Sunday, May 24, 2015

Escape from Baxters' Barn

I recently received an ARC which I was looking forward to reading. I'd heard that it's in the same vein as Charlotte's Web, so obviously I had to investigate this claim. To me, Charlotte's Web is sacrosanct and I wanted to see what book could could dare to compare.

The story is about barnyard animals, which is apparent from the cover, as well as the title.

The interior illustrations are done in pen, like EB White's style, so it's not a coincidence that they are reminscent of Charlotte's Web.
I'm a sucker for animal stories, and both of these stories highlight the truth that sometimes animals have more humanity than humans.
Everyone knows how Fern spares Wilbur, the runt pig, from senseless slaughter. Mr. Arable justifies his attempt to kill the piglet by saying that runts make trouble. Wilbur is Othered initially because of the fact that he was born small, unlike the other pigs. Burdock the cat is Othered because he has only one eye. Unlike pet cats, who are coddled and cute, Burdock's had a rough life, and it's apparent in his scraggly and infirmed appearance.
Charlotte's Web is often heralded as a book which gently introduces the concept of mortality. Even after Wilbur is spared, he is informed by the sheep that the reason he's alive and on the farm to begin with, is to become food for the family. I must admit that because of this book, I always saw EB White through rose colored glasses, and it wasn't until I was in graduate school that I was enlightened:
Professor: EB White raised pigs.
Me: Like, as pets?
Professor: No, he raised them for meat.
Me: 'horrified look on face'
I couldn't imagine the man who had penned the heart-warming tale, butchering the same animals that he honored in his book.  It was the academic equivalent of your parents telling you as an adult that your beloved dog from childhood didn't actually go away to live on a farm.
Escape from Baxters' Barn does not shy away  from the reality of death either. Burdock is a cat; he hunts mice and eats them. When a barn owl needs his help, he catches a mouse for her to eat. Obviously there aren't any graphic depictions of the mouse's demise, but the text states it plainly. similar to when Charlotte the spider explains how drinks the blood of the flies she catches in her web. The central conflict also involves evading death; Burdock overhears a plan to burn down the barn for financial reasons so the animals hatch a grand plan. In both texts, the human characters view the animals as commodities for economic gain, and it is the animals who exhibit the traits attributed to humanitarianism such as compassion, individualism and capacity for self-realization through thought and reflection.
Templeton the rat has always been one of my favorite literary characters.
The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything." He is what he is, and he doesn't care to change for anyone. When he hears that Wilbur is headed for the smokehouse, he simply says: "Let him die. I shouldn't care." Burdock the cat is not as callous as Templeton, but he does consider that it would be easy for him to escape the barn by himself. Does he really need to help the others? Why? He even admits that he is not usually one for moral quandries.
I've always loved this illustration of Templeton.
It's from the story's conclusion, and he eats so
much that he's as big as a young woodchuck.
So what happens at the end of Escape from Baxters' Barn? You can probably guess, but that's no reason to skip this read. The release date is 7/7/15.
And now, for your viewing enjoyment:
No offense to Steve Buscemi, I can see why you're a natural pick for the part, but Paul Lynd's vocal characterization of the wry and rancorous rat are unparalleled.

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