There are many grand, classic novels delving into the themes of transgression, forgiveness and, sometimes, redemption. I’m adding another one to the list: Beverly Cleary’s, “The Mouse and the Motorcycle.”
I know. We’re not talking Victor Hugo and the bishop’s candlesticks here. But it so happens that Ralph the Mouse and Jean Valjean both know a thing or two about the transforming nature of grace.
I had forgotten this, ahem, mouse tale, until I dug it out and read it aloud to my kids last week. Whimsical is so overused, but the story really is a fun and fanciful story of young Ralph who lives at the decaying Mountain View Inn and Keith, a little boy who checks into the hotel with his family.
Keith has a shiny toy motorcycle that Ralph rides around the hotel until the fateful day that Ralph lands in a heap of bed linens and, in a desperate attempt to escape the washing machine, loses Keith’s motorcycle.
At first, Keith is devastated and angry. The motorcycle was his favorite toy—the one he had saved his allowance to buy. But after a day, Keith initiates a conversation with the guilt-ridden mouse and asks what Ralph and his family would like for breakfast.
“You mean we still get room service? After what I did?”
“Sure.” Keith pulled his knees up under his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs.
“You mean you aren’t mad at me anymore?” asked Ralph.
“I guess you might say I’m mad but not real mad,” Keith decided. “I’ve been lying here thinking. It wouldn’t be right for me to be real mad, because I get into messes myself. My mom and dad tell me I don’t stop to use my head.”
Ralph and Keith begin to swap stories of the ways they’ve gotten into trouble. They’re both hasty to jump into things before learning how to do something properly. They commiserate over their impatience to grow up. And in the stories of their common struggles, their friendship is rekindled.
I’m trying to remember to switch from mouse voice to little boy voice as I’m reading aloud, but mostly, my mind is thinking about what Keith said: “It wouldn’t be right for me to be real mad, because I get into messes myself.”
Kind of reminds me of the story of the servant, forgiven by the King of his staggering debt, who responds by rushing out and demanding compensation from a debtor who owed him a trifling amount. I’m like that at times—forgetful of the unmerited grace I have received; harboring my anger at someone who’s done me wrong. All the while, I’m oblivious, or worse yet, indifferent, to the ways I’ve hurt those around me.
I’m not minimizing the wrongs that happen in this world. On a grand scale, genocides, slavery, robbing children of their innocence—all of these are horrific injustices that deserve our outrage. On a more day-to-day level, we struggle with betrayals of trust and friendship. Or we are the victims of slander. Or adultery. Or just plain mean-spiritedness. Somebody cheats or steals or lies and seems to get away with it. Sometimes, on every level, we really are right.
My pastor friend, Clarence Schilt, astutely observes, “We do the most sinning when we are right, and right is not happening.” When terrible things happen to us, we are angry. Self-pitying. We want a heart-felt apology and some groveling or retribution. Mysteriously, though, we want grace, not justice, applied to our own transgressions.
The kids and I threw out our bedtime protocols of one chapter a night and read the final three chapters in a single evening.
I never feel myself growing, Keith tells Ralph near the end of the tale.
“You wait long enough, and you will be a grown-up.” Ralph felt as if he had said something very wise as he slipped the rubber band on his crash helmet around his whiskers.
“I guess so.” Keith slumped back on the pillows. “But it takes so long.”
“I grew up, didn’t I?” asked Ralph. “You said yourself I had become a responsible mouse.”
“Yes, you did,” said Keith thoughtfully. “I guess that’s part of the secret. Just getting bigger isn’t enough. You have to learn things like not taking off down a steep hill on a bicycle when you aren’t used to hand brakes. Stuff like that.”
Once again, Keith is right. Getting bigger isn’t enough. Growing up is learning about grace from a boy and a mouse and a motorcycle.