Having just finished a non-fiction work about evolution, I decided to bring it down a notch and read something very different, but still somewhat related. Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World is a lovely children’s book about a few days in the life of a white-footed mouse (whom we call Whitefoot, since we don’t know her real name in Mouse language). Author Wendell Berry writes with an elegant simplicity that is sweet without being syrupy. Of the heroine, he writes, “In comparison to a white oak, or even a human, she would not live long, perhaps not a year, almost certainly not two, but the little life she had she loved dearly and so far had taken excellent care of.”
I’m going to make a confession. I become absolutely wrecked when animals die in books (or movies for that matter), so this line worried me enough that I flipped to the end to see how things turn out. Spoiler: this is not a death book. Whitefoot is alive and well in the final paragraph. Hooray!!
The little mouse does face adversity, however. As the days grow longer, she knows it’s time to leave her family and make a home of her own. She finds a perfect jar in which to build her own nest, gathers food and nesting materials, and gets to work.
A home for a mouse, illustrated by Davis Te Selle
Not long after she finishes, rain begins to pour down and floods the area she had decided to settle on. She manages to make her way to a log, which is then swept away downstream, far away from her intended home. Eventually, the rains stop, the log comes to rest, and Whitefoot sets about making sense of her new world.
The majority of the book covers Whitefoot’s journey on the log. It’s a very simple story, but one packed with charm and meaning. I admire Berry’s ability to bring us into the mouse’s world by describing how she sees it: “To imagine the life and adventures of Whitefoot, you must compress your mind to her size. Think of going about with your eyes only an inch or two from the ground, among grass stems thicker than your thumb, weed stems thicker than your wrist, maple and oak leaves that you can slip under and hide, trees that touch the sky.” So skillfully does he bring us physically down to mouse level, that we can see the world the way she sees it. When the rains come, we’re unsettled because we can imagine now what that rain must be like for something that is only a couple of inches tall.
I particularly like Berry’s description of this story being from the center of the world. As he explains, “Wherever she was, she was at the center of the world. That one lives at the center of the world is the world’s profoundest thought. . . . .Like humans, she lived in the little world of what she knew, for there was no other world for her to live in.” I often gripe about people who think of themselves as being at the center of the universe, but this line gave new meaning to that phrase for me. All of us, humans and animals alike, can only live and make sense of the universe we know: from a biological perspective, it makes perfect sense. This is a reminder that if I want someone to understand my point of view, I need to open up my world to them and bring them along, the way Berry brings us into Whitefoot’s universe.
This book is adorned with heartwarming illustrations by Davis Te Selle. These illustrations transform a children’s book into centerpiece, something to put on a night stand in a guest bedroom to delight visitors.
Ultimately, Whitefoot is a story of survival, a short peek into the very small window of a mouse’s life. Take an hour or two out of a hectic day and read this tale of a small creature’s quest to fulfill her destiny as a mouse. I promise it will soothe your heart.