Sunday, March 3, 2013

Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck illustrated by Kelly Murphy

Tumtum and Nutmeg fans will want to grab this book, Secrets at Sea, with both hands and dive into the lives of these adventurous mice.

Helena and her family live in New York city and can traced their family origins back to the original Dutch settlers.  The mice have adopted each new family over the generations.

Helena and her surviving sisters Louise and Beatrice are named after the daughters of Queen Victoria in England.  By a lovely coincidence Victoria is about to celebrate her diamond jubilee just as Queen Elizabeth did last year.  Vicky, Alice and their mother and father have perished.  Helena is in charge of her sisters and her tearaway brother Lamont.  The upstairs family - the Upstairs Cranstons have decided to travel across the oceans from New York to London in order to find a partner for their elder daughter Olive.  It is all about "giving Olive her chance".  Olive sadly is a fairly plain girl while her younger sister Camilla is considered a beauty.

There are so many quaint and delicious touches in this book.  The mice wear only fur around the house but at home as a family they dress in human clothes fashioned from scraps left from the human sewing basket.

"Louise and Beatrice and I were up there half the night every night, bringing down snippets of satin and serge that had fallen from the dress makers' scissors. And ribbon ends. And any spool of thread, rolled under their worktables. And all the pins and needles worked into the carpet. Because you never know what yo';ll need.  We think ahead, we mice."

Helena decides to seek advice from an elderly relative.  Using a crystal ball (a marble) Anunt Fannie Fenimore tells her the family must travel with the upstairs Cranstons on the ship to England. This is terrifying news because mice and water do not mix.  In fact it was an accident with a rain barrel that led to the drowning of three family members.  The four siblings travel to the ship inside the family trunks and once on board they discover all the other mice who are also travelling with families bound for England.  Nigel, their charming cockney Cabin Steward, takes the four mice to the dining hall on their first night.

"On the far side we got the surprise of our lives.  There sat easily a hundred and fifty mice, at three or four long tables - yardsticks, supported by alphabet blocks. ... Young mice waiters with perky black bow ties bustled along the diners, stepping neatly over their tails, serving the soup course. ... Before we knew it we'd been seated down the end of a yardstick. Thimbles of a clear soup were set before us.  As it turned out, we kept just a course behind the humans in the dining saloon above."

The details in this book are all perfect.  The food, the world seen through the eyes of a mouse, life on board the ship, the observances of rank and privilege, and the insights into the personalities of all the characters. I especially loved the food!

I wonder why illustrators get such small billing on the front cover of novels.  The illustrations in this book are so important and so well drawn that even in black and white pencil you almost feel you can stroke the fur of each mouse.  The final illustration of Helena and her partner skimming the dance floor is magical.  You can read more here and see all the illustrations.

Whimsical language, sure characterization, unflagging adventure, even romance—all seen through Helena's relentlessly practical beady little eyes.

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