Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World, by Wendell Berry, illustrated by Davis Te Selle
published in 2009 by Counterpoint
She was born in the fall, and now the winter was ending. In the spring, if she escaped her many enemies, she would have her first litter of maybe six baby mice. In comparison to a white oak, or even a human, she would not live long, perhaps not a year, almost certainly not two, but the little life she had she loved dearly and so far she had taken excellent care of it. She had fed herself well on nuts and seeds and insects. She had kept herself clean and neat. She had been cautious and clever in keeping herself out of the sight of larger creatures. She was highly skilled in being a mouse.
Whitefoot is a little deer mouse who lives among the briars and grasses not far from Port William, the fictional, Kentucky town created, peopled, and chronicled by Wendell Berry. Those of us who have traveled to Port William in Berry’s novels immediately react to the name of this place as though it had once been our home, it is that fully realized. I had no idea Berry had written a book for children until I stumbled across this one in my library, so I was eager to read it.
It’s a small story, a nature story, told without any anthropomorphism. The extent of Whitefoot’s thoughts are instinctual: “Nest! Nest!” or “Seeds! Seeds!” There are no tea and blackberries for supper or charming waistcoats in this tale. It’s a story tracing the very realistic adventures of a tiny creature. In that regard, it is a rare specimen in literature for young children. Comprised of quiet adventure and woodland lore and wonder, it shines its light on the overlooked, unsentimental, non-technological, dramas of Nature.
Whitefoot is happily ensconced in her world of twigs and stems, sky overhead, miniature trampled pathways beneath. Her days are for sleeping, and her nights are for quick forays in search of food. To imagine this world, Berry tells us, we have to think of “going about with your eyes only an inch or two from the ground.” What would the world look like and feel like, if we were that small?
Whitefoot’s world is so limited, she isn’t even aware of the river flowing by, a few hundred yards off, until a deluge of rain causes that river to overflow its banks, sweeping Whitefoot into its fast current. How Whitefoot survives, what other creatures share the river with her, and how she comes to make a new home for herself at the end of this unexpected voyage, make up this short book, which is about the length of one chapter in a longer work. As I said, there are no Stuart Little heroics, strategies, or characters here; just the natural world in all its intriguing glory. We witness the finesse of a mouse building her nest, the provision of the woodlands, the survival instinct, the fear of predators, the flukes of
breezes and fallen logs and eddies which alter the landscape of small animals. As always, Berry makes us notice, love and appreciate the land and the elements.
The illustrations are stunning black-and-white prints by Davis Te Selle. Intricate etched lines, dignified, gorgeous glimpses that bring us up close to marvel over a tattered leaf, perfectly-formed ear, or wet, bedraggled mouse. Just take a look at his website to see more of his beautiful artwork. I love how both author and illustrator respect nature and their readers, and how this results in such an elegant offering.
Read this to a child who has the attention necessary to appreciate it, which could be as young as 4 or 5, or hand it to a capable reader age 8 or 9 — Berry does not write down in the least, so the vocabulary is a bit challenging for an early reader.