“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.”
With that sentence, this Newbery Medal winner won my heart. The Tale of Despereaux is a classic fairy tale with a knight (in this case, a very small mouse with very large ears), an ogre (in this case, a rat), and a princess (in this case. . . still a princess). On the dust jacket write-up, Kate DiCamillo states that she wrote this book at the request of her best friend’s son Luke, who asked her to write a story about an unlikely hero with exceptionally large ears. The result is a charming tale filled not only with love, but hope as well.
The story begins with the birth of the hero, the lone survivor of an ill-fated litter of mice. He is so
pathetic and sickly his mother, with a flair for the dramatic (she is named Antoinette and has all the sensitivity of her royal namesake) names him Despereaux “for all the sadness, for the many despairs of this place.” (Quickly adding, “Now where is my mirror?” DiCamillo has a flair for humor that is just a touch dark—enough to be amusing to adults without going full-on Grimm Brothers.) Little Despereaux survives against his family’s expectations, but he proves to be a bit odd. Instead of scurrying about and hiding in corners, he’s drawn to open spaces and light. Instead of chewing on the pages of
books he finds in the library, he reads them. Instead of fearing people, he falls in love with the Princess Pea. His family gives up trying to educate him, but when he is discovered actually speaking to humans, the Mouse Council dooms him to the dungeons, where he will be eaten by the rats.
This story was published in 2003, four years before Ratatouille made rats more palatable to humans, and I’m sorry to say that The Tale of Despereaux does nothing positive for their reputation. They are dark and evil and like to torture the prisoners. As the rat Botticelli says, “The meaning of life is suffering, specifically the suffering of others. . . . Reducing a prisoner to weeping and wailing and begging is a delightful way to invest your existence with meaning.” One rat, named Roscuro (short for Chiaroscuro, the arrangement of light and dark in art), is drawn to the light and longs to go upstairs out of the dungeon. Roscuro is the rat that Desperaux is destined to encounter.
I don’t want to lead you down a primrose path and pretend that everything turns all kumbaya between rats and mice or between rats and people in this story. Again, this was written in a time before we knew that rats might have a flair for knowing which herb pairs best with goat cheese. Roscuro is a dungeon rat, not a kitchen rat, although his name does foreshadow his eventual fate. The tiny mouse Despereaux is the one and only hero in this story, and his quest to save the princess from a plot against her is the driving force. Classic fairy tale stuff. There is also a subplot about a servant named Miggery Sow, whose father sold her into slavery for a handful of cigarettes, a hen, and a red tablecloth. Her new master hits her about the ears so often she’s practically deaf, which is sometimes played for laughs. So . . . that’s dark. In the end, though, the princess shows her kindness and she has something as close to a happy ending as a profoundly deaf surviver of child abuse can have.
The book is illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering, and his enchanting drawings contribute to its overall charm. From Despereaux
wielding a “sword” made from a needle, to a Roscuro wearing a spoon for a hat, to the little mouse and the princess meeting for the first time, these illustrations evoke joy.
The Tale of Despereaux is a delightful story for children and adults looking for a (mostly) happily ever after. It’s also my latest in Little Free Library book review.