Review: 'The Cold Moons' by Aeron Clement
You might think, on first glance, that you might not enjoy this 1987 book due to its similarity to Richard Adam's 1972 classic, Watership Down. That's why it sat on my shelf for almost a decade collecting dust, until recently when I felt the need to dip into some more children's literature.
The barebones plot has a group of small, harmless animals, displaced from their homes by man. A group of survivors venture out into the unknown (and very British) countryside with a Moses-like leader. There are trials and tribulations, including a conflict with their own kind, and eventually they find the promised land where they can live in peace... at least for a few generations.
I found The Cold Moons to be equal to, if not superior to Watership Down. Part of what makes it an interesting and intriguing story is a tie-in to a real-life event. In the early 1970s, the British government was convinced that outbreaks of tuberculosis in cattle were due to diseased badgers. This view was fostered by a conservative newspaper, apparently run by a cousin of J. Jonah Jameson. Without much research, the government ordered the extermination of every last badger in England. Teams went out with the precision of engineers.
They would find a sett (a badger's den), block all the exits they could find, and pump in cyanide gas to produce a slow and painful death. They worked in an orderly fashion from south to north. At first, they had limited resources. Later, they brought in helicopters and trackers. These extermination teams are the people that the badgers in the book are fleeing from.
In place of Watership Down's Hazel, we have Buckwheat. Like Hazel, Buckwheat is warned that disaster is coming. Unlike the rabbits' story, it's not a mystic dreamer who acts as a harbinger, but a scarred badger named Bamber that somehow escapes an extinction patrol.
The entire first chapter is dedicated to Bamber's happy life with his mate, Dainty, and her death. The shift in tone from sweet to sour is as realistic as any death scene I've read. His whole tribe, wiped out... and this is in the first 9 pages. His sole goal is to survive, find more of his kind, and warn them that the humans have gone crazy.
Thus begins a quest for Elysia. One of the overriding themes is of Legacy. The Legacy that Bambers gives to Buckwheat. The Legacy that Buckwheat, in turn, passes to his son Beaufort. The Legacy that Beaufort has to fight to keep.
Because of Bamber's sacrifice, almost 200 badgers escape death. I had no idea badgers were so social. Rather than the mere dozen rabbits in Watership Down trying to rebuild their warren, the entire power structure of the badgers is intact, and that creates a lot of wonderful plot points. You can see different badgers grow (and fail)... including a corrupt, power-hungry one who's willing to kill most of the others just to make sure that he gets his way.
I enjoyed this book greatly, although I didn't care too much for the insertion of newspaper articles about the fleeing badgers and the efforts to kill them all. However, the insertions were helpful in following the rising tide of public opinion that eventually resulted in the critters becoming a protected species. It kept me from becoming too cynical about the end of the book; so I shouldn't complain.
The Cold Moons has been out of print since 1990; you may have to check your local library, or shop for an old copy from sites such as AbeBooks. Badgers and tuberculosis in Britain are still a subject of recent concern.