“There seems to be a good deal more to the world than the Christmas tree and the attic and the dust-bin. Anything at all might happen I suppose.”
The Mouse & His Child by Russell Hoban jumped out at me from a shelf in a second hand bookshop when I was in my mid-twenties. (I’ve always had a penchant for books about mice.) This is an extraordinary chapter book about looking for a place where you can belong. It is also about discovering self-reliance. Years later I upgraded to a hardback version of the book. Different illustrators – the paperback I had at the beginning was illustrated by the marvelous Lillian Hoban, the newer hardbound version is illustrated by David Small.
The book follows the experiences of a wind-up toy – a mechanical papa mouse who holds hands with a child mouse – and when wound up, he spins in a circle and raises his child up and down. That is all that they are designed to do. They can only move when they are wound up. When they are eventually thrown on a junk heap, they dream of becoming self-winding. The Child has a seemingly futile wish to find the doll house that was in the store window with them when they were purchased. Few books capture the sheer helplessness of being small in a big complicated world, and being inherently dependent on the kindness of strangers – as they cannot wind themselves. Aspects of the book are frightening. Animals die, bad things happen. But the Child clings to his vision of a better life if they can only keep going. Characters learn and change.
The Mouse & His Child is a great example of the power of fiction. I occasionally hear the adherents of non-fiction say that they don’t like fiction as it is “not real” – that they like books about things that “really happened”. That is all well and good, and I understand their point, but the best fiction is also true – it is just true in a different way. Without having to worry about an established set of historical facts, the fiction writer can approach storytelling like one would approach writing an essay. Well written fiction is about capturing and exploring ideas.
I cried more than a few times in the reading. The book works on a few levels. It is an insightful tale about the power of hope, and persistence, and how family is something that you have to build around you. Well worth the read.
More reviews of the book can be found here: http://wutheringexpectations.blogspot.com/2011/12/if-we-can-just-get-through-this-maybe.html