|Book Reviewed||The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires | 978-0439200882|
|Grade Level||4 - 7|
The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires is a wonderful story about a mouse that lives in Emily Dickinson’s house. It reads her poetry and writes some of its own.
Dickinson’s poems were discovered after her death neatly tied up in small bundles in her desk drawer. She is considered one of America’s greatest poets.
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A Trip to Amherst
I prepared for this unit by reading my favorite poet: Emily Dickinson. Like you, I also read The Mouse of Amherst. I have always been intrigued and mystified by the life of Emily Dickinson and while I was reading our text I thought it would have been interesting to have been that mouse, not because watching Emily Dickinson would have been entertaining—probably it would have been boring—but because I could have talked to her. She seems, from her poetry, like an intriguing person.
While I was having these thoughts I dropped my pen—I always have a pen ready to mark passages when I’m reading. The pen fell under my desk so I had to get on my knees to retrieve it. When I got up I misjudged where I was and smacked my head on the underside of the desk. It did not knock me out but it hurt so bad I remained under the desk holding my head with my eyes closed for probably two or three minutes. Slowly I backed out from under the desk and found myself not in my study, but in, what appeared to be, Emily Dickinson’s bedroom.
While I sat there Emmaline came out of her room and spoke to me.
“You have come here to see Emily Dickinson,” she said.
“Not intentionally. Actually, I just bumped my head.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Let me take a look,” she said.
I laid my head down on the wood floor. I felt Emmaline’s small paws in my hair and then her little feet against my skin. “You’re going to have a nasty headache, but you’ll be fine.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Iris said you would be coming.” Emmaline wore a white dress. She was a small, petite, white mouse with pink eyes and her voice almost trembled while she talked to me—I guess because I was so big compared to her.
While we talked the door opened behind me and I immediately stood up. When I turned around a small, thin, woman in a white dress stood before me. “Emily?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said confidently. “Who else would you be expecting in my room?”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I don’t mean to intrude . . .”
“It’s all right,” she said. “Iris told us you would be coming. I don’t normally talk to strangers, but Iris is a good friend. What is it you would like to know?”
I hadn’t really prepared for this so I had to think for a moment. “How is that you could live in this house and this room your entire life?”
After I asked the question I heard some commotion outside. Emily walked over to her open window to see what was going on. Someone yelled up to her, “Emily there’s some people here to see you!”
She pulled a skeleton key from her pocket and pretended to lock an imaginary door while she said, “‘It’s just a turn—and freedom,’ Lavinia!” Then she shut the window.
“What did you mean by that?” I asked.
“I mean that in this room, after I lock the door I am free from the expectations of my family, of society and of culture. I also mean that my mind is free to escape to other realms by means of books, thoughts and my poetry. To you this room looks like a dreary, tiny bedroom, but to me it is an entire universe for me to explore. ‘There’s no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away.'”
“Do you have many friends?” I asked.
“My best friends, besides my family—my sister lives with me and my brother lives over there—” She pointed to a house not far away, “are the people I’ve written to through the years. I think I almost like a written friendship better than a face-to-face one. One could also say that books are my friends.”
“Do you have a favorite author or book?”
“I once wrote in a letter to Joseph Lyman about returning to my books, ‘Going home I flew to the shelves and devoured the luscious passages. I thought I should tear the leaves out as I turned them. Then I settled down to a willingness for all the rest to go but William Shakespear[sic]. Why need we Joseph read anything else but him.[sic]'”
“My students read A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I told her
“A funny play,” she said.
“Did you ever fall in love?”
“Yes, I believe I did.”
“But you didn’t marry him?”
“No, I didn’t. I preferred to write my love—I didn’t want to ruin it.”
I didn’t know what to say. It seemed an odd statement to make. There was a long silence.
“Do you know,” she asked, “what Nature is?”
“I think so,” I said.
“And what about art?”
“Yes, I think so,” I said.
“‘Nature is a Haunted House—but Art— a House that tries to be Haunted.'”
“I don’t understand,” I said hesitantly.
“You will—you will,” she said as if I was a student and she was the teacher.
“You are . . .” I started to say.
“‘I’m Nobody! Who are You?/Are you—Nobody— Too?'” she said before I could finish.
I nodded in agreement.
“‘Then there’s a pair of us?'” She said this playfully.
I nodded again.
“‘Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!'” She laughed heartily.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I know.”
With that she smiled demurely, raised herself from the chair and curtsied almost as if she were a little girl.
“You will be famous one day,” I blurted out.
“‘My holiday shall be/That they remember me;/My paradise, the fame/That they pronounce my name.'”
With those words she left.
Soon after Dickinson’s death her sister found a box which contained her poems in 60 packets neatly tied together with twine. The first book of her poetry appeared in 1890 and the total number of poems now published is 1,775. Emily Dickinson lived in the same house her entire life. She died in 1886. She was 55.
Discussion Questions for The Mouse of Amherst
Why does the mouse say, “It must have been Fate that steered me to choose Emily’s bedroom for my own”?(12)
- What does Emily Dickinson’s sister mean when she says, “Sister, you are lost to the world”? Do you think she is right?
- Read Dickinson’s poem on page 15. What does the line “I shall not live in vain” mean?
- On page 18 Emily’s poem says, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” What does she mean when she calls herself a “Nobody”?
- The words Dickinson says to Mr. Higginson come from an actual letter she wrote (pg. 35). What does she mean by, “if Fame belonged to me, I could not escape her” and “my Barefoot rank is better”?
- Read Emily Dickinson’s poem on page 60. What do you think it means?
- What do you think of Emily Dickinson? Do you like her? Why or why not?
- What do you think of her poems? Do you like them? Why or why not?
Quotes by Emily Dickinson
Friday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel. A Circus passed the house—still I feel the red in my mind though the drums are out. The Lawn is full of south and the odors tangle, and I hear to-day for the first time the river in the tree.
—letter to Mrs. J. G. Holland
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
—Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson
Quotes about Emily Dickinson
Almost nothing to do with Emily Dickinson is simple and clear-cut . . . . Seemingly with willful cunning and surely with an artist’s skill, she avoided direct answers to the major questions that anyone interested in her as a poet or person might have been moved to ask . . . . She kept her private life private. It is not that she said nothing about herself at any time; she said a great deal in nearly eighteen hundred poems and over a thousand letters. But it is as if she lived out the advice she gave in her famous lines: ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -/Success in Circuit lies.’ She avoided specifics, dodged direct confrontations, reserved commitments. She told the truth, or an approximation of it, so metaphorically that scholars still grope for certainties.—Richard B. Sewall from The Life of Emily Dickinson
Emily, the quintessence and distillation of tthe Puritan spirit, poured out her pure nectar in rare and precious drops.—American Authors, 1600-1900
She was small, she was obstinate, she was not as wise as she ended by thinking herself; but her voice was unique, and she flung out the short cry of her gay or pain or mockery with a note that cannot be forgotten.—Percy Lubbock
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