‘There seems to be a good deal more to the world than the Christmas tree and the attic and the dust-bin. Anything at all might happen I suppose.’
One of the books on my slowly depleting list of betterment, I came to the Mouse and His Child with only a little knowledge: A fifty year old classic by one of the greats of children’s (and literary) fiction, Russell Hoban’s story tells of a pair of clockwork mice cast out one Christmas to find their way in an unwelcoming world.
It begins with a comforting map that shows the path taken by the conjoined clockworks. The sights they pass through include a junkyard, swamp and ominously something called ‘shrew war’. What unfolds is a journey so horrifying that one internet commentator accurately compared it to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
The mouse and his child are helped by a psychic frog and pursued by Dickensian style villain called Manny rat, who runs a clockwork toy racket out of a rubbish dump next to the train track.
‘An evil smelling huddle of gambling dens, gaming booths, dancehalls and taverns… the dancehalls thumped and whistled savagely with tin can drums, reed pipes and matchbox banjos while the dim light of candles through the doors and windows sent bobbing shapes dancing blackly on the snow.’
It’s a nightmarish scene, but is just the beginning. The remorseless narrative sees the mouse and his child follow their destiny through a series of increasingly painful trials and humiliations.
Russell Hoban balances moments of quite shocking violence with periods of philosophical and satirical exploration as they encounter various off kilter animals. In this respect it’s a very 60s book – that’s the 1960s and the 1860s, as there is just as much of Alice in Wonderland here as there is the Phantom Tollbooth.
The mice are finally reunited with their friends from the toyshop, an uppity plush elephant, a seal with a missing ball on his nose and the doll’s house itself; once their grand dwelling in the toyshop it has also found its way to the dump, becoming the HQ of Manny and the cream of rat society.
Hoban’s description of the building is like a dark mirror image of Christmas:
‘Secondhand crepe paper bunting, the red white and blue of which had run together in rain and damp, festooned the balconies.’ Inside it is worse, ‘The room in which the lady and gentleman dolls had sat at their tea, where now a garbage buffet set out upon the floor awaited the delectation of the invited rats.’
The sight of the ruined dolls house finally shakes father mouse out of his passive state, ‘Ours!’ he said suddenly. ‘Our territory!’ The book ends with a genuinely exciting denouement as the clockwork avengers assemble and storm the house.
The odyssey comes to a close again at Christmas time, with another visit from the tramp who has previously admired them through the toy shop window. Like Santa’s destitute brother he peers into the toys’ world and sees that they have become like him, survivors. His parting words are ‘be happy’. This is a Christmas book after all.