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Lightfoot the Deer – The other white-tail tale

[Originally posted April 5, 2006]

Everybody knows Bambi, but do you know Lightfoot? The original book Bambi, a Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten, was tremendously popular and even controversial during the first half of the 20th century because of its anti-hunting message. The author himself was a victim of Nazi oppression and has been almost forgotten since then, but Disney’s 1942 film version is a classic familiar to almost everyone even if they don’t know the book on which it was based. Disney used the white-tailed deer as his model because that would be the species familiar to most Americans, though Salten’s protagonist was a European roe deer.

So who was Lightfoot? American writer Thornton W. Burgess introduced Lightfoot the Deer in 1921, two years before Bambi was first printed in German. The book was part of his Green Forest Series, books intended primarily for children and written to introduce wildlife and conservation topics. Burgess was not in favor of hunting any more than Salten was. Something that has fallen from our collective consciousness today is the fact that a century ago the white-tailed deer had been hunted nearly to extinction in the US. The remaining population in the 1920s was estimated at only 300,000. This is hard to believe now when the deer population of North America is estimated at 30 million, but the recovery of the white-tailed deer is credited to conservation programs that protected deer habitat and limited hunting to specific times of the year. Does and fawns were particularly protected, and hunters were encouraged to focus on the bucks.

Burgess was a feature columnist who wrote wildlife stories for children and adults, and he took up the campaign to save the deer in this book. In his usual style, he presented the forest animals in their natural forms, but anthropomorphized in their speech and thinking. Lightfoot and the other residents of the Green Forest are filled with the spirit of fear during hunting season, and rightly so. Hunters did not appreciate Burgess’ representation of their activities, but his message probably did more to promote the conservation message and make poaching and out of season hunting disrespectable than any other single effort of the time.

As a children’s writer, the author kept his vocabulary simple and is sometimes accused of over-sweetness, but I still enjoy his works. His characters Peter Rabbit, Reddy Fox, Jimmy Skunk, and Grandfather Frog have remained with me and in my imagination all my life. Lightfoot was my special favorite, though, and I made my mother read the book to me as a bedtime treat again and again. It is a full length book, not just a picture story, so  we would progress through its 40 chapters one or two each night, making it last nearly a month. Whether the inherent anti-hunting message contributed to my utter disinterest in hunting and firearms I cannot say, but I know that the imagery of Lightfoot, “the loveliest, most gentle, and most hunted of all the Green Forest people,” helped to shape my interest in quiet observation and walks through natural areas. 

Lightfoot relies on his own keen senses and the help of the other forest dwellers in order to escape the persistent hunter. The beaver, the raccoon, and the birds all help him by warning of danger when they spot it. We learn how he and the hunter use the breeze to their advantage, and both hide themselves in natural camouflage. Of course, Lightfoot survives the hunting season, but only by much caution and effort. A great deal of basic forest ecology is covered during the story. 

Many of Burgess’ books have been neglected since his death in 1965, but most of them, including particularly the Mother West Wind stories and Lightfoot the Deer, are still in print and readily available. Look for editions with the original illustrations by Harrison Cady, whose artwork is an early example of what we would today call “furry art.” Burgess himself rarely refers to anything like clothing for his animal characters except as a metaphor for their natural plumeage and pelts, but Cady chose to depict them in a more anthropomorphic style, with human garments and gestures.

Of all Burgess’ work, and he was prolific, I would choose Lightfoot as the single book most worthy of attention. Don’t just take my word for it, though. Have a look for yourself. 

Rating: 3-1/2 of 5 possible apples appleappleapplehalfapple

Thornton Waldo Burgess
Lightfoot the Deer
Little, Brown and Co., 1921 (and many reprints)
Also in Project Gutenberg online 

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