Every so often a book comes along that insists on being read aloud, a well-written, exciting story with characters that a roomful of kids -- and adults -- can immediately identify with, admire and love. "The Animals of Farthing Wood" is such a story.
Inevitably, the book will be compared, as its jacket indicates, with "Watership Down," but beyond the fact that it concerns a group of animals forced by encroaching humanity to seek a new home, there is refreshingly little in common between the two. For one thing, "The Animals of Farthing Wood" is shorter, and spares the reader the grim vision of a beleaguered band of rabbits; for another, it is told with a warmth and humor that are lacking in Richard Adams' ponderous novel.
The animals in this story are a varied collection of woodland species who dwell in the last remnant of the once-vast Farthing Wood, dwindled now to a small island of wildness surrounded by housing developments, towns and highways. Threatened with a devastating drought, compounded by the destruction of their last water hole by a land-fill operation, and by the daily sounds of bulldozers and chainsaws carving into the borders of their ancestral home, the thirsty animals of the wood, reluctant until now to confront their inevitable fate, gather to discuss it in Badger's den.
It is Toad, returning fortuitously at this moment after escaping from his young human captors, who suggests a solution: mass emigration to White Deer Park, the nature preserve he discovered on his year-long journey home. Badger, Fox, Weasel, Owl, Falcon, Pheasant, Adder, Mole, Toad and the numerous families of prolific smaller creatures -- predators and prey, friends and foes -- swear a solemn oath of mutual protection, binding each to the safety of all for the duration of their journey.
The following night, they bid farewell to Farthing Wood and embark into unknown terrain for the sanctuary of White Deer Park, guided by Toad, the only animal among them who knows the way. Fox, the acknowledged leader of the party, relies heavily on the wisdom and experience of Owl and Badger, and one by one the other animals prove their worth, or their hazard, to the company.
Threatened by both human and animal predators, by the mass hysteria of the rabbits, by the loss of their leader, by fire, flood, storm, poison, the senseless cruelty of the hunt and the mindless horror of the highway, the animals make their way through the English landscape. They are slowed by tragedy, hunger, birth, natural and manmade barriers, and always by their steadfast resolve to travel at the pace of the slowest among them. Generous creatures along the way, and even on occasion unwitting humans, come to their aid and rescue. Man, while always a menace, represents no cosmic evil, but rather a somewhat unintelligent, powerful bungler, capable of destruction but also of creating sanctuaries. Man also provides some of the slapstick episodes in the story.
As sheer adventure, "The Animals of Farthing Wood" is a compelling and dramatic tale. Dann's animals are by turns foolish, wise, funny, desperate, noble, selfish and heroic. The conflict between survival of the individual and family and survival of the community is handled with subtlety and compassion, and the animals brave peril and tragedy with the cheerful irreverence peculiar to combat units or emergency crews under great stress -- paradoxically, a more "human" and endearing quality that the epic paranoia of "Watership Down."
More apt comparisons to this book, which won a British Arts Council National Book Award for Literature, would be Robert Lawson's "Rabbit Hill," or Kipling's "Jungle Books," or Robert C. O'Brien's "Mrs. Frisbie and the Rats of NIMH," in which creatures of widely disparate species and habit overcome disaster through communal effort and cheerful good will. The animals of Farthing Wood leave one feeling that is not so absurdly frivolous or sentimental after all to care deeply for "all creatures great and small," who share our dwindling planet. For, as Badger says, "We all need each other's help."