The Mouse and His Child is a novel by Russell Hoban first published in 1967. It has been described as “a classic of children’s literature and is the book for which Hoban is best known.” It was adapted into an animated film in 1977. A new edition with new illustrations by David Small was released in 2001.
For the Writer:
What a strange little story this quest of a mechanical mouse forever grasping the paws of his son. Wound up, the two dance in a circle as the father hoists the child into the air. Wrapped up as a Christmas gift, they are snatched from their home, the toy store, and stand below a tree every Christmas until an accident with a lamp dumps the two hapless travellers into a dark and savage world. Damaged, conscripted as slaves by a merciless rat, and without hope of returning to their home, father and son endure in stoic resoluteness, always waiting, always pressing forward.
The Mouse and His Child is, in many ways remarkably similar to Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. I would not be surprised if K. DiCamillo somewhere offered a note of gratitude for inspiring the quest of Edward whose journey had not been undertaken voluntarily, but had been thrust upon him. However, the two novels could not be more different. While Dicamillo’s character, as with de la Mare’s three Mullar-Mulgar brothers, undergoes a marked change of character as he survives the stations of his pilgrimage, the mouse father and his child remain steadfastly defiant in the pursuant of discovering the meaning of their existence. I am not throwing any spoilers at prospective readers to say that the answer to the pair’s existential question is behind The Last Visible Dog, a label on a dog food tin which depicts a dog serving a dog food tin with the same label as on the tin, shrinking and shrinking until—yup, the last visible dog. The other component of their finally realized philosophical epiphany has to do with something more basic—material goals of territory, self-determination, and family. Ironically, from a philosophical and a literary perspective, I think the real hero of the story is, in fact, the antagonist, but more on that later.
Russel Hoban offers a compelling story full of pathos and wit, exhibiting writerly dexterity, which begs a closer look.
Night fell, and a new moon, haven risen early, showed its yellow crescent now declining in the west. The oak leaves pattered, and with the shifting night breeze came the faint sound of the town hall clock as it struck eight. A dim, red glow as always, lit the sky above the dump, and the sounds of the evening, ascending one by one, merged in a general hum and calmer. The carousel played its cracked waltz on the rats’ midway; the gambling booths, the gambling dens and dance halls came noisily to life, then disappeared with all their mingled voice into the lonesome wail and rumble of passing freight. Above the tracks the green and red lights on the gantry clicked and changed; the engine’s headlight slid along the shining rails, picked out leaf and branch and door house where the boss of the dump still paced his tower. The sound grew with the train, as car by clanking car its passage shook the pole and set the dollhouse tottering on the platform. Clacking through the switches went the boxcars, rumbling on until the yellow windowed caboose and its red lantern dwindled into darkness; the gantry blinked its changes, and the train was gone. An edge of cricket song and silence stayed behind it for a moment in the small and smaller clacking of the rails; then the cracked waltz of the carousel returned, the dane hall’s thumping whine, the distant cries of pitchmen and of vendor in the alleyways and tunnels. [p.134 ]
Passages, such as the one above, pop up in every chapter ushering in a new locale. His descriptive texts slow the tumbling plot to slow motion, a reflection with an almost meditative quality. The paragraphs are scene setters and act as serene counterpoints to the cruelties which the mouse and his child endure. Hoban takes his time and does not apologize for these scenic/poetic interjections. They afford the reader time to reflect, to take a breath before the next plunge. Long sentences, qualified by modifiers and lengthened with semi-colons tempt readers in their narrative lust to jump ahead for what will befall the hapless protagonists. But this reader found these scenic paintings welcome pauses, in which emotions and thoughts may rise which were otherwise held down by the tumbling pace of the plot.
In addition, though the omniscient narrator commends the protagonists’ patience and rewards their stoic stick-to-it-iveness, in every situation the descriptive scenes hint at a composer behind the chaos, that the absurd meaninglessness of the mouse father and child’s predicament, as if beyond the conclusions of the narrator and his protagonists, who state (spoiler here) and believe there is nothing beyond the ‘last visible dog’ leading the mouse and his child to conclude that all there IS is US, there is some grand director, in the name of goodness and love, who will finally reward them. In support of this claim, a strange character in the guise of a tramp punctuates the beginning and end of the story with a kind of pathos and oversight. Could he be the author himself hinting at his grand design for the mouse father and his child?
