By Maureen Tai, 7 May 2018
“Ralph was eager, excited, curious, and impatient all at once. The emotion was so strong it made him forget his empty stomach. It was caused by those little cars, especially that motorcycle and the pb-pb-b-b-b sound the boy made. That sound seemed to satisfy something within Ralph, as if he had been waiting all his life to hear it.”
I was likely 11 or 12 when I first read The Mouse and the Motorcycle. A bit late to the ballgame. I still have my original Yearling copy, with the mouse mounted on the vehicle, whiskers back and tail tucked under and around his arm. The pages are yellowed and spotted with age and threaten, with each turn, to detach from the spine. I’m surprised none did back then, I read and re-read this book so often.
I adored Ralph – the mouse – and still do.
Ralph lives with his (single) mother and siblings in a mousehole in room 215 of the Mountain View Inn, in the California foothills. It seems a terrible existence, at least for his mother, who worries daily that her children will succumb to starvation, poisoning, electrocution, or worse, suction by vacuum cleaner. And Ralph does nothing to mollify her.
Ralph is Bold. Reckless. Resilient. Impatient. And Obsessed with the toy motorcycle that belongs to the current young occupant of Room 215. The little boy, Keith, is on a long cross-country drive with his parents, and they break their journey at the big old hotel. Before long, Ralph is trying out the motorcycle, almost killing himself by falling into a wastebasket, and failing that, becoming fast friends with Keith. The two converse easily, united by their mutual love for the toy. Keith can only imagine what it would be like to ride it. Ralph, while the perfect size, has no clue how to work the machine. So Keith teaches the mouse, and this leads Ralph to new adventures, one of which ultimately ends with the mouse saving the little boy’s life.
Unlike some other middle grade books I’ve read recently, both the characters and plot in The Mouse and the Motorcycle are straightforward. No hidden past to be revealed. No simmering rage that emerges with a vengeance. Ralph loves the motorcycle and wants to ride it because he loves the speed, he craves adventure, and he’s desperate to grow up. Keith loves the motorcycle and he’d love to ride it because he’s desperate to grow up too. But Keith can’t ride it, and never will be able to. He’s the wrong size.
In the end, Keith has to make a decision. Does he keep his beloved toy, even though he’d never be able to use it the way he wishes he could? Or does he gift it to a tiny mouse who has shown himself responsible enough to look after it?
In hindsight, perhaps what I loved most about this book was not Ralph the mouse, but the possibility that Ralph suggested. That some wee creature – a mouse, an elf, or a fairy – might be able to put to good and actual use, some small toy that I possessed, that I myself was unable to fit. A Matchbox car. A miniature tea set. Or maybe I just desperately wanted to grow up too.
For ages 8 and up.