Warning: Contains Spoilers!
A terror was hunting in the night.
Aufwader’s Thoughts: Oh, Alison Sedge. Queen of the barley, nymph of summer, mousey sun-goddess of our hearts! When I was younger I don’t think I quite appreciated the glory that is Alison, but now I find her adorable and, frankly, hilarious. There she lounges on that rock like some sort of siren of the meadow, counting off the faults of her rivals with venomous glee and rehearsing her ‘seductive country wench’ routine. But this is the Deptford Mice Trilogy, and as with all Robin’s characters, there is more to our Miss Sedge than first impressions would have us believe.
There’s a lot to delight the eye and imagination in this chapter. The soft, watercolourish descriptions of the English countryside in high summer. The antics of young Whortle Nep and his friend Sammy. The imposing threat of Mahooot the owl (love that name!) and the final triumph of Madame Akkikuyu, resulting in her acceptance into a community we were all certain would shun her the moment they saw her.
There are less pleasant aspects, however. After the levity of Alison by the still pool, things take a dive with the introduction of Jenkin and his terrifying father, Isaac Nettle. As a child, Mr Nettle frightened me silly. He still does, but perhaps for slightly different reasons.
I think the scariest thing about this character is that there is nothing supernatural about him. Jupiter was scary because of the god-like powers of evil he wielded; Morgan was scary because he served Jupiter. Whom does Mr Nettle serve? The wise, compassionate, ever-thriving Green Mouse. Yet he treats that vocation as a chore and a burden – something to be endured through gruelling prayer and the decrying of those who he believes fall short in their displays of piety. He is abusive and tiny-minded and, unhappily, the kind of mean, petty individual you find in real life. He is someone who hurts because he himself is hurting, but rather than excusing his actions that fact only brings his cruelty into sharper focus. We know from the outset that he is going to cause trouble for our heroes, and we wait with trepidation and mounting dread to see what sort.
Matt’s Thoughts: I think I’ve finally put my finger on what I like about the Fennywolde location: it’s expansive, it’s sunny and it’s outdoors. (Compared with the locales in The Dark Portal which were predominantly damp and narrow sewers or small houses, and set during an English springtime – aka an Australian winter.) And mostly indoors. So visually – and you really do have to visualise Mr Jarvis’ work on a big screen – Fennywolde is the complete opposite to that.
And yet, no one is getting a chance to enjoy that space because of Mahooot …
My favourite bits about this chapter:
- It contains a fictional character with my last name (that would be Hodge) – always awesome.
- Watching Madame Akkikuyu move from villainess to heroine – and more importantly – her gaining a sense of belonging.
What is also of interest is the character of Isaac Nettle, Jenkins’ father. Growing up religious, I always found myself rolling my eyes at characters like these, because there seemed to be an awful lot of them in the 70s, 80s and 90s in movies and books. But now that I’m a bit older and understand more about the history of the 20th century, I think I’m realising more about where these religious extremist characters come from.
Nowadays, we usually think of an extremist in really strong terms – someone who carries out acts of terrorism and such. But, from what I can tell of Western history, if you went back to the 1950s, there was a harsh streak that seemed to run through much of Christianity (which was the dominant religion on the landscape back then). It was probably well meant – a way of showing the fervency of your faith and of keeping the next generation in line.
But instead, this harshness created a cultural split we’re still feeling echoes of decades later. As the 60s took shape, a huge number of people jumped ship from the culture of their parents – they had different music, different ethics, different religious beliefs, different clothes, different politics. Different everything. By the time that generation grew up and had children, we started to see echoes of some of their parents’ religious harshness in fictional characters. Just read Stephen King’s Carrie and see the portrayal of Carrie’s fanatical mother and you see this harshness transformed into something terrifying.
So I see that in the character of Isaac Nettle. Robin portrays him with compassion – it is not the faith that makes Nettle so brutal, but the fact that he has twisted it into something harsh and tyrannical as a way of bringing order to his world, of dealing with the grief over his wife’s death. But he has become a violent abuser of his son in the process.
And this, remember, is in a children’s book. About mice. It’s tough going, but it makes for a gripping story. See you next chapter.