14 August 2010

Magic Mushrooms and Bad, Bad Boys

Bannertail: The Story of a Graysquirrel
Ernest Thompson Seton
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1922

Three confessions:

– my first Seton, I decided to read this only because today is the 150th anniversary of his birth;
– I chose Bannertail because it was the shorter of the two Seton titles I own;
– I didn't think I would enjoy this book.

I haven't enjoyed an animal story so much since reading The Incredible Journey back in elementary school. Should I have been surprised? In his day, Seton was the master of the "realistic animal story", which he helped create. We may quibble over the term today just how realistic? – but at its best the genre could be both entertaining and educational.

In Bannertail we learn an awful lot about the habits of the grey squirrel – or "graysquirrel" – yet the facts never get in the way of a good story. Things begin with great drama: Bannertail is orphaned when a farm boy clubs his mother to death. A sibling is also clubbed, while another has the life crushed out of him. The actions of a future serial killer? Not at all. The young lad "had yielded only to the wild ancestral instinct to kill, when came chance to kill". You know how boys are; they collect horse-chestnuts to throw at cats, destroy any nest they come across and take great joy in killing small animals. One victim is Bannertail's future son Cray, who is not much more than a kit himself when he's shot for sport.

Witnessing her son's death, Bannertail's mate Carey is resigned: "'It had to be.' For this is the fulfilling of the law; this is the upbuilding of the race; this is the lopping of the wayward branch." You see, Cray had not yielded to his instinct; he had been too inquisitive and would not stay out of sight. So, Carey dismisses her son. She nearly does the same with her mate when Bannertail, too, fails to heed the internal "warning whisper" that tells him to stay away from toadstools.
The lust for that strong foody taste was over-dominating. He seized and crunched and reveled in the flowing jouces and the rank nut taste, the pepper tang, the toothsome mouthiness, and gobbled with growing unreined greed, not one, but two or three – he gorged on them; and though stuffed and full, still filled with lust that is to hunger what wounding is to soft caress. He rushed from one madcap toadstool to another, driving in his teeth, revelling in their flowing juices, like the blood of earthy gnomes, and rushed for joy up one tall tree after another. Then, sensing the Redsquirrels, pursuing them in a sort of Berserker rage, eager for fight, desperate fight, any fight, fight without hate, that would outlet his dangerous, boiling power, his overflow of energy.
Carey recognizes that Bannertail had taken "into his body and brain a madness that would surely end his life." Though she resolves to give him a chance to mend his ways, Bannertail's return home is anything but happy. His mate sniffs his whiskers: "She liked not his breath."

It's worth noting, I think, that this story of a squirrel's experience with the "flowing juices" was published during America's Prohibition Era.

Seton's Wild Animals I Have Known (1898), something of a Canadian classic, is firmly entrenched in the New Canadian LIbrary. Not so Bannertail – in fact, I can't find any copies published after 1926, though the novel did inspire a 1979 Japanese animated television series.

It ran a total of 26 episodes. They were not realistic animal stories.

Object and Access: A hardcover first edition, it features eight plates and 92 line drawings . My well-travelled copy, bearing a Bombay bookseller's label, was purchased nine years ago in Bath. Price: £2. Decent copies sans dust jacket – of the the Hodder & Stoughton first can be had for under C$10. It is scarce, though not expensive, in dust jacket.

Dead 65 years, Seton is a favourite of the print on demand folks. One Miami bookseller offers no less than nine different POD editions, including the one pictured below. Price: US$63.95.


  1. Another perfect cover choice. This books sounds all too much for a tender-hearted vegetarian like myself--I recently had to quit 'Tarka the Otter' because of all the deeply rendered animal bloodshed. Adding illustrations of the deaths just makes things worse.

  2. If only there had been a plate depicting Bannertail hopped up on toadstools. On the other hand, it might not have been a pretty sight, given that the flowing juices are likened to "the blood of earthy gnomes".