This is the first ever Moomin book. It is also the last of Tove Jannson's Moomin works that I have read (I haven't read all of her brother Lars version of the comic strip). It's also the worst of the Moomin works, but saying that being the worst Moomin work is not exactly saying it is terrible. It is good and prefigures the masterpieces that are to come. I have held, for almost the last thirty years, that Tove Jannson is by far the greatest of all Children's books authors. To some degree this work is for those who agree with me or who are very close to agreeing with me. It is for Moomin completests only. For anyone new to the Moomins, I would recommend starting with Comet in Moominland, which is the immediate successor to this work. In what follows, I am going to presume a familiarity with all things Moomin.
This work is very much a proto-moomin work. Most noticeably the Moomin snouts are drawn thinner and the Moomins don't resemble the white hippos that they later did. Sniff appears in it, referred to as "the little creature". The plot is essentially a picaresque adventure with Moomintroll and Moominmamma trying to locate Moominpappa and having many adventures along the way. The writing is influenced by Hans Christian Anderson and the feelings of wonder and of anxiety and dread are there in spades. The writing is not as sophisticated and incidents and characters are not as finely drawn as the later work. It is more straightforward and less subtle than anything that would follow. The book itself was began in 1939 and then completed and published in 1945. I have always thought that World War II and the Finnish experience in it lurks unspoken behind the Moomin novels and picture books. Here the sense of anxiety is almost relentless, and nature, as it so often does, is both beautiful but strange and sinister. That is compounded by the fact that the Moomins are represented as considerably smaller than they are in later works. They are about 4 inches high, although this is not consistent.
The art in the book lacks the expressiveness of the later Moomin illustrations, but there are some absolutely beautiful illustrations. In particular the Sepia toned landscapes show all of Tove Jannson's genius. Many of the incidents are clever, but they are more influenced by fairy tales than would be true later.
This book was out of print for a very long time and that's because its the weakest, but it is still a very good work and enjoyable. It is also a must have for any moomin-fanatic to understand where Moomin Valley comes from and the evolution of Tove Jannson's genius.