The Tale of Despereaux
Having grown up on an apple orchard, I can say from experience that mice are not at all adorable. They carry diseases. They chew through insulation and cereal boxes. They leave droppings in the electric frying pan that you dig out of the back of the cupboard only once every few months.
But those are field mice, not castle mice. Apparently castle mice wear finishing powder, nibble delicately on celery, and communicate with drums. At least, that is the experience of Despereaux Tilling, a truly adorable mouse in the king’s castle.
Despereaux is the star of the 2004 Newbery Medal Winner The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread, by Kate DiCamillo. Born to a well-intentioned but neglectful father and a petulant French-speaking mother, Despereaux is looked down upon by the mouse community for being “ridiculously small” and having “obscenely large ears.” Unlike the other mice, he can hear music and read books, and those differences lead to the conflict of the story.
In the castle library—as his brother Furlough is munching the corner of a book and urging him to do the same—Despereaux reads a tale of a knight who loves a fair maiden. To his astonishment, the little mouse, too, soon falls in love—with the beautiful human Princess Pea.
Despite Pea’s effervescent personality, she mourns the loss of her mother, who died when a rat fell into her beloved soup. In despair, the king has outlawed soup and all its accoutrements—kettles, bowls, and soup spoons. Despereaux is captivated by the little girl.
When he violates the mouse code by revealing his presence to the princess, his family and community are outraged. In an act the author tells us defines “perfidy,” his brother and father deliver him up to the mouse council. They condemn him to the dungeon with the rats for “being a mouse and not acting like one.” In a characteristic aside, the author says, “Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.” The threadmaster is summoned to mark Despereaux with the “red thread of death.”
But deep in the dungeon, love and hope flourish in the tiny mouse’s soul. As Despereaux seeks his redemption, we meet several other curious characters, including a dungeon rat named Chiaroscuro (an artistic device utilizing light and shadow for affect) and a slave girl named Miggery Sow (after her father’s favorite pig).
The Tale of Despereaux is a story of light and darkness, and how it co-exists in the heart. Pea, with her singing, gold crown, and sequined gown, represents the light, but there is a sliver of revenge in her heart against the rats. Chiaroscuro, with his sharp teeth, seared conscience, and dwelling in the bowels of the castle, represents the darkness, but his deeds are the result of a broken heart crookedly mended. The royals and the slaves, the mice and the rats, and the cook at the queen’s soup kettle are all complex beings that must choose to climb out of the darkness of their hearts and into the light. It is a story of love, wanting, and forgiveness—the hard-won lessons of perfidy in the life of a precious little mouse.
Thanks to Sary for recommending this one!