Review: 'Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines', by Margery Sharp
This is the fourth book in Margery Sharp's fantasy series "for all ages". As always, the central characters are the two mice, Miss Bianca and Bernard, and various other members of the Mouse Prisoners' Aid Society; and, as usual, the plot revolves about Miss Bianca's kindhearted determination to rescue some poor human from undeserved durance vile in an absolutely escape-proof prison -- this time, it's a little boy, Teddy-Age-Eight, enslaved in the salt mines. As before, Miss Bianca is sophisticated and charming, and Bernard is devoted and persevering; the plot and dialog skip wittily along, and a happy ending is soon reached for all.
It's not that I didn't enjoy the book, but I was disappointed to discover that it didn't say anything new. Miss Sharp has written the same book for the fourth time now, and the novelty of the basic plot has worn off. The series has not deteriorated, exactly, but it is noticeably beginning to stagnate.
The previous books had at least some interesting sidelights in their sub-plots. The Rescuers was the first book, and as such was new and fresh; a real delight. Miss Bianca had an even more pathetic prisoner worthy of rescue, a truly horrifying and intriguing prison (the Diamond Palace of the Grand Duchess), and a thrilling escape. The Turret introduced the Mouse Boy Scouts, presented the danger of the MPAS disintegrating through inaction and internal feuding (and the prospect of Bernard's having to marry the amazonic Games Mistress to keep the Society together), and posed the question of whether this prisoner really deserved his punishment more than the freedom that Miss Bianca was determined to thrust upon him.
But in Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines (even the title is heavily wordy and uninspiring), the plot just rehashes elements of the first three books: the foreboding prison, as in the first book; the pathetic child prisoner, as in the second; Bernard worshiping Miss Bianca from afar, as in all the books (and no closer to nor farther from a marriage); and a happy ending through saccharinously fortuitous circumstances. The overuse of such serendipitous coincidence isn't so bad when the escape itself isn't the main focus of reader interest; when there's nothing else to concentrate on, though, it stands forth too clearly as the shallow solution that it really is.
The basic plot of this series is definitely worth reading, but catch it in one of the first two books. I'm afraid I really can't recommend Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines, unless you're a completist and want to finish the series, or unless you just adore this kind of fantasy and/or cute mice. And, unless she can come up with some new ideas for sub-plots, at least, I think Miss Sharp had better stop before her series begins to visibly lose ground. Four books are at least one too many, as it is.
Margery Sharp (1905-1991) went on to write five more books in this series; each showing less freshness and enthusiasm on the author’s part, and each of the last three or four clearly intended to be the finale of the series. Alas, the fans of Miss Bianca and Bernard would not let her stop writing them. The complete series is:
- The Rescuers (1959)
- Miss Bianca (1962)
- The Turret (1963)
- Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines (1966)
- Miss Bianca in the Orient (1970)
- Miss Bianca in the Antarctic (1971)
- Miss Bianca and the Bridesmaid (1972)
- Bernard the Brave (1977)
- Bernard into Battle (1978)
And, of course, there are the two Walt Disney animated motion pictures, which both featured original stories despite the reuse of the first novel’s title: