Wednesday, September 17, 2008

That Brute Family - Russell and Lillian Hoban's all-too-real creation

Hoban, Russell. The Little Brute Family. Illustrated by Lillian Hoban. Macmillan, 1966.
Hoban, Russell. The Stone Doll of Sister Brute. Illustrated by Lillian Hoban. Macmillan, 1968.

Among the many tattered books I still have from my childhood are the small, smelly and disreputable first editions of the two books listed above.

Long before the Simpsons or the Bundys, there was The Little Brute Family. A thoroughly miserable family, they squabble while they eat their revolting stew of sticks and stones, can't play without fighting or getting hurt, and always go groaning to bed. So far so good - my own family has days like this.

Then one day Baby Brute finds "a little wandering lost good feeling in a field of daisies," which he puts in his pocket and takes home. It flies out at dinnertime and suddenly a golden glow hovers over the little Brute family, and they say "please" and "thank you" and all five Brutes are so transformed that, after several seasons of warm familial perfection, "the little Brute family changed their name to Nice."

Now, I pored over this book plenty as a young child and was particularly enamoured of the flower-pattern endpapers and the illustration of Baby Brute floating on his back (this after the Coming of the Good Feeling), but the better condition of this book tells me that my memory is correct - all this feel-good stuff did not inspire me, even when I was very young and impressionable.

No, the book that I truly loved, and that still entrances me to this day, is The Stone Doll of Sister Brute. Although published 2 years after The Little Brute Family, it is a prequel, taking place "before the Brute family changed their name to Nice." Sister Brute has nothing to love, so Mama Brute gives her a large stone. Sister Brute draws a face on it, makes a dress for it, names it Alice Brute Stone, and loves it. It's pretty heavy to lug around, but still, it's better than nothing. But then, while walking in the woods one day, she meets an ugly dog who demands, "Love me, or I will kick you very hard." As he wears hob-nailed boots, he kicks rather hard. Unfortunately, he is so enamored of Sister Brute that he follows her home, kicking her all the way.

This is still better than nothing, but just barely - now Sister Brute has two things to love, but she also has "tiredness and kicks and bruises." Luckily, Mama Brute finally notices that Alice Brute Stone's face looks just like hers, which causes her heart to melt, and she suggests that Sister Brute try to love not only her but the rest of the family as well. Unlike the first book, there is a satisfying but far from perfect ending - because love is complicated, Sister Brute's love of her family gets her a fascinating mixed bag of blessings.

"Sister Brute loved them all, and they loved her back, and she had hugs and lullabies, kisses and knee rides, smiles, string, colored glass and turtles and kicks and bruises. And she was happy."

Isn't it great that she doesn't stop loving her heavy stone doll or her ugly kicking dog? Even 40 years later, I know that Good Feelings are all very well, but the love you give and receive is what counts, even if it comes with a few flaws.

My rapture for this book (given to me by my mother when I was 2 - she wrote "To Eva from Mama because I love you. Feb. 24, 1968) was so extreme that, like the ugly kicking dog, I treated the object of my affections rather roughly. My copy is discolored, stained, and actually chewed up on one corner, and my paintings and drawings fill the empty pages at the beginning and end. Mama Brute's swirly red bun captivated me, as did the ugly kicking dog's snaggle-toothed grin. There is nothing about this book that I would change. Not a thing.

The Little Brute Family is still in print (in paperback) but The Stone Doll of Sister Brute is out of print. How can this be??

My two daughters demanded numerous readings of these books, and I plan to hang on to my own copies so I can read them to my future grandkids - and to their kids. Genius doesn't age!


  1. I remember this book very fondly. One of the best. I have a two year old now, and would love to read it to him. Can't BELIEVE it's out of print - they're selling it for £75 for second hand copies in the UK!
    Thank you for reminding me of the story, and all the perfect details (like the 'hobnail boots'!) - wishing you and your family well, and hope they enjoy the book as much as I did.


  2. Thank you, Eva!! I had this book when I was little and my mother and I have been searching for the title of the book with the mean little dog wearing hobnail boots!

  3. Thank you so much for posting this! Like you, I had both of these books as a child, but loved the Stone Doll book most. In fact, I appear to have loved it to death, as it was not in the box of childhood books my parents sent me when they cleaned out their basement.

  4. Thank you for reminding me of this story, I have been trying to find a copy for my soon to be arriving adopted daughter - I shared the book with my sister when we were small but it was her copy. I loved the dog with boots too, he was so wonderfully ugly. Feb 24th 1968 was my first birthday! All the best