Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Tale of Despereaux [2003]

Is it ridiculous for a very small, sickly, big eared mouse to fall in love with a beautiful human princess named Pea? The answer is... yes. Of course, it's ridiculous. Love is ridiculous. But love is also wonderful. And powerful. And Despereaux's love for the Princess Pea would prove, in time, to be all of these things: Powerful, wonderful, and ridiculous.
-Chapter Five: What Furlough Saw

You'll have to forgive me for being so sentimental about this book, because it's one of my favorite books. I love it so much that I willfully (and with great joy) ignore the age recommendation on the back of the book. Ages 7-12? Really? Why should children be the only ones to enjoy this story?
The Tale of Despereaux is about a tiny, sickly, big-eared mouse boy who falls desperately in love with a human princess. However, his actions (Instead of eating books, he reads them, for example) deeply disturb the other mice, and he is banished to the dungeons where he'll surely be devoured by rats.
I suppose that does sound a little childish, and it was very appealing to my ten-year-old self. But here's the thing. I've read Michael Crichton and Victor Hugo, and this book holds up very well next to those books. Because even though the premise is simple, this is a very intricate book. It's told in a non-linear fashion which is very interesting, and it's very deep.
Our hero, Despereaux knows his limits. He knows that he is tiny, he knows that he is sickly. At the beginning of the book, he faints as often as Lucie Manette at a courtroom trial. But he is gallant, and his devotion to the princess is what gives him his strength. Despereaux's faith is challenged, and he almost loses faith completely. And yet he keeps on going anyway. That is a really admirable show of character, at least to me. There's also Chiaroscuro, a rat from the dungeon who's love and yearning for the light leads to tragedy, and Miggery Sow, a simple serving girl who wants desperately to be a princess. All these characters have satisfying and complete story-arcs. The only one who I think is maybe a little flat is the princess Pea herself. She suffers from Cosette/Lucie syndrome. Her purpose as a character is to be the person who's presence drives the other character's actions. But even she has her flaws and moments of conflict.
The writing is quite good. It's very easy to read and understand, but it's not like reading a Little Golden Book or something like that. It's simple, but not condescendingly so. And there is so much quotable-ness. Okay, that isn't a word, but there are a lot of very interesting passages from the book that warrant mention, especially the one at the top of the post. Here are a few more.
Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.
-Chapter Three: Once Upon a Time
Farewell is a word that, in any language, is full of sorrow. It is a word that promises absolutely nothing.
-Chapter Twelve: Adieu
The dungeon, reader, stank. It stank of despair and suffering and hopelessness. Which is to say that the dungeon smelled of rats.
-Chapter Fourteen: Darkness
"Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Start at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light."
-Chapter Fifteen: Light
Rats have a sense of humor. Rats, in fact, think that life is very funny. And they are right, reader. They are right.
-Chapter Sixteen: Blinded by the Light
There are those hearts, reader, that never mend again once they are broken. Or if they do mend, they heal themselves in a crooked and lopsided way, as if sewn together by a careless craftsman.
-Chapter Twenty-Two: He puts his heart together again
Reader, there is nothing sweeter in this sad world than the sound of someone you love calling your name. Nothing.
-Chapter Fifty: In which the Princess says his name
The Verdict: A+
As you can see from the quotes above, this book isn't all sunshine and lollypops. There are sad things that happen, and dark things. I think it might be a little too much for some younger kids. But there's also a lot of light and forgiveness. It's definitely not your average fairy tale story. So for that reason, even though it doesn't look like much on the outside, I recommend this book. :)
Have I oversold my point or WHAT?

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