CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 12. . . . February 14, 2003
By the middle of June, the pond was rimmed with grass and tall cattails, which resembled sausages on spikes. A great blue heron stalked the shallows in search of minnows and pollywogs to spear with his long beak.
When the sun touched the tree line, the heron gave a harsh 'Quoawk!' and sprang into the air. Once aloft, it took a moment to compose itself for flight. Then, with its legs trailing behind like sticks and its neck curved over its back, the bird majestically sailed away.
As the heron lifted from the pond, nine furry heads surfaced---one after the other---by the lodge. It was the beaver family. They had assembled for an important event. The kits, now a month old, had ventured outside for the first time.
They would begin their survival lessons this evening. But first they must know how to handle themselves in the water. They would learn this, and all their other skills, by imitating their parents.
One spring, a family of four beaver kits is born, the youngest being Jack. Two years later, two of his siblings have been eaten by predators, and he has learned how to swim, store food for winter, cut down trees, and build a dam. He has even learned how to babysit! That he has survived is, in part, due to his great-uncle who, having lost one of his paws in a trap, has acquired an extreme sensitivity to the presence of traps and an ability to spring most of the usual varieties. This talent was appreciated by the other beavers in the colony, but it appears that it was not something that could be effectively passed on. At any rate, as soon as Jack set off on his own as a two-year-old, he ran amok of some summer cottagers who didn't want their approach road flooded to make him a pond, and so they called in the game warden. Luckily for Jack, the warden used live traps and freed the little beaver near a national park where he can set up house unthreatened by his worst enemy, Man.
There is a family of beavers that has taken up residence near my cottage on the St. Lawrence River. Having been raised on the books of Thornton W. Burgess which extol the prowess of Paddy the Beaver as engineer and lumberjack, it did not come as a surprise that these little engineers had enough sense not to try to dam the nine-mile-wide river, but their tree-cutting expertise certainly left a great deal to be desired. There are trees girdled but then abandoned to die standing; there are many, many trees felled only to get caught up in the branches of their neighbours; and then there are a few that actually get to the ground. I was pleased, therefore, to find that Jack was not perfect at his craft either but actually brought one tree down on top of himself by mistake and was rescued from a predator by his father and One Paw in the nick of time. 'This book,' I said to myself, 'is about real animals!'
The illustrations are of real animals too. Full-page pen-and-ink sketches of the beaver kits swimming under water, of all of them working on the dam, of a black bear trying to dig into the lodge, are both charming and accurate. The kits have a pudgy young look to them that is not present when they become more mature, for example, but this is accomplished without sentimentalizing the animals, or giving them little red jackets.
However, although Jack is a particular beaver, his story is that of any beaver fortunate enough to survive infancy. It details physical characteristics, developmental stages, diet---in fact everything that a child needs to complete his or her project on beavers! Because Jack is so much Mr. Ordinary Beaver, he is not invested with an individual personality, and the reader would find it hard to get emotionally involved with him. For the child looking for information, there are no distractions; for one looking for an engrossing read, I fear it won't be found here. Even the dangers that Jack escapes by a hair seem to be generalities rather than particulars.
The one beaver with some character in the book is old One Paw; in a way, it is a pity that the book isn't about him.
Mary Thomas is at present on leave from her jobs in elementary school libraries in Winnipeg, MB, and instead is volunteering in the U.K. at the Dragon School where Harry Potter's friend, Hermione, is a student when not on set.
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