Sunday 20 April 2014

Henry the Bear / Henry Thoreau - children's books by DB Johnson


Among my children’s perennial favourite picture books from earlier years are the series about Henry the Bear by DB Johnson.

Henry the Bear is actually the early 19th century writer Henry David Thoreau - and while the first four books of the series are all good, probably the first of these - Henry Hikes to Fitchburg - is the best because the 'plot' is so original and satisfying.


The plot idea was inspired by a famous passage from Walden - which defines Thoreau’s idea of economics: 

One says to me,“I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.”

But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot.

I say to my friend, “Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents... Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night;...You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrived there some time tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season.

Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day.”

What happens in the children's book is that Henry and his friend make a wager about who will get to Fitchburg first: will it be Henry who spends all his day walking (approximately thirty miles), or the friend who takes various odd jobs to raise the money for the train fare?

We see, in parallel pictures, the friend working (mostly chores for other famous Concord luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott) and then running to catch the train to Fitchburg; compared with the way-stages on Henry's journey - crossing streams, taking honey and being attacked by bees, botanising etc.

The moral is that Henry enjoys and is fulfilled-by the activities of his day - every step of the way - and is enriched by the experiences; while Henry's friend's day is simply a 'means to the end' of purchasing the ticket. Even the eventual rail journey is itself cramped and contorted.


It is a nice, realistic, touch that 'the friend' actually gets there first, and wins the bet (the picture above is the final two-page splash of them meeting) - but only because Henry stopped to gather blackberries into a pail; which the two of them can now sit and eat in the moonlight.



David said...

I will have to get a copy of this. Lovely illustrations and sobering, reassuring sentiment. Sometimes it is easy to loose a more serene perspective on life and to forget that the joys of the journey should not be sacrificed by the focus on a destination. Happy Easter Bruce :-)

jP said...

Can Henry be as dear to my heart as Rupert? =)