Secrets at Sea, by Richard Peck (Penguin, 2011, middle grade, 256 pages)
Upstairs live the Cranstons--a nouveau riche American family with two unmarried daughters. As is the custom for 19th century American social climbers, Mrs. Cranston is determined to marry them off as well as she can. Downstairs live a family of mice, with a much longer lineage. Helena, the oldest sibling, and head of the family due to past tragedy, has done her best to bring up her two young sisters, dreamy Beatrice and skittish young Louise, and her heedless little brother, Lamont, making sure there is food on the table and their clothes are tidy (these mice wear clothes in the privacy of their homes). But she can't help but worry about the future of her little family.
When the Cranston's decide that the only way to marry off their older girl is to travel to Europe, Helena and her siblings join them, rather than stay in the empty house. And so a long sea voyage begins, filled with possibilities of romance (both human and mousian) and ending with Helena's happy realization that she can keep her family close, while letting them go their own way.
Here are the mouse sisters planning to attend a princess's reception on board the ship:
"I shall have to infest Camilla [the younger Cranston girl] and go to the reception on her," Louise decided.
"I don't mind going on Mrs. Cranston," Beatrice said, "as long as she doesn't wear her squirrels. I know my way around her."
And so, for once, Beatrice wasn't the problem. Evidently I was.
"Louise," I said. "I'll go with you on Camilla."
"Indeed you will not," she sniffed. "It will be hard enough to find a place for one of us to hide on her, let alone two. Besides, if Camilla should notice me somewhere on her person, she wouldn't be alarmed."
"Ha! Louise," I retorted. "she couldn't tell me from you at the lifeboat drill. 'Oh, Mouse!' she cried. She can't tell one mouse from-"
"She would certainly notice if there were two of us," Louise said. "She can count. Besides, Helena, Camilla is my human." (pp 140-141)
This feels very much like a Regency Romance (although it's set at the time of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee). There is much detail about clothes, and fine dining, and social status, and love is in the air. Little Adventure happens, but the detailed descriptions of encounters and small happenings of shipboard life fill the pages happily. Human-Mouse interactions add some tension, and some comic relief, and the snappy dialogue and endearing characters keep the pages turning nicely. Helena makes a fine and sympathetic narrator, and I cheered for her as she realized that she could be her own mouse, with her own future, and still not relinquish her family.
Definitely one with more girl appeal, what with the descriptions of clothes and all. I'd particularly recommend this one to older sisters, who so often are burdened in fiction with responsibilities, and given little reward at the end while the younger siblings get to be the Special ones.
This was my first Richard Peck book--even though I'm pretty sure it's a departure from his previous work (what with mice and all) I enjoyed it enough so that I'll be seeking him out again, just as soon as I clear the tbr piles away....
Secrets of Sea is a Cybils nominee in middle grade sci fi/fantasy, one of several mouse books we have on our list!
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher