Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban

2012, first published 1969

The story opens with a tramp isolated during the Christmas season. The shop-keeper who winds up the mouse and child clockwork toy is embarrassed by him. People laugh at the tramp as he mimics the actions of the clockwork toy. The toys come to life after the store is closed. They all have as set purpose in life and the fate of the mouse and his child is to dance for the children. They are soon sold and go to a location where wind-up toys are brought out every Christmas but the children are not allowed to play with them in case they get broken (loc 145). Then there is disaster. One year a doll’s house is bought and it makes the child mouse cry as he remembers the one in the store. The cat is alarmed by this, jumps up on a nearby surface and knocks a vase to the floor, smashing both the vase and the wind-up toy (loc164).
Life now becomes an adventure. The toys are thrown out and found by the tramp we meet at the beginning. He advises them to become tramps. Shortly after he has left them they encounter a sinister rat, Manny, who teases them (loc 218). Manny kills a worn-out donkey (loc 296). The mouse and his child find themselves living amongst piles of rubbish. The elephant from the toy store, she who had thought she would be there forever and whom the child mouse wanted as a mother, has also been sold and broken and is now also in the dump (loc 416). They have nothing to fear from the shrews, as they don’t eat tin (loc 547) but their friend the bull-frog must be careful. Manny Rat remains a threat as well and says he will rip the frog’s throat out (loc 575). The shrews behave in a military way (loc 598). The mouse and his child and the frog have become “rations” for the shrews (loc 610). The father mouse is a little bent and unwittingly leads the shrew into enemy territory (loc 742). The little drummer boy is killed but the frog rescues the drum and gives it to the mouse child. He now becomes the drummer boy (loc 668). They also encounter ferrets and weasels (loc 688). 
They meet more potential friends in a theatre troupe of starlings and crows, the Caws of Art Classical Repertory Group. Note the pun. Is this rather sophisticated for the target reader? These help to establish that the mouse and his child are running away from one creature and are in search of others. The birds supply the voice of reason (loc 779). There is an astute form of commerce going on. The seal has been with the troupe. Manny Rat was the agent. He has an interest in wind-up toys. “He fixes them up and sells them. And he’s not the rat to destroy his own profits. We paid three bags of jelly beans for the seal” (loc 791). The repertory group has some sophisticated plays: “’The whole family loses its territory when the fox forecloses the mortgage and throws them out of their den’” (loc 809). The company comes under attack from weasels. The mouse and his child end up on stage and then Manny Rat appears. The confrontation between him and the mouse and his child is interpreted as part of the action by the audience (loc 941). After the debacle in the theatre they are befriended by a parrot who helps them to escape Manny Rat (loc 964).
The mouse gives up on the dream. The child does not: “’How can we ever hope to have our own territory?’ ’But look how far we’ve come!’ said the child“(loc976). Then they meet Muskrat, a musk rat and a clever-with-words philosopher: “’You’ve heard of Muskrat’s Much-in-Little, of course? …. Why times How equals What.’”(loc 1041). He is a contrast to the hard-working beavers who talk only of the dams they have built and the materials they have used. They also mock Muskrat. Later they meet the turtle, Serpentina, another philosopher and playwright. Will the intended reader understand the child’s statement after he has spoken to Serpentina? “’The child is father of the mouse,’”) loc 1437). Mudd also poses some philosophical questions: “’I don’t think that’s how I really am. I just can’t believe that I’m this muddy thing you see crawling about in the muck,” (loc 1465). The child remains the father of the mouse. “’If I’m big enough to stand in the mud all this time and contemplate infinity …. I’m big enough to look at the other side of nothing” (loc 1515). Later the mouse redefines himself and his companions. ”We aren’t toys any more ….. Toys are to be played with and we aren’t. ….  Now we have come to that place where the scattering is regathered” (loc 1789). Manny Rat reflects ”had not their roles been totally reversed? Had not the hunted become the hunters, the loser the winners? Had they not risen to the high place he fell from? (loc 2210-15).   
The mouse and his child do meet the elephant again but she is in tatters and accompanied by Manny Rat.  
There is decay. AS the mouse and his child stay and help Muskrat for a prolonged length of time: “most of their fur was gone by now, and what was left was part mildew, and sprouting moss. Their whiskers were blackened and bedraggled; their rubber tails had lost their snap; their glass-bead eyes were weather-worn and dim, and the last shreds  of the blue velveteen trousers flapped forlornly about their legs” (loc 1273) The decay continues.
We frequently see the cruel aspects of nature. The hawk tries to eat the mouse and his child (loc 1648). The kingfisher clubs the bass to death (loc 1696). Their friend the frog is seized by an eagle (loc 708).
Reconciliation is tinged with the bitterness. The mouse and his child find the elephant, the seal and the house again but the house is occupied by Manny Rat (loc 1784). Like Toad of Toad Hall, and the heroes of Lord of the Rings out protagonists here find the enemy at home. 
There is risk-taking. The moue and child and their friends fight a battle with the rats at the end and manoeuvre the house from a platform on the roof of a passing train- thereby expelling the rats form the dump (loc 1999). Manny Rat survives and remains. However, he is picked up and dropped and thereby loses his teeth. He is finished. He rises again as he seeks to destroy the house the friends have allowed him to rewire (loc 2280).
There is an upbeat ending. The house, The Last Visible Dog, becomes a seat of learning as well as an inn for migratory birds. Manny Rat becomes a very respected teacher.
Is the sophisticated language and literary style at times too complex for the child reader? “Though perhaps a little taller, she has never really been above him” says the elephant (loc 2056).

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