by Megan Marshall
Desperate for distraction in the wake of Trump’s election, I fell back on an old habit, reading children’s books at a rate unmatched since I was a grade-schooler. In those far-off days, my family was headed by an unemployed manic-depressive. My father also drank too much, but he wasn’t mean, only unpredictable and out of touch with the grim reality of our negligible finances, or convinced they didn’t matter in his case. He’d taken me with him once when he visited the downtown office of the gas company to which we must have owed a mint; he chatted up the receptionist, who responded to his charms and accepted his check for a fraction of the bill. The check may have bounced, but the heat stayed on. Back home, I kept reading.
With Hillary’s loss, I was too disheartened to resort to my old favorites, Little Women, The Little Princess, or A Wrinkle in Time—tales of brave bookish girls triumphing over adversity. That dream was dead. Instead I looked to stories like The Borrowers, in which tiny people living beneath the kitchen floorboards made do with items scavenged from the big folks above. Another favorite, The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright, featured a family of four children in Depression-era Manhattan who pooled their allowances each week to fund one of the kids in a trip to the opera, an art museum, the circus. I thought Stuart Little might offer the best of both fantasy worlds: I remembered how the two-inch tall mouse, mysteriously born into a family of full-sized humans living on the Upper East Side (as far as I could make out), slept in an empty cigarette box, used a doll’s toothbrush and comb when washing up, and piloted a model boat in Central Park through a sudden squall. But re-reading White’s classic only heightened my anxiety.
It’s been said that Donald Trump may never have read a book all the way through in his adult life, and I doubt he was an avid reader as a child. But someone must have read Stuart Little to the little Donald. The boy and the mouse grew up together in the city, albeit in different boroughs; the novel was published the year before Donald was born.
I’d remembered only Stuart’s resourcefulness—in wielding a tiny mallet to turn on the water tap to brush his teeth, in talking down the family cat Snowbell when she bares her teeth at him. I’d forgotten that Stuart’s distracting palaver involved bragging about his toned stomach muscles; that he falls in love with Margalo—a wall-eyed vireo or wren, no one’s sure—because of her voice.
Margalo—Mar-a-lago? I’ve always liked the way certain words turn into others with a quick twirl of an alphabetic kaleidoscope: evil can be vile or veil or live. Did this almost anagram lure Donald to his Florida home, as Stuart follows his emigree sweetheart (“I come from fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle”) by toy car into the countryside when she flies away, rather than be consumed by Snowbell? Yet Donald’s stutter-step “Mar-a-lago” has a sinister ring to it, more villain than inamorata. “Mar”—to impair or disfigure—signals harm (add an “h” to “mar” and stir). And “lago” looks suspiciously like Shakespeare’s treacherous “Iago.” “Margalo,” by contrast, burbles and coos like the feathered friend herself. And Stuart wanted more of it. He asks Margalo, as if she were a beauty pageant contestant, to repeat (re-tweet?) what she’s just said in that adorable voice.
I’d also forgotten how, once Margalo has flown out of sight, Stuart falls for the first two-inch-tall girl he meets on his country rambles. He lures the ultra-petite Harriet Ames to a riverside rendezvous with a letter advertising himself as “well-proportioned,” “muscular beyond my years,” and “actually somewhat taller” than two inches in height. His only drawback: “I look something like a mouse.” Wait a minute—Stuart is a mouse!
Most of all I’d forgotten the chapter in which Stuart volunteers as a substitute teacher in a small town schoolhouse. “What’s the first subject you usually take up in the morning?” Stuart asks the class, holding forth from atop the teacher’s desk, small arms akimbo. Arithmetic, the children answer. “Bother arithmetic! . . . Let’s skip it!” Spelling? Consult the dictionary! Writing? “Don’t you children know how to write yet?” A chorus of yeses—“So much for that, then.” Social Studies? “Never heard of them.”
Finally Stuart launches into a lesson of his own devising: “I’ll tell you, let’s talk about the King of the World.” There is no such king, one child informs him. “There ought to be,” Stuart fumes. But kings are old-fashioned, the student protests. “All right then,” Stuart backpedals, “let’s talk about the Chairman of the World. The world gets into a lot of trouble because it has no chairman. I would like to be Chairman of the World myself.” I had to stop reading.
Donald Trump grew to be “somewhat taller” than six feet, but his hypersensitivity to size, in others, in his own appendages, in crowds, makes me think he’s a Stuart Little at heart. Tax returns, budget figures, rising ocean temperatures? Let’s skip it! Social studies? Never heard of them. Trump’s idea of being president seems a lot like “Chairman of the World.” Most telling of all is the self-delusion—the way he carries on as if he really were president, although we all know he’s not, could never be. But then, he is.
Donald. If you swap an o for an i, add an a, and scramble—you get Aladdin.
We’re into the first one hundred days of Trump’s administration. There will be more than a thousand and one nights to follow. The Trump family Scheherezades—Melania and Ivanka—aren’t about to tame their imperious lord. I’m a grownup. It’s time to put aside word games and escape reading and take the full measure of this mouse-of-a-man.
E.B. White ends his tale with Stuart still searching for Margalo: “As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.” There is little to suggest that Trump’s direction as president will be anything other than instinctively “right” in the partisan sense. May he now recall the little people, the powerless—those who voted for him and those who didn’t—to whom he is psychically related, and work for them, rather than rule as the King of the World he may have thirsted to become since someone read him a children’s book about a mouse with a Napoleon complex.
Megan Marshall received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in biography for Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Her new book, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, was just published this month.