For years, I didn’t know that Russell Hoban had written anything besides his wonderful Frances books for children. (My own favorite is A Baby Sister for Frances: we often quote her around our house, as in, “Things aren’t very good around here, are they?”) Then I heard of his many other works, some for children and some for adults, and put, particularly, Riddley Walker on my list to visit someday. For this month of science fiction and fantasy, however, I’ve chosen to read a different book of his, that hovers somewhere nearer children’s literature, but is sophisticated enough even for philosophically-minded adults: The Mouse and His Child.
The mouse (and his child) are wind-up toys, on a long journey together, joined hand in hand. Purchased at Christmas from their idyllic “home” at the toy shop, they wind up in the trash soon enough, and a tramp sets them on their long and dangerous road. Beset by dangers, troubled by dark prophecies, attacked by territorial shrews and nefarious rats, offered a place in a traveling theater, sent to the hopeless bottom of a pond, they continue toward their destiny: to find the Last Visible Dog, and to struggle back to a state of grace.
This book is much darker and more complex than the premise suggests (adorable wind-up toys go on a journey, shenanigans ensue.) From the very first pages, in the toy shop, Hoban skewers the notion that any of his emotions will be easy or unearned. The plush elephant, who is in charge of the toy shop, sings the child mouse a lullaby. When he asks if she is his mama, she denies it.
“Will you be my mama,” said the child, “and will you sing to me all the time? And can we all stay here together and live in the beautiful house where the party is and not go out into the world?”
“Certainly not!” snorted the elephant. “Really,” she said to the gentleman doll, “this is intolerable. One is polite to the transient element on the counter, and see what comes of it.”
“Twenty-one inch color television,” offered the gentleman. “Nagging backaches and muscle tension. A HEARTWARMING LOVE STORY THE WHOLE FAMILY WILL ENJOY.”
But the child’s vision — an unlikely family, a home, some kind of redemption — drives and lights the entire story. When the father is weary, it is the child’s hope (and their clockwork mechanism) that pushes them onward, no matter how impossible the goal.
And the goal does appear impossible at times. There cannot be another children’s book with so much sudden death along the road. This is nature: shrews fight voles, weasels eat their prey, wise friends are killed by falling trees. Patience and endurance are required as well as courage, invention, and generosity. Family must be carved out of what we find; the mice might have taken their joined arms to suggest exclusion, but instead, by the end of the book, they have a ragged, implausible family surrounding them, and the child’s dream comes weirdly true, as if in a carnival mirror.
There is philosophy, as well. The image of the Last Visible Dog — a dog food label, with a dog holding a picture of a dog holding a picture of a dog, on into infinity — appears and reappears, posing its ineluctable question. What is beyond the Last Visible Dog? Is it nothing? Is it ourselves? When the dog food label is stripped away from the can, the child sees the truth:
Gradually the area of exposed tin widened, and he saw his own face and his outstretched hands holding his father’s hands. His reflection in the counter he had stood on long ago had been below his field of vision; he had never seen himself before, but he recognized his father, and therefore knew himself. “Ah,” he said, “there’s nothing on the other side of nothing but us.”
What do we make of our destiny? How does prophecy affect villains and heroes? Can anyone really ever be redeemed? What does it mean to be self-sufficient, and what does it mean to live in community?
“Good heavens!” exclaimed the father. He had been walking more and more slowly without noticing it, and now he stopped, astonished, as the reciprocally winding springs inside him, having lost a little energy each day through friction, came at last unwound. “I’m not wound up anymore!” he said.
“Well,” said Frog, “I don’t suppose anyone ever is completely self-winding. That’s what friends are for.”
Hoban addresses all these questions and far more. (And this is shelved in the J section at the library.)
This book reminded me strangely of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. It begins with a man (well, mouse) and a child, on a strange journey, and along the way others join them in a world full of barely-recognizable pieces of our own world. There is violence and vengeance, there is prophecy and satire, there is death and laughter and redemption, and there is the formation of what, in the absence of a better word, I might call a ka-tet. The Mouse and His Child was published in 1967. I wonder if it could have been formational for King in any way?
My edition is a relatively new edition (2001), put out by Scholastic Press with terrific illustrations by the marvelous David Small. If you have any chance of getting this one, I recommend it. If not, get it anyway. This is a strange and wonderful book.