In the present day, the teenage Tommo finds that there is a mouse sitting next to him. The mouse leaves, and Tommo wishes it would come back but resumes the recollections of his childhood.
Tommo is so desperate for company that even a mouse seems a better option than remaining alone.
Grandma Wolf “hate[s] mice.” She is terrified of them, and so the boys are happy in winter when the house becomes home to lots of mice sheltering from the cold. Grandma Wolf fights an endless battle with the mice by setting traps for them, but Big Joe loves the mice and leaves food out for them. Grandma Wolf punishes him, but he never understands what he is doing wrong, so he carries on, and the mice continue to seek shelter in the house.
The children take great pleasure in seeing Grandma Wolf fighting a losing battle against the mice. It is uncommon to see her afraid of anything, but the mice seem a rare exception to this rule. Grandma Wolf continues to demonstrate how little she understands Big Joe by continually punishing him for feeding the mice, when he has no idea what he is doing wrong.
All autumn, Grandma Wolf only catches one mouse, and the children throw a grand funeral for it. They all sing hymns and “Oranges and Lemons” and bury the mouse at the bottom of the garden.
“Oranges and Lemons” again acts as a symbol of defiance for the children against their enemies—in this case, the cruel Grandma Wolf.
While Grandma Wolf seems to hate the boys, she likes Molly. She claims that Molly has been raised well, by which she really means that Molly has been raised “strictly.” Tommo says that Molly’s mother and her father are indeed very strict, and often send her to her room or beat her for minor reasons.
Molly’s parents seem much like Grandma Wolf in their approach to raising children. They both punish children for the slightest of reasons and are constantly strict. This is clearly not a good way to parent, as Molly spends as much time away from her own house as she can.
On Big Joe’s birthday, Molly brings him a special present. It is a little brown box with air holes in it, and when Big Joe finally opens it, he finds a perfect harvest mouse inside, which he immediately falls in love with. The children tell him that he must keep it very safe and away from Grandma Wolf, in a drawer in his room. Big Joe loves collecting pets, but the mouse is his favorite of all the pets he has ever had.
Molly not only demonstrates her genuine kindness, but also her special understanding of Big Joe when she gives her birthday present to him. The children also demonstrate how well they understand Grandma Wolf when they warn Big Joe never to let her see the mouse, as they know that she will kill it if she does.
Not long afterwards, the boys come home from school one day to find Big Joe crying, and his drawer empty. Grandma Wolf is screaming that she will not allow “any nasty dirty animals in her house,” and the children realize that she has killed Big Joe’s beloved mouse. Molly shouts at Grandma Wolf, telling her that she is a “cruel, cruel woman” who will “go to Hell.”
Grandma Wolf finally demonstrates the extent of her cruelty when she kills Big Joe’s beloved mouse. She doesn’t even try to sympathize with Joe, as even when he is completely distraught, she continues to shout. Molly seems to have picked up the characteristic Peaceful bravery, and isn’t afraid to stand up to Grandma Wolf about what she has done.
Soon, though, “a miracle happen[s],” and Grandma Wolf leaves the children for good. The Colonel’s wife dies, so Mrs. Peaceful has no reason to keep working for the Colonel anymore. Grandma Wolf moves back out to the village, and the children’s mother can finally be home to them.
Tommo and the other children hate Grandma Wolf so much that they regard her leaving as a “miracle.” Tommo often uses religious language like this throughout the narrative, gesturing back to his religious upbringing.
For a period of time, however, the family has no income, given that Mrs. Peaceful is no longer working. Everyone is getting hungry, so Charlie, Molly, and Tommo decide to go poaching on the Colonel’s land. It is Charlie’s idea, and he knows how to catch fish (and some land animals if they happen to be lucky), so he sets the traps while Molly and Tommo keep watch. They don’t tell their mother where they get the food from, but they catch a lot of rabbits and fish, and the family is much better fed.
The children are resourceful in hatching this plan to poach on the Colonel’s land. Even though it is technically wrong, they know that the Colonel has more than enough food on his land to be able to spare a little going missing, not to mention the fact that they hate the Colonel by this point, so they don’t mind doing wrong by him occasionally.
Eventually the Colonel turns up at the cottage again, but this time he has good news: because the Colonel’s wife had been so fond of Mrs. Peaceful, she had made the Colonel promise to look after the Peaceful family if anything should happen to her. The Colonel is therefore obliged to let the Peacefuls keep their cottage. He also employs Mrs. Peaceful to do his linen and sewing work, most of which she can easily do from the comfort of her own home. Everyone is thrilled that not only will Mrs. Peaceful remain at home, but that they will finally have some money and a secure place to live.
This turn of events demonstrates that Mrs. Peaceful’s kind and caring nature sometimes rewards her with the kindness of others. Because the Colonel’s wife was so fond of Mrs. Peaceful, Mrs. Peaceful won her affections, and is now rewarded for this by getting to keep her house. Morpurgo therefore implies that it is always good to be kind to others, as this unconditional kindness can be repaid in unexpected ways.
The best news of all is that the Colonel asks Grandma Wolf to go back to work at the “Big House” as a live-in housekeeper, which keeps her far away from the children. Grandma Wolf had previously been fired after a disagreement with the Colonel’s wife, but now that his wife has died, the Colonel wants Grandma Wolf back. Grandma Wolf is thrilled, and feels very full of herself because of her job offer.
The narrative does not explain quite why Grandma Wolf was previously fired from her position as housekeeper at the estate, but the job offer certainly inflates her ego this time. It was likely something to do with the Colonel’s wife, given that not long after her death the Colonel invites Grandma Wolf back into her position.
Tommo, Charlie and Molly often roam the countryside after school. They swim and race through the fields, but Tommo often feels left out, given that he is the youngest by two years. Molly and Charlie sometimes leave him behind and run off without him, which makes him feel miserable.
Charlie and Molly running off without Tommo is a very literal illustration of their growing up without Tommo and leaving him behind. Because the narrative is told from Tommo’s perspective, the reader also gets a sense of feeling left out, making it easier to empathize with him.
One day, Molly and Charlie take off all their clothes and go swimming together, but Tommo feels too embarrassed to join them. Eventually, a few days later, Tommo decides to take the plunge and join them, and it never bothers him after that. All three of the children generally have great fun together, and Molly declares that they should never leave each other.
Although all of the children are still very young when this event occurs, it is the first slight hint at a more grown-up kind of love that might be developing between the children.
Everything goes well for a year or two, until Molly falls ill. The boys learn that she has scarlet fever and try to visit her at her home, but Molly’s parents turn them away. They seem angry at the boys for some reason, and Tommo thinks how miserable Molly must be in “that dingy little cottage with a mother and father like that.” They all pray that she will recover soon.
When Tommo and Charlie go to visit Molly’s cottage, they realize why she never liked going home for all those years, preferring to stick around at the aptly named Peaceful cottage instead. Even her house seems miserable, let alone her parents.