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WHY write a story about mice?
I certainly never expected to write a story about mice, though one of my favorite fictional characters is Reepicheep, the valiant talking mouse in several of the Narnia Chronicles, written by C.S. Lewis. Still, real mice were never of particular interest to me… until the day we got that text.
WHAT happens on a road trip…
… doesn’t always stay on the road trip!
Brian and I have family in Montana. It’s a long drive from where we live, 13+ hours, depending on road conditions. Though it happens far less frequently than I’d like these days due to the cost of filling up a gas tank, I still enjoy driving for long stretches, listening to an audio book or music while Brian sleeps in the passenger seat.
That’s what I was doing several years ago (4 or 5 at least!) as we traveled east along the Columbia River Gorge, the scenic corridor that divides Oregon from Washington, headed for Montana, when Brian’s phone dinged with a text from his sister. In it she’d linked a video about a type of mouse I’d never heard of. A mouse that hunts its food. Beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, even other mice. A mouse that isn’t afraid to fight creatures like centipedes and scorpions. As for the venom of the latter’s stings? No worries. It acts as a pain reliever in this mouse instead of paralyzing or killing it. Perhaps the oddest thing about this mouse is that it howls like a wolf to defend its territory–a tiny, fierce wolf with the valiant heart of Reepicheep.
This is the grasshopper mouse.
WHO, WHERE, and HOW: And so I did what writers do…
To say I was fascinated by these grasshopper mice might be an understatement, because by the time Brian and I finished that long drive to Montana, we’d brainstormed a story world in which these mice could live. A story world based firmly in the nature of the desert South West of the USA (one of the grasshopper mouse’s habitats), except for two things. These mice could talk, and they had a society somewhat more elaborate and structured than grasshopper mice actually have (as far as I know). This story world would also be inhabited by other types of mice who are not howling, hunting, scorpion-slaying mice. So in order to create a sympathetic hero who is a grasshopper mouse, I needed a reason for him to decide he wasn’t going to be a mouse-killer. Maybe a whole burrow of grasshopper mice might come to the same decision.
That’s where this story sat for several years, while I wrote my most recent historical novel, Shiloh (sequel to Mountain Laurel) and the follow-up novella, The Journey of Runs-Far. Once the Kindred series was complete, we faced some financial and situational challenges, and I needed to take a break from traditional publishing to deal with them. But I still wanted to write, so I turned my attention to the children’s books I’d been writing or brainstorming on the side all these years. First was Bear Country which released in April of this year. Then came that story about grasshopper mice. I knew right away it would be a different sort of story than Bear Country.
It became clear that the consequences of a group of mice deciding to deny a destructive instinct and choose compassion over violence would be more costly than that of a teddy bear lost in the wilderness. While Larkspur has a happy ending, it’s not another sweet read like Bear Country, which is why I targeted a slightly older reading audience (8-12)*. But in the midst of the challenges these remarkable mice face there are scenes that celebrate friendship, empathy, finding and pursuing one’s calling, and community. Its themes explore why it’s important to choose good over evil, even to the point of denying a basic instinct.
* If the young readers in your life have read the Narnia Chronicles, they are likely ready for Larkspur.
You might have noticed the correlation to our own struggle with sin. But on what spiritual foundation could I base the deeper themes of this story? These characters are mouse-kind, not mankind. They cannot be redeemed the same way we are, through belief in the atoning death of Jesus on the cross, and his resurrection three days later. So how far could I take this theme of choosing life over death, compassion over harm? Can the created world experience redemption, and if so, how?
WHEN: The promise of a New Earth…
To explore this theme in my story-world, I turned to my favorite chapter in the Bible, Romans 8. Particularly these two verses (20-21). “The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens (The Message).” This promise says to me that one day our entire earth will be redeemed, the curse lifted, sin and death vanquished, all creation remade into a New Earth, including the animal kingdom.
And so I posited: what if, long ago, a grasshopper mouse had a moment of insight and understood that there is a Creator, that the way the natural world works now, with its harsh, often merciless struggle to survive, isn’t the way it once was, nor the way it will one day be again. How would such an understanding change the way this grasshopper mouse chose to live his life?
