Message in a Bottle
Genius For All Ages

There’s a book I’d been planning to mention somewhere on the blog this holiday season, and I’m going to do it today, but I’m going to talk about a couple of others first that might not seem to have much to do with each other, so bear with me.

The first is a classic picture book most of you will probably remember, either from your own childhood or from your children’s bookshelves. It was first published in 1964, and it’s as fresh today as it was then. It stars Frances, who decides one day that there’s only one meal she wants to eat. Instead of drawing a line in the sand, her parents decide to indulge her wish, so thereafter it’s Bread and Jam for Frances morning, noon, and night. It’s not surprising to adults, though it may be to kids, that the delight Frances feels at exercising her will and getting exactly what she thinks she wants soon wanes. There’s a lesson in the book, obviously, but it’s not at all heavy-handed. What’s at stake, while important, especially to the young, isn’t exaggerated, and Frances has a real childlike quality that makes it all wholly believable. To this day I can’t help thinking of her as a person even though she comes from a family of cute, furry badgers.

                              

The second book dates from 1980, and it’s a science fiction novel for adults called Riddley Walker. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future where civilization has deteriorated to subsistence level, and it’s one of those books that some people would (rather insultingly) say “transcends its genre.” This is because it’s written in a rich, unusual style that teaches you how to read it as you turn the pages. To give you an idea, the narrator begins the book with these lines:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly been the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt been none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

In terms of language it’s on par with Anthony Burgess and James Joyce, managing to suggest what really might happen to our human ability to communicate after a catastrophic event. It contains snatches of  ancient mythology and 20th-century jargon, along with bits evocative of everything from Beowulf to Chaucer and maybe even Cormac McCarthy. In the way it rolls together the history and future of English, it almost creates a genre of its own.

The third book, the one I’d planned to talk about all along, is called The Mouse and His Child, and it actually is a holiday book of sorts. It tells the story of a father and son, wind-up mice purchased as a present and later discarded when they wear out. Battered and broken, they’re rescued and partially repaired by a tramp, who sets them wandering in search of a home. Danger finds them in the form of a malicious rat and battling shrews, they find philosophy in the form of a scholarly turtle at the bottom of a pond, and thanks to their persistence, the plot eventually finds them quietly triumphant, with a new family and a place of their own to celebrate the winter season. You’ll normally see this book shelved in a section for middle-grade readers, but it has all the depth and nuance of adult literature. It’s exciting and eventful even while it occasionally touches on dark, melancholy themes—desperate parental love, war, existential angst, and poverty among them. The book begins and ends at Christmastime, and it’s filled with a pure hopefulness that’s not at all maudlin, so I always think of it in December and have ever since I first read it more than thirty years ago. 

What all these books have in common is that they’re the work of a single author, Russell Hoban. I can’t find the exact quote I had in mind, but he’s been described as the one person who has produced stone classics for every reading age, from picture books for the very young to chapter books for their older siblings to fiction for their parents. In recent years he’s even comically treated the trials of the elderly, as in his novel Linger Awhile. He’s a remarkable writer deserving of considerable attention. 

I’d just taken my copy of The Mouse and His Child off the shelf, intending to share it with my own kids for the first time, when I heard the news that inspired me to expand this post beyond its initial scope. Russell Hoban died this week at the age of 86. According to one obituary, he predicted back in 2002 that death would “be a good career move … People will say, ‘Yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let’s look at him again.’” They should.

—James

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