Fuse #8

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Review of the Day: The Mouse and His Child

I know, I know. One day I'm promising you that I'll only review the newest of books. Then next I turn around and immediately review something that was republished in 2001 and originally hit bookstore shelves in 1967. But there's a very good reason for this! I was told to read this book in relation to reviewing "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" and I'm very glad I did. That means tomorrow (drum roll please) I'll be ready to tackle that danged bunny at long long last.

Every copy of "The Mouse and His Child" should come with the following warning label: "ATTENTION - The contents of this book are deeper, more metaphorical, and far too clever for the immature adult. Should you find this book in the hands of such an individual, redirect it immediately to that of a mature child instead". And while that probably wouldn't cut down on the number of complaints you receive, it may well give adult reviewers and readers a taste of what's to come. I picked up "The Mouse and His Child" for three distinct reasons. One - Because a friend of mine is perhaps the greatest fan of Russell Hoban this side of the Atlantic. Two - Because it is considered a children's literary classic and I very much wanted to jump on the bandwagon. Three - I just finished reading, "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" by Kate DiCamillo and was told by a reliable source to read this book before reviewing the former. The classic toys-on-their-own-in-a-cruel-world has been a popular theme since day one. In fact all living toy stories have one element in common: The happy ending is entirely reliant on the toy heroes finding a child to love them in the end. "The Velveteen Rabbit" is obviously the exception to this rule, but even then his transformation is inextricably linked to being loved by a kid. "The Mouse and His Child" is different. In it you have two heroes bound together and incapable of physically extricating themselves from dire situations without aid. Yet without children anywhere to be seen and increasingly frightful situations at hand, these heroes succeed because they have brains and will. All that plus the book beats all others hands down when it comes to the most satisfying happy ending I have EVER encountered in a novel for kids. Ever.

There was once a toy shop in which a tin wind-up toy of a mouse father spinning his child around and around resided. The mouse child wanted a family but the other tin animals in the shop couldn't understand this wish. One day the toy was sold to a family and, in the course of things, was damaged by the family cat. The mouse and his child were thrown out, forever attached by the hands, until they were rescued by a passing tramp and fixed so that now the mouse father would walk ahead and his son backwards. In this way, they set out to face the wide world. In this book they are kidnapped by a malicious rat fiend, befriended by a jack-of-all-trades frog, aid a muskrat, join a theater troupe, find themselves at the bottom of a pond, and in the end find exactly what the mouse child was looking for all along. It's an odd little book but a lovely one and should be required reading for anyone interested in children's literature.

About the time the heroes came across the fortune telling frog I became worried about this book. I've read plenty of deeply depressing fables that fail to earn their slapped on happy endings (see: the aforementioned "Tulane"). When the frog makes it clear that there is more hardship in store of the mice, I grimaced. Great. What fun. Miserable mice for pages and pages and pages. It wasn't like that, though. Sure, our heroes are put through their paces. They face unconscionable acts and are forced to remain in awful locations without the ability to leave. But in time this becomes less and less important. Sure they seem a little miserable before they take charge of the situation, but their misery is no worse than anything you'd find in a chapter of, "A Series of Unfortunate Events". Moreover, once the story starts delving into the metaphysical implications of infinity and where a person (or a mouse) fits into the grander scheme of things... well you start to realize that this is no ordinary children's books.

It's been a long time since I read a book that screamed its publication year quite as loudly as "The Mouse and His Child" does. The book came out in 1967 and you can practically smell the year emanating off the pages. For example, at one point the mice take up with a theatrical troupe. The troupe, run by a crow, has recently renamed itself, "The Caws of Art Experimental Theatre Group". They tend to perform plays with a hint of Beckett and a smidgen of Joyce to them. You end up with characters saying things like, "A manyness of dogs. A moreness of dogs. A too-muchness of dogs. Also a jiggling and a wiggling". Then the troupe sees the mouse and child toys fall over into the dirt and they love the significance of the action. Plus the utopian situation the creatures find themselves in at the end resembles nothing so much as a miniature Greenwich Village, run by tin animals.

I have not seen "The Mouse and His Child" in its original form with its original illustrations. As such, I cannot comment on whether or not illustrator David Small exceeds his predecessor with this new 2001 publication. What I can say is that the book is a stunner. When the endpapers of a story make you tear up even before you read a single word, that's usually a good sign. Small's mice are the perfect heroes. There's a dignity to them that transcends their surroundings and dingy condition. Small had the unenviable job of drawing picture after picture of our hero mice without making the illustrations ever seem repetitive or dull. He succeeds brilliantly at avoiding pitfalls. It helps that the expressions of the mice and their eyes move around a little bit even if they themselves cannot. Drawing in both graphite and pen and inks, Small is able to convey mood and tone with an array of different washes and styles. His pictures never trail off into the silly exuberance sometimes found in his less personal books. Here he keeps his instincts strictly in check and the result is a series of deeply moving and beautiful pictures that deftly complement Hoban's tale.

