Watership Down by Richard Adams was the first adult novel I read as a child where the main character wasn’t a human. When much younger, I’d enjoyed children’s chapter books such as Bunnicula by James & Deborah Howe and Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, but Watership Down was my first adventure of real length involving animals.
My copy of it, much like the photo to the left, was a used paperback, yellowed with age and bearing some water damage in the bottom-right corner. The spine was partially broken, but I didn’t care. The book cost me a quarter at my neighborhood Half-Price Books.
I’ve always loved animals. For a time, I’d played with the idea of being a veterinarian and a writer. In middle school, my father bought me a microscope kit that came complete with slides, blades to take cross-sections of things, petri dishes, etc. He told me that if I wanted to be a vet, I needed to understand how animals work. I was the child who brought home baby birds that had fallen out of the nest or critters with broken wings / limbs. Being broke meant that the vet was for “rich folk,” so I tried to nurse them back to health.
When I inevitably failed and the animal died, I cried for weeks. I mourned the loss of life as if they were family. Imagine my pain when I realized that cutting up a slug to view it under a microscope meant the creature died. (Somehow I thought that like an iguana’s tail or some worms, the slug would just split in two and keep living.)
To cheer me up, my father demonstrated what happens when one pours salt on a slug. (He never did understand my sensitivity towards animals, though in his defense, he thought more experiments would ease the pain.) Several weeks later, a good friend lost her dog to cancer. My hamster escaped and starved to death in my bedroom (we found him weeks later). I couldn’t be a vet. Not if it meant being so powerless to stop the suffering of others.
I loved reading Watership Down until I reached the ending. When I realized what El-ahrairah was a symbol for, I mourned the loss of my pet all over again. It was certainly not the first time I’d been exposed to death in a children’s book (cough, cough, Charlotte’s Web), but it meant that the grand new world of sci-fi and fantasy I’d found, held similar topics. It meant that real life was intruding on my escapism.
It was a harsh lesson to learn, but I feel lit gave me my sense of compassion. To this day I go out of my way to stop in the middle of traffic and rescue the turtle trying to cross the street. The high value I place on life is something I try in impart in my novels as well. When I kill a character, it’s for a reason. It serves a purpose.
We (fans of sci-fi/fantasy) don’t like to admit it, but the characters who have died in books and film have usually served their purpose as well. That is, if the author is doing it right. 🙂 They’re leaves on the wind, watch how they soar…
Want to read other Flashback Fridays? Click here to see the list in this series.