DD7 – The Mouse and His Child

If you were a parent in the 1960s, as I was, books about Frances would almost certainly have come to your attention (in my case the fact my middle name is Francis helped).   Written by Russell Hoban, and all but the first illustrated by Lillian Hoban, his partner at the time, the series of picture books charted moments in the life of a somewhat naughty young badger.  I began by reading the illustrated paperback Bedtime for Frances to my children, and from there we graduated to A Baby Sister for Frances, Bread and Jam for Frances, A Birthday for Frances, Best Friends for Frances, and ended with A Bargain for Frances.  They were a delight; Frances is a cheeky precursor to Paddington Bear.  Here she is, considering a lightly cooked egg, in Bread and Jam for Frances:

Frances did not eat her egg.
She sang a little song to it.
She sang the song very softly:
“I do not like the way you slide,
I do not like your soft inside,
I do not like you lots of ways,
And I could do for many days
Without eggs.”

In the first book in the series, we discover preparing for bedtime for Frances involved addressing her series of requirements:  she needed a glass of milk, a kiss from Father, one from Mother, her teddy bear, her doll, another kiss from Father, and another one from Mother, and all this while she worried about tigers and giants and ominous cracks in the ceiling, all designed to keep her up.  Reading it to young children was a double challenge:  will Frances ever go to sleep, and will your children learn the same delaying tactics?  To be honest, they didn’t need Frances to help them in that!  It was no surprise to discover the picture books were based partly on Russell Hoban’s experiences with his four children, Phoebe, Brom, Esmé and Julia, and their friends.

Keen to find more stories written by Russell Hoban, I found one, somewhat more substantial, which I thought it might make for a few evenings’ reading:  it was The Mouse and His Child.  Sounded ideal for pre-schoolers.  Published in 1967, I decided to read a chapter each night as the bedtime treat.  I quickly discovered that this was not to be.  This story was complex, written for older children, and, anyway, the real point was that I couldn’t wait to read on!  Actually, it was worse than that.  The first two evenings were fine.  I think it might have been the third night when I was interrupted by my oldest daughter.  “Dad, you’re not reading!”  I was, but not out loud; I was immersed in the adventure!

Before I tell you about the Mouse and His Child, I should tell you I consider it an outstanding children’s book.  I don’t know if it is on some 100 Best Children’s Books list, but it should be.  And, yes, you know I am going to add that if you haven’t read it, you should.  It’s a classic, but, more than that, it’s possible it will surprise you, and certainly back in the 1970s, it confounded many expectations as to what a children’s book might cover.

The mouse and his child is a clockwork toy.  When the key in the larger mouse’s back is wound, he swings the child mouse up and down, and dances in a circle. The book concerns the adventures of these two inextricably linked clockwork mice, father and son. When the story begins, they’re in a toy shop close to Christmas time, sitting on a shelf with other toys.  The mouse child in the duo has a few simples wishes:  he wants the lady elephant to be his mother, the seal who balances a ball on her nose to be his sister, and he wants them all to live in the elegant dolls house on the counter. Despite the mouse child’s dreams, the toy is sold to a family, and for several years it is only brought out at Christmas. One night, the mouse child is overcome with longing for the elephant and the doll house, and, breaking the all-important ‘rules of clockwork,’ he begins to cry. The family cat is so startled she knocks a vase onto the toy mice duo, and soon they’re in the garbage can, smashed out of shape.

As luck would have it, a passing tramp finds them in the rubbish bin, repairs them as best he can, and sets them on their way, commanding them to “Be tramps.” However, they no longer dance, and all the father can do is push his child forward.  They fall into the murderous clutches of Manny Rat, a sleazy, tyrannical crook who uses wind-up toys for slave labour and doesn’t hesitate to smash the ones who get out of line. The mice escape from him through the intervention of a snake-oil-peddling, fortune-telling frog (conveniently named ‘Frog’), who startles Manny Rat (and himself, and the reader!) by uttering a terrible prophecy regarding the linked fates of the mice and the rat: “A dog shall rise; a rat shall fall.”   After a brief fight with some militant shrews, the mice are off, with Manny Rat, vowing vengeance on them for making him look like a fool, in hot pursuit.

