Author: Russell Hoban
Artist: David Small
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: November 2017
It’s strange which books enter into a canon, and which drift away. I don’t know how I heard about The Mouse and His Child—probably just while perusing Goodreads—but it struck me as one that flew under the general radar of kids’ literature. The library didn’t have a copy so I asked them to order one, and they graciously did so when the timing coincided with this 50th anniversary edition being released. The book is lovely to hold and attractive to read, aided in no small way by the crucial illustrations by David Small (which are neither original to the 1967 book nor to the 2017 version, but rather drawn in 2001).
A starting comparison might be The Wind in the Willows, published 60 years previously and, to me, somewhat of an over-celebrated title. In both books, the bulk of the story is propelled by talking animals who live in somewhat natural environments but who also take on the habits of humans and interact with human artifacts. The primary quirk of Hoban’s book, however, is that the characters of the title are not animals at all. They are toys made of tin, and aside from these two mice, a tin seal and tin elephant also feature in the story, having originally come from the same doll house in a toy store.
The journey of the mouse and his child is grim and strange. The main action kicks off in a dump, where the two make accidental enemies of Manny Rat. They are swept along a dangerous path that they can barely operate within—they cannot wind their own clockwork gears, so can move forward only if someone else is there to assist them. On top of that, the father and son are built facing each other and holding hands. One of them must always walk backward, and they can never face the same direction at the same time. They have fundamentally different views of the world, emphasized by the contrast between the young mouse’s ongoing optimism about finding a home and a purpose (“Maybe we’ll be self-winding someday”) and the father’s weary outlook that borders on a defeatist attitude. The burden a parent bears for the life of a child is tangible throughout. As the father resignedly states about the responsibility, “Our motor is in me.”
It’s not as if the father is without his reasons to worry. Hoban’s scenes of nature are both comedic and harsh, with death often just a moment away. It’s actually lucky for the mice that they are not made of flesh. These types of things are always happening right next to them:
Two passing tadpoles swam between him and the BONZO can, where they encountered a water snake. “This way, please,” said the snake, and swallowed them.
“It looks bad,” said one of the tadpoles as they disappeared down the snake’s throat.
“You never know,” said the other. “If we can just get through this, maybe everything will be all right.”
The mouse and his child confront the constant tension between imprisonment and escape, joy and despair, acceptance and creation of fate. The book is not perfect, featuring a climactic battle that feels somewhat out of character for the protagonists and too close to the goofy conclusion of The Wind in the Willows (maybe it was meant as homage?). But overall this book coheres much better than its predecessor, with an intriguing philosophical thread throughout, as embodied by a recurring dog food can that will stick the phrase “the last visible dog” in the mind of the reader. If only this book could enter the canon of modern classics, one of the many book t-shirt companies would add this title. On soft cotton we could wear that challenging and mysterious phrase alongside Small’s sketch of the handholding child and father.