Post Road Magazine #30

The Tale of Despereaux

Matthew Dicks

I often say that I knew I was going to marry my wife when on our first date, in the midst of a deep and meaningful discussion about her hopes and dreams for the future, she said, "I'm sorry. It's almost 6:00, and there's a Simpsons rerun coming on that I really want to watch. Do you mind?"

In that moment, the clouds parted. The sun bathed us in a warm glow. The birds sang. I knew that I had found the woman with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

This, however, is not entirely true. While I was admittedly quite smitten by my future wife's desire to pause our conversation to watch The Simpsons, it was earlier that day, when she first arrived at my apartment, when I knew that she was the girl for me.

Elysha arrived with a gift, wrapped in the glossy pages of a magazine. It was a book. It was the perfect book.

Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux.

It was a book that I had read to my fifth grade students earlier that year and loved. Truly loved. It is a book that contains one of my favorite quotes of all time, which hangs in my classroom today: "Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform."

The Tale of Despereaux is one of those remarkable books that manages to entertain adults and children alike. It's perhaps the book that best straddles that line. It is nearly perfect.

It's the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse unlike any other mouse. He is a runt with enormous ears. He loves music. He reads. He falls in love with a human princess. He is punished for daring to be different. He is sentenced to the dungeon and certain death amidst the rats of the castle.

So begins Despereaux's adventure, which ultimately leads him to confrontations with a rat who inexplicably loves the light, a jailer who loves a good story, an orphan with a cauliflower ear, a mouse-hating cook, and, of course, the Princess Pea.

The Tale of Despereaux, on its surface, is an adventure that weaves the stories of several characters into a seamless and surprising tale of danger, intrigue, betrayal, and salvation. It's a great story that will keep you turning the pages, but at its heart, this story is so much more than a thrilling adventure. DiCamillo has written a novel about the challenges faced by those who dare to be different. She examines how persecution can strengthen or break a person (or rodent), and how fine a line it is between good and evil. She writes about how the greatest courage is demonstrated not in the form of swordplay or sacrifice (though this book has both), but in the willingness to be yourself against great odds and attempt the impossible.

After all, Despereaux wishes to marry a human princess. Can you imagine anymore more impossible?

There is an inscription in the copy of The Tale of Despereaux that my future wife handed to me on that day in March of 2003. It is perhaps the best inscription ever written:

For Matt,
Swimming in wonderment and possibility with an eye to tomorrow…
Elysha

Our daughter is six and our son is two. There will come a day when I will sit down and read this beautiful book to them. We will turn the pages and fear for Desperaux's life and pray that he and the Princess Pea can find love against impossible odds. We will read their mother's inscription and marvel at the beauty of her words and her remarkable prescience. But what I hope my children take away from this story- even more than the adventure or the artifact of their parents' new love-is an understanding of the courage it takes to be yourself, regardless of what that self may be, and how it can lead to you an interesting, and ultimately satisfying fate, whether you be man or mouse.



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