Moominvalley in November

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Moominvalley in November is a book I’ve been wanting to write about some November for a few years now. Yet invariably whenever a November rolls around, I end up being too busy (or one time drunk) to do so. This time, instead of waiting until November, I’m just going to write about it now that the mood is in me. Sometimes November just comes to you, even in the end of February.

The Moomins and their world were created by Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. Jansson’s trolls are a family of loving, soft, round hippo-like creatures who get into various misadventures. The first several books in the series revolve around the Moomin family and their friends going on wild journeys with mysterious creatures, locations and magic abounding. As Jansson continued writing Moomin books, their tone slowly changed. The adventures became less fantastic and more “real” (or at least as real as a story of hippo-like trolls can get). While the earlier books used the various Moomin character quirks to facilitate humorous, light-hearted adventure, the later books use these same quirks to create in-depth character studies. The book that first heralded this change was Moominvalley in Winter where Moomintroll struggles against feelings of fear, frustration and alienation while trying to survive in a version of his once-familiar valley that now feels like it has no place for him. Moominvalley in Winter also features the introduction of the character Too-ticky, a practical woman who helps Moomin survive his alienation. Too-ticky is directly modeled on Jansson’s life partner Tuulikki Pietilä, and it’s hard not to read parts of the novel as a queer analogue.

Tove Jansson was queer in a Finland that hadn’t yet legalized homosexuality. Her affairs remained secret by necessity. Yet even today this part of her life that helped define her work is not exactly celebrated by children’s book publishers eager to capitalize on her beloved characters. One can read every reprint of her work, every lovingly crafted comic compendium, every tear-eyed retrospective, and walk away having no idea just how many women Jansson loved or how these relationships shaped, and in cases like Too-ticky directly inspired, her work. Publishers wanted, and still want, to package and sell Jansson’s work as divorced from the creator as possible. It may not always be intentional or with malice, but the result is the same. Long time readers of this blog know that I’m certainly not someone to argue that the author is not dead, but there is a world of difference between a reader choosing to engage with a text separate from the creator and having a separate, invariably corporate entity putting obstacles directly between them and the creator. Moominvalley in Winter is not merely a shift towards a darker, more psychological look at beloved children’s characters, it is a story of a woman coming out and feeling terrified at the new world she had been sleeping through before. It is an ode to the woman that helped her through this and showed her love that existed in this fearful new world. No matter how one tries to divorce Jansson’s sexuality from her work, these themes shine through in her prose.

Moominvalley in November is also based on events in Jansson’s life. In 1970, Jansson’s mother died. This event, and her absence from Jansson’s life, defines the entire book. Moominvalley in November features none of the Moomin family. Moominmama, Moominpapa, Moomintroll and Little My are all gone, off on a different adventure seen in Moominpapa at Sea. Instead, the family is replaced by a collection of familiar characters and newcomers. Each of these characters has their normal quirks cranked up more than usual, and the tension between them as they are forced together is palpable off the page, sometimes painfully so.

Toft is a young orphan boy, obsessed with finding the Moomin family and discovering the familial love he has never truly known, but fantasizes about. His obsession with Moominmama in particular is all consuming. Though he has never met her, he envisions her as the ultimate calming, nurturing force. A being of pure love who never gets mad or upset or frustrated and who can make everything better for Toft. He leaves his cold home behind to journey to the Moomin house, where he meets the other characters.

Hemulens are characters who appear in many of the previous Moomin books. They wear loose dresses and are defined by the scholarly obsessions and collections. The Hemulen of Moominvalley in November is a bit different than those that preceded him. A pompous bore who pretends to be an expert in everything, yet clearly knows nothing, this Hemulen wakes one day to the terrifying realization that all his collecting and organization may not mean anything. This Hemulen wears more practical, masculine clothes than the Hemulens we’ve seen before, and is less defined by any specific obsessions. He makes the journey to Moominvalley to find Moominpapa and, more importantly, a comradery he hasn’t known before.

Like this Hemulon, the Fillyjonk is both a familiar character and a surprise. While Fillyjonks as a “species” have appeared in previous Moomin books as status-obsessed worry worts, the Fillyjonk of this book is a neurotic mess, terrified of germs and people. Her near-death experience while trying to clean her roof leads her to panic at the thought that this life has left her devoid of any family, and makes haste for Moominvalley to try and learn from Moominmama.

Snufkin is the most familiar of these returning characters. Snufkin is Jansson’s bohemian traveler, and one of the most beloved characters of the entire series. Snufkin is usually a wise, aloof wanderer who has no time for the foolishness of civilization and maintains a zen-like calmness at all times. Snufkin is normally the model of self-sufficiency, but at the start of this novel is alarmed to learn he cannot come up with the missing notes for a new song on his own. Despite his desire to travel on, he makes his trip back to Moominvalley in hopes that his friends can provide the inspiration he needs to be alone.

