DiCamillo’s “The Tale of Despereaux”
“A terrific, bravura performance” (from the New York Times Book Review)
In Kate DiCamillo’s new novel, a rat, Roscuro, travels upstairs from the total darkness of a dungeon and encounters light. Addressing the reader, DiCamillo writes: ”Imagine, if you will, having spent the whole of your life in a dungeon. Imagine that late one spring day, you step out of the dark into a world of bright windows and polished floors, winking copper pots, shining suits of armor and tapestries sewn in gold.”
Here we might see DiCamillo’s own career, her ascent from full-time clerk in a store selling used books to author of a much-praised first novel for children, ”Because of Winn-Dixie,” which won a Newbery Honor Award and climbed the best-seller lists. Some might see kinship with G. I. Gurdjieff’s mystic parable about humans being captives in a prison but only a few recognizing this is so and, hearing rumors of another place, arranging an escape.
In any event, she sets the stage for a battle between the forces of Darkness and Light in ”The Tale of Despereaux,” and the book is a terrific, bravura performance.
Her accomplishment is also something of a surprise, since the book is a bouillabaisse of familiar ingredients. DiCamillo pulls it off with her wit, with her humor, but mostly with her voice. The narrator, who speaks directly to the reader, is wildly authoritative, over the top, funny and confiding. While that voice is like the loudest, most amusing one at a cocktail party, its strength also overwhelms the tentative sketches by Timothy Basil Ering, making them seem as superfluous as the proverbial wallflower at the very same party.
DiCamillo’s voice and comic asides recall those of the great Victorian stylist George MacDonald in ”The Light Princess.” But while MacDonald’s princess is light because she is exempt from gravity, DiCamillo’s Princess Pea is simply radiant. The story turns on her encounters with three characters.
Despereaux, like Wilbur in E. B. White’s ”Charlotte’s Web,” is the runt of the litter; like White’s Stuart Little, he is a mouse. The son of a French mother who speaks like Inspector Clouseau (”Get for me the makeup bag”), he is a nonconformist who falls in love with light, music and the princess.
Alas, the Mouse Council condemns him for not being a ”proper” mouse. Instead of being sent like Papillon to Devil’s Island, Despereaux is sent to the total darkness of the dungeon inhabited by mouse-eating rats.
If the mice are French in name and manners, then in name and spirit the rats are as Italian as underground relatives of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of 1990’s fame. The second important character, Roscuro the rat, is equally a nonconformist and is fascinated by the light upstairs. But just as Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader to urge him to come over to the dark side, Roscuro has as his mentor Botticelli Remorso, who counsels that a rat’s only pleasure comes from torturing others.
Like Manny Rat in Russell Hoban’s much-loved novel ”The Mouse and His Child,” and as his name suggests, Roscuro (short for Chiaroscuro) is torn between light and darkness. His love of light takes him upstairs, but he falls from the chandelier into the queen’s soup and, shocking her, brings on her death; for that, he gets a glance from the princess that sends him back to the dark dungeon to plot his revenge on her. Worse, the king bans soup in all the kingdom. ”A world without soup” is everyone’s lament.
Then, on a wagonload of confiscated soup kettles, we meet the last important character, Miggery Sow. ”Gor,” she says, showing that she is unmistakably English.
Mig, ”named for her father’s favorite prize-winning pig,” lost her mother when she was young; her father sold her into indenture; her master boxed the girl’s ears until she became hard of hearing; and finally she came to the castle, where she proved to be a slow-witted servant. But Mig has aspirations: she has seen the princess and wants to become her.
Roscuro plays on Mig’s dreams and persuades the dimwitted maiden to kidnap the princess and take her to the dungeon, telling her that in this way — as in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ”The Goosegirl” — the servant will change places with the princess. What is called for is a hero, and in this case it is an unlikely one, a mighty mouse.
Despereaux, like Ariadne rescuing her lover from the maze, unravels red thread from a spool to track his way through the labyrinthine dungeon to rescue Princess Pea, his Persephone, from the darkness.
Here, in the culminating moment, Mig learns she is being used by Roscuro and haltingly realizes that what she really wants is not to be princess. Instead, she declares, ”I want . . . I want my ma!” This prompts empathy in Princess Pea — who, after all, has also lost her own mother — and eventually brings a change of heart in the rat when the princess asks him, ”Roscuro, would you like some soup?”
The resolution of this impressive novel — a chapter called ”Happily Ever After,” of course — finds the cast assembled in a banquet hall around a kettle of soup, risen from darkness to the light.
This essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 16, 2003). Two months after this review, DiCamillo’s book won the Newbery Award. And here is an anecdote I shared a few years later in an interview:
A former student of mine at SDSU has gone into publishing and met Kate DiCamillo at a convention. They started talking and put two-and-two together until DiCamillo realized the connection and said, ‘You know, that’s the only review I ever framed. It’s hanging in my house. Every author dreams of receiving, once in their life, a review like that.’ Of course, when that story got back to me, I was immensely touched. I didn’t know what to do but I can tell you what my first impulse was: To call up DiCamillo and propose marriage.
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