This is what I wrote in 1989.
The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
A large number of modern children's classics have recently been reprinted, which is more than welcome. Among them, The Mouse and His Child is far from a self-evident title. This book appears sparsely on recommendation lists and in textbooks. It must be one of the most underestimated masterpieces of children's literature.
There may be many reasons for this. The best-known and constantly reprinted books by Russell Hoban are his nice, simple picturebooks about the badger girl Frances. When you see another title mentioning nice animals, you may think that this is another book in the same style. But this is not the case. It is a long, sad, not to say tragic story about toys that are exposed to the fate of all toys when they get broken. If this book had not been published and marketed as a children's book, it would have become one of the greatest works of existentialism.
The plot is reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," which I, strangely enough, have not seen any critic mention. The two toy mice have to go through many painful trials, through anxiety and sorrow, slavery and humiliation, actually through physical disintegration. They meet friends and enemies, but - as in real life, no villains are totally evil, and no friend is totally good and nice. The characters in the book are colorful and unique: the greedy slave-driver Manny, the unreliable Frog, the cunning thinker Muskrat, the self-centered poet Serpentina. The toys meet with much treachery and evil, but also loyalty and unselfish courage. During their adventures and bitter defeat the two mice sustain their longing for a home and their childish hope for a happy ending. It is not a coincidence that the mouse child is stronger in spirit than the father, and he never loses faith.
Hoban is a incredibly skillful writer. All details and events in the book are interconnected in a way that we normally associate with great mainstream novels. To let an empty can of dog food be the central symbol of the story would be daring even in an adult novel. The chapter about the Crows' Art Experimental Theater Group ought to be a universal classic.
The ending is happy in a way, at least from a young reader's viewpoint. Adult readers cannot but notice its deep tragic undertones. Nothing will ever be the same again - the toys can never become new again, just as humans cannot become young again.
The book is multidimensional and can be read at many different levels. As an exciting and moving fairy tale for the youngest. Or as a philosophical fable for teenagers and adults. It is possible that it will not be appreciated by children who believe that they have grown out of fairy tales, while they instead have not grown into them. In any case, children who will read Hoban's book perhaps need some help from adults. The book presents grateful material for discussions of essential life questions. What is beyond the last visible dog?
Opsis Kalopsis 1989:2