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The Mouse and his Child

by Russell Hoban

A simple wind-up tin toy mouse, clasping his child is sold. They leave the comfort of the toyshop not knowing what they are or what is their purpose. For four years they are secure and loved, dancing for the family under the Christmas tree. The fifth year is different - they are broken and scrapped but rescued by a tramp who makes small repairs to the mechanism and sets them on the road, telling them to 'Be tramps.' Now these cosseted babies have to learn how to survive, and their liberation from ownership brings terrible difficulties and responsibilities and limitations imposed by the short run of their mechanism. Painfully and naively they embark on a quest for their remembered companions at the toyshop - Elephant, Seal and the Beautiful House. The journey takes them into danger and cruel slavery in Manny Rat's kingdom of the dump, where life is cheap. They escape the violence into worse danger, and become caught up in the shrew wars, battling for territory. After a bloodbath they fall in with a travelling theatre company of crows called The Caws of Art who direct them to a wilder, more elusive source of wisdom and truth. Among the wild creatures, and under the protection of Muskrat and via strange mathematics, the Mouse and his Child discover the secret of self-winding. Throughout they are haunted and pursued by the spectre of Manny Rat, who gradually undergoes a transformation from tormentor to ally. When the quest is complete the Tramp appears again, this time with the words 'Be happy.'

This is a wonderful story, beautifully plotted and completely perfect. The cocooning effect of the winter snow, the small but significant journey of the heroes and the powerful emotions the quest arouses makes it a brilliantly atmospheric read, especially at this time of year. (This is a five-star addition to any Christmas stocking!) The heroism, pathos, funny and disturbing worlds glimpsed by the Mouse and his Child are all very touching. I was reminded of the other magical worlds in the snow evoked by Joan Aiken, John Masefield and Lucy Boston. Happy memories of childhood reading and good to know that the magic doesn't go away!

Read our interview with Russell Hoban.

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