Friday, December 16, 2011

If we can just get through this, maybe everything will be all right - my Russell Hoban appreciation, featuring windup mice and Samuel Beckett

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.


  1. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    Russell Hoban has been a long time favorite of mine. In fact, I just finished rereading his _The Lion of Boaz-Jachim and Jachim-Boaz_.

    I haven't read any of his works for children, thought I've often thought about _The Mouse..._ Perhaps I should take a look at it, as your review suggests that I may find it interesting.

  2. Yes, I remember this book as being quite good. I will have to check out Small's pictures in the newer edition. He has done some wonderful illustrating also.

  3. Indeed, a nice reading friend gave me a copy a few years ago and I very much enjoyed it.

  4. I looked at the new edition today at lunch. That is, I held a copy in my hands and turned the pages, etc. It seems very fine, though I think it lacks a version the map. That's disappointing, because I have a weakness for maps. But my weakness for Beckett references will probably make up for the lack of a map.

    I know the Frances books from my own childhood, but I've never heard of this or the badger stories. I also have a weakness for stories about badgers.

    ~scott gf bailey

  5. If anyone wants the original map, let me know and I will email the scan to you.

    Fred, I think you will find this particular children's books to be of a piece with Hoban's other books.

    It's a rich and inventive novel.

    David Small's uses a cleaner line in his illustrations. Both artists have nicely expressive creatures.

    (The Frances stories are the badger stories).

    1. I would love a copy of the map. Many thanks.

    2. Do you have the version that has Lillian Hoban's illustrations? Would you be willing to email me a copy of the map and/or some of the illustrations (preferably one of Manny Rat)? I am doing a project on the differences in illustrations between Lillian Hoban and David Small and can't find many of Lillian's pictures. Thanks in advance! Email:

    3. The map should be on its way to you.

  6. I've had The Mouse and His Child on my TBR list for what seems like forever, and just went over to the library across the way to have a closer look. Looks like the perfect thing for one of my goddaughters. I'd been stuck on finding one additional something for her for Christmas, so the French edition is now on its way to her across the Atlantic. I know nothing about the illustrations in it - should there be any - but the story looks like something she'll eat up. Many thanks.

  7. Huh. Maybe I'm remembering a different Frances. I'll have to root around on the designated children's book shelves at home and see what I find. It will be hard waiting for ma femme to unwrap The Mouse... on Christmas (yes, I bought it).


  8. Odd, I had never previously noticed what sort of creature Frances is. Indeed a Badger.

  9. I actually originally wrote that Frances was a hedgehog, but that looked wrong on the page. So I understand the confusion.

    Souris père et fils looks good, too.

  10. I put _The Mouse_ on reserve at the library. I should be getting it in a few days.

    Have you seen the film version?

  11. I have not seen the film, and know nothing about it that I did not just look up on imdb.

  12. I'm reading The Cloud Atlas, by Mitchell, at the moment and found the chapter about the people living on the Hawaiian island to be a little too similar to Hoban's Riddley Walker. Has anyone else thought this too? Riddley Walker is one of my favorite books and I guess I'm a bit protective, for whatever that's worth.
    Just wondering.
    Thank you for this post about Hoban.

  13. Riddley Walker is a wonderful book. Fred (way up at the top of this thread, and also here has written a number of fine Hoban posts, including a good one on Riddley Walker.

    The Mitchell connection is interesting - and likely. He seems like the kind of writer who has read everything and remembers everything he has read.