Blistering buttercups! Ereth hadn’t expected much of a celebration for his birthday – he knows he’s an unlikable, bristly old fellow – but he didn’t expect to be taunted, teased, and ridiculed! That is too much even for a porcupine to stand. And to top it all off, his best friend, Poppy the fieldmouse, is nowhere to be found! She’s deserted him! Well, Ereth won’t stand for it. Not for one tiny minute. He’ll show everybody how much he needs them! And with that, he hurls himself into the forest.
Buckled badger burgers, but it is cold out in the forest! Well, no matter. Ereth is determined to reward himself with a wonderful taste of salt. Salt … Ereth almost swoons at the thought. But just as he is preparing to indulge his appetite, he hears a cry from the forest. A cry for help…
Oh, fish feather fruitcakes! And just as he was about to… Oh, well. Ereth never does get to have any enjoyment in life. He’ll go to help, but – elephant elbows! What’s this? A beautiful, sleek fox! Caught in a – trap!?!
When the dying fox asks Ereth to take care of her three young kits, he hastily promises and immediately regrets his promise. What can he do to help three yelping, frolicking foxes? And what if one of them gets caught in a deadly trap? Ereth is in for the challenge of his life!
I’ve said it a billion times. I know you’re all tired of hearing it. But Avi is a MASTER. Reading Ereth’s Birthday I was amazed at the fluidity of the story, its perfect progression, the character growth, and the ever-present sense of lurking danger. It’s hard for me to understand how Avi writes such dramatic tales about animals (Perloo the Bold). And he does it with such seeming simplicity…
One thing that I especially marveled at was the tension. I already mentioned it as the ever-present sense of lurking danger. Early on in the story, Marty the fisher decides to stalk and destroy Ereth. His character might be compared to a psychotic killer – he takes delight in the thought of disarming Ereth and making him helpless before his rage. Avi cleverly interspersed chapters from Ereth’s and from Marty’s point of view. This way we were never allowed to forget that one day, some day, Ereth’s life would be taken. This made the entire book more dramatic.
Right before the story ends, Marty manages to surprise and attack Ereth. It is a scary scene in which Ereth is rendered helpless before the fisher’s cunning strategy. However, just as Marty is preparing to kill Ereth, the three kits burst onto the scene and attack Marty with all the strength their small frames can muster. It is very touching – I’ll admit that I cried the first time that I read it. (It’s the first book that I’ve cried over in several years.) Their loyalty in defending Ereth is just so… sweet. ; ( After they attack Marty, he runs off and gets caught in a box trap. Ereth and the kits go over to where he is and he pleads with them to help him escape. In a remarkable act of self-sacrifice, Ereth and the kits attempt to free him, but are unable to do so before the trappers arrive.
The part where the kits’ mother is caught is very sad.
On the ground lay a slim fox with tawny red fur and a long, bushy tail. The lower part of her delicate, pointed face and much of her muzzle were white. Her few remaining whiskers were as black as her nose. Black too was the outline of her almond-shaped, orange-colored eyes. Her pointed ears were limp. All around her, the beaten-down snow was red with blood, for the fox’s left front paw was gripped in the haws of a steel spring trap.
In an instant Ereth understood: she had been caught in one of the traps that the hunters from the cabin had set.
The trap consisted of a pair of metal jaw, which – once sprung – had crushed the fox’s paw, biting savagely through fur, flesh, muscles, and tendons. All were exposed. The amount of blood that lay about suggested the fox had been trapped for a long time.
Just to look upon the scene turned Ereth’s bone marrow colder than the snow.
The fox, not yet realizing anyone else was there, whimpered softly to herself as she tried to move her paw. Though extremely weak, she managed to lift the trap an inch or two. It was connected to a stake by a metal link chain. When the trap moved the chain jangled. Her effort – small as it was – was an enormous struggle, so much so that after a painful moment, she dropped paw, trap, and chain and lay panting with exhaustion. [pgs. 36-37]
The rest of the scene is just as pitiful. Ereth attempts and fails to free her. She pleads with him to help her and her kits before finally dying. There is an accompanying illustration which is very sad.
The last remaining point of discussion is the relationships in the story. Ereth is a grouchy, cantankerous old porcupine whose favorite occupation is complaining. As he says on one page, “I’m angry at the whole world!” [pg. 93] He is self-centered and querulous. When he goes to tell the kits of their mother’s death, he is very irritated – he dislikes children – and is harsh towards them. However, because of his promise to their mother, he stays and bosses them around. He is genuinely interested in their welfare, but does not express his concern kindly. The kits in turn, resent his harshness and sometimes respond saucily to his outbursts.
One of the things that I liked was how Avi gave each fox a different character. Nimble is bright, happy, concerned, and smart. Flip is sweet, shy, and sensitive. Tumble is grumpy and snappy. It is Tumble who finally explodes at Ereth and tells him he’s a bossy, sarcastic know-it-all. And the thing is, he’s right. And Ereth knows he right and tries to change his ways to be more caring.
Now, the question is, should Tumble have lashed out at Ereth? I won’t offer an absolute opinion on the subject, just a few thoughts. Ereth had tumbled out of nowhere and into the kits lives. He arrived at a time when they were emotionally raw – their father wasn’t around (we’ll talk about him in the next paragraph) and their mother was dead. They were left all alone in the world and could feel their own helplessness. Then Ereth came along, reminded them of their incompetence and harshly attempted to supply the care that their loving mother had previously supplied. There is no sort of relationship between the porcupine and the kits prior to his arrival. So, are the kits justified in their behavior towards Ereth? Not justified, but their behavior is not nearly as bad as if he was one of their parents.
The kits’ father, Bounder, is a fox that cares only for himself. He lives to show off his beauty and hunts to feed his own appetite – except occasionally when he wishes to show off to his kits. He does not care for them at all, and is completely absent. The kits realize this and, while they have fun with him, do not esteem him as much as they do Ereth.
You may have noticed the *unusual* exclamations which I employed in my synopsis of the story. These sorts of phrases are strewn throughout Ereth’s language with as much consistency as ‘like’, ‘you know’, and ‘um’ plague ours. The only problem that I found is that Avi refers to these phrases as swearing.
Conclusion. As stated before, Ereth’s Birthday is another example of Avi’s masterful story-telling. The relationships aren’t perfect, but they progress throughout the story as Ereth, Flip, Nimble, and Tumble come to rely upon and appreciate one another.
Review © 2013 Laura Verret