When I was a teenager, one of my very favorite books was Cynthia Voigt's HOMECOMING, about a girl who, after being abandoned by her mother, must travel hundreds of miles by foot to see a grandmother she's never met, safeguarding her younger siblings' well-being while trying to come to terms with their mother's disappearance and the uncertainty of their future. Now, 30 years after its publication, Voigt continues to explore many of the themes of that novel in her new book for slightly younger readers, YOUNG FREDLE. Only this time, instead of a young human family, the protagonist is a young house mouse in search of a home.
For his entire life, Fredle's world has been the kitchen, and his home has been the pantry: "Home was a wide nest behind the second shelf of the kitchen pantry. Home was made of scraps of soft cotton T-shirts and thick terry-cloth washcloths, woven through with long, cool strips of a silk blouse… Their nest was big enough for the whole family, and so comfortable that as soon as you scrambled up over its rim at the end of a long night's foraging, all you wanted to do was curl up and go to sleep."
Fredle's home may be cozy, but the social dynamics of the house mice are anything but; if a mouse falls prey to the cat or a trap, he or she is considered "went," and the rest of the mice forget their lost companion immediately. What's more, mice who are injured or who misbehave in some way are pushed out of the nest, prodded out into the pantry, where they're sure to be "went" themselves one way or another.
That's exactly what happens to Fredle after he and his cousin gorge on a chocolate candy: "They had pushed him out onto the pantry floor and left him there behind its closed doors.... Sick and unhappy and frightened, Fredle did what mice do: he froze, and trembled, and waited." Thanks to a kind-hearted human, Fredle is not captured by the cat or crushed by a trap. Instead, he's gently placed in a world he never even knew existed: outside.
There he becomes acquainted with field mice, who are related to him but seem so different in their habits and attitudes. He comes to know --- in some cases more intimately than he would have chosen --- the many different kinds of predators that stalk mice outside. He learns how to forage in unexpected places and at odd hours, and discovers how to make his own nest. But most importantly, Fredle sees the night sky filled with stars and the moon: "It was too beautiful to scare him." At first, Fredle's quest is to figure out how to get from the backyard back into the house, to be reunited with his family. But as he continues to explore and discover, as he keeps relying on himself and forming new relationships, he wonders: Where is home, after all?
YOUNG FREDLE is a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of home, the price of adventure, and the rewards of following one's curiosity. It is also, however, a thoroughly entertaining coming-of-age story, set amid a host of dangers. Fredle escapes from a band of raccoons, narrowly misses being snatched by a raptor, and is threatened by a snake. But he also discovers new kinds of beauty and unexpected friendships, the kinds of rewards that, as the reader discovers, will stay with him for the rest of his life.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 11, 2011