The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban. With illustrations by Lillian Hoban. Originally published in 1967 (this edition by Harper & Row). 182 pages.
Sometimes it helps to take a step back from the usual genres being reviewed and remember that there are so many children's literary works worthy of real consideration. I've always had a fascination with Russell Hoban's The Mouse and his Child, although this was mostly in regards to the 1977 animated version. I used to catch it on frequent HBO showings, and to be honest, I don't remember much of the movie itself. I do remember that (to my younger self), it did succinctly convey those notions of fear, wonder, and love that are the integrals pillars of the work. Luckily, since I am long overdue for a re-visit of the film, it is available to view in its entirety on Youtube:
The Mouse and his Child tells the tale of the two titular wind-up toys. In the world of the narrative, the toys "come to life" at the stroke of midnight; although this animation is limited, since they become able to think, and talk, but still rely on manual winding for movement. The mouse and child, while technically one toy (they are joined at the hands and share a winding key), have separate personalities. The tale opens with their first awakening in a toy shop, and with coming to grips with what they are in fact, are. Being Christmastime, they are soon bought, played with for a while, and then discarded. Finding themselves alone and abandoned in a dump, this is where there journey truly begins.
One of the greater themes of TMahC (and there are quite a few themes within) is societal structure and finding ones place within. At the onset, the pair learned of the establishment that was the toy store, with its great dollhouse and monarch wind-up pink elephant. In the dump, however, it is a different story. The animals reign in the denizens of the dump. Striding atop the hierarchies of the dump are the rats, led by the odious Manny Rat. Manny is a particularly nasty customer; conniving, shrewd, sharp at business and handy with mechanical parts. He also runs a 'forage squad' of tossed wind-up toys that he uses to gather junk, by both honest and dishonest means. The hapless mouse and child, incapable of self-winding, are shanghaied by Manny. After a botched robbery attempt in which they were forced to participate, the wind-ups find themselves fleeing the dump and certain death from the pursuing Manny. They are aided in their urgent egress by the prophetic Frog, a kindly fortune-teller/surveyor who finds his fate intertwined with theirs.
Along their journey, the mouse and child run into colorful characters, and latch onto new concepts. From observing a turf war between two groups of warring shrews, they learn the idea of territory, and why it is so important (and they decide they want their own). From an eccentric avian theater troupe, they learn companionship, and glean hope as to the fate of a fellow former toy store wind-up. And. at the end of their trek, they hope to meet up with Muskrat, a genius mathematician who may hold the secret to self-winding.
To divulge any more would compromise too many story points, but suffice to say, as in life, there are many ups and downs, and the downs seem to outnumber the ups.
Hoban is an author who obviously does not feel the need to pander to a young audience. Rather, he embraces and celebrates their resilient optimism, and simple common-sense. There are some mature elements in the book; extended periods where things just do not go well for the protagonists, and there is a good deal of violence, blood, and death. Again though, kids know what these things are, and Hoban knows that they know. The focus here is on this father and son pair, lost in this new, dark, bleak world, facing danger at every turn. The son strengthening and developing into a spiritual and moral compass, as the father focuses on their day to day safety and survival. The trying voyage that cements their bond as each other's whole world. Wait a minute, I think that I've read a story like this recently.....
I can't decide which one had more heartbreaking moments to be honest.
The prose is charming throughout. As mentioned before, there are some big words which will need explaining for kids (especially those in the 7-11 range, which I think is a good target audience). There are many strong instances of imagery throughout; central of which is the fact that father and son are joined at the hands for the book. A small drum, salvaged from a shrew drummer boy, beats time near the child's chest, simulating a heartbeat.
Hoban also incorporates many different philosophies into TMahC, without giving any a preference as the superior. There are Frog's oracular prophecies, Muskrat's mathematical tangents, the deep, philosophical ramblings of C.Serpentina, and the mechanical "know-how" of Manny Rat. Each mindset has its own chance to shine, to show its strength and validity.
Now, for all the accolades, this is not a flawless book, either. There are scenes that meander, and dialogue that drags on. The ending is wrapped up just a little too tidily for my taste, as if a box bounced in the back of a parcel truck on a cross-country jaunt just to get decked out in a shiny red ribbon. But these are minor quibbles that barely mar a great piece.
Very highly recommended.
Here's what it is:
A great bedtime story tome that truly stresses the wonders and values of friends, family, home, and belonging, while also incorporating high stakes, danger, and sadness. Get it, read it, love it.
As with most older titles, there are various covers for The Mouse and his Child. The one read, the Harper & Row edition, has the same picture as in the picture at the top, although with a bluer background palette and a different dollhouse design. I like the covers that utilize the artwork of Lillian Hoban, who also provided the inside illustrations. They are simple, and sketchy, but sufficiently emotional.
Cover Final Score: