Millhouse is a faint-hearted, hairless guinea pig. A great lover of all things theatrical, most especially the work of William Shakespeare, Milly longs for the limelight and someone to love.
However, after the death of his beloved owner, the great actor Sir Roderick Lord Kingswagger, Millhouse is abandoned to a neglected and dusty pet shop filled with other rodents — some rude, some odd, some cute and some downright frightening.
Finding himself a reviled outcast and a target of the nasty Pepper Brown ferret, Millhouse sets about trying to find a way back to the theater and a happy home, and in doing so experiences more drama than he could ever have imagined.
There’s something special about stumbling across an animal book that charms the socks off you. We all have one – that little book we read that captivated our imagination, and pulled us along with a host of characters with whom we immediately fell in love. I first encountered that feeling with a rather iconic story about a pig and a spider , and I can quote sections by heart. You never expect to fall twice … but fortunately, I did. I fell headlong into the story of Millhouse, a theatrical hairless guinea pig who lives in a run-down pet shop, and who is either mocked or ignored by most of the other residents.
Millhouse is an absolute delight. There’s much to admire in this tiny guinea pig, who once had a home but is now left alone and lonely to make his own way. His plight is particularly poignant as he well knows that he isn’t the more beautiful animal in the shop:
“Yet the worse thing of all – the thing that Millhouse couldn’t bear – was the laughter of the boys and girls who came looking for a pet to take home. How the pig yearned for appreciation and kind words. How he yearned to be loved. But the children would point and wrinkle their noses at the hairless guinea, and say “Ewww!” and “Weird!” and “What a funny-looking thing!” as though Millhouse had no feelings at all.”
Millhouse has a secret: he longs to tread the boards, and to recite the great plays for a rapt audience, just like his former owner. To this end, he strikes dramatic poses whenever prospective owners come into the shop, hoping that they will notice his greatness! He is so determined to make his way onto the stage that he endures the jeers of his fellow caged pets while rehearsing for an audience of baby mice under the bright light of a friendly firefly.
The supporting characters are equally as interesting. Other guinea pigs in the store – the Abyssinian, the Honey Cream, the Peruvian – all have unique personalities and quirks that make them stand out. Even the white mice – who “breed too fast to allow for naming” – have their charms and are unflagging supporters for Millhouse when he needs them. Be warned that the evil ferret, the Pepper Brown, is quite chilling in his pursuit of our poor hero, as he feels that the guinea pig would make a delicious meal. There are a number of narrow escapes that are sure to have young readers cuddling close to their parents, but these escapades only serve to underscore how courageously Millhouse continues to look for ways to make his dream come true.
Like any great classic, there are moments of quirky humour and moments of darkness, and it was sometimes difficult to read how lonely poor Millhouse felt in the pet store. Not all was lost, however, as he had friends in the innumerable white mice, the friendly firefly… and in Elliott, the very eccentric and kindly rat who gives gentle encouragement to Millhouse to follow his dream. To be clear, Millhouse is bullied by the other animals; that may be a problem for some children, but be reassured that his resilience shines through. There are some good discussion points for parents and teachers to use as a way to open a dialogue with young readers about the effects of bullying, and I hope that they are used. The very charming illustrations also help to soften the blow at times. Add in the wildly inventive grey mice (in formation or out), and you have a wonderful recipe for mayhem in the making.
How could I not love Millhouse and the other denizens of the pet shop? Some have referred to this as Charlotte’s Web in a pet shop, but it is so much more. This is a story of staying true to who you are, to not letting others get you down, and finding like-minded souls to encourage you to follow your dreams. Ghent has created a vivid world for her characters, filled with loneliness, fear and ultimately hope, courage and determination. In Millhouse, she shows us that our dreams can lift us out of our worst situations, and that they can lead us into a life we could never imagine.
Millhouse is published by Tundra Books, a division of Random House Canada. An ARC of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase from your favourite bookstores as of May 13th, 2014. ISBN: 9781770496392.