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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Book Review: Tarka the Otter

This is my seventeenth, and final, review of Devon-related literature. The previous review was of Queen Mab.

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Title: Tarka the Otter

Type: Novel/children’s book

Author: Henry Williamson

Links to Devon: This story is set in North Devon ("the Country of the Two Rivers"), where Henry Williamson lived.

When I read this: I remember reading and loving this as a child! Reread in 2012, from 25th-28th August.

Summary: Written between June 1923 and February 1927, this is the story of an otter’s life in North Devon, from living with his mother and sister cubs in a holt, learning to swim and catch fish, to wandering up and down the rivers, sometimes alone, sometimes with a mate, playing in the water, catching prey and trying to avoid traps and the hounds of the otter hunt.

Strengths: I was apprehensive about rereading this, in case it did not live up to the fond memories I have of reading it as a child. However, it surpassed my expectations: Tarka the Otter is a beautiful, richly-detailed, honest story about the life of an otter in the early 20th Century. It is clear that Williamson spent a great deal of time carefully researching and observing otters before writing this story. His descriptions of the scenery, and all of the animals living there, paint a vivid picture that felt very evocative of the area I currently live in (although nowadays there are many more people and less otters). I particularly loved the way he describes the sounds made by the animals, including the “krark” of Old Nog the heron, the “chiss-ik-chiss-ik” of wagtails, and especially the “yinny-yicker”, “hu-ee-ic” and “ic-yang” of the otters.

Weaknesses: Weaknesses? What weaknesses? I cannot fault any aspect of this story. I only wish it were longer, that there were more tales of Tarka to enjoy or that I could follow the lives of any surviving offspring.

Overall Opinion: I love this story. Read it for yourself, and fall in love with Tarka the Otter and his friends.

Rating (out of five): Five smileys!

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Having just finished reading this story last night, today I visited the Tarka Gallery at the Museum of Barnstaple & North Devon (it’s free!), where there are displays of stuffed animals that are indigenous to North Devon in natural, lifelike poses. The displays are set out to mirror scenes from the book, following the river from an otter holt to the estuary. It felt rather surreal to see Tarka and others frozen in time as I stood there, staring at them and trying to see how many creatures I could find. All of the animals were donated to the museum after either dying of natural causes or having been hit by a car, according to a sign, and it is a fascinating place to learn about local wildlife. If you’re in the area, I recommend a visit.

FairyJo! x

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