“I saw change coming and that’s always a worry,” Helena says at the start of Richard Peck’s Secrets at Sea. The Upstairs Cranstons are going to Europe in search of a husband for Olive, “pushing twenty-one without a man in sight.” If the Cranstons shutter the windows and shut up the house, life will change for Helena’s family, for they are mice, among the First Families on the Hudson River, having arrived ages before the Dutch or the English.
They were all family—the wealthy human Upstairs Cranstons and the mice Cranstons below—but with the usual inequities of wealth and social class. The mice knew all of the joys and sorrows of their counterparts, but the humans knew nothing of theirs, didn’t even know a word of their mouse language. Peck sets his tale on the eve of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, masterfully delineating the domestic world of the Cranston families from Helena Cranston’s mouse-eye view, including her brothers and sisters—the skittering Louise, reckless Lamont, meek (even mousy, you might say) Beatrice and her own worrying self.
They are all off on an ocean voyage, along with the Upstairs Cranstons. The sea journey is deliciously related, full of funny scenes that beg to be read aloud, and readers will sense the fun Peck must have had in the writing. The Upstairs Cranstons are, of course, in the ship’s first-class section; Helena and her family are not. But, as Helena knows, it is the job of mice to keep the families together, so she overcomes her fear of water and does what must be done. What ensues are adventures galore—lifeboat drills, cat-and-mouse chases, the dispatching of an evil nanny, a hilarious princess’ reception and plenty of romance.
Ever versatile, Peck has fashioned a social comedy that is a pure delight.