I'm starting it off today by discussing one of the characters who first comes to mind when I think of the books I read as a boy. But it's not necessarily one of my favorites.
When I was growing up, it was usually the main character who drew me into a story. But on occasion, what I really liked was the character's stuff, more than I liked the character.
Stuart Little was one of those books for me. Everyone knows it's acknowledged as one of the children's literature greats, yet I've always been ambivalent about the story—as a kid, I thought it was really weird that normal parents might have a mouse as a baby, especially when their first child had been human.
I think the book has some large problems. What would that have been like in the hospital—I mean, was he all pink and stuff when he was born? Did they have to wait a few days for his eyes to open? And gosh—what on earth did Mr. and Mrs. Little say to each other? That's a potentially awkward discussion I'm not sure I'd want to hear. To me, the best part of the book was Garth Williams's illustrations, but even Williams couldn't blunt the profound and disturbing oddness that lurked under it all.
|Stuart Little: |
I was troubled with the idea of scale in the story. Stuart's worsted suit has pockets in which he can "keep his handkerchief, his money, and his keys." What did those tiny keys open? And what kind of money could fit in a mouse's pockets? I was being very literal, but I've always been a stickler for logical consistency within the fabric of what I read. One "yo, dude" in a historical novel, and the magic of the story is ruined for me. And E.B. White is writing about what otherwise is a completely ordinary human world. So my question about the cash rattling around in Stuart's pocket was "Wait—who's going to accept tiny money?" In case anyone thinks this means I had no imagination as a boy, I can only offer up that I was perfectly willing to accept cartoon dogs playing tennis on top of a tree in Go, Dog. Go!
|The Wasp encounters a paper bag.|
The next great things Stuart gets are his ice skates, fashioned from paper clips. They were just plain cool. But Stuart drops them into the ocean. To the boy me, that hurt. I know that he had to, because Margalo the "wall-eyed vireo" (or wren, or whatever) who was carrying him back to New York, was getting tired. But still.
|The skates go into the drink.|
|Stuart shows his prowess at portaging.|
Now, at the birch bark canoe part of the story, Stuart is set up on a blind date with a certain Harriet Ames. I was confused and disturbed by the fact that another family had had a human-looking daughter the size of a mouse. To the middle-school me, the idea of them dating was kind of icky. When Stuart goes on the date with Harriet and he discovers that his canoe has been wrecked by what is assumed to be boys, I felt his pain. But my pain was for the ruined canoe, not for the ruined date.
|The most awesome car.|
As an adult, I understand the hopeful upturn at the end of the book. Stuart is off in search of his true love (OK, she's a bird, and that cross-species thing left me a little bewildered as a boy, too). He has a feeling that he's headed in the right direction. That must make us feel uplifted, positive, right? Not me as a boy. I worried about whether he'd ever find Margalo, if he was headed toward unknown dangers, like the betraying, evil cat, Snowball. . . and even if he could find gas for his car. I needed something more definitive.
To wrap up this Midweek Mulling, I'll point out that Garth Williams, for the most part, chose to show Stuart as a tiny figure in a normal-sized adult world, which is one way to depict Stuart's diminutive scale. But wouldn't we feel closer to Stuart if we saw the world through his eyes, rather than the eyes of the "normal-sized" world? This perspective diminishes him. We don't see him close up, with a jaunty foot on the running board of his car, for instance, and the rest of the scene in gigantic proportion. We don't see the world through Stuart's eyes. Perhaps that's part of what created a sense of distance between Stuart and me as a boy, kept me from really identifying with him as a character.
|Look closely—that's the book's protagonist near the bottom of the page!|