Secrets at Sea is a tale of tails—and whiskers and scampering and crumbs of Bel Paese and thimbles of tea. The Cranstons are mice from an old, really old, New York family. Currently they live in a rambling mansion inhabited by human Cranstons, rather a nouveau bunch by mouse accounting. The remaining mice Cranstons, Helena, Louise, Beatrice and boy-in-trouble Lamont, live in the walls and keep things going nicely. Mama and two older siblings drowned in the rain barrel. Papa was done in by the barn cat as he nibbled a dropped ear of corn. Helena is the eldest and in charge and she is busy from morning to night.
A snake gets Lamont by the tail and Helena must rescue the tail and sew it back on—a risky job for a cosmetically-flawed effect but a mouse does what she can. Louise sits on the bed of the youngest Cranston, Camilla, every night and listens to Camilla’s day. Louise understands several languages, of course, but the poor teenage human has no idea how to interpret mouse so Louise holds her tongue, cocks her head sympathetically and gets all the latest dirt.
Beatrice swoons over boys, any and all boys, as long as they are mice. She has to be watched. And the Cranstons have a shocking secret that threatens to upend generations of New York Cranston mice and expose them to deadly peril. Olive, the klutzy, sallow, unpopular elder Cranston girl, cannot interest a beau for love nor money. So the whole family plans a European tour in time for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, just “to give Olive her chance.”
This is very bad news indeed because if there is one thing mice do not encounter well it is water. And the trip to Europe involves many days on a large ship entirely surrounded by water. Nevertheless, the house will be closed up for who knows how long. The food will disappear and no cozy fires will warm the grates. The foolish Cranstons need some oversight by more socially adept creatures. So the mice stow away and the adventure begins.
Do not think a sea voyage on a crowded ship with cats, constant pitching and rolling, slippery decks, a violently seasick Olive Cranston, mandatory lifeboat drills, assorted human and vermin nobility, and plots that unspool and then thicken is a piece of cake—although there is a fair amount of cake to be had. In fact, at one point Helena is inadvertently and completely iced in sticky pink. But no mind. Beatrice falls in mad love. Lamont apprentices himself to the shipboard mouse steward and develops a Cockney accent and a swagger. Louise plots to keep Camilla happy and Helena discovers she has as many lives as a cat—and needs every one.
Richard Peck sustains a charming voice and a classic fairytale adventure. There is plenty of wry humor and delicious description. Funny plot twists abound and a palace in merry oulde England is no more challenge for these self-assured mice than their upstate estate in New York was. Secrets at Sea is a middle grade book that will keep a young reader absorbed in something more amusing than the usual school tropes of failed tests, bullies and dumb tricks. But do yourself a favor. Volunteer to read it aloud so you get to enjoy it, too. And, if you have no handy kid, just savor the good writing and the clever tail/tale—whatever. Pure whimsy with a soupçon of Austen. Perfect.
Secrets at Sea Richard Peck | The Penguin Group 2011