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An image of the bookcover for The Mouse and His Child
 


The Mouse and His Child (1967)

Russell Hoban’s writing

Hoban is one of those rare authors who writes equally well for toddlers, children, young adults, and adults. His first wife illustrated his picturebooks for 25 years until the couple's divorce.

Unlike many other children’s works, Hoban’s stories did not develop from tales told to his children. He only read his work to them after it was published.1

Hoban’s series of picturebooks about the young badger, Frances, depict ordinary family life with gentle humor, wit, and shrewd observation of a young child’s behavior. These books have always remained incredibly popular with young readers.

From The Mouse and his Child on, the theme of identity has become more apparent and more complex in Hoban's work. His books have become increasingly longer and more penetrating. Hoban's style has also changed over time, reflecting his interest in experimental and postmodern forms of literature.

An introduction to the story

The Mouse and His Child is the story of father-and-son toy mice who are initially joined together. The pair survive numerous adventures in their search for a home and their desire to become self-winding.

This first novel marked a turning point in Hoban’s career. He worked on The Mouse and His Child for three years, completely rewriting it four times. “At the age of 41,” he said, “it was the fullest response I could make to being alive in the world."2 When the novel first appeared, the Times Literary Supplement observed, "Excellent as [the Frances books] are, they give no hint that the author had in him such a blockbuster of a book as The Mouse and His Child.”3

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Clockwork

As a story about the clockwork toy’s adventures on a journey, The Mouse and His Child is fun and engaging for children. But it is also a philosophical book about the ultimate meaning life.

Hoban has claimed that “the nature of clockwork toys is such that they’re very provocative of thought,” and are “a very powerful metaphor.”4 The mouse child says to his father, “Maybe we shan’t always be helpless, Papa.  . . Maybe we’ll be self-winding someday.”5 This, in fact, is the story of childhood; children want to grow up and be independent. It is also the story of human condition. People search for ways to lead more authentic, less mechanical lives.6

The journey

The pair of clockwork figures were designed to hold hands and dance in a continuous circle. When the mouse and his son move from toyshop to house, they tire of their role: “Soon the mouse and his child complained of the futility of dancing in an endless circle that led nowhere.”7 After the toy breaks and is repaired, the father walks forward as the son moves haltingly backwards.

When the mice start out on their journey, Frog foretells their future:

“So it begins,” said Frog. “For good or ill, you have come out into the world, and the world has taken notice.”
“A long, hard road,” said the father to Frog. “That was what you saw ahead for us, was it not?”
“All roads, whether long or short, are hard,” said Frog. “Come, you have begun your journey, and all else necessarily follows from that act.”8

The fall

When the pair are captured by a hawk and fall from its talons, they become detached. The first time the mouse child stands alone, he feels “a little giddy without his father’s hands supporting him.”9

The mouse child’s journey is the paradigmatic journey of childhood. The mouse child begins with the initial support of his father, takes halting, backward steps as the journey becomes more difficult, and proceeds with unsure steps on his own.

The literal fall, as Susan Ang points out, has mythical overtones as “a powerful and poignant revisiting – indeed rewriting – of the myth of the Fall, where the fall into experience and knowledge, seen to entail pain and damage, and which knows no return to innocence, may yet find itself able to bring forth, out of the ashes, something of grace and courage.”10

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Echoes from Samuel Beckett plays

The novel has numerous echoes from Samuel Beckett’s work. The play that the Caws of Art perform is a bleak existential one, a parodic depiction of Beckett’s Endgame and Waiting for Godot. But the mouse child creates his own meaning within such a world.

When Serpentina, the author of the play, claims, “Nothing is the ultimate truth,” the mouse child refuses to believe it. He wonders what is on the other side of nothing, and seeing a reflection of himself and his father on a dog-food can, concludes “Ah, there’s nothing on the other side of nothing but us.”11

Hoban blurs the boundaries between reality and art, suggesting that life – like art –  is a construct, and individuals are active agents in the creation of their own reality. The mouse and his child re-enact and reconstruct the events of the existential play in their own lives as they rescue themselves from the muddy pond.

Not surprisingly father and son achieve their goal of becoming self-winding. When asked to teach a success course, they refuse: “The whole secret of the thing, they insisted, was simply and at all costs to move steadily ahead, and that, they said, could not be taught.”12

Notes

1. Rhonda M. Bunbury, “‘Always a Dance Going on in the Stone’: An Interview with Russell Hoban,” Children’s Literature in Education 17, no. 3 (1986): 140.

2. Quoted in Dictionary of Literary Biography 52 (1986) from Literary Resource Center database.

3. Times Literary Supplement. April 3, 1969, 357.

4. Bunbury, “‘Always a Dance Going on in the Stone,’” 144.

5. Russell Hoban, The Mouse and His Child (1967; New York: Scholastic Press, 2001), 96.

6. See Alida Allison, “Living the Non-Mechanical Life: Russell Hoban’s Metaphorical Wind-Up Toys,” Children’s Literature in Education 22, No. 3 (1991): 189-94; and Valerie Krips, “Mistaken Identity: Russell Hoban’s Mouse and His Child,” Children’s Literature 21 (1993): 92-100.

7. Hoban, The Mouse and His Child, 13.

8. Hoban, The Mouse and His Child, 48-49.

9. Hoban, The Mouse and His Child, 173.

10. Susan Ang, The Widening World of Children’s Literature (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 139.

11. Hoban, The Mouse and His Child, 147, 149.

12. Hoban, The Mouse and His Child, 238.