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It was the clock that spoke next, startling them with his flat brass voice. "I might remind you of the rules of clockwork," he said. "No talking before midnight and after dawn, and no crying on the job."
"He's not on the job," said the seal. "We're on our own time now."
"Toys that cry on their own time sometimes cry on the job," said the clock, "and no good ever comes of it. A word to the wise."
--The Mouse and His Child, (p. 7)
Dell Yearling Cover
The Mouse and His Child (1967)
by Russell Hoban
Illustrated by Lillian Hoban
EDITIONS I KNOW OF:
- (US) Harper & Row, 1967
- (US) Softcover - A Dell Yearling Book, 182 pp. 1990.
- (UK) Softcover - Puffin (Penguin). 1993.
- (US) Hardcover - Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic Press. 2001.
The Mouse and His Child is generally considered a classic of children's literature, and is possibly the book for which Mr. Hoban is best known. It's the story of two clockwork mice, a father and son. When the key in the father's back is wound, he dances in a circle, swinging his son up and down. They begin their existence in the warmth of a toy shop at Christmastime, surrounded by fellow windup toys; all the mouse child wants is for the lady elephant (who rather puts on airs) to be his mother, the seal who balances a ball on her nose to be his sister, and for them all to live in the elegant doll house on the counter. Alas, there is a long and difficult journey between the mice and any such hope of happiness. Soon they are sold to a family, and for several years are only brought out at Christmas. On one such 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, and soon they're in the garbage can, smashed out of shape.
But their story is only just beginning. A passing tramp finds them in the garbage can, repairs them, and sets them on their way with the command, "Be tramps." Soon they've fallen into the murderous clutches of Manny Rat, a sleazy, tyrannical crook who uses wind-up toys for slave labor and doesn't hesitate to smash the ones who get out of line. The mice escape him with the intervention of a snake-oil-peddling, fortune-telling frog (conveniently named "Frog"), who startles Manny Rat (and himself) 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 dust-up involving 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 through the air and down to the bottom of the pond, as they search for the elephant, the seal, and the doll house, assembling a ragtag family 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; 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 theater company called The Caws of Art. (It consists of 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 realize 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 ever dreamed.
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.
- The Mouse and His Child, Mr. Hoban's first full-length book, was followed only a few years later by his first novel for adults, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin Boaz--and seems to foreshadow that book's thematic preoccupation with fathers and sons. The book is dedicated to "three fathers," including Mr. Hoban's own father.
- In a 1982 interview with Christine Wilkie, Mr. Hoban said:
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, Conneticut, 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.
- The book's epigraph is 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.
"A rare treat."
"A rich, disturbing, very touching book."
"The sophisticated humor, symoblism, and fantasy will appeal to Thurber, Tolkien, and E. B. White Readers."
MEMORABLE LINES AND PASSAGES:
"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." (p. 77)
"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." (P. 106)
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