The other day, I stared at my oatmeal, unexcited about work, unexcited about the gym after work, unexcited about making chicken after the gym after work. It was in this mood that I decided to read Stuart Little. It felt like a prescription to cure the dreariness. Staring into your oatmeal? Better read Stuart Little then. It’ll cure you right up.
I haven’t read Stuart Little since I was nine years old and liked to stay up late reading books all in one night. I read one of the Ramona books this way. It felt very grown up. Stuart Little surprised me this second time around. It was funnier than I expected, whimsical, but also kind of brazen.
Stuart Little is a short book by E.B. White about a boy who was born about two inches tall and looking an awful lot like a mouse. How it came to be that two normal sized human people had a son who looked like a mouse, I don’t know and White never explains. In fact, White doesn’t explain anything which is part of why the book is so great. The book putters along for a few chapters, we learn about Stuart and his family and the time he raced a boat across the pond in Central Park. The plot really gets going (and I use that in the loosest possible way) when a tired bird lands on the windowsill and Mrs. Little takes her in. Stuart befriends the bird, Margalo, and saves her from Snowbell, the family cat and later, Margalo rescues Stuart when he gets dumped in a garbage truck. When Margalo leaves without telling anyone, Stuart decides to go find her. He talks to his friend the surgeon-dentist who gives Stuart a miniature car and Stuart drives north, looking for his Margalo. The arc of the plot is more of a minor swell in Stuart Little. The chapters read like individual stories, sometimes connecting to overall story and sometimes not. Does he find Margalo? We don’t know. Do his parents know where he went? We don’t know. Are the people of New Englad surprised to find a mouse driving a car? Not really.
There are lots of things to like in this book. I like that White takes the time to show that Stuart’s parents are concerned about his feelings getting hurt over stories with mice in them. Mrs. Little rips out the page of Three Blind Mice in the nursery rhyme book and they decide, after some debate, to change the line in The Night Before Christmas to “not a creature was stirring not even a louse.” I like that Stuart has a brother, George, a normal sized boy who is easily distracted. I like that Snowbell takes nightly strolls to visit the neighborhood cats and that Margalo is saved from one of these neighbor cats by a literate pigeon. But mostly, I like that Stuart isn’t an entirely loveable mouse. He’s actually kind of a turd. He can be a little full of himself and easy to anger. Early in the book, he is annoyed when the bus driver questions his tiny tin-foil coins.
“What’s that you’re offering me?” asked the conductor.
“It’s one of my dimes,” said Stuart”
“Is it, now?” said the conductor. “Well, I’d have a fine time explaining that to the bus company. Why, you’re no bigger than a dime yourself.”
“Yes I am,” replied Stuart angrily, “… I didn’t come on this bus to be insulted.”
“I beg pardon,” said the conductor. “You’ll have to forgive me, for I had no idea that in all the world there was such a small sailor.”
“Live and learn,” muttered Stuart, tartly.
Later, while driving north, Stuart meets a two inch girl and invites her canoeing. He spends the day getting the canoe ready and imagining all the ways he’ll show off for her. But when it’s time to go canoeing, they find the canoe has been wrecked. Stuart pitches a fit. The girl suggests they fix the canoe, but Stuart protests it wouldn’t be the same.
“The same as what?” asked Harriet.
“The same as the way it was going to be, when I was thinking about it yesterday. I’m afraid a woman can’t understand these things.”
After shooting down Harriet’s idea to have dinner and go dancing, she leaves. Stuart doesn’t apologize, doesn’t recognize that he acted like a baby, doesn’t learn a lesson. He leaves the next day, gets snippy with the gas station attendant, and drives off.
I like all this because I don’t know if it would get published today. White had a story about a mouse, and he wrote it down exactly as it pleased him. I’m sure it wasn’t that easy, but it reads like it was. There are so many quirky things, so many illogical things, so many off-shoots from the storyline of Stuart going to find Margalo that it no longer resembles a storyline. I have been really drawn to art like this lately. This brazen, no explanation, take-it or leave it kind of art. And yes, this is a book meant for children about a mouse living in a make-believe New York, but Stuart Little feels like that kind of art.