Richard Adams Gave Me Rabbits

Watership DownKnee-deep in spring! The rab­bits will be here soon, rangy after a long win­ter. They like our yard because we have low bush­es good for hid­ing and we let the lawn go to clover and dan­de­lions. I like to think rab­bits feel safe because they have lit­tle chance else­where. If ever there was an ani­mal with “a thou­sand ene­mies,” it’s the cot­ton­tail rab­bit, a crea­ture I nev­er paid much atten­tion to until Water­ship Down.

I found Water­ship Down in 1974. I was twen­ty-two, still in the thrall of The Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King yet feel­ing jad­ed that the world was noth­ing like Mid­dle-earth or Gramerye. One day on my lunch hour, I walked into Wood­ward & Lothrop to browse the book depart­ment. On dis­play were stacks of a new nov­el with a com­pass rose and a rab­bit on the cov­er. It was thick — over 400 pages — British, and a fan­ta­sy. The hard­cov­er cost $6.95, a for­tune on my secretary’s salary, but I bought it. At work I kept the book on my knees, slid­ing out from my desk to sneak-read when no one was looking.

With the first fore­bod­ing sen­tence, “The prim­ros­es were over,” I knew this was not a sto­ry about bun­nies. It was dark­er, sharp­er, and exact­ly what I need­ed. At that time, my life seemed all edges and uncer­tain­ty. I felt a lot like Fiv­er, the ner­vous “out­skirter” (in the hier­ar­chy of Adams’ rab­bits, out­skirters lacked aris­to­crat­ic parent­age, weight, and strength). I want­ed to write for chil­dren, but, more than two years out of high school, couldn’t seem to move for­ward. Was I doomed to type oth­er people’s words forever?

I learned that the author, Richard Adams, worked for the civ­il ser­vice and didn’t start writ­ing until he was fifty. Water­ship Down began as a tale he told his daugh­ters on a dri­ve to Strat­ford-on-Avon. They urged him to write the sto­ry — it took two years. After four­teen rejec­tions, a small pub­lish­er print­ed 2500 copies. The book became an instant clas­sic, allow­ing Richard Adams to quit his job and write full-time.

The book won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fic­tion Prize. A review­er for The Econ­o­mist declared, “If there is no place for Water­ship Down in children’s book­shops, then children’s lit­er­a­ture is dead.” I’ve nev­er felt it is a children’s book, but that could be because I came to it as an adult. Adams him­self refused to pin down the book’s intend­ed audi­ence: “What age-group is it aimed at?” some­one would ask. “I don’t aim it, madam. It just goes off by itself.”

Adams cred­its Ronald Lockley’s The Pri­vate Life of the Rab­bit for nat­ur­al his­to­ry details, but in aim­ing for the truth in his sto­ry, he drew upon his child­hood love of Wal­ter de la Mare’s poet­ry, espe­cial­ly “The Chil­dren of Stare”:

Tis strange to see young children
In such a win­try house;
Like rab­bits’ on the frozen snow
Their tell­tale foot­prints go.

His reac­tion to the poem: “Cold, ghosts, grief, pain and loss stand all about the lit­tle cocoon of bright warmth, which is every­where pierced by a wild, numi­nous beau­ty, cat­a­lyst of fear and weep­ing.” The poem was far from com­fort­ing, but it told the truth, and led Adams to tack­le “the real­ly unan­swer­able things” in Water­ship Down, which is also about grief, pain, and loss, while every­where pierced by a wild, numi­nous beauty.

Water­ship Down changed my life (the last book to do so). I nev­er saw rab­bits — or the nat­ur­al world — the same way again. I turned to the works of Rachel Car­son and Hal Borland.

I took notice of the envi­ron­ment. And I watched rab­bits dur­ing evening sil­flay, Lap­ine for feed­ing above-ground.

Rab­bits kept me ground­ed to the plan­et. I bought rab­bit gar­den stat­u­ary, rab­bit fig­urines and paint­ings. A framed poster of Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait’s Rab­bits on a Log hangs in our bath­room. The porch is inhab­it­ed by rab­bits, and each spring I buy new pieces of rab­bit-themed china.

In the pub­lic domain, Rab­bits on a Log by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, 1897, oil on can­vas, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, acces­sion 1979.490.7

In 1978, before we were mar­ried, my fiancé and I saw the beau­ti­ful­ly-ani­mat­ed (and not for kids) movie. When Art Gar­funkel began singing “Bright Eyes” at the death of main char­ac­ter Hazel, I cried so hard my fiancé almost called an ambu­lance (yet still mar­ried me). I still haven’t got­ten over it.

Richard Adams gave me rab­bits, but he also gave me direc­tion. I decid­ed to get a move on with my career. Instead of shop­ping on my lunch hour, I went to the library, staked out a table in the children’s room, and wrote sto­ries. My first children’s mag­a­zine sale came from a lunch time work session.

Most of all, Richard Adams gave me human­i­ty. Through his band of small, ordi­nary ani­mals fac­ing home­less­ness and sur­vival, I saw myself, also small and ordi­nary, as a sto­ry­telling ani­mal. I give mys­ter­ies, fan­ta­sy, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, biogra­phies, and con­tem­po­rary tales to chil­dren. One day, those read­ers will tell their own sto­ries. Maybe even about rabbits.

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Laura Purdie Salas
Laura Purdie Salas
5 years ago

Oh, this is such a love­ly essay, Can­dice! My hus­band, Randy, is a huge Water­ship Down fan, and he intro­duced me to the book, movie, and “Bright Eyes” (yes, heartbreaking!).

3 years ago

Can­dice, so that’s how you start­ing writ­ing. I did­n’t know that. I have also shopped in “Wood­ies”.
Debra Downing