The stoical theme of the story could have become ponderous if not for Hoban’s comic interjections of supporting characters and dialogue. There is a bluejay, whose unswerving resolve is to announce any newsworthy event to the world in stark headlines: EXTRA! RAT SLAIN IN BANK HOLD UP ATTEMPT. WOODMICE LEAD MEADOW TEAM IN ACORN BOWLING! There’s a deep thinker named Serpentina, a snapping turtle who writes for theatre of the absurd, whose play The Last Visible Dog is picked up by a tragic-comic theatre troupe. There is a frog, who waxes eloquent on many subjects, makes predications he is pretty sure will never come true, and performs the occasional marriage. And the antagonist Manny the Rat, whose sole occupation of mind is to enslave all windups in general and utterly destroy the mouse and his child specifically, who by the story’s end offers up something truly surprising, transforming antagonist to protagonist in this readers mind.
Descriptive power, original and complex characters—and a flare for dialogue.
In The Mouse and Hid Child, Hoban’s dialogue is—dramatic:
“Never mind them for now,” said Manny Rat. “I should very much like to know who it was I heard complaining a little while ago. Something about a broken
spring, I believe.”
“Him,” said Ralph, pointing to a one-eyed, three-legged donkey. “He got a lot to say.”
“It’s nothing,” said the frightened donkey as he heard Manny Rat approach his blind side. “I’ve got plenty of work left in me. I was just feeling a little low—you know
how it is.”
“You’re not well,” said Manny Rat. “I can see that easily. What you need is a long rest.” He picked up a heavy rock, lifted it high and brought it down on the
donkey’s back, splitting him open like a walnut. “Put his works in the spare parts can,” said Manny. [P.20 Don’t worry. Windups regain consciousness once reassembled!]
—full of comic pathos and satire: [The Caws of Art theatre company, which is comprised of crows, rabbits, starlings, and other fauna, discuss their next play.]
“Are you absolutely sure you want to do The Last Invisible Dog tonight?” said Mrs. Crow
“Sure I’m sure,” said Crow. “It’s the hottest thing we’ve got. It’s new. It’s far out. It’s a play with a message.”
“What’s the message?” said Mrs. Crow.
“I don’t know,” said Crow. “But I know it’s there, and that’s what counts.”
“It seems to me that The Woodchuck’s Revenge is a better bet,” said Euterpe, who was, if not the company’s lyric muse, at any rate their repertory, since it was she
who stored in her memory all the plays presented by them. “You can’t go wrong with a plot like Woodchuck,” she asserted. “The whole family loses its territory when the
fox forecloses the mortgage and throws them out of their den.”
“Territory again,” said the father to the child. “Must I always be reminded of our placelessness!”
“If we could find the dollhouse, that would be our territory,” said the child. “Couldn’t it Papa?” He felt the weight of the coin on the string around his neck.
“Maybe we’ll succeed,” he said. “Maybe we’ll have a lucky day.”
Euterpe meanwhile, was still putting forward the merits of The Woodchuck’s Revenge. “Banker Foxcraft!” she declaimed. “More deadly is his treachery than trapper who
with sharp-toothed steel besets the woodland path. What new pitfall has his perfidy prepared for us! That’s always been surefire,” she said.
“Look Euterpe,” said Crow,“ as Director of the Caws of Art, I intend to further the cause of Art. We’ll do Dog tonight. All right—Act One, Scene One. Let’s go.”
—And inventiveness: [The mouse and his child meet a philosopher/inventor in Muskrat.]
“You have a strange way of speaking,” said the mouse father.
“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 passed 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
a heap the first time you hear it, doesn’t it? Pretty well covers everything! I’m a little surprised you haven’t heard of it before, I must say.”
[P.75 …Muskrat’s philosophy of reducing the most complex of issues into a neat formula is picked up by the mouse father and his child and pops up throughout the remainder
of the story.]
There are also some truly sad bits of dialogue between the mouse father and his child spoken in short, economic language, which make their sad predicament even sadder. Their language is simple, their sentiments honest, if a bit naive, and their predicaments inescapable and plain. Hoban’s juxtaposition of the mouse father and his child against the treachery of a complex and absurd world could thaw the heart of old Scrooge.
Hoban is adept at his craft. The Mouse and his Child is worthy of the writer’s attention right down to handling paragraph transitions and literary devices. Here’s one:
Below him in the house the revelry continued, rat style, in total darkness, its progress marked by shouts giggles, playful bites, squeals, laughter, and boisterous
song, but that which Manny Rat was listening for he did not hear.
He did not hear Frog’s stealthy movements [… omitted to remove spoiler]. Nor did he hear the muffled flapping […] etc., etc.
The active uncle made his next non-appearance on the… [p.139]
Maintaining point of view, and adding a little intrigue and relish, Hoban goes into great detail of all that was not heard, or did not appear. His employment of literary devices, such as that described above, make The Mouse and his Child, not only a piece of literature which entertains, but a textbook on the writer’s craft.