Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Grapes of Farthing Wood

The Animals of Farthing Wood, pre-quest
Now you're going to have to bear with me on this one, because I'll be starting with a TV series before I get to the bookish stuff. People brought up in the UK in the nineties may be familiar with a certain children's television show called The Animals of Farthing Wood, based on books of the same name, which was a cartoon about a group of wildlife animals who lose their woodland home and so set out for 'White Deer Park', a nature reserve in which they could live without fear of the humans coming and building over it. As far as children's TV goes, it was, in hindsight, pretty harrowing; there were arguments, anger and even a few deaths - not usually the kind of thing you expect in a cartoon that's shown just before Blue Peter, never mind the watershed. It's cropped up in conversation a few times over the years because it was a childhood favourite of mine, and The Boyfriend's - apparently he used to do a great impression of Weasel, and my tableau of Fox (as depicted above) has gone down in family legend (probably for all the wrong reasons). Yet it wasn't until very recently that we stumbled across one of literature's greatest secrets: The Animals of Farthing Wood is, in fact, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - but for children.

For those who aren't familiar with the story of The Grapes of Wrath, it follows the journey of the Joad family as they travel across America in the Great Depression, heading for California, the fabled land of milk-and-honey for the penniless, jobless, hungry victims of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. In California, there will be jobs for all, money for all, sunshine for all and nothing to fear anymore - these are the hopes that power the Joads along their way. Sound familiar? I certainly thought so; the animals are inspired to leave their homes because humans are pulling down the trees for houses, and they have heard of this nature reserve which will hold them safe. In the same way that the Joads find themselves displaced by poverty, so the animals are displaced by lack of a home; and like the Joads, they have heard of somewhere that would be a paradise on earth to them in their troubled times.

That's not just where the similarities end, however; if it was, any journey-story could be compared with one another. What I found to be particularly enlightening was that several characters in Farthing Wood never made it to White Deer Park, for a number of reasons. This too occurs in The Grapes of Wrath; as the Joads make their way West, they pick up and lose traveling companions as they go, in desperate scenes of pain, struggle and reluctant acceptance. I don't think I'm giving away the plots of either book too much to compare two such scenes, the first being between The Wilsons, and the Hedgehogs (guess who features in what). Both leave their travelling parties early on in the journey, and both for awful reasons; the Wilsons leave the Joads because one of them is simply too weak to carry on, and so they are left behind, whilst the Hedgehogs never made it across a road. In both scenes, you are forced to work out the rest for yourselves - realising that the Joads are reluctantly turning their backs on their friends, and that these characters will never make it to California, is harder to bear than if it had been spelt out. The Hedgehogs' disappearance from the story is just as difficult: you see the Hedgehogs are the last to make the dangerous dash across the road, then you see them begin the dash, then you see one curl up in a ball: that's it. After comes the dawning realisation that the Hedgehogs never made it across the road, and as the Joads pull away from the Wilsons in their truck, the same feeling creeps over you: one of great sadness, but also an acknowledgement that, for the living and well, carrying on is the only option.

A similar scene is a happier one: as the Joads make it closer to California, they stumble across a plentiful river in a beautiful location: it is here that the eldest son, Noah, elects to stay behind and live, and so he leaves the story. Having found his own personal paradise, he doesn't feel the need to seek out a new one, even with his family, and so the last we see of him is a man satisfied with his lot. With the Animals, it is the Newts who stay, having found a pond that is ideal for them to live in, no longer feeling the need to travel, choosing to wave goodbye to their friends as they continue on their quest. Again, there are themes of loss and sadness, but it's a different, bittersweet one: in both cases, leaving the party was a decision made willingly, in the best interests of those who stayed, and even though you know you'll never see them again, there's the bright spot of happiness from those who stayed as they contemplate their new homes. Unlike the bleak partings of before, this is a satisfactory one.

My final point relates to the arrival of the parties at their destinations: the Animals make it to White Deer Park, the Joads finally find California. Yet the expected paradise is not what is found. The Animals find that the park is already occupied by creatures who are unwilling to share their bounty, whilst the Joads realise that they weren't the only poor farmers to travel West, and the jobs' market there is now saturated. It's a lesson in expectations: in each story, all hopes are pinned on a fabled heaven that would answer all their prayers, only to find that if you scratch below the surface, it is far from perfect. The Foxes of Farthing Wood have to contend with the bitter hatred of the Blue Foxes who already live in the Park, whilst the Joads struggle to find anywhere that pays even a fifth of what they thought they might get. After such long, tiring journeys of loss and struggle, it's a poor welcome and a stark lesson for all concerned - even though, really, they had no choice but to follow those paths.

Okay, I am just speculating here (at length), and these are - I admit - tenuous links at best. But the conversation I had with The Boyfriend was one of those where you feel like you can almost see the pieces slotting together - like that bit in the film Knowing where Nicolas Cage realises all those numbers are, in fact, dates. It was a true lightbulb moment and one I was eager to explore in depth. It also got me thinking about how it doesn't matter how old you are, the same themes, no matter which way they are covered, can make you feel awful: that bit when the Hedgehogs were never seen again? Still can't bring myself to admit what really happened, and it's the same with the Wilsons - even as the Joads drove away, I was reading with disbelief that they were abandoning their friends like this. The Animals of Farthing Wood may not have been an award-winning show, and I am probably the only person who's spent this much time comparing a kids' TV show and book series with one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, but once I had made the connection, I had to explore it further. It's also got me wondering if there are any other children's shows or books which could be seen as being re-tellings of adult novels - if you've made it this far and can think of any, I'd love to hear them.

No comments:

Post a Comment