Nina Bawden's The Peppermint Pig opens with the following attention-grabbing paragraph:
"Old Granny Greengrass had her finger chopped off in the butcher's when she was buying half a leg of lamb. She had pointed to the place where she wanted her joint to be cut but then she decided she needed a bigger piece and pointed again. Unfortunately, Mr Grummett, the butcher, was already bringing his sharp chopper down. He chopped straight through her finger and it flew like a snapped twig into a pile of sawdust in the corner of the shop. It was hard to tell who was more surprised, Granny Greengrass or the butcher. But she didn't blame him. She said, 'I could never make up my mind and stick to it Mr Grummett, that's always been my trouble.'"
This humorousness pervades Bawden's book like the "peppermint" pig himself. Johnnie was the runt of the litter, hence he's a "peppermint pig" and he comes into the lives of the four Greengrass children (George, Lily, Theo and Polly) after their own lives are turned upside. Initially they live in London with their mother, the teller of the blood curdling story with which the book opens, and their happy father who is a coach-painter by trade. One day, however, their father leaves his job, deliberately taking the blame for a theft he hasn't committed in the hope of sparing the old man who owns the coach company from discovering that his only son is a thief and a liar. Mr Greengrass goes off to America in order to join the children's Uncle Edmund and (hopefully) make his fortune. In the meantime the children (and their mother) go to stay with their Aunts Sarah and Harriet in Norfolk.
Their mother buys Johnnie, the peppermint pig, from the local milkman for a shilling, telling the children that "Pigs are a poor man's investment", although neither Theo nor Poll have any idea what this means. All they know is that Johnnie is the best thing to have happened to them since their father left for America. Johnnie's so tiny that he can fit into a pint glass and he feels smooth if he's stroked one way, yet scratchy if he's stroked the other. Their mother tells them that "Pigs are more intelligent than any dog" and Johnnie proves her right. Under the joint care of Theo and Poll, Johnnie soon grows big and fat and strong. He comes when he's called and sits still when he's told, he'll wait outside shops for them without needing to be tied up as a dog would. He becomes quite famous as the Greengrass pet pig and even the talk of the town. One day Poll and her mother even take him to tea with Lady March, much to the amusement of her servants, who are quite disdainful of their mistress. On another occasion he causes havoc when the fair comes to town and he gets left behind at home. Lonely and miserable, he rushes after the Greengrasses, leaving a trail of mayhem in his wake. The Bearded Lady isn't at all impressed.
In some ways The Peppermint Pig is rather like that American classic, Charlotte's Web, in that it demonstrates the birth, life and death cycle in a way that children can understand and come to terms with. But it's also a very different story as there's no fantasy element to Bawden's tale. The characters in this tale are well realised, especially Poll and her reactions to the half-understood conversations that take place around her and over her head; events assume an enormous significance when you're only 9 and your once happy life has been turned upside down.
I don't often read non-fantasy books (largely because there are so many fantasy books out there that even half-keeping up is time consuming), but whenever I do, I always seem to end up reading quite brilliant books, and this is definitely one of them.