Their travels will take them up through the air and down to the bottom of a pond as they search for the elephant, the seal, and the doll house, assembling a ragtag family as they go to help them fight for their lives and their chance at happiness. Along the way they encounter the professorial Muskrat, who promises to help them become self-winding; they trade philosophy with C. Serpentina, the snapping turtle thinker, scholar, and playwright who lives at the bottom of the pond; and, in a twist straight out of Nicholas Nickleby, fall in with a traveling theatre company, The Caws of Art, (comprising two crows, a parrot and a rabbit).

The Caws of Art are performing an experimental play called The Last Visible Dog, written by C. Serpentina, inspired by the image on the label of Bonzo Dog Food cans. The dog on the label is holding a can of dog food, on the label of which there is a smaller dog, holding a smaller can on which there is an even smaller dog, and on and on as far as the eye can see. The recurring concept of ‘The Last Visible Dog’ becomes an eloquent metaphor for patience, persistence and determination, as the mouse and his child find that in order to realise their dreams of domestic contentment, they must remain focused on a goal that seems further away than the eye can see, and travel farther than they had ever dreamed.

When you have the whole of an artist’s works available, it is tempting to ask questions about themes and evolving areas of interest.  Was the style of the author who wrote The Mouse and His Child already evident in those Frances books?  Do they offer some hints as to what would come in the future?  It is rather like listening to a composer’s works.  Could we have foreseen  that Beethoven, after his first two symphonies and piano concertos, would go on to create such astonishing works as the Third Symphony (The Eroica) and his fifth piano concerto (The Emperor).  In Beethoven’s case, there were hints.  Listen to the final bars of the second movement of the Second Piano Concerto, especially before the orchestra draws the movement to a close, and you sense there is a hopeful, stirring sense of something much more waiting to break out.  In the same way, does the grumpy refusal of Frances to eat her eggs presage the more violent behaviour and interpersonal battles that litter The Mouse and His Child?  Was the nature of his later books evidence of Hoban’s greater experience, or did they allow the ‘real’ writer to emerge?

Russell Hoban was to go on to write Riddley Walker, a truly extraordinary science fiction novel set roughly two thousand years after a nuclear war has devastated the world.  It is narrated by  Riddley, who is living in the devastated conditions to be found within a small area which had been the England’s Kent.  He has little contact with the world outside of ‘Inland’ (England).  Their level of civilization is similar to what we presume the prehistoric Iron Age had been like, salvaging iron from ancient machinery.  Church and state have combined into one secretive institution, whose mythology, based on misinterpreted accounts of stories of the war and the role of an old Catholic saint (Eustace), is enacted in puppet shows.  Riddley Walker is a tough read, not one I would have attempted for my children:  this is not so much because of the content as it is a reflection on the language, which is a crude version of ‘Chaucerian English’.  As more than one critic has observed, “The struggle with Riddley’s language is what makes reading the book so absorbing, so completely possessing.”

At least The Mouse and His Child is accessible, a contemporary saga.  Like all successful epics, what makes the story work is the sense of hope that takes you through the adventures, the failures, and the terrors the duo experience.  You hang in there, because you want to believe that they will reach some kind of happy place, some form of resolution to their journey.  Dave Awl, on his website devoted to Russell Hoban, The Head of Orpheus, put it well.  “For all its elegant simplicity, The Mouse and His Child is a surprisingly moving and thought-provoking story, encompassing powerful themes of redemption and transformation. Frequently disturbing due to its unflinching depiction of life’s cruelty (I don’t think I’ve ever read a children’s book in which so many characters die suddenly), it is nevertheless an ultimately uplifting triumph of the — er, windup animal spirit.”

Elegant simplicity?  I wonder.  I’ll let you judge:  here is a quote from page 77 of the book:

“I’m always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,” said Muskrat, “That is why I speak as I do. You’ve heard of Muskrat’s Much-in-Little, of course?”

“No,” said the child.  “What is it?”
Muskrat stopped, cleared his throat, ruffled his fur, drew himself up, and said in ringing tones, “Why times How equals What.” He paused to let the words take effect. “That’s Muskrat’s Much-in-Little,” he said. He ruffled his fur again and slapped the ice with his tail. “Why times How equals What,” he repeated. “Strikes you all of a heap the first time you hear it, doesn’t it? Pretty well covers everything! I’m a little surprised that you haven’t heard of it before, I must say. It caused a good deal of comment both over and under the pond, and almost everyone agreed that the ripples from it were ever-widening.”
“Your work is, of course, known everywhere,” said the mouse father, “and although we were not acquainted with Muskrat’s Much-in-Little we have heard a great deal about you.”
“Ah!” said Muskrat. He smiled a little and groomed his fur complacently. “Yes,” he said. “I have some small reputation perhaps. I am not entirely unknown. Not that I care about such things.”

