SOME BOOKS get under your skin in childhood and stay there. One, for me, was “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes,’’ by DuBose Heyward with pictures by Marjorie Flack. It was about a girl bunny who wants to grow up to be one of the five great Easter Bunnies, even though she knows the job always goes to the fancy white rabbits or fast Jack Rabbits, who laugh at her. Her ambition fades; she grows up to have 21 children and a cheerful, efficient household. But on the day when a new Easter Bunny is to be chosen, she goes with her family to the Palace of Easter Eggs, where the wise old Grandfather Bunny - oh, never mind. It’s one of those books that sounds unbearably cutesy and cloying when you try to describe it, but that is actually wonderful: charming, heartfelt, beautifully illustrated, and quite moving.
I rediscovered the book when my children were young - they loved it too - but I never wondered about the writer until recently, when I saw DuBose Heyward’s name in a newspaper story about the new production of “Porgy and Bess’’ now running on Broadway; and I realized that “Porgy’’ and “The Country Bunny’’ were created by the same person. Who was he? How did he come to write these two stories, so different, yet each, in its own way, enduring?
Heyward was a native of Charleston, S.C., born into a family of impoverished Southern aristocrats. As a child he was fascinated by the culture and language of the Gullah people, descendants of West African slaves who lived on the region’s coast and islands. He folded his view of their world into his first novel, “Porgy,’’ published in 1925. It was an outsider’s view; and reading the novel today is a mixed and uncomfortable experience. The book is peppered with cringe-making condescending generalizations, but Heyward’s compassion for his characters and their feelings, his portrait of yearning in an indifferent universe, shines through. He went on to turn the story into a play, and then collaborated with George and Ira Gershwin on the opera “Porgy and Bess.’’
He spent the next 15 years writing novels. They were all more didactic than “Porgy’’ - earnest, labored treatments of themes of race, class, and artistic integrity. “The Country Bunny’’ was a throwaway project, which grew out of a story Heyward told his young daughter, Jenifer. Marjorie Flack persuaded him to write it down so that she could illustrate it; the book appeared in 1939, a year before Heyward’s death, and it is still in print.
There’s a new kind of strong heroine showing up these days in books and movies. Princesses rescue themselves. Women pick up bows and arrows and prove that bloodshed is no longer just for men. Yet 70 years ago, in its gentle, pastel way, “The Country Bunny’’ was presciently, bracingly feminist, with its story of a female in a male world who, against all odds, is chosen for a job by a discerning employer who sees and values her intelligence, strength, and wisdom.
But the book is more than just a parable; it’s a real story, with quirks and juice. (My favorite pages show the bunny’s children engaged in household tasks she has assigned them; as a kid I coveted some of the jobs - singing, painting at an easel - while loathing the idea of washing dishes or clothes.)
Today “The Country Bunny’’ is sometimes criticized for being imperfectly feminist. The heroine doesn’t succeed all on her own. When she has trouble completing a seemingly impossible task, her wise mentor shows up again, and what could have been a moment of terrible defeat becomes instead the moment when her courage is recognized and rewarded.
But good fiction isn’t written to fit a lesson plan. Its job isn’t to teach, but to engage and move us. For all the criticisms of DuBose Heyward’s books, the two best - “Porgy’’ and “The Country Bunny’’ - have endured because they are animated by his empathy for the characters and their yearnings. Throughout his career, Heyward was concerned with social injustice, artistic integrity, and race. But he was at his best when he let his characters drive the plot - when he didn’t try too hard to be black and white.Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is joanwickersham.com.