Curious Lives is a collection of five ‘moralistic adventures’, previously and separately published, set in the world of virtuous ferrets. The cover of the book has a pair of bright yellow eyes gleaming from behind dense foliage. It is just the eyes that can be made out and it is just as well. The internet informs us that ferrets are carnivorous mammals that somewhat resemble skunks. But for the purposes of the fables, the ferrets are anthropomorphic, courageous, enterprising, kind, warm and courteous. It is not just the central characters of the fables that are endowed with such moral excellence, but the entire ferret civilization. The blurb insists that the book can be enjoyed by ‘readers of all ages,’ a claim which at once invites greater scrutiny than one would normally reserve. Also, a word about the author Richard Bach, best known for having written Jonathan Livingston Seagull. His works have a dedicated following for their metaphysical leanings, but are also panned in some quarters for being flaky and light-weight. In the blurb, a tag that attempting to classify the work also seems to have been caught in two minds. ‘Self Help/ Fiction’ it declares. Needless to say, Bach and his works have tended to divide opinion among readers.
Titled eponymously, each story in the collection begins with a small parable which serves as a kind of a primer, laying out the central tenet of the following tale, while also revealing some aspect of the ferret way of life. ‘Shamrock,’ the first tale in the collection, begins with the young ferret amazing her audience by cracking ‘The Case of the Midnight Patterns.’ We see how Shamrock begins her journey from being an inquisitive kid to a sharp detective, a role she is destined for. At critical moments, both during her childhood and during puzzling cases, she is guided to the right path, whether by intuition or destiny or another shadowy presence. The mystery with which the story begins is resolved only in part, and as Shamrock follows it deeper, it leads her to the greatest mystery of the ferret world, that of their origins.
Book 2 is the story of Budgeron and Danielle and of the love they share and the strength it gives them in following their destinies. Budgeron is a writer for kids, who aspires to move on to literary fiction. Even as he struggles to make the leap, Danielle, his mate, begins writing because she thinks it would be fun, and to her surprise her novel about the sly ferret Veronique initially rejected by publishers for being too controversial, soon becomes a sensation, and she a celebrity. Whether fame and apparent failure change Danielle and Budgeron is what the rest of the tale is about.
The thread of destiny runs through the book, and ferrets are guided to find their choice of occupation not merely by their own desire and hard work, but by fate itself. Bethany Ferret is driven to be a rescue ferret right from when her mother reads her bedtime stories of rescues in high seas and hopeless storms. Her hard work and intelligence do not go un-noticed and she is soon heading her own rescue vessel when a rockstar ferret turns up at their base. Chloe is a part of a famous band, and wants to write a story on the rescue ferret for a magazine. She insists on spending time with them, but there is something else she is after too. Bethany thinks Chloe might get in the way of saving lives during a rescue but like everyone else, is fond of the intelligent and charming star. Soon there is a mid-sea disaster and Chloe finds herself on board.
The ferrets lead their lives according to The Courtesies and the ‘Highest Right’ during times of strife or choice. So when Monty and Cheyenne ferrets, ‘different as rock and water, alike as birds on a branch’ part, it is not with sadness. Cheyenne decides she wants to be an actress and heads to Hollywood, while Monty stays back to become a ranchpaw. A lot of Bach’s works carry the autobiographical strain, and Curious Lives is no different. While Budgeron and Danielle have several references to the writer’s world and the publishing industry, the last story of the book ‘Stormy and Strobe’ is to do with aviation, one of Bach’s pet topics. The two ferrets the title refers to are legendary pilots and a crew works to bring the two together in a meeting that could change the world.
The stories are adventures, but considering the setting —the absence of personal peril, villains of any kind or even accidents—there is nothing like a narrative arc. Each time the ferrets are in trouble, the incidents are rare and even then not life threatening, the solution or rescue is just a page around the corner. This makes the claim that the book is not just for children a little dubious. In the absence of such checks and balances, parts of the book get unwieldy. And when that happens, simple becomes simplistic and a moral adventure sounds uncannily like a tiresome sermon.
R. Natraj works with The Indian Express, New Delhi.