I was recently in the unenviable position of having to review a children's book (which shall remain nameless) for a professional resource that relied on cute woodland creatures perishing left and right without a smidgen of pity. There was a drop of that emotion in "The Mouse and His Child". At one point the Caws of Art is attacked by an angry audience and it leaves a rabbit (who didn't have any lines anyway) dead. Hoban doesn't dwell on this death, but at the same time he isn't saying that the rabbit wasn't important. It's a blatant act but you never fear that beloved characters will die unexpectedly themselves (though there are a few close shaves). The best way to describe "The Mouse and His Child" is to quote this little passage. At once point two tadpoles are swallowed by a snake. " `It looks bad,' said one of the tadpoles as they disappeared down the snake's throat. `You never know,' said the other. `If we can just get through this, maybe everything will be all right'." That's a bit dour, but it gives you a feel for the intelligent hand behind everything that works in this book. I haven't talked much about the truly spectacular ending of this novel, or even whether or not children would like this title. I don't know myself. It's just an interesting tale, with a feel for the repercussions that come from even the smallest of acts. You may not love it, but you can't deny that this book is a true work of art.


At 9:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

During the seventies, I hung out with an extremely tough literary crowd.

We sneered at Shakespeare, doubted Dante...and something something'd somebody else, but frankly, we also drank a bunch, so I''m a bit fuzzy on the details.

In any event, there were quite a few cross over children's titles back then. We tough guys read (in no particular order):


and sneered, absolutely, but in a reverent sort of way.


Nor did we listen to the eponymously named album by Neil Diamond.


At 10:54 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Mouse and His Child resides on my favorites bookshelf, though I am reminded in reading your blog - that it has been far too long since I read it last.

I, too, loved the David Small illustrations. I cannot imagine a better choice for this story. You have piqued my curiousity, though. I believe our library (San Francisco) has copies of the original edition. I will have to have a look-see.


At 11:33 AM , Blogger MotherReader said...

My dear Fuse8, I implore you as you set yourself down to review That Bunny Book, you think of this story.

My 5-yr old daughter was talking about how much she loved all her family. She held her hand in the air to make a line and showed us how mommy, daddy, and sister were all on the same line. Just below that line, so close the the second hand touched the first, was the line representing Huggy Bear, her favorite stuffed animal.

The idea now that her favorite thing, second only to her family, would be abused, lost, tortured, and broken, would probably just about kill her. It would be hard to explain to her that Huggy Bear is not a living thing.

But in That Bunny Book, Edward is a living thing in that he is conscious of every dreadful experience. And unlike the mice in the today's book, is powerless to control his situation in any way at all. Unlike the toys in other stories, he appears to be trapped in his body, able to feel but not able to influence what happens to him.

The adults are evil, useless, or selfish. The path to feel love is long and tortured. Abuse is good for the soul. I don't know what the message is supposed to be, but one doesn't put a bunny on a cross without trying to convey something.

At 12:04 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Bravo! Bravo indeed! Such intelligent, witty, well thought out comments for this dreary Saturday morning. I should post Hoban reviews more often. Re: The Bunny Book - Excellent points every one. It seems to me that in the living toy genre there are certain rules. An author may break these rules if, like Mr. Hoban, they are extremely talented. In short, the time is nigh and the bunny is going down.

At 3:44 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh-oh. I love the bunny book almost as much as my huggy bear.

This will be an interesting discussion. Should we put on our mittens before we start swinging?

When is the review going up?


At 4:41 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Tomorrow, I think. It depends. I'm helping a friend move into a 5 story walk-up and perhaps china bunnies that are destroyed by fry cooks won't be immediately present in my brain. But I'll try.

At 7:41 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since I've only got the original on my bookshelf, I went to the library and got out the David Small illustrations.

Oh man. No question. Small blew it away. The endpapers did indeed make me tear up (Calvin and Hobbes revisited!) and the rabbit brooding on his lack of part until the third act...perfect!

I hadn't read MOUSE AND HIS CHILD for 25 years, so I stayed up late and read it in one wondering gulp.

TULANE and MOUSE AND HIS CHILD? Oh man. No question. Hoban blew it away.



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