Friday, August 1, 2014

Reading With My Kids: Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck

Source of book: Audio book from the Library

We recently took our annual summer trip to see my in-laws, and that meant a lot of hours on the road. As usual, we got some audiobooks to fill the time. Also as usual, my kids did the picking, so that meant yet another mouse story.

(You can read about The Tale of Despereaux here.)

I had never heard of the book, or of its author, Richard Peck, but I understand he has written quite a few kids books. Secrets at Sea was published in 2011, and was a critical hit. Peck started his career as an english teacher at both the high school and junior high levels. He wrote his first book in 1971, and has written one book per year since. A Year Down Yonder won the Newbery in 2001.

As far as I can tell, most of his books are about people, rather than mice; and are set in more contemporary times.

My first thought about a third of the way through the book was that Secrets at Sea was the sort of book that would have been written by Henry James, were he a mouse. The setting and many of the events are so very Jamesian, and seem almost to have been inspired by a diet of James novels.

Without ruining the plot, here is the setup. During the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, an orphaned family of American mice (from a long, distinguished family) discover that their humans are taking a trip to England in an attempt to marry off the eldest daughter, who seems to be incompetent at love. The mice tag along, overcoming their fear of water because of the greater fear of starvation without the necessary crumbs. On board, they must work behind the scenes to further the romantic and social interests of their humans, with the aid of a whole host of other mice aboard the ship.

So, you have the clash of cultures across the Atlantic, the marital scheming, the “ugly American” tendencies of the mother, and a pompous “mouse in waiting” to the queen, who shares a bit of the royal ego herself. There is, admittedly, a bit more action than in the average James novel, and the ending is a happy one - it is a kids’ book after all.

There are some good lines too. Mice, according to the narrator (Helena, the eldest as she reminds everyone regularly), dream about only two things: cheese, and time running out. Because time is always running out for mice.

In another fun touch, the mice refer to their own presence as an “infestation.” The way they use the term, it is a positive, sort of like a big party. A “major infestation” of the ship includes fine dining and dances, and so on.

I also liked the way Peck lovingly dwells on the food. Perhaps he is my kind of philosopher. We dream of good eats - and time running out.

Also, like some of Peck’s other novels, there is an underlying theme of teenaged (or perhaps young adult) disaffectedness and jealousy. The youngest sister seems to be able to attract boys at will. As the two older sisters bemoan, the guys always go for her sort, and ignore the more steady and responsible older sisters. Particularly poor Helena, who has had to raise the others. She must always be the one who makes sure things get done and that the others stay out of trouble. It also makes her quite the opposite from the belle of the ball. Her efforts to find her way in an unfamiliar world, relying on her own strengths, rather than imitating her sisters make up a significant portion of the book. One cannot but root for her to succeed.

This isn’t a particularly long book, but it has its charms, and could be an introduction to the themes of Victorian and Edwardian literature as well.

Although I obviously didn’t get to see the illustrations at the time, they are rather nice as well.
Kelly Murphy has illustrated for a number of notable authors.


  1. If you enjoyed this, you really should give Peck's "people" stories a try. He's one of my favorite authors! His books are full of rural Midwestern humor. A Year Down Yomder and A Long Way from Chicago are wonderful. I've also enjoyed Here Lies the Librarian and The Teacher's Funeral.

    And there is another mouse tale!

    1. Thanks for the suggestions. They sound intriguing.

    2. We just listened to Here Lies the Librarian, after hearing The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail in January. The reviews should be up as of tonight. Thanks for recommending these!