First off, Grahame vs. E.B. White. All of E.B. White's books probably owe something to The Wind in the Willows in one way or another, but Stuart Little is the White book with which we can make the greatest comparisons. Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan feature talking animals who interact with people, but they are still animals - if that makes sense - with motivations that animals may have. (I guess I should write most confidently about Charlotte's Web since I've read that several times since I was ten years old, unlike Trumpet). The Wind in the Willows feature animals that behave both like animals and then like people - Mr. Toad's motivations are purely human, while Rat and Mole and Badger and especially the Otter family all sometimes behave like people and sometimes behave like animals. Stuart Little is full of characters who do the same thing. Stuart himself doesn't show any mouse tendencies - he's like Toad in this respect. But Margalo, and the Pigeon who writes the note that warns Margalo, and Snowball the cat and his friend, all behave both like animals and people - the pigeon writes a note in English. Grahame's riverbank and White's Manhattan might not seem similar but in actuality they are part of the same world. This is a world where animals and people interact, sometimes seamlessly sometimes not. Toad getting arrested and thrown in prison by humans is not so much different than Stuart Little thrown away with the human garbage - both are animals trying to make it in a human world.
Stuart Little is also a disturbing book, or at least it was disturbing to 10 year old Shawn. 42 year old Shawn can accept some of the quirks and conventions of Stuart Little, but even then I don't think it's as great of a classic as it's been portrayed (I haven't yet done any research on what the book might mean, but I plan on it after writing this). The Shawn of Now finally decided that Stuart Little has all the elements of a modern fairy tale. It's got elements of Thumbelina and Tom Thumb, the mouse princess, and Peach Boy. "Once upon a time" a woman gives birth to a mouse. Along the way, he has adventures, goes on a quest, meets (and is spurned) by a princess. Like Peach Boy, he grows up quickly. Like characters in fairy tales, he has a jealous brother, an adoring mother. I liked everything up to the chapter The Automobile, and then everything starts to change. This is where, I think, 10 year old Shawn starts to get disturbed, and maybe decides to never read the book again (until 30 years later, at least). Margalo flies away - without any kind of goodbye. She just leaves! She's a bird, she behaves like a bird - yet she also had human characteristics. She could at least have said "goodbye." Then Stuart decides to run away. Without any care for his family, he goes on this quest to find the bird. Won't his mother and father be upset (clearly the brother won't)? Then there is this completely pointless chapter in the schoolroom - what was that about? And then Harriet Ames - the princess - who doesn't really spurn so much but that his romantic inflexibility won't allow them to be together. Then he heads north - and it ENDS!!! "The sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction." That's not an end! That's the middle. What happened to the end? Maybe I was supposed to make up the end in my head. But I'm not the writer. I want the end! I want to know what was up with E.B. White that he ended it this way. Charlotte's Web had an end. I don't remember how The Trumpet of the Swan ended. I think that was why I was disturbed. There wasn't any end to this.
And Stuart was kind of a jerk. He's not a very likable character.
Stuart Little by E.B. White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I'm not a fan of Stuart Little. I can vaguely remember being disturbed by the tone of the book as a kid. I'm vaguely disturbed by it now. I'm not sure if it's the surrealism, or the strange ending, or just Stuart himself - he's sort of a jerky know-it-all. I don't understand the enduring popularity of the book either - what is it about this mouse that I'm missing out on?
I liked Snowbell the cat though - now there's a character in the book I can identify with!
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New York Times review of the book from October 28, 1945 by Malcom Cowley - my sentiments exactly!
But the parts of Stuart Little are greater than the whole, and the book doesn't hold to the same mood or move in a straight line. There are loose ends in the story, of the sort that make children ask, "What happened then?"--and this time there isn't any answer. For example, a gray Angora cat plans to climb through the window and eat the little bird who is the heroine of the story. Margalo is warned and flies away; but we never learn what happened to the cat when she prowled through the house at night. We never learn what happened to Stuart as he pursued his search for Margalo: did he ever find her? Did he return to his family? Mr. White has a tendency to write amusing scenes instead of telling a story. To say that Stuart Little is one of the best children's books published this year is very modest praise for a writer of his talent.