Friday, March 11, 2011

All Creatures Gray and Small: Bless This Mouse by Lois Lowry

Hildegarde signed a loud, squeaking, outraged sort of sigh, when she was informed that a new litter of mouselets had been born in the sexton's closet. Such bad timing! Such bad placement!

It wasn't simply a problem of placement and visibility. Those things were important, of course, because it was vital that the mouse population remain unseen, and now that she and Millicent had succeeded in moving the mouselets, Hildegarde gave a relieved sigh. Now, at least, the sexton would not open the closet door, gasp, and rush to a telephone to arrange for another Great X.

But it was the timing, too. Late September. They were approaching such a dangerous moment.

Mouse Mistress Hildegarde is a feisty, efficient female manager, but her new job shepherding the 219 mice of St. Bartholomew's is not an easy one. It is imperative that the numbers of mice inside the old walls of the church remain unseen and unknown. The sexton and Father Murphy are tolerant of the evidence of a single church mouse once in a while, even though the Altar Guild ladies are horrified at the sight of even one, but Hildegarde is a mature mouse, one who remembers the population decimation during previous exterminations, the deadly Great X, and she knows that if several mice are seen at once, even the genial priest will be forced to telephone for Pest-B-Gone.

And to add to her worries, she has the up-coming Blessing of the Animals on October 4, which means that if it rains, the church will be filled with pets, particularly dangerous cats. Hildegarde is old enough to remember other rainy Blessing Sundays when some of her mouse mates died a fearful death in the clutches of those cats. Hildegarde knows, too, that her political rival, Lucretia, has her own faction and is ready to pounce upon any failure of leadership on her part. Even her loyal lieutenants, the admiring but garrulous Roderick and old Ignatius, former library mouse who knows almost everything and is only too happy to expound on what he knows endlessly, take a bit of management to keep them on task. And then there are those over-fertile mouse mothers, Millicent and Vivian, whose rambunctious youngsters, Hildegarde fears, are bound to be seen by the ladies sooner or later.

And then it happens. Vivian's heedless adolescent mouselings--all of them--are spotted cavorting in the nave, and despite Hildegarde's best efforts, Father Murphy makes that dreaded call. Pest-B-Gone is on the way. It's time for the church mice to activate their own Great X-- an exodus to the church cemetery nearby. But then her scouts catch a glimpse of the exterminator's invoice, and they learn that, instead of the simple (and tasty) cheese-baited traps of the past, Pest-B-Gone is now using the ultimate cruel weapon of mouse mass destruction, glue traps--little deliciously-scented cards which adhere at the slightest touch of a mouse foot or even a whisker. Hildegarde has to come up with an effective counter attack to disable this horrible weapon and allow her troupe to return inside to their cozy steam-heated walls and bounteous cookie crumbs before winter comes.

Two-time Newbery winner Lois Lowry's forthcoming Bless This Mouse (Houghton Mifflin, 2011) is a captivating mouse tale, one with charming and witty characterizations, an engaging setting in the old stone church, and a page-turning adventure story with a wise mouse CEO who knows how to put the talents of her associates to best use. Even the bumbling Roderick comes through with a plan to disarm the deadly traps and the jealous Lucretia barely misses making the ultimate sacrifice for the good of all. It's a sweet and satisfying story, ably abetted by Caldecott artist Eric Rohmann's cozy renderings of the mice of St. Barthomew's in all their whiskered charm. A fine short novel for independent readers and a wonderful readaloud story for younger children.

Lois Lowry again proves herself the go-to gal in children's lit. As Publishers Weekly puts it, "Lowry creates a cozy church environment of lenient sextons, disheveled organists, and skittish Altar Guild ladies, from a mouse's point-of-view. Fun and lighthearted."

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