Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Mouse With The Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from the library.

Last year, we listened to another book by Peck, Secrets at Sea. Like that book, this one is a book about mice, set in the year of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The former book was published in 2011, while this one followed immediately in 2013. Apparently Mr. Peck, now age 80, is enjoying writing whimsical rodent fiction after a long career writing more serious and contemporary books.

As I have mentioned previously, my second daughter is all about the mice, so these books have been chosen as a result of her love for rodents.

In my opinion, the previous book was almost as if Henry James had been a mouse and had written the counterpart to his human novels. This book, while it has obvious connections to the other, does not share any characters, and has a wholly British character (although Peck is quite American). Whereas the other book dwells extensively on the cultural differences between the Americans and the British, this book focuses more on the English class system.

The titular mouse has grown up in the mews (stables) at Buckingham palace, adopted by a seamstress. His origins are unknown, but will play a crucial role in the story. A victim of bullying due to his size, he flees his school, and finds himself on a dizzying journey from adventure to adventure within a short period of time. He spooks a horse carrying a young lady of the royal (human) family, finds himself enrolled in the palace guard (mouse edition), is transported by bats, lands in a bowl of punch, and has an interview with Queen Victoria herself. His birth and destiny carry him to a memorable denouement where his tale - and tail - come full circle. 

 One of Kelly Murphy's delightful illustrations.

I haven’t read enough Peck (indeed, none beyond these two books) to have any idea what the rest of his books are like. From these two, however, I can say that Peck can serve as a gateway drug, as it were, into the world of Victorian England and the literature about said era. I mentioned James, but I would also say that this book might be an introduction to any number of “adult” books about the aristocratic society of Europe past. Peck writes more in the vein of, say, Baroness Orczy, than of Dickens, with his love of the aristocracy. Commoners may be mentioned (in this case, in the oblique statement that field mice don’t get names), but their plight is hardly noted. I don’t find this to be a particular problem, for the simple reason that these books are meant to be a fun escape, not social commentary. Aristocratic foibles are gently mocked while the system is just assumed to exist. By transforming human society to a rodent society, some of the silliness becomes more apparent, but that isn’t Peck’s point.

In this book, the theme might be that of the classic underdog finding his way in the world. Or it might be the idea that speaking one’s mind might cause short term problems but could ultimately be a sign of a noble character. Or perhaps it was just a chance to put the Queen in a story and have a little fun with it.

There were a few lines that I found amusing. The first was one borrowed from the previous book. Mice are always conscious of “time running out.” Perhaps we humans ought to realize the same.

The other was a line that I think might have been in the previous book. “For everything a human is doing, somewhere there is a mouse doing the same thing, but better.” (I think I got that right. It’s hard to find a line on an audiobook…)

And then, there was the fact that the hero of the tale is a bit, um, “fun sized.” Throughout the book, he keeps getting asked if he is small, or if he is just not quite grown. As a short (and baby-faced) man myself, I have heard the equivalent of this far too often. (At age 20, I was mistaken for 12, which is the main reason I grew a beard…) Even at 38, I still get carded for wine and ammo. Even when I have the kids with me. So I sympathise a bit. (And the kids found this line hilarious.)

Bottom line: this is an amusing tale for children, but it also contains enough wit for the adults, including enough about the Victorian Era to spark some conversations about class and history. And if you, like me, have a child who loves mice, it will inevitably become part of the library one way or another.

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