Before there was `Toy Story’  there was `The Mouse and his Child’. This week I’m recommending an early novel by Russell Hoban, an American author who spent the second half of his life in England.  `The Mouse and his Child’ was published in 1967, with illustrations by Lillian Hoban. It’s easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. An animated film `The Extraordinary Adventures of the Mouse and his Child’ came out in 1977 and Hoban himself helped to turn the novel into a play. Like most of Hoban’s work, this multi-layered book is hard to classify. It was originally published for children but much of the satire it contains is aimed at adults. Hoban was inspired to write this story by a friend’s collection of clockwork toys, which were only taken out of their boxes for a few days each year at Christmas time.

In a toy shop live a group of wind-ups (clockwork toys) who are allowed to speak to each other between midnight and dawn. There is a proud elephant, who regards the magnificent dolls’ house on the shop counter as her own, a seal who balances a ball on her nose, and a mouse and his little son who are joined by the hands and do a circular dance.  Just before Christmas, the mouse and his child are sold to a family. For five years they are brought out each Christmas to perform their dance. After the mouse-child breaks one of  the rules of clockwork by crying while `on the job’, the toy is damaged and thrown away. A tramp rescues the toy and mends it so that the father-mouse can walk forward when wound up. The mouse and his child don’t get far before they are captured by a rat called Manny and forced to join his work-gang of salvaged wind-ups.

They manage to escape with the help of a prophetic bull-frog, who warns them that they have a long hard road ahead of them and that, `The enemy you flee at the beginning awaits you at the end.’   They venture into the wild woods, with the angry Manny in pursuit. Father-mouse is determined to gain independence by becoming `self-winding’ while the mouse-child longs to be part of a family again, with the elephant as his mother and the seal as his sister, and to live in the beautiful dolls’ house he remembers. During their journey, the mouse and his child are threatened by warriors and hunters, become part of a bizarre theatrical troupe, and meet two very different thinkers. They endure many trials and encounter old friends and enemies. Even when a happy ending seems in sight, there is still danger…

Hoban spent over three years writing and re-writing `The Mouse and his Child’. It shows in the meticulously researched and crafted world inhabited by his toy and animal characters, which exists un-noticed alongside the ordinary human world. From his lair in an old television set, Manny dominates a `city of rats and other vermin’ at the local dump, where market traders offer `Fancy moulds – green, white and black!’ or `Bacon grease, guaranteed two months old..’; gambling dens and taverns are `crudely built of scraps of wood and cardboard boxes’, and dancehalls are filled with the sounds of `tin-can drums, reed pipes, and matchbox banjos’. I’m particularly fond of the `Meadow Mutual Hoard and Trust Company’, a bank made of actual earth where chipmunk tellers count sunflower seeds and the vaults are full of valuable treacle toffee. If you think that makes the book sound twee, you’ll get a shock when you read the bank-robbing scene. This is a brutal eat or be eaten society, where animals fight over tiny territories until bigger predators come along. `The Mouse and His Child’ is a lot darker in tone than classic animal fantasies such as `The Wind in Willows’ or `Charlotte’s Web’.

This book reminds me of one of those Charles Dickens novels in which an innocent young hero learns how to survive in a dangerous world, but with animals and clockwork toys instead of people. As in Dickens, there is a mingling of the grotesque and the beautiful, startling leaps from comedy to tragedy, and a large cast of eccentric characters. Among the most memorable are Manny Rat, the Fagin-like villain who is plagued by self-doubt, Uncle Frog, a dealer in potions and prophecies who wears a tattered glove as a coat and is not quite the fraud he thinks himself to be; playwright C.Serpentina, a snapping turtle who contemplates infinity with the aid of a can of dog-food,  and the dignified she-elephant who endures cruelty and humiliation because `deep within her tin there blazed a spirit that would not be quenched.’

The clockwork mouse and his child complain of `the futility of dancing in an endless circle that led nowhere’, and anyone who feels unable to control their own destiny will sympathise with them. When the mice do break free, they have to keep moving forward with faith and courage to find the place where they will ‘ feel all safe and strong’ . There prove to be many obstacles in their path. They seek advice about becoming self-winding from `wise’ animals who are based on absurdist writers and existentialist philosophers, but get little practical help. At this point, the story is in danger of becoming merely a clever allegory.

I think `The Mouse and his Child’ is saved from that dry fate by the tender way in which Hoban writes about his clockwork characters. He makes their fragile bodies and indomitable spirits seem so real that it is truly distressing when the elephant is reduced by Manny to a shabby and pathetic figure, and the mouse and his child are trapped at the bottom of a pond while their clockwork stiffens and their glass-bead eyes grow dimmer. But trust me, I wouldn’t be recommending `The Mouse and his Child’ as a Christmas treat if the story didn’t end with forgiveness, peace and goodwill. As for the identity of the mysterious tramp who appears at the beginning and end of the book – well I leave that up to you to decide. Merry Christmas to all my readers and I’ll be back with more recommended Fantasy reads in the New Year.