The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban is written in the best tradition of children’s stories about toys that are alive. But goodness, this is not a sweet story of stuffed rabbits or bears or nutcrackers.
The story begins as so many do. It is Christmas time and the store is decorated and lit up. The mouse and his child are wind-up toys. When wound up, the mouse, who is holding the hands of the child, walks in circles lifting the child up and down in play. They are on display before a gorgeous doll’s house with other toys and wind-ups. They get bought and go to a loving home and are cared for until an accident smashes them and they end up in the dump.
The dump is run by Manny Rat who has a wind-up work gang he sends out every night to scavenge for him. The mouse and his child are repaired and sent out with one of Manny Rat’s underlings to rob a bank. Along the way we meet Frog, a fraud fortune-teller who, for once, is possessed by something and tells a real fortune for the mouse and his child:
Low in the dark of summer, high in the winter light; a painful spring, a shattering fall, a scattering regathered. The enemy you flee at the beginning awaits you at the end.
So begins the long and perilous journey of the mouse and his child. They meet danger, they make friends, they see death and violence rather frequently, and through it all they are pursued by Manny Rat who wants to smash them for having the temerity to escape.
The mouse and his child are not on the run, however, they are on a quest. After witnessing a large battle and slaughter over territory between rival shrew factions, the mouse and his child realize what they are missing is territory of their own, a place they belong, a place worth fighting for. Their quest is to find their territory and to gather together their little wind-up family from the store — the elephant the child wants to be his mother, and the seal he wants to be his sister. They eventually succeed. In the process they create a bigger family and circle of friends than they had imagined. Through them, the excellent villain Manny Rat is redeemed. And, as if this weren’t enough, they receive the ultimate reward of self-winding.
Because the mouse and his child cannot wind themselves, this is a story about being used, long-suffering patience, faith, hope, creative thinking, never giving up, and getting by with a little help from your friends.
My favorite part of the story is when they find themselves at the bottom of a pond being lectured on deep thinking by C. Serpentina, a snapping turtle. They are left to contemplate what comes after the last visible dog on the Bonzo dog food label. The label shows a dog holding a platter of Bonzo dog food with a dog holding a platter of Bonzo dog food and on and on until they become too small to see. The child is the one facing the can and so it is his task to figure out the answer. They are underwater a very long time when the child finally realizes that what comes after the last visible dog is nothing. And what is on the other side of nothing? Why we are! Or rather “us” as in the mouse and his child. Which leads the child to the conclusion that nobody can get them off the bottom of the pond but themselves. It is a really wonderful part of the story about thinking and developing your argument and then coming eventually to a creative solution.
I borrowed two different editions of the book. One has the original illustrations by Lillian Hoban, Russell Hoban’s wife. The other is a more recent printing with illustrations by David Small. Small’s pictures are numerous and lovely black-and-white watercolor drawings. I like them quite a lot. However, I found the small, less numerous black-and-white pen and ink drawings by Lillian Hoban to fit the story a bit better. They are more stark and somehow less safe and at times more threatening than Small’s. Because, in spite of the happy ending, this is not safe and easy story. I was quite surprised by the violence and cruelty but I appreciate that Hoban didn’t soften it up. If I had read this as a kid I would have been terrified by Manny Rat and properly devastated by the nonchalant death of the rabbit during the Caws of Art riot.
The Mouse and His Child is a children’s book, but it isn’t. How many books for kids have an epigraph by W.H. Auden?
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way of is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
This is the first stanza of a poem by Auden called Leap Before You Look. Epigraphs tell you a lot about a story but the curious thing is you don’t know what they are saying until you get to the end. Indeed, throughout the sense of danger does not disappear. The way is both short and steep. And that last line, you can look all you want but eventually you will have to take that leap, just as the mouse and his child and several other characters in the book had to do. Auden’s poem is about taking chances, not accepting the status quo, living dangerously. And that too, is what The Mouse and His Child tells us to do.