I’m so pleased to write my 5th anniversary blog post (my 153rd!) about the novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge by Nelly Reifler. Since most of you reading this are probably people I know personally, plenty of you probably also know Nelly, and know how wonderful she is and how lucky we are to have a new book by her to read. It is a light, slim book, perfect for carrying around in a pocket or a purse, which is probably what a lot of readers will want to do with it while reading it for the first and second and third times.
Almost everyone I’ve heard talking about the book mentions reading it more than once. On the first read, one might be focused on taking in the plot. The novel is about the tiny mice daughters of a mouse judge being kidnapped by a creepy religious cult of Sunshine Family Dolls, the crime-fighting duo of Barbie and Ken, who investigate the disappearance, and the perpetual teenager Skipper, who observes the action from a wistful remove. Nelly has said that the scenario is exactly the one that used to play out in her girlhood dollhouse. It may not immediately seem like the recipe for a page-turner, but it is. There is intrigue, politics, infidelity, sex involving Barbie-doll neckballs, shoot-outs, and deeply buried secrets, revealed only to the reader. It’s suspenseful and gripping.
There are many deeper places to go, in this tiny book, after satiating the need to find out what happens. The interrelationships between the characters are complex and finely wrought. I was shocked to find that the hilarious sex-scenes between Barbie and Ken, popping out limbs and exchanging heads, had a wrenchingly sad pay-off at the end. A flash-forward exploring the ramifications of the mouse sisters’ time in captivity on one sister’s perception of the other was equally melancholy. And who would ever think of Skipper as a tragic character; who would ever think of Skipper?
Needless to say, it takes a special writer to make a reader feel for mice and toys as much, or more, than if they were people. This example, from page 56, is illustrative of how she does it:
Margo and her father had always had a special connection. She knew him, she knew him so well. People said she was like him, that she resembled him. Even though they were close, it wasn’t actually the case that Margo was so much like him. Sometimes he seemed like the young one to her, and she felt old, as if she were the grown-up. She’d never known her mother, and she sensed that in some roundabout way she’d become her own mother–and by extension, her father’s helpmate. Sometimes she thought H. was naive and needed protection. Her poor dad, how he took everything to heart…Margo thought that what she saw as helpless and vulnerable in her father translated into sincere and real for the voters. That’s what they always said about her dad in articles and editorials: he’s real.
Out of context, this is a lovely description of a father and daughter. But the genius is that it takes a running joke in the book and twists it, giving it a double meaning. From page one, much is made about how the accouterments of the mice’s lives are real. It’s ad-speak: Real wood! Real moving parts! One can picture the word “real” splashed on the outside of a toy’s packaging. Nelly keeps the micro-world of mice and toys consistent throughout the novel, all the while using the quirks that that world offers it to make it real to the reader.
This is a super weird and special book–go get it!