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Book Review: The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber

“I knew then that I’d been fooling myself, that none of it was Real at all. And I was what I’d always been, a rabbit with no fur, no hind legs, nothing more than a sewed-up sack of sawdust. I couldn’t move properly. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair at all.”

The Velveteen Rabbit is my all-time favorite children’s book. I’ve never seen or heard anything about the author – Margery Williams Bianco. I had no idea if she was married, had a family, where she lived… When I saw this title, I was thrilled at the idea of learning about her life and eager to see what (if any) role the eponymous daughter played in the creation of her fantastic book. I imagined whimsy and fun, a happy child learning beautiful lessons about life and love at the feet of a master.

Wow. I could not have been more surprised by the way this played out…


Turns out, Margery herself was just about exactly what I imagined. Technically I guess I should say Margery appeared just about exactly how I imagined. This is a novel. I expected some artistic license in the name of story development but, generally speaking (unless explicity stated otherwise) novels based on real people track real life wherever documentation is available, and the fiction part comes in through the gap-filling necessary to turn the historical record into a coherent tale. Still, I’ve done a bit of online investigating since this, and it appears that the presentation of the main characters is fairly as true to life as possible, given the available evidence. So I will talk as though it is.

As I was saying, Margery was a loving, caring, considerate mother – exactly the type of mother/woman I would have expected to come up with the tale of the Velveteen Rabbit. But her child – Pamela – could not have had a more different childhood than that I imagined for a child of Margery if she’d tried… I did not know Pamela existed, let alone that she was an artist – and a world-renowned child prodigy at that. That’s the source of the majority of the story in this story – Pamela’s greatness and fame at an early age, and the life she led as an adult in the aftermath of that unusual childhood.

As Tolstoy said: “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Had Pamela had the childhood I would have imagined for her, there would be no novel here – and maybe there’d be no Velveteen Rabbit either. Without Pamela’s struggles to balance her father’s expectations and her own need to create with her father Francesco’s desire to propel his exceedingly talented daughter to the heights of art world; without dealing on a daily basis with a daughter and husband who fought life-long battles with mental illness; and without her own attempts to balance these two volatile personalities with that of her more prosaic son Cecco – all while maintaining and expanding upon her own prolific career as an author – perhaps, without all of those elements, the simple elegance of the Rabbit’s quest for love, to be seen and be Real, would never have been written… That would have been a tragedy indeed.

But equally tragic are Pamela’s struggles to maintain a life of her own. She basically spent her life searching for her own Reality and love, her own third way between the towering vehemence of her father and the quieter, but no less powerful, quiet strength of her mother. The book was difficult to read at times. Children’s struggles should be difficult to read about, after all… And despite her mother’s undying love and support, there were times when the quietude of Margery’s nature meant she didn’t speak up or speak out to protect the fragility she recognized in her daughter. The back-and-forth narrative, shifting perspective between Margery and Pamela as well as shifting throughout the years of their lives, allows the regret to ring true in this regard. Those regrets – the doubts that every parent feels about the decisions made on behalf of their children – are some of the more touching moments in Margery’s segments of the story. For Pamela, those moments come when some aspect of her mother’s iconic story overlays her own depression and despair, as in the quote at the opening of this post.

This is a lovely, long-overdue look at an iconic children’s author – and an equally long-overdue revival for her exceptionally (and, perhaps, tragically) talented daughter. To view some of Pamela’s works, click here.

My review copy was made available through NetGalley.

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