Rounding out the cast is Mymble and Grandpa-Grumble. The Mymble is a beautiful, if a bit conceited, creature who is making her trip to Moominvalley to visit Little My, her sister who was adopted by the Moomins. Mymbles are flightly, but clever creatures who have no problem following their own bliss, but are not exactly able to put others first (hence why her sister had to be raised by Moomins in the first place). Mymble is both a character you want to be like, but also feel a bit put-off by. Her ease of being in her own body and desires tempered by her bluntness alternating between undiplomatic and uncaring. Finally there is Grandpa-Grumble, a senile old man who cannot remember his own name, much less exactly what he wants to get from the “happy valley” he knew so long ago.

The six characters arrive at the Moomin’s abandoned house at around the same time, and immediately are at odds. The Moomins are nowhere in sight, and no one can agree on what to do in the meantime. So they move in, each only caring about fulfilling the need they believe only the Moomins can fill, and proceed to just be SHITTY to each other. In the past books, when Moominpapa and Moominmama ran the valley, everyone who came in was family. There were conflicts and selfish desires, but there was also the understanding that these were just part of all families, and did not need to disrupt their lives or make anyone undeserving of love. Without the Moomins, there is no family. Instead there is just a collection of angry misfits. “Wacky” children’s book characters with required “wacky” quirks who are no longer having wacky adventures but are now tearing each other apart. Even the normally unflappable Snufkin is left an angry, twitchy mess. The situations and conflicts from these quirks brushing against each other do not result in the same humor and jokes we enjoyed in past Moomin books. It feels off somehow, rawer and less forgiving. We don’t laugh this time, either with or at the characters.

As time goes on, and it becomes clear that the Moomins aren’t going to just magically appear, the characters find their ways of coping and connecting. Each tries to embody a role left vacant by one of the missing Moomins. None of them succeed, but slowly they find their own ways of doing things together. It’s still not perfect by any means. In one particularly tragic scene after Fillyjonk has just spent a great deal of time fighting against her normal urges and trying to serve as “mother” for everyone, she is rejected by Toft and told cruelly, but truthfully, by Mymble how no matter what she does to try to make people love her, she will never be Moominmama. Filljonk, who manages to change the most of anyone, still has to accept both what she can and can’t be. But regardless of this strange, temporary “family’s” imperfections, it does allow the characters to step out of their “wacky” quirky roles and find ways to becoming more like the people they want to be. They are even able to come together and have a successful dinner party, and acknowledge each others’ gifts or perspectives.

Toft is the longest holdout, resenting Fillyjonk for not being Moominmama and the Hemulen for not being Moominpapa. He resents Snufkin for trying to be above everyone else and he resents Mymble for implying that the Moomins might possibly ever be upset with each other and fight like they do (especially for implying that Moominmama might be as imperfect as to get upset!). While holding himself apart from the others, he discovers a textbook on microbiology and, mistaking it for a storybook, begins reading it and visualizing strange, unworldly creatures based on the scientific jargon he can’t understand. As Toft’s alienation grows, so does the creature he imagines from the book, until it threatens to consume him. When Toft feels small and powerless, he imagines this formerly microscopic creature growing and stretching out against its limits. As Toft begins questioning his anger and resentment, the creature, grown fat on rage and lightning, no longer feels empowering or benign. It is only by letting go of his anger and accepting that this scary, undefinable creature of confused rage is within him, and maybe even within Moominmama, that he is able to sate it and save himself.

The climax of the book ends with the characters sitting on the Moomin’s porch, watching the autumn sky together. None of them speak, they simply watch autumn begin to end, as a new winter begins over the valley. They have all accepted the fact that they can’t entirely change who they are, but can still change how they live and act. But, this is as far as they can go together. In the end, this is not the story of the birth of a new family. The disparate characters have learned to work together, for a time, but they will never be the idyllic queer Moomin family. The time comes and one by one they part, each having found at least part of that thing that was missing from their lives. The Hemulen, failing to actually build or accomplish anything tangible on this trip but content that his life doesn’t have to be meaningless if he gives it meaning. Fillyjonk, not the perfect Moominmama but a new person regardless, content that she is capable of bringing people into her life. Snufkin, content that he can once again create music, and that maybe even unnecessary people can make it sweeter. Mymble, content that even a Mymble can live for others for awhile. Grandpa-Grumple, still senile but content with both his age and the fact that he’s not ready to get even older. Even Toft has accepted that reality can’t be as perfect as the stories that once gave him comfort as a poor orphan. It’s important to note that they don’t all walk away with happy endings, or with all their needs entirely fulfilled. They understand each other better, and have found value in their time together, but that doesn’t make them family. It doesn’t even really make them friends, but that’s alright. The novel ends with the last to leave the valley, little Toft, heading down to the docks where he makes his home in time to see the lantern of Moominpapa’s boat approaching.

The Moomins found their way back to the valley, but Jansson never found her way back. Moominvalley in November was the last Moomin novel. Jansson wrote about how after this book she was never able to fully find her way back to that happy valley again. Jansson knew this would be the last Moomin book, and so she let the Moomins return to their valley, but in a mysterious way we’ll never know for sure unless we somehow make that journey ourselves. Even without being able to say goodbye to the Moomins in person, we are able to say goodbye in a very Moominesque way. Through a story of acceptance, of failed but not bad relationships, of being alone among others and being able to welcome even the worst seasons.