The Borrowers

by Mary Norton

Cover image

Series: The Borrowers #1
Illustrator: Beth Krush
Illustrator: Joe Krush
Publisher: Sandpiper
Copyright: 1953
Printing: 1986
ISBN: 0-15-204737-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 180

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Arrietty is a 14-year-old girl who lives under the clock. Well, actually, she lives under the kitchen floor, but the entrance to her family's passageway is under the clock, from which they get their name. She sleeps in an old cigar box, her living room is wallpapered with strips cut from letters (and decorated with postage stamps), and she keeps a journal in a miniature book that's half the size she is. Arrietty, and her parents Pod and Homily, are Borrowers.

The Borrowers is a classic series of children's books by Mary Norton about miniature people who, at least in this first book, live in the walls and take things. Not big things, but all the little things: the blotter paper, the pins, the stray sock, old postage stamps, empty matchboxes, and the occasional thimble. With these things, they build their furniture, their clothes, and their homes, safely hidden in the walls and other secret places, always wary of the "human beans" (as Arrietty's mother tends to call them). That life is, of course, a remarkable simulation of middle-class, class-conscious British life, which is much of the fun.

Arrietty's family lives in the home of an elderly woman who's confined to bed, so it's quiet, safe, and driven entirely by routine. They only have to watch out for the maid and the gardener, and they keep regular schedules. That's just the way the Borrowers like it; predictable and quiet. Which is why they get caught entirely by surprise when a boy shows up, recovering from illness in the country, and spots Pod on one of his borrowing runs.

This is technically a re-read, but I read the original series so long ago that I barely remembered it. Not that there is all that much to remember, at least in the way of plot. This first book follows one of the standard plots for children's books of this type (although it follows Arrietty as the viewpoint character rather than the more common choice of the boy): boy discovers hidden creatures, hidden creatures are afraid, boy turns out to want to make friends with them, they strike up a friendship, peril nonetheless ensues. If you've read many children's books, you've probably read this before; The Mouse and the Motorcycle is an obvious example (and, in terms of plot, a somewhat better book). Arrietty is a typical protagonist, her parents are silly (and a bit flighty, particularly her mother), and the boy is, disappointingly, almost a non-entity.

But you don't read The Borrowers for the plot. The brilliance of this book is in the descriptions of what they use, how they use it, and how they construct their ingenious homes. Norton captures much of the wonder of other miniaturization stories (the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is an obvious example), but takes it one step further into clever and thoughtful repurposing. The book is full of off-hand descriptions of how everyday objects become different everyday objects for miniature people, giving it the same delight that one gets from descriptions of how model railroad dioramas or hand-made doll houses are constructed. The detailed (if busy) illustrations by the Krushes help tremendously with visualization and make the descriptions even more fun.

This is very much a children's book based on an exploration of a single great idea, so don't expect too much in the way of plot or deep characterization. It's also not science fiction; there isn't any realistic extrapolation of culture. The Borrowers all behave like perfectly ordinary English people without any further explanation because, of course, that's what they would do. Re-reading it as an adult, I wished there was a bit more meat to it. But the ingenuity is still a delight. It's great fun to spend a couple of hours imagining how one would construct the miniature accouterments of everyday life.

Followed by The Borrowers Afield.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-12-03

Last modified and spun 2016-10-05