So back in the mists of time, when I was a child, I read A LOTTT. I had few friends, and few traditional entertainments because of my restrictive religious upbringing. Luckily, I took well to reading and there were years when I read almost a book a week. I remember in particular reading while walking down the halls in grade school one week, one cowboy boot with a detached sole flopping with every other step, “The Mouse And His Child” in hand.
The book’s epigraph is by W.H. Auden:
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
If you know me at all, you’ll guess that there’s some dark component to all this… Well, aside from being a bit of a melancholy child with a sixth-sense for encountering the dark side, I don’t know how I lucked out in finding this book when I was a young kid, but I did. I credit many of my finds to a cache of discarded library books in a storage room that was also used for square dancing and other indoor PE activities. Since I was forbidden to dance, I got to sit on the sidelines, which were lined with box after cardboard box of books removed from the library. Another excellent, mind-shaping find was “Black and Blue Magic“, which I hope to review another time.
So, The Mouse and His Child is ostensibly a book for young teens, I think. It has occasional full page dark monochrome charcoal and ink-wash illustrations, but for the most part it’s 244 pages of 1.5 spaced 12 point Stemple Garamond type. But this book is harsh and heavy from the get-go, in ways that most children’s books of the time were not.
When the book opens, we meet a windup toy consisting of a mouse father who swings his little boy around and around in a circle by the hands. They “awaken” to an immediately reserved, quiet self awareness on Christmas Eve in a classic toyshop, when the clock strikes midnight and allows all the toys permission to speak. But this isn’t a sweet Disney kind of toy consciousness. It’s much more “Twilight Zone”, with the imperious wall clock sounding a tenuously granted witching-hour permission to communicate, implying that at all other times the toys could only stand still, self aware, staring at each other in silence and anxiously awaiting leave from above. They toys, it is revealed, are all self aware but unable to move unless they are “clockwork” windups. The windups can only move in their windup way, just as if they were only regular toys… no climbing or running or facial expressions or anything except the mechanical motion of their clockworks until that winds down.
So within the first few pages, we understand that they are fearful conciousnesses trapped in frozen, mechanical bodies with no control over any aspect of their physicality. Terrifying. Now, “The Velveteen Rabbit” was in a similar situation, but somehow that book never seemed to communicate the sense of the rabbit feeling trapped in his own body the way “The Mouse and His Child” does. Moments into his awakening, the mouse child realizes he will never have a mother and becomes overwhelmed with despair, so real tears begin to stream down his frozen face, bringing rebuke down from the wall clock and the other toys. I was HOOKED. This was unlike any other children’s book I’d read and I wanted to know what would happen.
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Within the first thirty or so pages, we learn that the doll residents of the nearby doll house are gibbering idiots who speak in non sequitur bursts of Tourette’s-like snippets of type from the newpaper plaster used to make their heads. The other toys are cold and fearful, and when the mouse child asks a snobbish windup elephant to be his mother, she laughs in his face. Then the MAHC (“mouse and his child”) are sold as Christmas decorations, and spend four years of silence (no clock!) in an attic. THEN on the fifth Christmas, the child loses it and cries again, scaring the family cat, who jumps and knocks a vase over which CRUSHES the MAHC and they are THROWN IN THE GARBAGE! OMG!
A wandering tinker/hobo digs them out of the trash and fixes them, but they only walk in a straight line now, so he winds them up at the foot of a bridge and as they walk away he commands them to “Be tramps.” That’s all he ever says out loud, a cryptic and imbecilic command to “be tramps.”
They are IMMEDIATELY captured by a horrible crime lord rat named Manny, who conscripts them into SLAVERY! Manny runs the local dump, and keeps a moldering army of zombie-like windups who he works as slaves. These slaves are all conscious, and can communicate somehow, but Manny and his henchmen wind them up and kick them around and do pretty much anything they want, because the windups have no control over themselves. During their first meeting and conscription, a windup donkey sass-mouths Manny and Manny CRUSHES IT TO DEATH and throws its windup clockworks into an abattoir dog food can of parts to be used later on other slaves. The can is for “Bonzo Dog Food”:
The young rat deftly removed the donkey’s motor-and-leg assembly and dropped it into an empty tin can that stood near the mouse and his child. BONZO DOG FOOD, said the white letters on the orange label, and below the name was a picture of a little black-and-white spotted dog, walking on his hind legs and wearing a chef’s cap and an apron. The dog carried a tray on which there was another can of BONZO DOG FOOD, on the label of which another little black-and-white spotted dog, exactly the same but much smaller, was walking on his hind legs and carrying a tray on which there was another can of BONZO DOG FOOD, on the label of which another little black-and-white spotted dog, exactly the same but much smaller, was walking on his hind legs and carrying a tray on which there was another can of BONZO DOG FOOD, and so on until the dogs became too small for the eye to follow. The father stared at the can as the parts fell in with a melancholy clink; the child’s back was to it.
It was such a mind-blowing metaphor for death, life, alternate realities, infinity… so many things! I could feel my brain re-wiring as I processed everything.
Also in these first 30 pages, other windup toys despair about the meaninglessness of their lives, an occult fortune telling toad is wracked with self doubt after a lifetime of scamming people with lies, Manny plans a bank robbery, one of his henchmen recalls a failed romance, and we see the sad disgrace of the once haughty old lady elephant being violated (physically but not sexually) by Manny rat when he finds her in the garbage and cracks open her body with “a rusty beer can opener” to repair her for use as a slave. All the while, he and she have a Hannibal Lechter-like exchange of false civil politeness whilst he is working over her paralyzed body. In the illustration, he is hunched over her prostrate form and there is a look of humiliated fear in the eye she has rolled up toward Manny from her paralyzed face.