Stuart Little is one of those books I used to recommend to parents when I worked in a bookstore. I liked “Charlotte’s Web,” and it’s undisputedly a classic. Robin William’s character in “Mrs. Doubtfire” reads it to baby Natalie (while this isn’t necessarily a ringing endorsement it certainly attests to the classical status of this book). And so, when baby Alice and I were choosing our book from the library last week it was between Stuart and something more modern like Funke. Because Alice was born in New York and I liked the idea of her being able, unlike me until now, to say she’d read Stuart Little, the classic children’s novel, I opted for Stuart.
My question is this: How many people out there HAVE actually read it? Having finished the book, I must say, I’m not sure I’d exactly recommend it. It’s not a bad book, but it’s not the best I’ve read, either. The book is episodic, which is fine. In fact, generally I prefer episodic for young children. They can take a snooze or have a distracted session and then still pick back up again and know the characters, but this one just seemed episodic…AND disorganized. I don’t think that’s overly critical. The book is creative, it’s well written, it’s interesting–but it is strange and chaotic and above all, disorganized.
I think most people are fluent on the over all plot: Stuart Little is a mouse born to a well-to-do family of New Yorkers living in a two story apartment on (I think) the upper east side. Despite being slightly over two inches, Stuart is afforded his own room, which holds his bed, made out of a matchbox, and he enjoys sailing. Stuart doesn’t seem to have a formal education, but instead sets out upon rather manly, solo adventures at the tender (or ancient, it’s hard to gage for a mouse) age of 7, following meeting Margalo—a brown bird with a dash of yellow who sort of speaks in rhyme and takes solace in the Little family’s Boston Fern following some sort of accident.
While it might be problematic that Stuart has fallen in love (and it’s never completely confirmed he’s “in love,” but crush seems too mild) with someone outside his own species, it’s never really addressed, mostly, I assume, because Stuart, like so many men in the 1940s, keeps rather buttoned up about his personal affairs. Mostly he watches Margalo and thinks nice thoughts about (her?) it.
And, though most of Stuarts “adventures” seem to fall in account of Margalo’s abrupt departure from the Little’s home, there are a few things that happen before. Stuart attempts to sail “The Wasp,” on the Central Park Boat Pond, but runs into a squall and ultimately collision at sea with another ship, “The Lillian B. Womrath,” but he does make friends with the owner of “The Wasp,” a surgeon dentist whom becomes something of a mentor (and supplier of miniature vessels). Stuart also overcomes an encounter with Snowbell, the Little family cat—or perhaps it is actually an encounter with the Little Family’s rolling blinds, but either way, Stuart escapes.
The aspects of the story I found troubling, or strange came later, once Margalo “flies the coup,” with Stuart in her wake. On his way out of town Stuart visits his friend the surgeon dentist, who offers him a bright yellow car that runs on “five drops of gasoline.” Fair enough, I say—a yellow miniature car from a man that already likes model ships—but here’s the kicker, even for 1943—the yellow car has an “invisibility switch.” Now, this is no Harry Potter, people—we’re not ensconced in magic. In fact, while the aspect of Stuart’s lineage is strange, it’s not presented as magical so much as just…maybe something that happens (as the book later presents the character of Harriet Ames, who is not a mouse born to regular-sized rich people, but a tiny but perfectly proportioned woman born to rich people).
So we now have mouse with a tiny car that can be invisible. But Stuart accidentally hits the starter button while the car is invisible and wrecks it—sad, but not the weirdest part. Astoundingly, the next morning he is still able to drive the car, which apparently the dentist has made repairs to the night before. And Stuart doesn’t drive it invisible, instead he drives it, on main New York Streets, in full view.
There are also a lot of people that seem to sit on curbs or in ditches. Perhaps this frequently happened in the 40s, but certainly it took us by surprise. Stuart generally encounters people, like himself, that are affluent or at least well to do in the gutters. Before leaving New York he meets a school superintendent who’s down in the dumps because he’s got to find a substitute for the day. Stuart volunteers, stopping first at a doll shop to by the perfect scholarly ensemble for the occasion. Decked out in tweeds Stuart arrives and keeps decorum in the schoolroom, despite being so small. And, while decorum is well and good, Stuart also decides to forgo the lesson plans and typical subjects like math and science in lieu of a heated discussion about being Chairman of the World and what laws could be universal (among the solidly “good” things presented are “the smell of a baby’s neck if it’s mother keeps it tidy,”). Once Stuart gets his fill of the discussion he splits, heading back to his tiny yellow car and leaving the city for northern skies and perhaps, if he’s lucky, Margalo.
But Stuart again, somewhat conveniently meets another man in the gutter, this time near Ames Crossing (in Connecticut, it seems). The man suggests Stuart meet Harriet Ames, who is also small and well dressed. Stuart doesn’t seem too interested at first, but when he sees Harriet at the post office he hides and all thoughts of Margalo temporarily fly out the window. Instead he goes about arranging the perfect date with Miss Ames, including a tiny canoe and ice-cream spoon paddles.
But when everything goes wrong on the date—it rains, the canoe gets messed up by some area children and the spoons are destroyed (Stuart seems most distracted by a string that has been tied to the toy canoe, making it clearly appear as what it is—a toy), Stuart is unable to recover. The cool Harriet shrugs and asks if perhaps they can go on and enjoy the date, rumpled canoe and rain, but Stuart is too worked up. In the end Harriet goes home to dinner and Stuart resumes his quest for Margalo.
Why the intense play by play, you ask? Well, because it’s somewhat astounding, isn’t it? A conversation and stint as a teacher and discussion on chairman of the world, a date with a tiny woman (let alone her existence?) and a potentially invisible car—that’s a lot of plot action! But, then it’s just…gone as Stuart leaves Ames Crossing and returns his northern quest. However, he does meet a telephone repairman (sitting in a ditch, again, leading me to believe the world was once quieter, easier and workers allowed these “breaks”) who tells him a northern quest is never a bad choice.
And the book ends. Just like that. Frankly, my head was still spinning at what a jerk Stuart seemed to be during his date. I was so shocked I even found myself checking to see if I missed some pages, but no. So I came out of this book not really very fond of Stuart Little. I mean, it’s neat he’s a mouse making the way in a big world, and I really admire his need for well-suited clothing to complement any occasion, but he just wasn’t a very nice guy/mouse. He sort of has weird illusions of grandeur and come off as a poor communicator. Hopefully Alice and I will have better luck with our next book, “The BFG.”