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Publicly praised by such literary figures as Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett and T E Lawrence, Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter was first published in 1927. It won the Hawthornden prize in 1928 and attracted great interest from the Disney studio which Williamson rebuffed. The story takes place in the Devon countryside. Williamson captures it with ease and lets us experience Nature in her infinite variety whilst moving us to tears with the touching story of Tarka and his life in the country of the two rivers. Williamson rescues the little otter after his mother is shot by a farmer. In order to keep Tarka alive he must first get it to eat, after his first attempts fail he picks up his kitten and rubs both kitten and otter together so that the mother will smell her scent on the otter and allow him to suckle along with her kitten and his plan works. As with many wild animals reared by humans Tarka, which actually means “little water wanderer” becomes domesticated and is Williamson’s constant companion, following him around just as a dog would its master. However, on one of their many walks Tarka snares himself on a rabbit trap and although Williamson manages to free him Tarka is scared, panics and runs off. The story then follows Williamson searching for his little friend. The search culminated in this, one of the best loved children’s books of all time. In his writing Williamson excels with his vivid descriptions of the Devon countryside and his knowledge of and passion for nature seems more apparent with every page. We learn not only about the daily struggle to survive but also of the ever present threat of the human hunter. You will hate Deadlock, the vicious otter-hunting hound. Even in a children’s book Nature can somethimes appear brutal and although Williamson never attempts a moral judgement reality is there for all to see. There may be some upsetting things for children
, especially the otter hunt scenes, seen from Tarka’s eyes, and animal lovers too may find it distressing. But this is an excellent book – a fantastic story to grip your children’s imagination but also a great introduction to the ways of nature, it is and will always remain a classic. Treat your children and treat yourself but be ready to answer some very difficult questions while you wipe away the tears. Williamson apparently wrote this book seventeen times in his attempt at perfection before he would let it be published. To him it was not just another book for children but a true, happy, sad and momentous piece of his life. In my opinion that is partly what sets it apart and makes it one of those classics, teaching children and adults alike about nature, countryside, friendship and confrontation.
This tale of an otter's life and death in Devon, captures the feel of life in the wild as seen through the otter's own eyes.