The Mouse and His Child

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.

This entry was posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Mouse and His Child

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love this book having bought a copy to read to my little sister (I had discovered Hoban as an adult writer first) which has come out also for my children and has been read simply for my own pleasure as well. I think that it is a plausible influence on McCarthy’s The Road: the love of the father for his son; the constant sense of jeopardy; the search for a safe haven.
    This must also be the only children’s book that parodies Beckett?

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t read The Road (in fact, it was on my list for July, but my time got swallowed whole by The Tale of Genji) and I think you’re probably quite right. And yes, of course, I meant to mention the Beckett! There so much else, too: the Zen turtle, and Muskrat’s Much-in-Little — it’s an astonishing book.

  2. Alex says:

    The RSC are doing a staged version of this for Christmas this year. I don’t know if I can bear to see it. If it destroys my memories of what is one of the most wonderful books I know I would be devastated.

    • Jenny says:

      It couldn’t possibly destroy your memories, Alex — the book is still there, in all its glory! Bad adaptations can never really ruin the original. Just take your copy of the book and shake it at them, if they don’t do it right.

  3. This must also be the only children’s book that parodies Beckett?

    That is almost exactly what I said!

    I fee lucky to have encountered this book as a child. My copy, with the Lilian Hoban illustrations, is a bit battered.

    • Jenny says:

      I brought this home for my children (4 and 7) and then read it myself, greedily. I wonder if they are quite old enough for it yet. Not that I think the violence would distress them — children are usually fine with that — but it catches you in some rather tender places.

      I managed to miss your review of this when you did it. I’m glad you concur, about David Small’s illustrations, which I thought were lovely.

  4. Scott W. says:

    I read this on Amateur Reader’s recommendation earlier this year, and sent a copy to my goddaughter. No word yet on how she liked it, but her father wrote back a few weeks later to rave about it. I saw a less than satisfactory performance of Endgame recently, but the thought of Beckett being performed in The Mouse and His Child helped me get through it.

    • Jenny says:

      I think that if Beckett isn’t standing on his own for some reason (i.e. being performed unsatisfactorily), then thinking of him in this book would indeed set all to rights. How old is your goddaughter?

  5. Jeane says:

    Oh, this sounds so so good! I’ve had it on my TBR list for a very long time but didn’t know much about it, yours is the only (and very comprehensive and enticing too) review I’ve read of it. I do so like David Small’s artwork too, so this will be a treat when I do find it (my library has no copies).

    • Jenny says:

      Try to get it through ILL. It’s really worth while, though I’m sure the Lillian Hoban illustrations are also wonderful.

  6. Lisa says:

    Fortunately our library system has several copies, of both editions. I’m hoping to pick one up on Saturday.

  7. shovonc says:

    Thanks for the tip-off. Sounds awesome. Lemony Snicket left a void.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, that particular strain of dark humor isn’t common in children’s fiction, especially when it’s allowed to have a dark ending. This is better than Lemony Snicket, though.

  8. Ah, it’s Lemony Snicket you want. The book you must find is titled The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sciliy (1945) by Dino Buzzati, itself a baffling masterpiece, which contains appropriate supplementary material from Mr. Snicket who calls the novel “one of the noblest books I know.” Another fan is Dan Handler who declares: “The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily is one of the noblest books I know.”

  9. Kate says:

    You have done a brilliant review here Jenny. For a long time I felt I was the only person in the world who realised how amazing this book is. I read it to my kids a bit young, possibly. I left out the very very worst bits. I hope they will go back to it now they are older. Perhaps I’ll get them a copy each.

  10. Carla Eskelsen says:

    Thank you. 🙏

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