Willem Lange’s ‘The White-Footed Mouse’ sets up camp
In the places where our children’s lives intersect with the animal kingdom, some amount of cognitive dissonance is surely inevitable. A pig is as likely to sing and dance in choreographed glee on the average kid’s television screen as it is to wind up in a lightly toasted bun on his dinner plate. Tales of jungle creatures can range from spine-chilling to side-splitting in their body of literature, and the most fearsome of creatures often have a place on their pillows, stuffed with synthetic fibers and smiling.
What’s shrewd and satisfying about Willem Lange’s new children’s book, The White-Footed Mouse, is that it brings a naturalist sensibility to a genre ruled by talking (singing, cooking, pratfalling) animals while ultimately preserving – even celebrating – the sunny innocence of youth.
Lange’s third collaboration with prolific Vermont artist Bert Dodson, The White-Footed Mouse tells the story of an 8-year-old boy on his first hunting trip with his endlessly kind and patient father, who has spent countless hours exposing his son to the wonders of nature.
“When I was little, he took me for walks in the fields and the woods, and showed me how to find the nests of meadowlarks, and killdeers, and bobolinks,” writes Lange, a weathered outdoorsman, columnist, commentator and public television host. “He taught me to swim and fish and paddle a canoe. We built birdhouses together and put them up on poles around our meadow.”
These idyllic musings set the scene for a story that is two parts realism and one part romanticism, laid out in the stark beauty of late fall. Dodson’s soft-focus, earthy illustrations fit the mood nicely.
After dark one November evening, father and son head to the mountains, shining a flashlight beam across the snow to find their little hunting cabin. Sitting by the woodstove eating crackers and cheese, they spy a mouse running across the rafters and curling up on the warm clay insulating the end of the stovepipe. The boy gives him a chunk of cheese, earning an admonition from his father: “Don’t feed him . . . I don’t want mice in the camp. I’ll set a trap for him tomorrow.”
The cuddly-looking rodent isn’t the only animal in danger the next day, as the pair head out on their hunting trip. This being a realist’s tale, the reader half expects to see the boy deal with his first kill. But Lange opts for a different reality: the hunters never spot a deer all day.
They do, however, spot the mouse again when they return to the cabin – and here is where Lange puts a mischievous twist on his down-to-earth tale.
However we may view them on the cuteness scale, we adults know that rodents have got to go. But for all its matter-of-factness, this is still a children’s book. And so they don’t have to go yet.