Reviewed in the United States on December 20, 2013
For many years, Beatix Potter wrote no small book stories for small people. "Peter Rabbit" and "Squirrel Nutkin" were tales from Beatrix's spring & summer. After writing such as these, she raised sheep and the dickens in the cause of land preservation. Then, in the early winter of her life, friends in the United States were pleased to publish anything Beatrix Potter would be pleased to write, endlessly appreciative and less fussy than her British publishers.
What Beatrix choose to write were some oddments, bits, and pieces that had been in her mind for years, stories she really wanted to write. Many incorporate the old rhymes that eased hard work. Many were tales told her by the country-folks in the high fells where she was Mrs. Heelis and a famed sheep-breeder. Some grew out of her fury at government meddling in the old ways, lacking in appreciation of the unique beauty of the wild open lands.
She strung the tales together, a necklace of carnelian, amber, and greenstone, on a connecting story of an invisible caravan of animals, who go from farm & village to village & farm entertaining other animals. As long as they wear Fern Seed, Big People (Muggles-like) can not see them, though the other animals could. The caravan is animated by characters such as gentle, brave Pony Bill, kind old Jenny Ferret, Paddy Pig (black, small---perhaps a pot-bellied pig), and the story-teller, Xarifa Dormouse.
Into this mixture comes a guinea pig, Tuppence, who looks like Cousin It, all hair, the result of being the guinea pig for a concoction to grow hair even on a door knob. (Beatrix was not above puns, and rather doted on them). Thus assembled, the Caravan goes off and has adventures told in 22 chapters. Several of the stories center around the effects of eating toadstools on Paddy Pig. These include nausea, acute pains, and terrifying hallucinations of giant green caterpillars with red noses: a kind of Really Bad Trip keenly observed (and one hopes not personally experienced) by Mrs Heelis. The cures offered by the simples women cats make matters worse, and poor Piggy seems done for until a retriever-veterinary using a massive dose of castor oil (or enough time) restores him to his senses.
The speech of these good friends is, says the author, that of the country people and that is mostly what we hear. There also are many descriptions of the countryside, the meadows, and the old country names for the flowers Beatrix drew so expertly, passages that are sheer poetry.
However at times "The Fairy Caravan" is overly lacey with a Kate Greenaway cuteness. Animals have nursery-names such as Tappie-Tourie, Selina Pickacorn, Chucky-doodie, Merrylegs, Cricket, and Cheesebox.
Here's Mary Ellen, a tabby, attending to hallucinating, shivering Paddy, who understandably is driven all the more frantic:
"Was it a leetle sick piggy-wiggy? Was it cold then? Bless its leetle pettitoes. No, it must not kick its blanket off its beddee-beddee..." (p.146).
"A Fairy Caravan" has much shimmering magic. "Pringle's Woods" is a place of toad-stools, small men, roe-deer sheltering poor Pony Billy, and trees throwing oak-apples that weigh his cart like lead. A story based on the loss of one of Beatrix's clogs is marvellously imaginative. Forgotten on a running board, it danced to a Fairy Wood to the Hall of Lost Footsteps, where all the lost shoes foot it featly until dawn, after which the clog is found, dusty indeed and tired-like.
And, most poignant and powerful of all, Chapter 23 is the story of the fairy who lived in a 500 year old oak, cut down to widen a road for cars, and her sad days until she at last finds her oak that has been made into a bridge for children. Beatrix fought against cutting down that very oak like a tigress, but to no avail. Yet Xarifa, the story-teller and the soul of Beatrix Potter, says
[The oak fairy] was happy again and she made her home in the bridge. She lives there, contented and useful; and may live there for hundreds of years. ...The good farm-horses bless the bridge that spares them a weary road; and Something leads them over, and helps to lighten their load. It wears a russet-brown petticoat and a little hooden gray cloak..." (p. 187)
The hard-back original of "The Fairy Caravan" had coloured illustrations. The paperback has black and white sketches, many skillful indeed. These are long stories, yet probably best read with sleepy children who may be old enough that on waking, they will pick up the book and read to themselves, led into Beatrix Potter's most personal and best loved world.
OVERALL: This is not "The Wind in the Willows" nor "Harry Potter." "The Fairy Caravan" is the older, gentler magic of the world of farm, fells, and fallow, stories told to Beatrix Potter in the 19th century by people who heard them from grandmothers born in the 18th century, re-told in about 1920 by artist, farmer, story-teller, somewhat Prospero-like, Mrs. William Heelis. Recommended for older children and those loving the old names, old places, and kindly old virtues.
Note: Linda Leer's fine biography of Beatrix Potter includes the story of how "The Fairy Caravan" came to be written and what it meant to Beatrix.