Sunday, February 24, 2008

Russell Hoban

The Mouse and His Child
by Russell Hoban
Recommended Age: 12+

You're thinking, not another childish tale of talking mice and rats, right? Well, actually, this is an outstanding story, very mature and emotionally deep, full of sparkling intellect. It's really a grown-up story dressed up as a children's story. Its vocabulary is almost beyond what you would get away with reading to a child. The combination of lovely fantasy and heartbreakingly sad realism strikes a note similar to The Princess Bride, only without the tongue-in-cheek. It is a tale of an impossible quest, a quest of the heart, carried out against desperate odds by the most insignificant and helpless creatures imaginable.

The main characters are not, in fact, a real live mouse and his child. They are a tin wind-up toy of a dancing mouse father who swings his mouse child around as he dances, as they are joined at the hands. The rules of clockwork toys, to begin with, are that they can only talk between midnight and dawn (never in front of people), and they cannot cry on the job. However, the mouse's child soon begins to break both rules.

Their wide-ranging adventures, beginning with a mishap that causes them to be thrown out of the house where they used to be wound up to entertain children every Christmas, lead them across the path of an evil rat named Manny who, what with one thing and another, feels it is his mission in life to destroy them. They also become friends with a fortune-telling frog, an army of shrews, a theatre troupe of crows and a parrot, a mathematician muskrat, a pupal-stage dragonfly, a philosopher snapping-turtle, a bittern, a kingfisher, a tramp and his dog.

They attempt to rob a bank, they participate in a war, they dabble in experimental theatre, they chop down a tree, they spend time at the bottom of a pond, they are broken and put back together again (several times), and finally they realize their dream of conquering their own territory (a burned-out dollhouse), facing down their last enemy, and starting a family with a wind-up elephant for a mother and a wind-up seal for a sister. And at every stage of their journey a Bonzo Dog Food can label turns out to have some significance.

It's a mesmerizing story. One complaint I have, though, is that very long stretches of it develop continuously without any resting place where you can put down the book and rub your eyes. Also, the story has so many endings that you find yourself wondering how much longer it's going to go. Nevertheless the very end is exactly what it should be, and the misery the characters (and you) go through is amply repaid.

Don't expect it to be light reading. But it may be one of the most gripping and touching "children's stories" you ever read! Its descriptive language is beautiful, as is the character of the mouse child--whose tears are as contagious as his "skreep, skreep!" laughter. It is a story that will both stimulate your mind and touch your heart. And the new edition with pictures by David Small is very stylish and fun to look at.

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