Russell Hoban, author of children's books The Mouse And His Child and the Frances series, as well as many novels, including Riddley Walker, died Tuesday at his home in London. He was 86. Though not much more than a cult figure in his native United States, outside of the highly popular Frances books, Hoban was slightly better known in his adopted home of the United Kingdom, where various celebrations of his work have been held. The cause of Hoban's death was undetermined, but his daughter, Phoebe, told the New York Times that he had recently been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
Born in 1925 to Ukrainian immigrants in Lansdale, Penn., Hoban began his career as an freelance illustrator, notably for Time and Sports Illustrated. Before that, he fought in World War II in Italy, earning a Bronze Star. His first published books were all for children, and of these, the most famous remain the Frances stories, beginning with 1960's Bedtime For Frances. Frances, a little badger, goes through many routines familiar to both children and their parents. (In Bedtime, for instance, she spends the whole book trying to delay going to bed.) Hoban's prose was spare but gentle, and Frances was a terrific character, a sweet little girl who, nonetheless, didn't mind pushing her limits and testing her parents. The books, illustrated by Garth Williams and Hoban's then-wife, Lillian Hoban, and including sequels like Bread And Jam For Frances and Birthday For Frances, have remained in print to this day.
Hoban wrote many other children's books throughout his long career, including Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, a melancholy little book about an otter and his widowed mother, who risk everything on winning a talent show that they might have a good Christmas. The book, a rough adaptation of The Gift Of The Magi with a few twists along the way, was turned into a TV special by Jim Henson in the late '70s, and was illustrated by Lillian Hoban. (Russell and Lillian Hoban divorced in the early 1970s, and he married Gundula Ahl in 1975.) His other children's works include The Marzipan Pig, a whimsical tale of a lost candy pig eaten by a mouse, whose love for a grandfather's clock passes along up the food chain, and the raucous yet whimsical Captain Najork books, which involve a young boy's encounters with the borderline-mythical Captain Najork, purported to be incredibly fearsome, among other things.
Hoban's finest work for children was the haunting The Mouse And His Child, published in 1968 before falling out of print for many years. (It was republished in 1990 and has remained in print ever since.) The book tells the story of a wind-up mouse and his son. The two are attached at the hands, and when wound up, they do a dance where the father swings his son in the air, around and around. The book begins in an idyllic toy shop at Christmastime, but the mice are soon purchased and stored away, only to be brought out at Christmas. When broken and thrown away, the two set out on a journey to find their old friends from the toy shop and return to the perfect world of the past, as well as become "self-winding." Filled with philosophy and surprising darkness (characters are killed brutally and suddenly), the book, which was later turned into a movie, has gained a reputation as one that's fine for children but even better for their parents, containing ruminative passages about the nature of identity and the role of conditioned programming in the self, such as this:
"We're toy mice," said the child. "Is it Miss or Mr. Mudd? Please excuse my asking, but I can't tell by looking at you."
"Miss," said the little creature. She was something like a misshapen grasshopper, and was as drab and muddy as her name. "I'll be your friend if you'll be mine," she said. "Will you, do you think? I'm so unsure of everything."
"We'll be your friends," said the child. "We're unsure too, especially about the little dogs."
I know," said Miss Mudd. "It's all so difficult. And of course everyone bigger than I tries to eat me, and I'm always busy eating everyone smaller. So there isn't much time to think things out." As she spoke, she flung what looked like an arm out from her face, caught a water flea, and ate it up. "It's so distasteful," she said. "I know it's distasteful. I've got this nasty sort of a huge lip with a joint in it like an elbow, and I catch my food with it. And the odd thing, you see, is that I don't think that's how I really am. I just can't believe that I'm this muddy thing crawling about in the muck. I don't feel as if I am. I simply can't tell you how I feel inside! Clean and bright and beautiful--like a song in the sunlight, like a sigh in the summer air."
Hoban's first novel for adults was The Lion Of Boaz-Jachin And Jachin-Boaz, published in 1973. Fittingly, it, too, was interested in the relationship between fathers and sons, though it had a darker take on the material, as the book's son summons a lion (for lions are extinct in the book's world) to stalk his father across the landscape after the father disappoints him. As with almost all of Hoban's writing for adults, the book is spare and mythic, with a sense that the world is slowly winding down and returning to its primitive roots. It's also driven by artistic images and designs, as Hoban admitted was frequently the case with his work in his interview with The A.V. Club last year (one of the last interviews he ever gave).
Hoban's penchant for the mythical, and his love of road stories were also expressed in many of his other works, notably Kleinzeit (1974), about a man who is fired from his job and embarks on a strange voyage, and Pilgermann (1983), a historical fantasy novel that attempts to depict the relationship between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam symbolically and involves a European Jew embarking on a lengthy journey on foot to Jerusalem, after being told to do so by a vision of Jesus Christ. His love of art, philosophy, and doomed romance turn up in books such as Fremder (1996), a near-future sci-fi novel that forms a kind of companion to Pilgermann, and Amaryllis Night And Day (2001), about two people who find each other in their dreams and then in real life.
Hoban's crowning achievement was 1980's Riddley Walker, a book covered here in our Wrapped Up In Books feature. The story of a far-future, post-apocalyptic world, Riddley Walker blended all of Hoban's major thematic concerns into one work. It was even inspired by Hoban's first viewing of a painting of St. Eustace in a church in Kent, shortly after he immigrated to the U.K. Riddley Walker follows the titular narrator as he traipses around an England that has been scarred by nuclear war thousands of years in the past. The book is written in a degraded form of English, as seen here, in a passage where Riddley struggles with his attempts to write down the stories in his head:
I dont have nothing only words to put down on paper. Its so hard. Some times theres mor in the emty paper nor there is when you get the writing down on it. You try to word the big things and they tern ther backs on you. Yet youwl see stanning stoans and ther backs wil talk to you.
A classic of post-apocalyptic literature and one of the few books in the genre to inspire serious study, Riddley Walker is a sometimes frustrating and elusive novel, but it's one that rewards careful reading with a sad, mournful story that will turn abruptly and shockingly funny. (Critics have compared it to The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, and it's a comparison that makes a great deal of sense.) Riddley's gradually building longing for the world that was and his escape from his brutish life in a small, Dark Ages-style village are both depicted sparingly but with moving prose, and Hoban's suggestion that the world is on the brink of another Industrial Revolution that will just inevitably result in humanity destroying itself all over again. If it were the only book Hoban had ever produced, it would still have made him a much-read, much-discussed author.
Hoban was known for his dedication to his craft and his seeming addiction to writing. As he told us last year, when asked what advice he'd have for young writers:
The first thing I would say is, “Don’t do it, unless you can’t stand not to do it.” And the second thing I would say is, “If you do do it, and get into it, the constant rule you should have in mind is to explore your material.” It sounds simple, but it isn’t, because people often want to get from A to B, and they don’t stop to look at what is in the material.
Hoban is survived by his wife and children. For further exploration of his works, Dave Awl maintains a wonderful page called The Head Of Orpheus, from which all quotes from Hoban's works have been pulled for this article.