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kildee house

24 april 2023

Rutherford Montgomery's Kildee House (1949) is a marginally more realistic take on the situation of Mr. Popper's Penguins. It might as well have been called Mr. Kildee's Raccoons and Skunks. It has a daffy charm, mixing mild suspense with mild humor in tolerable proportions.

Jerome Kildee is a retired stonecarver. Having achieved complete financial independence, Jerome retreats to a hermitage in a redwood forest. Jerome's pacifist reclusiveness extends to animals. He cannot bear to kill an animal, or even to evict one from his home. Soon he is sharing his quarters with exponentially multiplying families of raccoons and skunks.

I've read about people establishing good relations with both raccoons and skunks, and I've put up with raccoons walking into my own home to sample cat kibble. But harboring large families of both species in a small cabin enters the realm of peaceable-kingdom fantasy.

The fantastic animal elements of Kildee House serve as context for a human story, about enemies coming to trust each other. Jerome befriends two local kids, in spite of his aversion to people in general. Emma Lou represents white hillfolk Americans (and is specifically said to have Confederate ancestry). She loves animals, even while her family lives by poaching game. Donald is a bourgeois blueblood who is initially mean to both Jerome's pets and to Emma Lou. Donald's dog even kills one of Jerome's pet raccoons, a scene which jars against the general hilarity of the novel. But Jerome likes the lad anyway. Despite forming an initial bond with Emma Lou over the pets (she teaches the skunks to do tricks) and despite being closer to her in social class, Jerome has a boys-will-be-boys indulgence for Donald.

Jerome engineers a rapprochement between Emma Lou and Donald, enlisting them both is a scheme to find foster homes for all his vast population of skunks and raccoons. If you have an animal-crazy kid, you could do worse than recommend they read Kildee House, which is still in print three-quarters of a century after it first appeared.

Montgomery, Rutherford. Kildee House. Garden City: Doubleday, 1949.