“Moominpappa at Sea” by Tove Jansson

 “Moominpappa at Sea” by Tove Jansson (1965) – 220 pages

 No, I did not accidentally mistake “Moominpappa at Sea” for one of Tove Jansson’s adult novels.  Earlier this year I read Jansson’s “The True Deceiver”, and I was much impressed with this short novel.  There was a powerful quietness in her writing as if she were attempting to ‘explain the inexplicable’.   I felt there was something going on in this novel that went beyond the words on the page.  Surely it was in her children’s books where she developed this enigmatic quality.

 Knowing nothing about the Moomin books, I chose “Moominpappa at Sea” pretty much at random mostly because I liked the sound of the title. 


    “He was a little odd, wasn’t he?” said Moominpappa uncertainly.

    “Very odd, if you ask me,” said Little My. “Quite nuts.”

    Moominmamma sighed to straighten her legs. “But so are most of the people we know – more or less,” she said.

 This quote is exactly why I admire Jansson’s writing.  Other writers would point out the oddness of a character without stating the obvious, that we are each of us odd in our own ways. 

 There are four main characters in the Moomin family.  There is Moominpappa who often has grandiose visions such as relocating the family from their happy home in Moominvalley to this isolated island.  Then there is Moominmamma who doesn’t always agree with these grandiose ideas, but goes along with them anyway just to keep him happy.  Then there is the son Moomintroll who pursues his own visions.  Then there is adopted daughter Little My who is the most self-reliant and sharpest and always says exactly what is on her mind.  Little My is my favorite of the characters here. 


    “Hello,” said Moominpappa, “I’m angry.”

    “Good,” said Little My with approval. “You look as though you’ve made a proper enemy of someone. It always helps.”

 The best way to describe  Little My is to say  she is annoyingly precocious.    

 Having picked “Moominpappa at Sea” to read, I don’t think this particular book is the best introduction to the Moomin series.   Some of the writing is sharp like the examples I quote above.  However there were long stretches of the book that didn’t hold my interest and were kind of a slog.  I know Tove Jansson is a great children’s author as her huge world-wide popularity attests.  However I see two reasons this book might not measure up to her best.  First there were two main English translators of the Moomintroll books who translated all but one of the books, “Moominpappa at Sea”, which was instead translated by Kingsley Hart.  For Jansson’s understated style of writing, the translation is critical, and I have a sense that this one-off translation loses some of Jansson’s edge. 

 Second this is the next to last Moomin book that Tove Jansson wrote before she switched to writing adult novels. She may have been feeling the constraints of children’s books at this point. Some of the themes in “Moominpappa at Sea” really don’t fit in a children’s book.  Moominpappa having a mid-life crisis, Moominmamma getting depressed about the family’s new circumstances, these are matters that go beyond a book for children. 

 “Moominpappa at Sea” is a solid book.  I just think that one of the other Moomin books might be a better expression of Jansson’s talent.  Even with my favorite children’s author, Robert McCloskey, I’ve learned there are certain books that are must-reads including ‘Make Way for Ducklings’, ‘Blueberries for Sal’, ‘Lentil’, and above all ‘One Morning in Maine’, while there are certain of his books to avoid including ‘Time of Wonder’.

5 responses to this post.

  1. I remember reading a lot of Moomintroll books as a kid. I didn’t love them but I did enjoy them because they were just so odd — and set a world away from my life in Australia.


  2. Hi Kimbofo,
    Yes, this is an odd and different world. I’m sure it’s fun for kids to see these funny-looking Moomin trolls acting pretty much like the people in their own families. They are just like your own Mom and Dad, except they have tails.


  3. I’ve heard good things about Tove Jansson’s adult books, but didn’t like the Moomin books as a child. They’re simply substandard 🙂


  4. Hi Frisbee,
    That is an interesting take on the Moomin books. I wasn’t sure if “Mooninpappa at Sea” might have been a miss, while some of the others were better. Still want to read “The Summer Book”.


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