Ten Childhood Homes

Sometimes “coming home” simply means leaving absentminded revery behind and coming back to this life.

Maurice Sendak, “Where the Wild Things Are”
  1. It is remarkable how the search for the lost home is the acute feeling at the center of so many children’s stories. After she is taken from her grandfather’s mountain hut and left at the mansion in Frankfurt, Heidi grows so homesick that she begins to sleepwalk; every night this heartsick little somnambulist opens the door of the mansion she longs to leave and steps outside, in her deep wish to return to her alpine home. As much fun as Max has with the monsters in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, in the end he still wants to return home and be “where someone loved him best of all.” Even the unwanted Hansel and Gretel, when they are abandoned in the woods, are eager to follow the trail of bread crumbs back to their old home.
Illustration by Inga Moore for “Wind in the Willows”

2. In the chapter “Dulce Domum” (“Home Sweet Home”) in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Mole is lost in a snowstorm and then smells something: “He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. . . . Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches in the air, those invisible hands pulling and tugging, all one way.”

Beatrix Potter, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”

3. After his scare when he is trapped in Mr. McGregor’s garden, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit finally finds his way back to his family home at the base of the fir tree. Snug there, he curls up in his bed. And because he has overeaten and has a stomach ache, while his three sisters look on, Peter’s mother prepares him camomile tea.

Maurice Sendak, “Where the Wild Things Are”

4. The young like to play underneath tables and behind the furniture. They like to create houses out of large cardboard boxes or out of blankets and chairs. They like to build homes within homes.

Illustration by Garth Williams for “Little House on the Prairie”

5. In her semi-autobiographical Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder stresses the precariousness her family feels when they are camping on the prairie and when the wolves howl at night. Then they build their log home. They dig a well. They erect fences. They bring indoors the items they carried in their covered wagon. This restores Laura: “It was nice to be living in a house again . . . . The fire merrily crackled, a fat duck roasted, and the cornbread baked. Everything was snug and cozy again. Everything was all right.”

Jean DeBrunhoff, “The Story of Babar”

6. After his mother is killed by a hunter, Babar the elephant leaves the jungle and travels to the Town where he is befriended by the Old Lady; there he begins to wear clothes, learn manners, and drive a Citroen. At the end of Jean DeBrunhoff’s book, Babar returns to the jungle in his car along with his pachyderm fiancé Celeste. He brings gifts (primarily hats and trumpets) to the jungle animals. He is promptly elected king. It is a triumphant homecoming.

MGM “The Wizard of Oz”

7. There is remarkable moment near the end of the MGM film “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy wakes in her bed in Kansas. Dorothy has wanted to escape Elsewhere (“somewhere where there isn’t any trouble,” somewhere where Elvira Gulch isn’t trying to get her dog Toto, somewhere over the rainbow). But the truth is that there’s no escape. In her dream, Kansas is remade into Oz, the hired hands (Hunk, Zeke, and Hickory) reappear as her companions (the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Lion), Professor Marvel as the Wizard, and Elvira Gulch as the Wicked Witch. This makes a subtle point. Dorothy’s famous line that “There’s no place like home” really amounts to “There’s no place but home.”

Tea time, Hugh Lofting

8. Welcome home. After his worldwide wanderings in The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, Hugh Lofting’s famous veterinarian arrives back in England on a drizzly afternoon. He turns to his companions and says, “You know, there’s something rather attractive about the bad weather of England–when you’ve got a kitchen-fire to look forward to. . . . Four o’clock! Come along–we’ll just be in nice time for tea.”

Credit: dreamstime.com

9. The picture drawn most frequently by the young is one that Gaston Bachelard calls the “Happy House.” It is a drawing of a square home whose squat proportions indicate it is very much rooted in the world. It has a door, because this is a place of comings and goings; and it has a window or windows, indicating an “inside” and “outside.” There is a chimney with lively smoke swirling out of this place which is clearly warm and inhabited. Often too, the house is surrounded by tall and guarding trees and by happy and blooming flowers. Sometimes, at a height, sheltering mountains surround it and below a river of time passes along. And the sun? The sun shines happily on all of this. Who is the sun? Who is the house?

Calligraphy by Shingai Tanaka

10. Archibald Craven is a neglectful father in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. In terrible grief over the death of his beloved wife, he has forgotten his son Colin and ignored the orphan, Mary Lennox, whom he is to watch over. He wanders lost in his sad thoughts until he hears a voice that summons him home to a reunion with those children. It is as if an absentminded father suddenly hears a baby crying, pays attention, and gets up to change a diaper. Sometimes “coming home” simply means leaving absentminded revery behind and coming back to this life.

The remarks above were inspired by a comment once made when I was talking with P.L. Travers. She said,“Whenever I have a student interested in Zen, I start them with [Kakuan’s] The Ten Bulls. Do you know that?” Here’s a link to “The Ten Bulls.”

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23. February 2016 by
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