The Orphan and the Mouse, by Martha Freeman

The Orphan and the Mouse, by Martha Freeman (Holiday House, August 2014, 224 pages) is a lovely, magical story that should entrance any introspective eight to ten year old(ish) child who likes orphan fiction and small furry creatures (which would be me when I was that age).

And I would just like to start off by saying that the cover of this book makes me cross, because I liked the book lots, and think lots of others would like it to, but it looks like it is a book for six year olds or something, and really this is somewhat off-putting for both the nine or ten year olds mentioned above and the parents/gatekeepers who find books for them to read (especially in these days of hypercompetitive parenting, with so many people (seemingly) wanting their kids to read "up.").   On top of that, I think this cover would be almost impossible to sell to a boy, but the story is not in and of itself somehow boy unfriendly.  So please just ignore the cover art.

And now, the story:

In an rather upscale orphanage (the upscale-ness is important to the plot) in the late 1940s, a girl and a mouse met.  Caro, the girl, is ten, and has a badly burned hand from the fire that killed her mother.  Mary, the mouse, is no longer young (she has lots of mouse children).   But between these two unlikely friends a bond of empathy and good will is forged during an unhappy misadventure with the orphanage cat....and this bond ends up bringing them both to a much happier end than they would have otherwise (especially Caro.)

Because.....there are Dark Things happening within the walls and behind the doors of the model orphanage (not least of which is emotional manipulation of a really unkind sort--one's heart aches for Caro).  Those in power (both mouse and human) have let power and material comfort corrupt them,  and it is a good thing for Caro that Mary Mouse and her mouse ally Andrew are there to heroically (risking death by cat) help her put things to rights.  Mice and child expose secrets (the reader gets to see the schemes in action, so it's not really a mystery from the reader's point of view), and things are tense, and the happy ending is happy enough to be gratifying without being insultingly too good to be true.

Mice in this world are not mindless squeakers--they have listened to, and appreciated on an almost spiritual level, the story of Stuart Little.  They collect art (in the form of postage stamps).   Andrew Mouse can even read.  And Caro is not a mindless squeaker either--she is an utterly relatable (to me, at any event!) good child who deserves good things (who certainly doesn't deserve it when the movie starlet is disgusted by her scarred hand).  The combination is a winning one.

I think one of the things that made it work for me was all the stories--stories told, stories imagined, backstories--that swirl around in the book.   Not the sort of "now there will be a story" interruptions, but the much more subtle sense of richly textured and layered interior lives created by telling and thinking.   Characters have stories about themselves that are changeable, and they think about what stories there are to be told, stories that will make life more than the immediate now.   Each postage stamp picture is a window for the imagination...each character has a self they are shaping.   And it is this open-ness to story that makes the friendship between girl and mouse both possible and emotionally convincing, even though they can never speak each other's language.

Note:  as well as the cover issue, a possible problem with this book is this--although the sensitive, small-mammal-loving child is clearly the target audience, it starts with a pretty grim mouse death.  This may well put off the truly tender hearted, and you might have to promise such a child that no other mice die (except one who dies offstage who isn't the nicest mouse anyway and by the time you get to that mouse death the sensitive reader will be so engrossed in the story that it won't matter, but if deceit really bothers you, you can say (truthfully) "the cat doesn't kill any more mice").

Second note:  I decide this is one for my list of disabilities in kids' fantasy books, because it is mentioned that Caro's scarred right hand does pose difficulties for her with things like writing, although this is a very minor point in the grand scheme of the story.


  1. Holiday House covers are so routinely bad that I can pick their books out of a box of ARCs immediately. Covers are a huge influence on the MG demographic, so you think they would stop putting less than appealing art on the covers and get a good designer who could work with stock photos. I know covers are an expense, but they are SO important!

  2. This sounds very sweet. I love David McPhail but you are right, this cover is a mistake.

  3. Yes, the cover made me think this was a very old book and possibly a dull one... but your review has convinced me it will be a delightful read. I loved Avi's Ragweed when I was younger and I'm hoping this will give me a similar feeling.


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