How but in custom and ceremony

Are Innocence and Beauty Born?

—William Butler Yeats



Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Her name was Peromyscus leucopus, but she did not know it. I think it had been a long time since the mice around Port William spoke English, let alone Latin. Her language was a dialect of Mouse, a tongue for which we humans have never developed a vocabulary or grammar. Because I don’t know her name in Mouse, I will call her Whitefoot.

Wendell Berry is widely recognized as a great American writer and poet and a defender of agrarian values. Whitefoot is his first foray into children’s literature, but grown-ups will be glad to eavesdrop on this quiet, well-crafted tale. (Adult readers of Berry’s Port William series will recognize passing references to the fictional town, and the shared themes of work, order, and patience.)

She worked according to an ancient, honorable principle: Enough is enough. She worked and lived without extravagance and without waste. Her nest was a neat small cup the size of herself asleep.

Berry’s poetic but economical prose is well-suited to the story of this mouse. Whitefoot believes she lives at the center of the world, until a springtime flood carries her far away from the forest edge she knew as home. Berry does not anthropomorphize the little white-footed mouse, who doesn’t talk or even think in human terms. Still, her discovery of a wider and dangerous world, and her ability to survive within it, is a lesson that will resonate with us humans.

Readers are helped to enter Whitefoot’s tiny world by twenty illustrations. Te Selle’s densely detailed drawings are unsentimental and beautiful, and depict life an inch above ground. We emerge from the book with a restored sense of place and proportion.

To imagine the life and adventures of Whitefoot, you must compress your mind to her size. Think of going about with your eyes only an inch or two from the ground, among grass stems thicker than your wrist, maple and oak leaves that you can slip under and hide, trees that touch the sky.

Some children might be bored by the lack of talking animals or relative action. Though written for children, the language does not condescend; many young children will not understand all the language or subtext, but will enjoy the calm action and perhaps be emboldened by Whitefoot’s acceptance of life and ability to survive. This compact little book of sixty pages is ideal for nature study.

If you enjoy this book, you might also enjoy—The Art of the Commonplace (Wendell Berry), The Lay of the Land (Dallas Lore Sharp). ❖


January 1, 2013    Originally published as “Review of WHITEFOOT” on the blog Linnet on the Leaf.

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