Post Road Magazine #23


Caitlin Horrocks

For years now, I've been seizing any baby shower or child's birthday as an excuse to buy the family a Moomin book. They aren't always particularly appropriate gifts. They are, as children's books go, dense and wordy, with illustrations of creatures called Moomintrolls that look like hippos with long tails and accessories—Moominmamma wears a striped apron, the Snork Maiden a gold anklet. Moomins are cute, but many of the other denizens of Moominvalley are spooky or existential—Hemulens smell like "old paper and worry," the Muskrat lies in a hammock reading a book called The Uselessness of Everything, and the ghostly Hattifatteners appear on dark nights at sea, white wiggly tubes with jazz hands. But still I urge these books into parents' hands, a Moomin evangelist, wanting as many people as possible to read about these wise little Scandinavian hippos.

I let people assume that these books are relics of my own childhood, that I grew up reading A Comet in Moominland or Moominsummer Madness. But I'd never heard of them until after college, when I was working at an elementary school in Finland, where Moomins are a part of the cultural fabric and a point of national pride. The author and illustrator, Tove Jansson, is a Finn who between 1945 and 1970 created Moomin chapter books, picture books, a daily comic strip, designs for Moomin dishware and shower curtains and stuffed animals. There are Japanese and British television series, and a Moomin-themed amusement park. Jansson eventually tired of her creations and turned her attention to painting and to adult literary novels. But the Moomins remain possibly Finland's most successful cultural export. I'd still never heard of them. They were just kids' books, I thought, so I didn't bother to bring myself up to speed.

I finally read Finn Family Moomintroll when I was given a copy as a parting gift. An early Moomin book, Finn Family is lighter, more playful than the later books. The adventures involve a mischievous top hat and a house overtaken with indoor jungle foliage. The writing is charming, completely satisfying to even an adult reader and durable enough to survive translation into English ("This day the spring had decided to be not poetical but simply cheerful.") The "poetical" is never forced: the August moon is described as "unbelievably big and a little frayed round the edges like a tinned apricot." There is a genuine sweetness and joy to the illustrations, the characters, the story. But there are also villains like the Groke: "She was not particularly big and didn't look dangerous either, but you felt that she was terribly evil and would wait forever."

The books are not high fantasy; it would not occur to the Moomins to battle or exile the Groke. She's just there, to be pitied and avoided and perhaps to inspire bad dreams that can be safely woken up from. Threats are never exactly vanquished in Moominvalley because threat is omnipresent, but yet not overpowering. Moominmamma is waiting with fruit juice at the end of even the strangest experiences. In Moominland Midwinter, the book that hooked me on the series, the young Moomin family son wakes up early in the usual winter-long hibernation. He can't rouse his family, so he ventures into a transformed and foreboding world, leaving his old life behind: "They were very small tracks, but they were resolute and pointed straight in among the trees, southwards." The book has the clever little details that seem to come so effortlessly to Jansson (a proper pre-hibernation supper is a soup tureen of pine needles), and the illustrations are alternately huggable and desolate, as Moomintroll learns to ski or stands whimpering for his mother in their darkened house. But the book is also suffused with a deep wisdom: Moomintroll starts to grow up while his family is sleeping, and greets them in spring knowing he'll never quite be able to describe who he is now.

That sense of threat and coziness, safety and adventure, is constant in the Moominhouse, in the Moominvalley, in the sea islands and forests beyond it. Jansson writes, "There are those who stay at home and there are those who go away, and it has always been so. Everyone can choose for himself, but he must choose while there is still time and never change his mind." But this doesn't actually seem true for anyone in the Moominvalley, or for the reader. The Moomins, with as cozy a home life as anyone could want, still long for adventures, going to live on a rocky island or climbing a mountain to view a looming comet. The books allow the reader to do the same thing, to see both wonders and shadows in a world so tight and tidy and hidden you could imagine discovering it under some leaves in your own backyard.

The last book in the series, Moominvalley in November, features almost no Moomins—just friends and acquaintances who show up in the valley, drawn by their homey memories, to find it empty. In the abandoned Moominhouse they settle anxiously to wait for the family, wondering what could have happened to them. "You've no idea what has broken loose in this valley!" one character panics. She's told: "Don't fuss, there's nothing here that's worse than we are ourselves."

This is the not the starter title I give to prospective Moomin converts—if I'd read Moominvalley in November as a child, rather than as an adult, I might have cried or thrown it across the room—but as I do my best to spread Moomins far and wide, I hope some of those readers start with the summer adventures, or with the comic strip treasuries, and make it all the way to the darkest, loveliest, wisest parts of Moominvalley. The journey is worth it.

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