Ask what got me into fiction in the first place and I’ll tell you in four words. The World of Pooh by A.A. Milne. No other book comes close.
My mother read that volume to me a hundred times when I was a child. It could have been two hundred. I asked her recently, and she said, “Oh, Gee, Marco. Many, many times, I’ll tell you that. I lost count!”
She was working as a secretary in Manhattan, raising a kid on her own in the late 60’s. After a long day at the office, she would take off her shoes and read me The World of Pooh. That volume became part of an essential ritual, and a signal that everything in here was O.K., even if out there was another story – Vietnam, political assassinations, riots, rampant heroin use, garbage strikes.
The World of Pooh was an antidote to all that, a complete, consistent universe that never went on strike. After all these years, one chapter stands out for its narrative perfection in my mind: In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water. A masterpiece of fictional economy, and a textbook example for all fiction writers. You’re skeptical. Here, I’ll show you.
It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet told himself that never in all his life, and he was goodness knows how old – three, was it, or four? – never had he seen so much rain. Days and days and days…
The chapter opens with Piglet in his tree house, cut off from friends by rising waters. The flood presents an immediate, urgent story problem. Then, as now, I was captivated by natural disasters and the disruption they caused. Poor, defenseless Piglet! What will happen? Who will save him?
Piglet waits for several days. Realizing he must act, he sends a message in a bottle. HELP! PIGLET (ME). IT’S ME PIGLET, HELP HELP. Pooh retrieves the bottle after it floats by his own flooded house. Unfortunately, Pooh can’t read, so he improvises a raft from an empty honey jar and floats to Christopher Robin’s house. Once Christopher Robin deciphers the message (our resourceful child hero can read, thank Goodness!) he dispatches Owl to check on Piglet. The story reaches its conclusion as Pooh improvises another boat, from an umbrella this time. He and Christopher Robin rescue Piglet, and the friends are reunited. Phew!
In Which Piglet Is Entirely Surrounded by Water plays out in fewer than 2,500 words, yet each character is operating at maximum capacity, and each brings a special skill to the problem at hand. Piglet knows to ask for help. Pooh fashions not one, but two boats from available materials. Christopher Robin can read. Owl can fly.
Beyond that, the author has placed the action-packed flood episode after a succession of slower chapters that have built sympathy for each character. By the time he places Piglet and Pooh in mortal danger, we are maximally invested in their welfare, and anxious for them to escape. How ingenious, Mr. Milne!
The chapter shifts point-of-view four times, starting with Piglet, handing off to Pooh, then to Christopher Robin, and back to Piglet, before wrapping up with a one-sentence paragraph from the narrator’s perspective. The transitions feel seamless, given that the characters are physically isolated from one another, therefore unable to share information. Point-of-view transitions also build tension by providing a global perspective on the story problem without allowing the reader to solve it right away.
A.A. Milne’s voice transitions are so effortless that we’re barely aware what he’s up to, but we have the sense that he’s skipping from one character’s consciousness to another in order to involve us more fully. What we’re banking on is that Pooh’s creativity and Christopher Robin’s leadership will combine to save Piglet. For comic relief, just when the situation seems most dire, we can always count on Owl:
I say, Owl, said Christopher Robin, isn’t this fun? I’m on an island!
The atmospheric conditions have been very unfavourable lately, said Owl.
It has been raining, explained Owl.
Yes, said Christopher Robin. It has.
The flood-level has reached an unprecedented height.
There’s a lot of water about, explained Owl.
Of course Pooh comes up with creative solutions. For a bear who hasn’t got very much brain, he always saves the day. Of course Christopher Robin praises Pooh for his inventiveness. He is the child authority figure, therefore capable of dispensing praise. The pay-off we’re rooting for is for the friends to be reunited, for the family to be together again.
For my six-year-old reader brain, that was as good as it got – my mother in stocking feet reading to me at bedtime. For my middle-aged writer brain, it’s just masterful story-telling. Where the two converge is in my ability to re-enter The World of Pooh and remember why it seemed essential to read it a hundred times. Or maybe it was two hundred. Only my mother knows for sure, and she seems to have forgotten.
And that is really the end of the story, and I am very tired after that last sentence, I think I shall stop there.