life in rural Vermont as ardently as Beatrix Potter ever cared for her own Lake District farms and fields. But that doughty lady saw nature whole. She respected its darker side. Here is the young artist-naturalist pursuing her passionate and scholarly study of fungi: "Joy of joys, the spiky Gomphidius glutinosus, a round, slimy, purple head among the moss, which I took up carefully with an old cheese-knife."
Missing in this biography, as in much of Tasha Tudor's work, is the scary tramp of Mr. McGregor's rubber boots and an occasional slimy spike of Gomphidius glutinosus.