The first book I ever loved was The World of Pooh by A. A. Milne. I still have my copy, maybe the only archeological proof that I ever was a small boy. I think I received it in 1958, when I was four. It was definitely on a snowy Christmas morning in rural upstate New York, in the middle of those brief and wonderful years. (As there was a House at Pooh Corner, there was a house on Red Mill Road.)
Its fine dust jacket vanished soon after, likely torn apart by Certain Small Hands. Sometime later, I repeatedly and lazily dragged a pencil back and forth across the cloth boards on the front. The lead markings, I now gladly note, are only shadows of their rude selves, but the imprint of E. H. Shepard's timeless line drawings remain lucid through the five decades of grime: a collage of Rabbit, Tigger, Owl, and, stretching a small stamp-sized tunic between them as a safety net, Eeyore, Piglet, and Christopher Robin under the emblematic image of a mud-caked Winnie-the-Pooh hanging from a balloon, helpless but hopeful in his endless quest for the only gold worth pursuing--honey.
It is a Perilous Moment, but you know No Harm will come to Pooh.
For some years after that Christmas morning, The World of Pooh (a collection of the two volumes of Pooh stories, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner) was not only the first book I ever loved, it was the only book I loved. To my Mom's exasperation, I read nothing else, at least as far as children's literature, until a teacher read us Charlotte's Web in sixth grade (and even that made her fume: "For years I couldn't get him to read Charlotte's Web! Then he comes home from school one day and starts raving about it!")
Another memory: my much oldest brother Christopher reading it to me in bed one night. How we cracked up together over the deathless deadpan line: "Owl looked at him and wondered whether to push him off the tree; . . ." (from "Rabbit's Busy Day"). That may be my first memory of the comic practice known as "dark humor."
Other small memories flurry around-looking up from "Where the Woozle Wasn't" on a country winter's day and imagining befuddled Pooh and timid Piglet side by side on their Woozle hunt, circling round the Pricker-Bush in the picture perfect setting of our snow-hushed backyard under a hoary gray sky. Even now, at fifty-five, I marvel like the boy I was at how simple, yet evocative and perfectly pitched, A.A. Milne's prose was. (God love Pooh-hating Dorothy Parker, but her ghost will just have to keep "fwoing up.")
I was, by a decade, the Baby in the Family and in a Frantic Hurry to Grow Up, which may be a partial explanation why I shunned all other children's literature. I even read books like MacKinlay Kantor's Andersonville and tried to clamber through the deep snow of Dr. Zhivago. I so wanted join the that angry, disdainful Club of Grown-Ups, who seemed so Free and Privileged. (Andersonville does remain memorable. I remember little of Zhivago.)
And then I became a Tweener, whereupon I rushed to join the Great Hush Up that seems part of being a teenage boy--the resounding rejection of all that "kid stuff," the pretense that I was never into it.
But one truth remained easy to tell: I unabashedly loved Winnie-the-Pooh. When the spine finally wore away, the Oshkosh Public Library, where Mom worked, kindly repaired it; some years later, after I moved away to Adult City, Mom blithely sold it for a quarter; it cost me three dollars to rescue it.
(In contrast, no kid will ever admit to having liked Barney the Dinosaur once they Get Over It. And so I offer this Tip to All Parents: first, store away every bit of that Barney merchandise; then, when Your Teenager starts Getting Stroppy, the Mere Threat to let Barney loose from the attic like an especially ghastly Mad Relative for All the World to See should get them Right Back in Line: I call this Discipline Through Blackmail.)
But for all my sweet nostalgia, there remain an Important Question. Why does this Grown-Up, who otherwise Fully Accepts and Appreciates his Grown-Upedness (and has merrily scoffed at those who cling too hard to the Ideal of Childhood (as you can read about out Here), still laugh whenever I open The World of Pooh. Why does it still flavor my soul with sweet sadness, the kind that keeps me playing Poohsticks whenever I come upon the Proper Bridge Across the Right Kind of Stream?
There are respectable literary reasons to still like Pooh: Milne's spare, elegant approach and droll, piercing, sometimes cruel humor ("‛And if Eeyore's back snapped suddenly, then we could all laugh. Ha ha! Amusing in a quiet way,'" (from "Tiggers Don't Climb Trees", a story from which rises a rather surprising whiff of sexual feeling from Piglet (!)); the simple but pointed characterization of each forest animal, from befuddled honey-drunk Pooh through scheming, high-handed Rabbit and pompous Owl down to boggy, sad Eeyore (who gets some of the best, most cutting, laughs). The perfect marriage of prose and picture in Mr. Shepard's drawings and water colors. While drawn from stuffed toys, they're done with a restraint that makes them seem oddly real and alive. They bathe quietly and simply in memory's kindest light.
Surprisingly, now that I'm That Grouchy Sort of Bear in Training, opening my creaking copy of The World of Pooh sparks a stunning poignancy that I didn't feel even when in my twenties. I don't think I fully grasped the heart of those stories until I read them again in the late 1990s. ("Christopher Robin was going away," from "An Enchanted Place."; even typing that line tears me up).
Winnie the Pooh is also about having to grow up, grow older and say good-bye. When I was eleven, I had to leave my own Enchanted Place--the House on Red Mill Road, as Christopher Robin has to leave the Forest and his Friends, whether we both like it or not.
Starting with "Rabbit's Busy Day," the stories slowly, sometimes subtly, weave this sense of moving on, until There We Are, alone with Pooh and Christopher Robin in the Enchanted Place at the Top of the Forest, where we do say a final good-bye with only memory to carry with us in the uncertain times that will follow as we join that Club of Grown-Ups with all its privileges and deceptive freedoms.
When we left That Forest for the wider world and its fantastic glories, cruelties and Chronic Uncertainty, boys like us had to come to a greater understanding. Over forty years later, I now live a block away from West Oakland, California, one of the Bay Area's grimmest neighborhoods and whenever I see the world the boys in the neighborhood have to play in, it's easy to see how profoundly unique and fortunate boys like Christopher Robin and I were, and how unfair it seems that the world the two of us were so lucky to have for those brief years seems so completely closed to them, even though my sentiments may seem as strange to them as their world looks harsh and pointless to me.
I'm even lucky have those memories, both in my soul and in the battered old book that now lies open in front of me, where I can be a whisper of that Boy Playing in the Forest once again.
(Redited and reposted on Open Salon.com 4/21/10)
Causes Thomas Burchfield Supports
The Nature Conservancy; Africare; Capitol Public Radio