A squeaky sigh, a bit of fury and the troubling news of some unrelenting rodent procreation. Put them together, and you've got the opening of Lois Lowry’s newest novel for children, Bless This Mouse, released this week from Houghton Mifflin and illustrated with economy and charm by Caldecott medalist Eric Rohmann.
Read the last Seven Impossible Things column about the Art of Motherhood.
A new litter of mouselets has been born in the sexton's closet of Saint Bartholemew's, where Hildegarde reigns as Mouse Mistress. Worse yet, that busybody Roderick interrupts her sleep to tell her. She boldly scurries down the center aisle of the church to scold the mouse responsible for the new litter. Hildegarde cuts to the quick: "No more haphazard, willy-nilly reproduction!" Not one to fall prey to sentimentality, she begrudgingly assists in moving them all to a more secretive nest: "These mouselets were a hideous shade of pink, and their ribs showed. They were not cute at all."
Hildegarde runs a tight ship, but she's a bit shaken these days. Not only does she live in fear of the Great X—their name for a visiting exterminator, which recently reduced their numbers by half—but Father Murphy is also planning the annual Blessing of the Animals, an event held in honor of St. Francis of Assisi in which animals of all sizes enter the church to be anointed with holy oil. To Hildegarde and her posse, this means pesky CATS in the very place they make their home. Thus begins their adventures in survival, which come to include a night-time raid, resulting in lots of shrieking from the church’s Altar Guild ladies; an exodus to avoid the actual extermination itself; the swallowing of one's pride to save a mortal enemy (using the holy oil itself, no less); and the dreaded Blessing of the Animals. But a blessing with a twist, all wrapped up with surprise sainthood.
Typically, "survivor story" invokes images of craggy cliffs, cramped caves, hatchets, makeshift masts, dangling ropes, or quite possibly, all of the above. This well-paced, often pleasantly hyperbolic tale (several chapters end with exclamation marks: "Yikes! Outdoors!" and "One Mouse is Missing!") wraps up all the dramatic action into an Episcopal church. The rough terrain of this light-hearted survival tale involves the tangly wires and frayed insulation of the walls through which these mice scurry and hide.
I experienced this short novel as a read-aloud to my two young daughters, and two things, in particular, struck me about Lowry's writing. First—in the great tradition of Beatrix Potter (“It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific,” opens The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies)—Lowry pens big, crunchy, beautiful words, always expecting the most from her child readers. “Matriach,” “hideous,” the aforementioned “haphazard,” “sexton,” “audaciously”—that’s just the first chapter alone. The book opens with a map of the church with words like “apse,” “chancel” and “transept,” Lowry writing:
“Hildegarde so liked the formal names for the parts of the church. If she were
in an ordinary house, she thought, twitching her nose at the idea, this would be
known as the front hall. What an ordinary name! Narthex had a ring to it. You knew
you were in an important place when you entered a narthex!”
Secondly, the character development is, in spots, laugh-out-loud funny. The characters may flirt with stereotypes, but I sense Lowry intended this. (Indeed, many reviewers have already touted it as a book with an “old-fashioned” vibe, The New York Times even referring to it as an animal fable.) Especially refreshing is the irreverence underlying much of the book’s wit: Roderick the hiccupping mouse, always hoping for “a major spill” of wine in the sacristy; Hildegarde’s mention of “X-rated DVDs,” as they flip through the X pages of the phone book; and the snippy rivalry between archenemies Hildegarde and Lucretia. “Lucretia, sneering casually, turned and strolled down the aisle, her wide rump swaying.” They may reside in a church, but don’t expect halos resting atop the heads of these grand dames.
I didn’t interpret this title as being in the genre of “Christian fiction.” Interestingly, one reviewer has referred to it as such, and I’ve had conversations with colleagues about the book which make me question my understanding of the genre. I see this as a tale that happens to be set in a mainline Anglican Christian church but doesn’t set out to proselytize Christianity, the latter being my understanding of “Christian fiction.” In fact, as a non-churchgoer myself, I enjoyed exposing my children to this setting in a well-crafted tale, but one which didn’t also try to indoctrinate them in any way. What say you? It’s an intriguing question to me now: Does a book’s Christian content make it Christian fiction? Or does an author’s attempt to evangelize make it Christian fiction?
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.