Monday, January 1, 2018

Joy in the Natural World: My Family and Other Animals


by Gerald Durrell

This book is recommended as a nature study book in 
Mater Amabilis™ ™Level 4, eighth grade. It is the memoir of Gerald Durrell, who moved to Corfu in Greece with his mother and siblings when he was about ten. Though autobiographical, the book takes significant liberties; his brother's wife, for example, is not mentioned at all.

The natural descriptions are lovely.
The goats poured among the olives, uttering stammering cries to each other, the leader's bell clonking rhythmically. The chaffinches tinkled excitedly. A robin puffed out his chest like a tangerine among the myrtles and gave a trickle of song. The island was drenched with dew, radiant with early morning sun, full of stirring life. Be happy. How could one be anything else in such a season?
The description of an early life spent wandering an island, often accompanied by a naturalist, is practically the ideal Charlotte Mason study of the natural world. He even writes about scribbling and sketching in journals.
Theodore had an apparently inexhaustible fund of knowledge about everything, but he imparted this knowledge with a sort of meticulous diffidence that made you feel he was not so much teaching you something new, as reminding you of something which you were already aware of, but which had, for some reason or other, slipped your mind.
Each Thursday, Theodore and the author would wander outside, letting the day and the natural world guide their feet and their minds.
Every water-filled ditch or pool was, to us, a teeming and unexplored jungle, with the minute cyclops and water-fleas, green and coral pink, suspended like birds among the underwater branches, while on the muddy bottom the tigers of the pool would prowl: the leeches and the dragon-fly larvae. Every hollow tree had to be closely scrutinized in case it should contain a tiny pool of water in which mosquito-larvae were living, every mossy wigged rock had to be overturned to find out what lay beneath it, and every rotten log had to be dissected.
This is how I imagine nature study should be, though for us it usually devolves into sword-fighting with sticks and someone sketching mud.

Throughout the book are hilarious stories of misadventures, like the time Gerry captured a mother scorpion covered with her youth and trapped them in a matchbox, which his brother mistakenly opens when searching for a match at the dinner table. Chaos ensued.

There is some crude language, especially from one of their Greek friends, and some references to sex, though nothing my thirteen-year-old has never heard. There's quite a bit of drinking and one episode in which a brother drinks himself into a stupor and nearly sleeps through a blazing inferno in his bedroom.

The Durrell family is not Catholic and there are some references to the Catholic faith of Greeks on the island. In one episode, they are trapped in a surge of people pouring into a church to kiss the feet of a local saint and ask his intercession. Gerry's sister does so and comes down with influenza which is blamed on the saint.

Gerry names one of the animals frequenting his room Geronimo, in honor of the "Red Indian," which while meant to be complimentary is not written with contemporary language. It's hard to know how I would feel about the passage if our family were Native American.

Finally, there is a description of a female dog going into heat and attracting many males, including the three of the household.
It was owing to this Victorian innocence that Dodo fell an easy victim to the lure of Puke's magnificent ginger eyebrows, and so met a fate worse than death when Mother inadvertently locked them in the drawing-room together while she supervised the making of tea. The sudden and unexpected arrival of the English padre and his wife, ushering them into the room in which the happy couple were disporting themselves, and the subsequent efforts to maintain a normal conversation, left Mother feeling limp, and with a raging headache.
Such episodes are scattered throughout the book, though most are much more innocent. I just wanted to mention these so a parent could be aware of pretty much everything if you (like me) assign it before actually reading it.

The language is delightful, love of the natural world flows throughout, and the antics are uproarious. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and count it as one of the best books I read in 2017.

I purchased this book used and this post reflects my honest opinion.

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