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Mouse Guard: The Owlhen Caregiver and Other Tales by David Petersen

This entry is part 21 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book sometime in April, so… quite a while ago! 

The Owlhen Caregiver and Other Tales is a single-issue comic from last summer that collects Petersen’s last few Free Comic Book Day stories from the Mouse Guard series, along with the title story, which is new. All three are in the same vein as the tales collected in Baldwin the Brave and Other Stories: two of the three offer glimpses of various stories that shaped the lives of main characters in the original Mouse Guard series, little fables focused on a single moral or ethical idea or principle. 

Petersen has really perfected this approach: each tale is a study in pacing, revelation, and economy, and the way he draws the tales (as opposed to their narrative framing sections) is really drives home the emotional tone of each story. The title story hits hardest. It tells the story of an owl hen who has a lone mouse warrior in her service who has cared for her all her life. That mouse warrior falls ill, and the owl nurses him through his illness; when she realizes he’ll never recover, she keeps going, even though everyone keeps nagging her to just get a new mouse warrior, or leave him in the wilderness alone to die. But she ignores them and nurses him until he dies in peace in his bed.

The frame story is a child mouse asking whether papa is ever going to get better, and mama explaining no, but he still needs us to take care of him so he can die in peace and dignity and love. Which… I think was my son’s first time to realize that parents die. Which would be enough on its own, and I love how compassion constantly comes up in the Mouse Guard books (when they’re not fighting for their survival), but…

The unspoken frame story mentioned nowhere in the comic (though Petersen mentions it in the afterword) is that the tale was inspired by the author’s seeing a friend become a parent’s primary caregiver; he writes a bit about how he later became his own mother’s primary caregiver during her long, terminal convalescence, but didn’t feel ready to draw it until after she’d passed away. The story hit me pretty hard, but in a good way: it’s an unexpected example of really powerful life-writing, in just a few pages. 

The other tales are really great too: “Piper the Listener” is about a mouse who takes the time to learn the languages of other beasts—including beasts most mice would dread to approach—and learns that communication and understanding are possible, even if they may take immense patience at times. “The Wild Wolf,” on the other hand, is an homage to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and deals with the virtues of caution (and the peril and painful loss that too often comes with too little of caution). It’s a lesson that feels especially timely now, with everything going on.  

One of the things that really grabbed me about these is how Petersen manages to depict children and childhood in such an honest way. The “youngfurs” in all of these tales (and/or their frame stories) absolutely convey (and Petersen’s art captures) really difficult emotions in their complexity, but at the same time in a way that seems very authentic to the raw, honest manner in which real kids naturally process those feelings. The sorrow of bereavement, the pain of childhood loneliness, and the stubbornly brave—if foolish—defiance of the youngster who ignores wise advice from and elder all come through vividly, in just a few lines and a bit of subtle coloring… from the faces of cartoon mice, no less. Not that this comes as a surprise, having now read the entire series myself… but I still sometimes pause and realize what he’s managed, and find it remarkable all over again. 

The other thing that I appreciate is how Petersen has continued to grow and explore new approaches to telling stories. The art in this issue is quite distinct from what he’s done before, in a positive way that serves the storytelling. Some of the sample art widely available online is indicative of this:  

If you haven’t read any Mouse Guard, I don’t know if this is the best introduction to the series, but I think it is a moving and effective one. (That said, I’d pair it with Baldwin the Brave and Other Stories (which I discussed in my last post), since the tales here are in the same manner as those others.) You won’t get the references to the characters in the main story, or how—following Petersen’s thesis—the tales we’re told as children shape the adults we become. Still, these tales are enjoyable on their own, and you’ll enjoy them again, in a different way, if you return to them after reading the rest of the series. 

Bonus: Petersen has made paper figurines available for many Mouse Guard characters, free for download. A lot of Petersen’s work is available via his webstore, including shirts, prints, books, and more

Series Navigation<< <em>Mouse Guard: Baldwin the Brave And Other Tales</em> by David Petersen… and a song!<em>Thieves’ World</em> edited by Robert Lynn Asprin >>
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