In a 1982 interview, Russell Hoban explained:  “The Mouse and His Child was a book in which I had an idea from a toy. When I wrote the book these were almost impossible to obtain, but the same company made a number of other toys of similar type and I used a clown-juggler for a stand in. At that time, I lived in Wilton, Connecticut, by a pond in which there were snapping turtles and dragonflies and frogs and all kinds of things. And I had a little pond aquarium in my study in which I had for a time small catfish and a snapping turtle and various kinds of larvae. And I had the clown-juggler standing in the bottom getting rusty with his clothes coming off and so forth. And I actually saw the dragonfly nymph metamorphose out of that aquarium and fly out of my window. A remarkable thing to see.”

I know I shouldn’t keep doing this, but it leads, inevitably, to another quote, from page 106:

“We’re toy mice,” said the child. “Is it Miss or Mr. Mudd? Please excuse my asking, but I can’t tell by looking at you.”
“Miss,” said the little creature. She was something like a misshapen grasshopper, and was as drab and muddy as her name. “I’ll be your friend if you’ll be mine,” she said. “Will you, do you think? I’m so unsure of everything.”
“We’ll be your friends,” said the child. “We’re unsure too, especially about the little dogs.”
“I know,” said Miss Mudd. “It’s all so difficult. And of course everyone bigger than I tries to eat me, and I’m always busy eating everyone smaller. So there isn’t much time to think things out.” As she spoke, she flung what looked like an arm out from her face, caught a water flea, and ate it up. “It’s so distasteful,” she said. “I know it’s distasteful. I’ve got this nasty sort of a huge lip with a joint in it like an elbow, and I catch my food with it. And the odd thing, you see, is that I don’t think that’s how I really am. I just can’t believe that I’m this muddy thing crawling about in the muck. I don’t feel as if I am. I simply can’t tell you how I feel inside! Clean and bright and beautiful–like a song in the sunlight, like a sigh in the summer air.”

Russell Hoban wrote a little about being an author.  In an essay headed 1975, he said: “Amazing, how the past doesn’t go away. Facing myself in the morning mirror I see the sun through the leaves over roads I’ll never drive again, smell the wood-smoke of old autumns, hear the rasp of crows on the winds of departed springs, the whisper of rain and the hiss of tyres on streets long gone. And songs! A chaos, a confusion, an utter tohu bohu of songs from which words and tunes rise up inexplicably:  ‘I took a trip on a train and I thought about you.’”  This was written after he had met his second wife, Gundula Ahi,  “Places. How is it that some places were alive in me before I ever saw them? The Judaean desert unrolling mile after mile the dry scrolls of its time and the boat-shaped rock of Masada clamorous with silent voices; the Caspar David Friedrich sunset over the River Aller in the Lower Saxony town of Celle and the flatlands receding in the dusk to Bergen-Belsen and beyond.  Yes, I thought, walking by that river with my Celle-born wife, I recognise this very European and not at all American river.  My dead parents (the dead, being of the past, never go away) also know this river, not specifically as the Aller but as any dark and sunset river in the Ukraine where they were born.  A river shining under the darkening sky and in the dimness the level miles going away to other times – yes, that river is in me and of me, and when in 1975 I married this woman who grew up by the Aller there took place in us a great mingling and amalgamation of geographies, all the times and places lived and inherited by the two of us combining orchestrally their themes and motifs and the coloration of their many voices.”

I haven’t had the same passionate delight in everything that Russell Hoban wrote as I did with The Mouse and His Child.  If I wonder why, I think that is partly a function of the form:  it is a fantasy, a journey, fuelled by the reader’s hope it will all work out in the end!  It wasn’t chance that he chose this as the book’s epigraph, (by W.H. Auden):

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

The Mouse and His Child requires leaping, into a world that pushes reality and fantasy close together, and in so doing offers an extraordinary set of experiences set in an almost but not quite familiar setting for the reader to enjoy.  I found it truly ‘unputdownable’.