For years, there has been a series of free public concerts in the park by Little Lake at the centre of my town, and each show used to be followed by a fireworks display. People turned out by the thousands to fill the park in front of the bandstand, its giant sail-like canopy bathed in coloured light as family-friendly music filled the cool summer evening air. My parents brought blankets for us to sit on, and we crammed ourselves in wherever a patch of ground was available, ripping up handfuls of grass as we listened to the concert. We were never able to see the performers, as the crush of lawn chairs inevitably blocked out the view and our blanket became a square pit sunken beneath the sightlines. It was invariably too loud, the speakers straining to get sound waves to the far side of the park, but it was a comfortable kind of overwhelming; I had the blanket, I had the grass, and I had my brother, my sisters and my parents. I had a place to be.
My brother and I ventured off the blanket to visit the public washrooms set up on the low hill opposite the stage. While we waited in the line that was longer than we expected, the concert finished and the crowd began to shift towards the shore of the lake, jostling to get a better view. Somewhere out there, my little square of familiarity disappeared and I sank smoothly into a deep, black sadness. Apart from a brief flutter in my chest, there was no desperateness to this feeling, no panic; just the silent, sad reality that I didn’t know where my family was.
The story of the Mousekewitz family begins similarly to my own in scenario, if worlds apart in scope; with the celebration of a tradition. It’s 1885 in Shostka, Russia, and it’s Hanukkah. Kind-hearted Papa jokes and plays the violin as stalwart Mama enforces the family rules and tries to get the baby to sleep. Sweet Tanya listens to her father’s stories, as her younger brother Fievel reminds his parents of the importance of presents: a new babushka for Tanya, and for Fievel, a hat that has been in his family for three generations. The family settles in for a few of Papa’s tall tales, the tallest of all being the one about that bastion of freedom, where there are mouse holes in every wall, bread crumbs on every floor, and—most importantly—where there are absolutely no cats: America.
The Mousekewitz’s warm family moment is violently broken up, as Cossacks and monstrous, slathering cats descend upon the village, intent on burning it to the ground—a savage mirror of the pogroms faced by the Jews in late 19th century Russia. With their home destroyed and their possessions on their backs, the Mousekewitz family leaves a nightmare behind in search of a dream; they’re really and truly going to America. As they board a transatlantic ship, Fievel asks questions endlessly; is that water the ocean? Does that smoke mean the ship is on fire? Are those seagulls? What are herrings, and how are they different from just a regular ol’ fish?
Fievel’s unbounded curiosity leads him out onto the deck during a storm, where he is swept overboard by the cruelty of the winds and waves. At the immigrant processing centre in New York, Papa’s tears appear unbidden, his jovial nature drained, his sadness complete. Afloat in a bottle, Fievel is exhausted, bewildered and lost. And the sadness—the dark liquid sadness—is very, very real.
An American Tail is an immigrant’s story, and one that feels the importance of America as the land of opportunity. Cast out of their home, the Mousekewitz family has to believe in a better place—a place where there are no cats—because the alternative is too bleak to contemplate. On the ship, before Fievel’s curiosity gets the better of him, a multi-ethnic chorus sings of their trials and tribulations in their home countries before inevitably reaching the conclusion that everything will be better in America. The country takes on a mythic energy; it is the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail and armour of Achilles. It is fulfillment, deliverance from trial, protection from evil. America is happiness and it is home.
But when the Mousekewitz family arrives at Ellis Island minus Fievel, and Mama exclaims “America!” Papa can only brokenheartedly reply “No, no… New York.” Without his family intact, his dream of an idealized home has faded. This is not the land of opportunity. This is just another city. There are as many cats here as there were back home.
Lost at the concert, my brother and I eventually beseeched the assistance of the only uniformed adult I could find. He took us to a picnic table by the bandstand and bought us each a popsicle, and I started to picture what life would be like if we never found our family and had to live with this man. There would be a swimming pool, and barbecues every night in the summer. There would be a small scrappy dog that fell asleep in your lap, and we could paint the fire hydrant out front different colours. We’d watch tv on rainy days, do puzzles, and read endless collections of Calvin & Hobbes books. If my old life was gone, my new life was going to be perfect.
I studied his uniform.
“Are you a police officer?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I’m an air traffic controller.”
I didn’t know air traffic controllers wore uniforms. I didn’t know anyone but a police officer wore a dark blue uniform, and this sudden betrayal of expectations finally brought out the tears. I put my head on the table and sobbed and sobbed for everything and everyone I’d lost.
When the crowds began to disperse and my father found us, I felt like I hadn’t taken a breath in ten minutes. Oxygen flooded my system as I gasped and blubbered and hugged my dad, so relieved, so profoundly relieved. Seven-year-old me learned many lessons that day; about family, about behaviour in crowds, about the kindness of strangers. I still think back on the air traffic controller and his strange uniform, and realize—in the absence of true stability—how much comfort I projected onto him. While I am grateful for his kindness, the fantasy of a summery home life shattered so easily; the feeling of coming home that I found in my father’s arms was epic in comparison.
Of course there are cats in America. There are cats everywhere, and cats prey on mice, and if troubles follow and find you no matter how many oceans you cross, what do you do about them?
Many of Fievel’s first experiences in America are horrific, especially for a children’s movie; he is sold to a sweatshop owner, chased by humans and nearly eaten by cats, and his best chance for finding his family lies with a drunken politician who cares more for votes than for helping lost young mice. He is taken in by a group of landed mice, led in spirit by Bridget, an Irish mouse whose chief goal is to “get everyone together about those cats.” This new group of like-minded strays affords Fievel a surrogate family, and while he still dreams of reuniting with his parents and siblings, he is at least buoyed by the group’s mantra that “because this is America we can do something about it!” Papa and Tanya also join in the mouse’s campaign (though they aren’t aware of Fievel’s involvement), and this open-armed inclusion in a movement brings every member of the disparate Mousekewitz family closer to that ideal notion of America; that we’re all in this together, and together we can do something about our troubles.
But it isn’t quite enough. An idealized home with a surrogate family just can’t fill the emptiness in the pit of your aching, hopeful stomach when you know that your family is out there somewhere. Fievel’s victory against the cats is short-lived when an accidental fire separates him from his new friends and he ends up once again unmoored, lost and alone, sleeping in a puddle under a broken window pane. A mournful melody drifts by on the early morning fog, and Fievel hears what he can’t believe; his family is calling for him. Together—finally, finally together—they laugh and fall and hug and hold each other in the golden light and Mama can only whisper through her grateful tears, “America… What a place.”
“America: What A Place” may as well have been the slogan for the country during the immigration boom known as The Great Wave of the late 1800s. Every year until the mid-1920s, 600,000 Europeans heard the call of the land of opportunity, to a place where anything was possible—that call has always been enticing to the poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Perhaps it’s true that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The same ambition that took the Vikings to Greenland and that may one day take us to Mars and beyond would mean very little if we didn’t have something worth going for. You don’t just need a place to be, you need people with whom to be. Freedom of expression and seemingly boundless opportunity may have been the loglines for America, but without togetherness and a common cause to work towards, it counts for very little. A mouse divided will not stand.