I wish I’d picked a different book to read this week! I read Robert Lawson’s Mr. Revere and I as a child and quite liked it. But Ben and Me was illustrator Lawson’s first attempt and authoring, and it is a clumsy effort.
A mouse named Amos comes to live in Benjamin Franklin’s house and gets involved with his experiments and other work. At first the conceit is that Ben isn’t particularly bright, and most of his ideas come from Amos. But that gets dropped in favor of Amos being an unreliable narrator, thinking he’s “helping” when he’s making things worse. Then both of those get dropped for the idea that Ben simply has a dangerous mania for electricity. But the least appealing part of the book is that Ben and Amos have a unpleasant, antagonistic kind of “loyalty” to each other, sometimes crossing the line into cruelty.
Still, Lawson gets credit for taking a rather dreary genre of children’s books, the fictionalized account of colonial American history (think Johnny Tremain or The Matchlock Gun), and treating it irreverently and humorously, in a way that an actual kid might want to read.
What I found most interesting, though, is that it was clearly source material for two later and much more famous books about sentient mice.
First there is Stuart Little (1945). It is impossible to read about Stuart’s little conveniences and arrangements, his vehicles and his meals, and not be reminded of Amos. (Top right: Stuart. Bottom left and right: Amos.)
The second is The Rescuers (1959), which likewise gets a lot of fun out of mice making a cosy life in human habitation.
But the inspiration goes much further. Amos goes with Ben to France, where he visit embassies and meets a beautiful aristocratic white mouse who needs his help. Amos is rough and inelegant compared to her, but is stalwart and resourceful. With the help of a third (boy) mouse, they stage a daring rescue. (Top right: Miss Bianca, Nils, and Bernard of The Rescuers. Bottom left: Miss Bianca and Bernard. Bottom right: Madame Sophia and Amos watching a French aristocrat.)
Next week, more about Robert Lawson, who also illustrated Mr. Popper’s Penguins and The Story of Ferdinand, and was also kind of a big awful racist.