Russell Hoban passed away earlier this week. He wrote some picture books about a badger, and the funny and dazzling Riddley Walker (1980), a post-apocalyptic novel written in an imaginary English dialect. I want to say something about a different book, one of my favorite books. This one:
The Mouse and His Child (1968) is a story about windup toys, rats, tramping, frogs, and infinity. The title characters are a single windup toy (see map, lower right) who have a series of adventures on their way to enlightenment, by which they mean self-winding. For example, they join a traveling theater company that is performing Samuel Beckett’s The Last Visible Dog:
“The bottom of a pond,” squawked Euterpe: “mud, ooze, rubbish, and water plants. Two tin cans, standing upright, half buried in the mud at center stage. At stage left, a rock. A head rises from one of the tin cans. It is the head of Furza. The head of Wurza rises from the other tin can. Gretch enters stage right and crosses to the rock.”
“Some play,” said the rabbit, who was Gretch. “I don’t get any lines until the third act. All I do is stand on that rock.” (Ch. IV)
The Mouse and His Child is the only children’s book I know that features a Beckett parody. The novel is in fact philosophical and allusive, although subtly so. It is full of little gifts for children that they will perhaps not unwrap until decades later.
In Chapter VI, the mice find themselves underwater (see map, upper right corner), in the company of a dog food can, a snapping turtle, and a larva of some sort, Miss Mudd. The turtle is a practitioner of Zen (“That’s it,” said Serpentina. “Nothing is the ultimate truth.”), although he seems to have been corrupted by self-interest, or years in the muck, while Miss Mudd is a sort of practical Romantic who eventually moves to a higher stage of existence.
A great treat of this book about anthropomorphized animal characters is how much they behave like the animals they are. I am still in the pond in Chapter VI, where Miss Mudd has eaten the last scrap of paper on the shiny tin:
“Ah,” [the child] said, “there’s nothing on the other side of nothing but us.” Miss Mudd looked at herself in the tin, then covered her face and turned away.
The mouse child felt himself fanned by a current of water as a large-mouth bass swam past him and glowered at the tin can. “Move along, buddy,” the fish said to his own reflection. “I’m nesting here.”
“You’re talking to yourself,” said Miss Mudd, stepping aside as the bass struck at her.
Animals kill and are killed in the novel, so adults with weak nerves should be careful. Children will be fine:
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.”
A 2001 edition replaced Lillian Hoban’s illustrations, the ones I feature here, which should be a desecration, but in fact David Small’s new pictures are wonderful. I failed to mention that The Mouse and His Child begins and ends at Christmas. The newer edition, or a ragged old one, like mine, would be a nice gift for a readin’ kind of kid or grown-up.