I give another one of Salten's books about animals...an 89/100!
It's no surprise by now that I'm a huge fan of Felix Salten's body of work. Thus far, I've read the following books by him: Bambi A Life In The Woods, the sequel to that, Bambi's Children, Fifteen Rabbits, a tiny bit of The Hound of Florence, and the subject of today's review, A Forest World. Published in 1942, the story focuses on various animals living in very different worlds. The barn animals that live on a farm don't go anywhere near the forest beyond their gates, and the animals of the forest consider the farm to be just as scary. Two worlds are literally right next to each other, but couldn't be further apart. Gradually, creatures from both sides begin to interact, bringing the once distant worlds a little bit closer. It's a story about expanding one's horizons and learning what makes life in the barn and the forest so different from one another.
Unlike Bambi, which has a central main character, A Forest World focuses much more on a scattered ensemble cast and doesn't necessarily have a true main character. One could argue that Manni, the donkey who lives at the barn, is the main protagonist, as he has the most page time in the entire novel, but just as many other characters get their turn in the spotlight, like Perri the squirrel (Who would later get her own book), Tambo the stag, Genina the mother doe and her two fawns, and so on. Also unlike Bambi, which depicts humans as being mysterious and dangerous, A Forest World does feature humans who are shown on screen, namely a forest ranger, Peter, his wife Babette, and Martin, their sort-of adopted son, who care about the animals in both the barn and the forest, with Martin in particular being the biggest link between the two settings. Not only do Martin and Peter genuinely care for the barn animals, they also make sure the forest animals don't go hungry during the winter, protect them from poachers, and in Peter's case, only kill elderly or genuinely dangerous animals. So if you wanted to see a Salten book where humans are portrayed much more sympathetically, this is the book for you...as far as I know. I haven't read the entirety of Salten's work, so take my statement with a grain of salt.
I've gushed about Salten's prose in the past, and here it's the same as ever. Lush with detailed descriptions and evocative prose that really make you feel like you're a part of the forest, bringing every piece of nature to life. I honestly don't have much else to say about it on that front, as it's just good all around! Of course, the talking trees and leaves make their return, and having read some of his other books, which also contain similar scenes, I think it's safe to say that Salten likes shoving in scenes where trees and leaves talk to each other. I'm still kind of meh on it, but the chapters in question can be skipped if you're not into that. Now, the translation for Forest World is very similar to the one used for Bambi. I don't know if they were translated by the same person or not, and any information I tried to find didn't confirm anything. I did find that Forest World was translated by one Paul Milton, and the person who did the original English translation for Bambi was done by Whitaker Chambers, a friend of Max Schuster (Co-founder of Simon & Schuster), but the copy of Bambi I have, which is a more modern release, doesn't list a translator, so I have nothing to confirm whether his translation was used again or not. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!
Also unlike Bambi, A Forest World doesn't necessarily have an overarching plot. It does explore the idea of freedom as a running theme, along with how different life in the forest is to life in the barn, but many of the chapters are fairly episodic in nature. One chapter deals with the cow Lisa's anxieties about her baby and her fear of humans taking it away from her, another set of chapters deal with poachers threatening the forest animals, some chapters detail Tambo's life and his relationship with a doe, Debina, and so on. But like most of Salten's work, A Forest World isn't afraid to go dark or drastically change the status quo. It doesn't shy away from the dangers the forest animals face, like predators and poachers, but it also shows that farm life for the barn animals comes with its own set of problems. One thing I definitely appreciate about this book is that it's not afraid to give its characters huge flaws and have them make bad decisions that have serious, long-lasting consequences. I won't spoil anything, but the book basically kills off a very important character and in a way that you'd never see coming. Everyone's actions are realistic and true to life, and true to their overall character, but Salten is also careful to at least give his characters sympathetic and likeable traits when need be...with some exceptions. That said, there are a lot of characters to keep track of, with some of them only appearing for two chapters and never again, but it's easy to tell who's who from their actions and the point of view switches between chapters, so I never felt lost when reading it.
Now, there is a reason why I don't rate this book higher. While I do like a majority of the characters in this book, there are plenty of others who just don't do it for me, or could have benefitted from being better written. To put it bluntly, the only characters I didn't like in this book were, ironically, the deer characters, which is weird for me to say because deer are my favorite animals! Particularly, the characters of Tambo, Genina, and Arilla were the weakest members of the ensemble, with the latter two being because they are solely defined by their desires and motivations...and said desires are not only extremely shallow, they also read as downright misogynistic if you stop to think about it. Get this: Arilla's first mate was violent and abusive, and was shot by Peter because of how dangerous he was. Arilla refuses to mate with any other stags unless they have the same kind of personality as her first mate. Chapter 20 reveals that Arilla actually wants to be tyrannized, dominated, and abused by violent stags, because she believes that it's an act they put up to hide the fact that they actually want to be loved. That's...extremely unhealthy, especially from a human perspective. I don't know if this is intentional on Salten's part, or if it's the way it's translated, but this reads to me like it's trying to romanticize domestic abuse, and I don't think I need to go into how bad that is, because everybody and their dog knows that domestic/spousal abuse is not okay in any fashion, and it should never be portrayed as such. However, Genina's character and motivations aren't much better. She doesn't feel complete without children to raise, and when her first set of fawns grow up and leave her, with her son outright spurning her because he can't stand her treating him like a child, Genina is beside herself and has two more fawns to fill the void. Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting to raise kids and become parents. However, Genina doesn't have much personality beyond loving her kids too much and not wanting to let go of being a mother. Her naivete and the fact that the narrative explicitly refers to her second set of fawns as substitutes for her first ones cement the fact that she has a very rose tinted view of motherhood and hasn't learned anything from how she reacted to her first fawns growning up. When I said their motivations read as misogynistic, I wasn't kidding, as the book does seem to imply that girls absolutely need men in their lives--particularly need them to domineer over them and treat them like punching bags--and to have children or else they have nothing going for them, which is a very stupid, narrow-minded view to have. Imagine how these scenarios would go if they were human beings. More than that, the book doesn't actually show them learning from their mistakes and bettering themselves in the long run, so I can't bring myself to sympathize with Genina and Arilla in any way.
Adding onto this, it often seems like Salten can't seem to figure out what he wants to do with Tambo. First he's depicted as shy and skittish, but next he's brutal, dominant, and entitled, and later is so wishy-washy you just want to smack him across the head and tell him to stop acting so entitled. His mate, Debina, is at first devoted to him, but then completely spurns him because he wants to keep a harem of does when mating season comes along. So yeah. I love deer as animals, and Bambi is my favorite book of all time, but Salten really dropped the ball for his deer characters in A Forest World. I liked every character in this book except for the deer characters, which really says a lot!
That's really all I have to say on this one. I really wish I could like this book more than I do, and had it done away with some of the more questionable elements described above, it might have gone higher up my favorite books list. But for what it is, it's still a pretty nice read for anyone looking for a relaxing but still riveting time killer.