As in any good survival story, the protagonist must learn to accept the forces of nature and accommodate himself to them. At first, Abel resents nature when it conflicts with his will. He imagines the rain as inconsiderate when it interrupts his picnic, and he resents the power of the flood-swollen river, resolving to beat it. Gradually, he becomes attuned rather than resistant to the rhythm of the seasons: He passes the winter months in a mostly somnolent state, then revives with the spring, dancing and yodeling for the sheer joy of living. He loses his city-bred taste for mushroom omelettes and caviar and enjoys the fresh taste of strawberries and cherry birch bark, which he is somewhat shocked to learn that his own teeth are ideally adapted to gnawing. Perhaps the most significant example of Abel’s growing acceptance of the natural order of things is the attitude that he demonstrates toward the two predators he faces in the course of the novel. He sees the owl as a personal enemy. His deep hatred for the owl motivates him to fight back not only with weapons—his pocketknife tied to a stick to make a spear—but also with bloodcurdling curses chanted over the owl’s feathers, kept for their talisman-like power. Months later, Abel’s reliance on instinct rather than anger to elude a hunting cat and his matter-of-fact acceptance of its predatory behavior as simply part of its makeup suggest a mouse who has become wise in the ways of the natural world.
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His sophisticated style and thoughtful subject matter have prompted several critics to compare William Steig to E. B. White and Steig’s Abel to White’s Stuart Little. Like White, Steig is famous for a long association with the urbane magazine The New Yorker and for his work for adults, in Steig’s case sardonic line drawings and cartoons. In both cases, the authors have managed to impart the wit and wisdom of their adult work to their children’s writing as well.
Steig is also a brilliant illustrator of his own fiction. He has written many picture books, winning a Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and the American Book Award for Doctor De Soto (1982). Thoughtful characterization, strong adventure plots, and an ear for the absolutely apt word mark all of Steig’s narratives, short and long. Although magic is frequently the transformative element in picture books such as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, character transformations occur more naturally and gradually in longer works such as Abel’s Island.
In addition to the motif of transformation, a romance or quest element exists in several of Steig’s creations. Molding his animal characters on such legendary beings as Odysseus or Aeneas, Steig has Abel and the dog protagonist of Dominic (1972) face a series of trials in a hostile world before achieving peace at home; they emerge as both active heroes and contemplative artists.
Finally, Steig underscores the classic quality of his work by adapting traditional narrative forms to his own purposes. Many of his picture books employ folktale motifs, Dominic has been called a picaresque novel, and Abel’s Island is in the tradition of the Robinsonnade or survival story.