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The Curious Tale of Peter Rabbit

Thornton Burgess' Peter Rabbit and friends

Thornton Burgess’ Peter Rabbit and friends

Both Cape Cod and England lay claim to the beloved childhood character

Photos courtesy of the Thornton W. Burgess Society

Imagine that an unknown American author publishing his first young adult novel in 2018 decides to name his central character Harry Potter and endow him with powers of wizardry. One can envision how J.K. Rowling—and her legal staff—might react. Yet just such a literary scenario did play out in America and England a century ago, with surprising results. The fictional character was Peter Rabbit, and Cape Cod played a role in the story.

It begins across the Atlantic in 1893, where the late Beatrix Potter (no relation to Harry!) was a 27-year-old Londoner on vacation in England’s northern countryside. There, she welcomed pet mice, lizards and other small animals into her room, where she became adept at sketching them.

When Noel Moore, the son of Potter’s childhood governess, became ill, she mailed him a picture story about a rabbit named Peter and his run-ins with Farmer McGregor. At the urging of Noel’s mother, who recognized the story’s potential, Potter expanded the plot and in 1901 published “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”

Across the Atlantic, a similar story was unfolding for a boy born on Cape Cod in 1874. Thornton W. Burgess and his widowed mother lived in Sandwich throughout his childhood. Growing up, the young man who would evolve into America’s celebrated storyteller and naturalist learned to love the wildlife and terrain of his native town. He explained in his 1960 autobiography how his Cape Cod upbringing influenced his later writing:

“Man is a reflection of his environment. It exerts an influence on his character that he cannot escape. … The pride of the born Cape Codder is the land … something of pounding surf, of shifting sands, the flash of sun on distant dunes, the mingled smells of marsh muck, salt hay and stranded fish, the silver gleam of fresh waters in emerald settings, the resinous odor of scrub pines.”

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