The Little Fox of Mayerville by Éric Mathieu, translated by Peter McCambridge

As I was reading With My Back to the World by Sally Cooper, I wrote down “Value the child and maybe everything else falls into place.” In The Little Fox of Mayerville we read about a child who is not valued – a child who is neglected, abused and abandoned.

My whole childhood was nothing but dread, drifting, and disappointment. And yet I wanted to be happy.

Émile is born in a small village in France in 1945, not long after the liberation of France. We know this is going to be a coming-of-age story unlike any other when, just months after being born, Émile, nicknamed Little Fox because of his appearance, was already able to speak several languages. Maybe this will be a story about a genius? Or a gifted child exploited by his parents?

But his mother only feels irritation, frustration, and even shame when she hears him speaking. “Her embarrassment stemmed perhaps from her upbringing. She was of a generation, a time, when children were expected to be seen and not heard; and, as far as my mother was concerned, I was making every effort to draw attention to myself, and that she couldn’t forgive. That, she would never forgive.”

I spoke nonstop, but I had been reduced to silence.

Émile is treated abominably by his mother and is ignored by his father. It’s not long before he starts hearing rumours that his father is not his father. And other rumours about who his real father might be. He becomes obsessed with discovering the truth and with finding his place in the world.

On the back of an old, yellowed receipt, I drew up a list of the men in the village who might have been my father. Beside each name, I gave them a score from one to ten. Ten points mean they were the man on whom all hopes were pinned, the man who stood the best chance of being my father. One day my mother found the list under my mattress and threw it away.

As much as Émile had a rough time of it at home, and his mother is easy to dislike, it’s also clear that things aren’t that simple. Life and families and people and emotions are confusing and complex. One can’t help but ask the question – what happened to make Émile’s mother so mean to him?

I would have liked to hate my mother, but I could never quite bring myself to. Sometimes I’d find her in the kitchen, sitting on a stool and weeping silently. I’d say, “Whatever’s wrong, Maman?” And she’d reply, “I don’t know.” Then she would reach out her hand so that I’d come closer. I’d hesitate. She’d grab my arm and pull me onto her lap.

If not for Émile’s friend Max, it’s hard to say where he would have found himself. (“If I’m such a good-for-nothing, if I’m so bad, what will become of me?“) But Max was a good friend and his family welcomed Émile into their home. Without Max, Émile would have remained “a solitary being in a hostile world. Someone who spoke without drawing a breath, but had no one to talk to“.

… if anyone’s capable of dying of a broken heart, it’s a child.

As I read this novel, I made a long list of strange and/or possibly significant details and happenings. Things like Émile’s brother’s notebook of poems, the embroidered initials LD on all the linens in the house, the locked attic where Émile’s mother goes to cry, the tin of treasures Émile has buried in the garden, the blood on his brother when he comes home drunk one night, seeing his mother and neighbour kissing in the kitchen, and the story of the American soldier who lived in their house right after the war.

These details/clues/little mysteries as well as Émile’s young, vibrant, naive, afflicted, and hopeful voice kept me turning the pages, some of which are full while others only contain a line or two.

You will find yourself rooting for Émile, the Little Fox, as he goes from his mother’s house to the boys’ home to a travelling carnival and finally to a foster home where he doesn’t feel deserving of his foster mother’s kindness.

You’ll be rooting for him to go from survival mode…

Surviving – not getting overly attached to people, not planning for the future, not dwelling unnecessarily on the past, keeping an eye on your things so they’re not swiped from under your nose, never telling the truth, digging your fingernails into the palm of your hand or biting your tongue every time you want to cry.

to a boy who lives…

… and belongs in this world.

I could turn into a little animal with prickly red fur, pointy ears, a long snout, keeping its back low, dragging its whiskey-coloured tail. I could also, on occasion, turn into a wolf, an owl, a doe, and disappear off into the forest. I have more than one means of escape, but I decide to stay right where I am, both feet planted firmly on the ground, like an unshakeable tree, half dead, but impossible to uproot.


Further Reading:

Review at The Miramichi Reader: “The Little Fox of Mayerville is a cleverly written story which cunningly commands the reader’s attention.”

My review of Songs for the Cold of Heart (Giller shortlisted), also translated by Peter McCambridge

Interview with Éric Mathieu at QC Fiction: “For Émile, childhood is a prison, and he can’t wait to set himself free and start a new life. But he remains hopeful, despite everything that happens to him.

Éric Mathieu on Twitter

Thank you to Peter McCambridge and QC Fiction for sending me a copy of this book!


18 thoughts on “The Little Fox of Mayerville by Éric Mathieu, translated by Peter McCambridge

  1. lauratfrey says:

    I was looking for your opinion too (and I found it, in your reply above!) I’m going to read this soon as part of an ARC readathon in September. It’s the only recent one I have so I should get to it!

  2. annelogan17 says:

    This sounds like a really nice book, and thank god that friend comes through as a saviour! It is so difficult to read about children suffering, especially when their parents are cruel to them. It’s almost worse than reading about their illnesses or poverty, as long as a child is loved it all seems bearable somehow…

  3. buriedinprint says:

    This sounds like a really rewarding story, I’ve pretty much decided that I want to read all their books. 🙂

    One of my favourite things in a story is when one family adopts the child from another family (not officially, but in every way that really matters) and it makes all the difference. 🙂

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