Book Review: Wendell Berry, “Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World”

Wendell Berry – Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World (2009, Counterpoint)
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This is a beautiful little book, and the calmest, gentlest illustrated short story about a mouse fighting for its life against a terrible flood that you are ever likely to read.

That should come as no surprise to longtime fans and followers of Berry’s prolific output, which reflects the pride and commitment to tradition of his agrarian lifestyle.

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In his nonfiction work, Berry has argued for the merits of a philosophy he calls “solving for pattern,” which is a fancy way of saying that you should try to solve as many problems as possible at once – and do so in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of additional problems.

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It’s sort of a mouthful, but it’s a beautifully simple school of thought, and it resonates throughout Whitefoot‘s 60 pages. Berry’s placid text, which meshes wonderfully with Davis Te Selle’s beautiful pencil illustrations, follows the journey of a mouse named Whitefoot as she gathers food, builds a nest, and manages to survive a flood that carries her far beyond her home. She does this by doing as little as possible — in other words, by following her instincts. In a passage about something as simple as Whitefoot building her nest, Berry extols the virtues of simplicity and thrift:

She molded the cup of the next exactly to fit by pressing against it with her body. She made it snug. She did her work according to an ancient, honorable principle: Enough is enough. She worked and lived without extravagance and without waste. Her nest was a neat small cup the size of herself asleep.

He concludes the paragraph with the most beautiful phrase of all: “Her sleep was an act of faith and a giving of thanks.”

As you may be able to tell, Berry’s writing makes few concessions for younger audiences; to some parents, Whitefoot may seem impenetrably…adult. But I read it to my three-year-old, and she loved it — I’m sure she wasn’t able to absorb the subtext of Berry’s message, or perhaps even its broader themes, but she understood what was happening, and she absolutely loved the illustrations, squealing with delight every time we turned to another page with a picture of the adorable little mouse.

It isn’t as eye-catching as the work of Eric Carle or Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman, but it’s no less instructive, and it may very well stay with your young readers much longer — sort of along the lines of The Giving Tree, albeit lacking quite the emotional impact. Like I said: A beautiful little book.