I would have forgotten all about The Little House were it not for Helen Garner’s short essay reflecting on her visceral and enduring memory of a childhood storybook, The Journey of the Stamp Animals. How this book thrilled her, not least the illustrations of Australian animals dressed as ‘glamorous vixens in tiaras and plunging-necked cocktail gowns’, of foxes wearing clothes with ‘special slits at the back, for out of the skirts and trousers gushed great, curvy tails.’
The image was ‘sexual, sinister, intensely metropolitan…’. It felt a long way from Garner’s ‘humble town of Geelong’ in the 1940s.
Her essay got me thinking about storybooks buried in my childhood consciousness.
When I remembered Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, I had no notion of it as the children’s classic storybook that it is, first published in 1942, winner of a prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1943. Miraculously I unearthed our edition – reprinted in 1969, a year before I was born – from my parent’s house. A whole generation had been skipped; I’d not read it to my own children and I’d not seen it in over thirty years.
But as I held the slim, softened paperback in my hands – its whimsical, curly title font, creamy paper, compelling illustrations – I inhaled on the full memory of its impact and appeal.
I had loved this book.
Firstly, the Little House was personified and gendered. Not only was she ‘pretty’ – and painted pink! – she was ‘strong’ and ‘well built’, by a man (naturally) who deemed she would ‘never be sold for gold or silver’ but would ‘live to see our great-great-great grandchildren’s great-great-grandchildren living in her.’ The Little House sat contentedly on a hill, glorious green countryside all around her. She epitomised longevity and all things predictable and aesthetically pleasing.
But as the seasons cycled and the children grew and time marched on, the Little House began to notice the encroachment of the once distant city, its ensuing menaces of industrialisation. Roads are built, and then more houses, bigger houses, apartment houses and tenement houses, schools, stores and garages. Slowly, but surely, the Little House becomes dwarfed by high-rise buildings, ‘trolley cars’ and elevated rail lines. Just when you think those buildings couldn’t get any higher, greyer or more foreboding, you turn the page to discover that the Little House is now barely recognisable. Covered in black soot, broken and tiny, she is all but invisible under the weight of the city. She is also abandoned and trapped by her builder’s caveat, unable to be sold by his absent descendants.
Even so, she was ‘just as good a house as ever underneath.’
Finally – thank goodness! – the Little House is re-discovered by the builder’s great-great-granddaughter. And with her fundamental sturdiness intact, the Little House is jacked up and trucked from the city, given a fresh lick of pink paint and reinstated amongst rolling hills and singing birds. She is free again to watch from her perfect little windows and shutters the coming and going of the seasons and the sun and the moon and stars.
Your relief for the Little House at this point is palpable. There is also a strange sense of something I can’t quite put my finger on, not then, or even now. It is contained in a small detail of the story that suggests her terrifying ordeal is perhaps the Little House’s own fault. It occurs in one simple sentence on page four: ‘The Little House was curious about the city and wondered what it would be like to live there.’ This detail resurfaces again on page 40, the final page of the book. ‘Never again’, we are told, ‘would she be curious about the city…. Never again would she want to live there…’. Though we don’t really understand how, the Little House’s curiosity is partly to blame for the whole thing.
Not surprisingly, The Little House, I now discover, is famously viewed as a critique of urban sprawl, a motivation allegedly denied by its author, who said she merely wanted to convey ‘a sense of the passage of time’ to young readers.
I find myself now living in Mount Barker, a 173-year-old town in the Adelaide Hills, which, as it happens, is the fastest growing inland town in Australia. A 2010 rezoning of agricultural land will result in the population doubling here over two decades. This once small town is now the site of expanding housing developments, congested traffic and groaning infrastructure. People talk about retaining the town’s authentic character, of maintaining a rural sense of community. Barely acknowledged in the mainstream public consciousness are the indigenous landowners, the Peramangk people.
These are some of the tensions that fueled the writing of my novel-in-stories, Barking Dogs, which is set in a fictitious, but named, Mount Barker. I wanted to write stories about the community we yearn for and imagine we have, the reality of our isolation, our betrayals and grief.
Now that I’ve remembered The Little House, I can sense its composted influence, all the way from my childhood.
Rebekah Clarkson is the author of Barking Dogs.