Mary Pfaff, celebrated at the height of her career as “the Beatrix Potter of Hawaii,” was born about 1875 in Brockton, Minnesota. A gifted artist from an early age, she worked as an illustrator for the local paper, the Brockton Bugle, from the time that she was 16. In 1897, at the age of twenty-two, she moved to Hawaii to work at the Hawaiian Gazette, a semi-weekly publication of the Honolulu Advertiser. She started in the advertising department, where she met and soon married William Apana, a local businessman. Mary reportedly did some illustration for the Gazette and other newspapers, but this is difficult to verify as much of the work is unsigned.
In 1903, the completion of the Pacific Cable enabled news to travel across the ocean almost instantaneously. The Gazette, and Mary, thrived for the next fifteen years until October 18, 1918, when editor Roderick O. Matheson resigned and took a position in Tokyo. The Gazette was shuttered, and Mary Pfaff was suddenly without employment.
The Great War was gaining momentum, and William’s business was prospering, allowing Mary to stay home comfortably. She soon found herself in the family way, and Mildred Pfaff Apana was born. Mary applied her considerable energy and drive to her new maternal duties.
Mary wrote and illustrated the Alice the Mongoose stories to entertain her young daughter. William, upon seeing his little girl’s delight in hearing the adventures of Alice and her friends, arranged to have Mary’s sketches and stories printed as hardcover books.
The Alice Mongoose books quickly became popular among local families. Hawaii children enjoyed seeing familiar landscapes, like the cane field where Alice Mongoose and Alistair Rat lived. Visitors to Hawaii enjoyed the books as reminders of pleasant vacations.
Mary Pfaff and her daughter Mildred both passed away in 1974 in a tragic waterskiing accident during a family vacation in Kauai. Mildred was 56, and Mary was 99. Mildred had divorced years earlier, leaving her own daughter Dorothy sole heir to the Pfaff-Apana fortune.
Local tastes began to change in the early 1980s. With the rise of the Hawaiian Renaissance, the Alice Mongoose series came to be seen as outdated and problematic, privileging Alice and Alistair’s “foreign” perspective while relegating native characters like Penni Pueo the owl to peripheral roles. Alice went out of print and was, for a while, forgotten.
Alice has enjoyed a renaissance of her own in recent years, thanks largely to the efforts of Mary Pfaff’s granddaughter and heir, Dorothy Pfaff, who has proudly claimed her grandmother’s maiden name. A new generation of parents and children have come to appreciate the books’ unselfconscious multiculturalism, sensible life lessons, and positive female main character.
This reissue of the Alice the Mongoose series was conducted in close consultation with Dorothy Pfaff. Any enhancements to the electronic book are in keeping with the way Dorothy remembers her mother and grandmother reading to her.
About Alice Mongoose
Little Alice Mongoose has a loving home and doting parents in India, but she is eager to have a grown-up job and make her mark on the world. She travels to the Big Island of Hawaii, where mongoose are very much in demand. On the voyage over, as she is nibbling on one of the hard-boiled eggs her father packed for her, an unpleasant man with big boots comes over and tells her what her job in Hawaii will be: to kill rats in the cane fields.
Poor Alice is shocked. She has never met a rat, she is not a killer, and she does not like this man. When the ship reaches land, Alice collects all of her little hatboxes and steamer trunks and strikes out on her own. The first “person” she meets is the gentle and foppish Alistair Rat.
“You are very kind, Alistair,” Alice said. “Are you a mongoose? You do not look very much like a mongoose.”
“Dear me no,” Alistair said. “I am a rat. Like you.”
“I am not a rat,” Alice Mongoose said. “I am a mongoose.”
“That is impossible,” Alistair Rat replied, adjusting his monocle to get a better look at Alice (for he was quite nearsighted). “If you were a mongoose, you would have tried to kill me. Instead of sitting with me and having a nice cup of tea.”
“I have never killed anyone,” Alice said, setting down her tea. “And I certainly do not plan to kill you. You have been very hospitable, and you make a splendid cup of tea. I should like to have a look at the house next door. I am inclined to take it, if you think I would be a suitable tenant.”
Mongoose were introduced to Hawaii in 1883 by the sugar plantations, in order to control rats in the cane fields. This did not work as planned; mongoose are awake during the daytime, while rats are nocturnal. Alice and Alistair share their morning and evening meals, but are otherwise on different schedules.