Before there was Erin Hunter and the Warriors cat clans, before there was Brian Jacques and the rodents of Redwall Abbey, even before Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, there was the hill and those who inhabited it. Reading Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson again, I am moved by the sense of community and companionship that he creates amongst the various woodland animals as well as forging a conenction between the animals and the new owners of the house that sits at the edge of The Hill. Written in 1944 (and winner of the Newbery Medal the next year) before suburban sprawl had really begun to decimate the habitats of millions of animals, this book is timely nonetheless.
The main character is a rabbit, Little Georgie along with a host of other animals, including woodchucks, skunks, field mice, raccoons, foxes, pheasants and more, who have lived their lives next to a long vacant house. They have their routines and rituals that keep them living happily together, but their food supply is dwindling and they are growing worried. Then, one day The Hill is ringing with the news, "New Folks coming." This causes concern and fear initially for the animals of The Hill. Will the new folks set traps, have BB guns, cover their garbage cans? But Little Georgie isn't worried. He has a good feeling about the changes to come and he makes up a song about it as he travels north to fetch Old Uncle Analdas. Despite the fear and cynicism amongst the animals, they soon learn that the New Folks do not mean them harm. They post a sign near that reads, "Please drive carefully on account of small animals." They also allow a part of the old stone wall to go unmended so as not to disturb anyone's home. And, best of all, they make plans for a vegetable garden which are overheard by Willie the Field Mouse, who falls into the rain barrel after hearing this but is rescued and nursed back to health by the Folks. It is on account of this that, on Dividing Night, the animals, while deciding who will get to eat from what parts of the garden, that they all agree to leave a portion of the garden untouched for the Folks on account of their kindness to Willie.
There is a bit of a twist at the end of the book as well as an appearance by a St Francis of Assisi statue that makes for a very nice ending. This book holds up well over time and is a great bedtime read-out-loud for young listeners ready to move beyond picture books. The animal characterizations are straightforward and precise, but very likable and there is just enough suspense to make for a good story but not enough to trouble or frighten any sensitive listener. Lawson's illustrations are rich and wonderful and, best of all, there is a map of The Hill printed on the end papers.