Unintentional Snake Zen

Since I work with kids, I come across my share of kids’ books. Most of them are innocuous or frustratingly narrow (think girls in pink dresses, etc.), but once in a while one comes across my desk that really makes me pause. One such book is Mouse Count by Ellen Stoll Walsh.


The book is ostensibly about counting, obviously, but for some reason the story is unnecessarily (but wonderfully) macabre: a snake finds sleeping mice and counts them as he plucks them, one by one, by their tails and places them in a jar to save them for dinner later. Of course you’re invited to count along as he plops them in a pile inside the jar, and then coils around the jar in anticipation of a tasty meal. As you might’ve guessed, the mice escape—in this instance by tricking the snake into thinking an eleventh mouse is over yonder (it’s really just a rock), and tipping over the jar while the snake is distracted.

But the (unintentionally) best part of the book is the end. And the book does just that: it ends. Abruptly. The mice escape, and the snake returns to find the empty jar… and that’s it. Here’s the final page:


No mention of the snake being angry, or embarrassed at being tricked, or even of jubilation on the part of the clever mice. The snake comes back and the jar is empty and—especially judging by the snake’s facial expression, which doesn’t change the entire book—it’s as if nothing that just happened even mattered. The jar was empty at the beginning of the book and now it’s empty again, perhaps waiting to be filled again in a series of Sisyphean tasks, or perhaps not. Either way the snake doesn’t really care.

There’s a real lesson in this, but one that no kid will get from reading this book at face value. First of all, the mice don’t seem all that alarmed at the prospect of their imminent death (first having to watch all their friends meet untimely fates), and wisely wait until they have the critical mass needed to tip the jar. They wait for the right moment. Then they run off and presumably continue to frolic or nap or whatever else they were doing beforehand. The snake, by the same token, displays an almost eerie indifference, both to collecting the mice (and telling them he’s going to eat them) and to finding they’ve escaped. The snake is stoic, if not heartless:


I’m not sure the snake isn’t the protagonist here, although surely he’s meant to be the villain. He spends a lot of time working on something, it doesn’t work out for him, and, realizing the fleeting nature of all things, he shrugs (if snakes could shrug). Eventually he’ll eat a mouse, or some other creature. So why worry?


3 thoughts on “Unintentional Snake Zen

  1. Perfect! I just started reading Desert Solitaire — and I loved his story about how he got rid of the rattlesnake living under his trailer. The anthropomorphism impulse is tricky. He states at the beginning that he is deliberately going to avoid it — that the things around him deserve a better response yet (so far) he keeps skating close to the line. I think seeing nature as a mirror can lead to good — it fuels our compassion — but he is absolutely right to distrust that impulse. Instead of seeing ourselves reflected it might be more important to see ourselves immersed.

  2. Nice! My favorite Abbey quote is about pulling up surveying equipment to hinder the construction of roads in the desert: “Futile, in the long run, but it was fun at the time.”

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