Larkspur: A Mouse’s Tale, is my answer to that question. Read on for a sneak peek at Chapter One.
Sneak Peek: the first scene from Larkspur: A Mouse’s Tale
Excerpt from Larkspur: A Mouse’s Tale Text Copyright 2023 by Lori Benton. All rights reserved.
1 — A Reckless Mouse
“Jory Mouse left his house, off to wander wild. Where he goes, no one knows, but Sister is beguiled…”
The little singsong voice froze Jory in the shadow of a prickly pear cactus. From rounded ears to white tail-tip, he held himself stone-still—as if that would fool anyone. He was already spotted.
“Silas!” said another voice. “I’m not beguiled. Where did you even learn that word?”
“It means smitten, charmed—” The first voice was abruptly silenced, no doubt by a muffling paw.
Not only had that pesky pup, Silas, followed Jory, but so had Silas’s older sister, Narina—the prettiest young deer mouse doe in the burrow. Jory spotted the pair sheltered from the sun beneath a desert willow’s tangled stalks.
“Stop making rhymes about other mice,” Narina said. “It isn’t nice—oh! Now I’ve done it.”
Bursting into giggles, Silas fell on his back, clutching his white belly while his hind paws batted the air.
Narina gazed across the sunlit ground between the willow and the cactus sheltering Jory. “You aren’t going to wander wild, are you, Jory?” she asked, voice cautiously soft. “Not with the sun high. Your parents will worry.”
At the edge of the prickly pear’s shade, Jory cast a look upward. High on a giant saguaro cactus a white-and-black flicker perched, but the sky was empty of the Winged that mice feared—hawks, eagles, and owls. Jory scampered across the sun-scorched ground to the mice who’d followed him.
Tiny Silas was a new-furred pup, barely out of the nest. Though born the same season as Jory, Narina was smaller than he was too. She had slender pink paws and large black eyes and a tail longer and thinner than Jory’s. Their fur was close in color though, golden brown, except for their white chests and bellies.
“I wasn’t going far,” Jory said.
Narina didn’t look reassured. “Why are you out of the burrow in daylight again?”
“He’s probably hungry and doesn’t want us to know.” Silas leapt up and shook dust off his fur. “We will know, Jory. Because the more you eat, the bigger your feet—and the rest of you!”
Narina put a paw around her brother’s muzzle again. She and Jory peered from the willow’s cover, looking for danger. If you must leave the burrow after sunrise, go quietly. Nest-pups heard that warning before they ever saw the sun.
“I’m not the only one who doesn’t do as he’s told,” Jory muttered. Narina and her brother had followed him, after all.
But Silas was right. He was unusually big for a deer mouse his age. Almost as big as Chief-Mouse Allark, the largest mouse of their burrow. And he was always hungry. It was embarrassing how many of the seeds he and his parents worked all night to forage that Jory managed to eat before the next night. His parents had started exchanging worried looks when they caught him at it. Like the look Narina was giving him now.
“Why do you go off alone, Jory?” she asked. “Just to forage?”
“I like being alone.” Something else that made him different. No other deer mouse wanted to be alone. There were terrors in the desert, hunters of mice by day or night. Not just the Winged in the sky, but the Four-Pawed, Crawlers, and Coilers on the ground. There were even fearsome Howlers—grasshopper mice who hunted other mice and gave wild, shrill howls when they attacked.
Narina’s dark eyes were wide. “Aren’t you afraid?”
He was afraid. A little. But something else inside him was stronger than his fear. Something that made him want to wander wild, as Silas had sung. But all he could think to say was, “I’m careful.”
Silas freed his muzzle from Narina’s paw. “Chief-Mouse Allark says you’re reckless. I heard him. What’s it mean, reckless?”
Narina’s delicate ears turned pink. “Do not put that in a rhyme, Silas!”
Jory knew what reckless meant—the opposite of careful—but wanted no more questions he couldn’t fully answer. He was restless, not reckless. He was curious, but about what exactly he couldn’t say. And yes, he was also hungry.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine!”
Before Narina or Silas could say another word, he dashed from the willow’s cover, leaving them behind.
Keep reading! Order your copy of Larkspur today.
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