CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 1. . . .September 5, 2014
The Cat at the Wall.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi Press, 2014.
144 pp., trade pbk., hc. & html, $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.), $14.95 (html).
ISBN 978-1-55498-707-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55498-491-6 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-55498-492-3 (html).
Grades 4-9 / Ages 9-14.
Review by Beth Maddigan.
Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.
One moment I was walking out of my middle school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Then there was a period of darkness, like being asleep. When I woke up I was in Bethlehem - the real one. And I was a cat.
I don't know if it was an accident, like some sort of cosmic wires getting crossed, or if God is playing a joke on me or if all this is a nightmare and I'm really in a coma back in St. Luke's Hospital.
Nobody has told me anything.
Bethlehem, in Pennsylvania and the West Bank, is the first example of synchronicity in The Cat at the Wall. The parallels in this complex, and likely to be controversial, short novel go well beyond the venues in which it is set, however. Prolific author Deborah Ellis once again tackles the difficult subject of conflict in the Middle East, but this time from a unique perspective. Thirteen-year-old Clare narrates the story in the present tense embodied in the form of a cat and in the past tense as a self-involved popular grade-eight student. Clare has experienced life as a cat for approximately a year. Adept at scavenging for food and finding comfort where she can, Clare's perspective as a cat provides an unbiased view of the tensions between the people of Palestine and Israel. However, while Clare's current form is feline, she is aware that in her last life she was a young adult, living in the United States and wrapped up almost entirely in herself and her personal indulgences. The novel pivots between the two perspectives, and, as the plot unravels, the reader discovers more about Clare and how her short human life was interrupted. The suspense builds in both settings as Clare shares the events that unfold while she was a grade-eight student, and while she inhabits – as a cat – an occupied house in the West Bank that she shares with two soldiers and a young boy.
A number of harmonized literary devices give the novel its affinity and connections. The most prominent is the famous poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. As a cat, Clare is first exposed to this poem when she hears its recitation by Omar, the Arab boy living in the house occupied for surveillance by two Israeli soldiers. Clare knows the poem by heart, having been intimately exposed to its text when she copied it multiple times as a form of detention in her grade-eight homeroom. While she can recite it by heart, she isn't able to embody its spirit and considers it only a "punishment" poem. When Omar's classmates arrive to collect him for school, they recite the poem, but change the line "you have a right to be here" to "WE have a right to be here", giving the poem new provenance.
A large cast of characters come into focus in this short novel. In particular, readers are introduced to Commander Aaron and Private Simcha, the Israeli soldiers following orders to "borrow" a hilltop house for its useful vantage point. These soldiers have a focus broader than their current assignment, and, through them, readers get a first glimpse of the human face of war. Later, the teachers characterized in this novel - Ms. Sealand at Lehigh Middle School in Pennsylvania and Ms. Fatima in the West Bank - are both dedicated and unconventional. Ms. Sealand, nicknamed Ms. Zero by Clare, respects her students and challenges them to rise to her standards. She does not tolerate bullying or disrespect, and Clare's self-professed tendencies to manipulate and deceive are quickly exposed. Ms. Fatima brings her entire class to call for Omar when he is absent from school, and, when she discovers the house occupied by soldiers, she has her students provide some comfort and collegiality for Owen by making their presence known with a choral version of Ehrmann's poem. In addition, readers learn about the influence of Clare's grandmother, a devout Catholic widow who served the homeless only to be murdered while serving at a shelter, and Polly, Clare's sister who overcame extreme shyness through public speaking, despite Clare's cruel attempt to sabotage her speech.
Clare’s characters – human and cat – are the most complex. As a cat, Clare is able to understand all human languages. This fantastic element helps readers suspend reality and gain a better perspective into both sides of the Middle East conflict. Clare the cat is not personified in any other way; she behaves as one would expect a feline to behave, selfishly stealing food and trinkets. Readers can empathize with a stray cat doing whatever it can to survive and find a little relief from fleas and the relentless pursuit from cats with a marked territory. However, as a young woman, Clare's character is less sympathetic. Readers learn of her cruelty when she deliberately unsettles a visiting speaker at school, and she goes on to recount situations when she embarrasses a classmate with cerebral palsy and steals from a fellow student who is not a member of her inner circle.
The Cat at the Wall is an excellent choice for teachers and librarians engaging students in literature circles or classroom discussions of social justice. Young people interested in broadening their world view through literature will find inspiration in this text as well. The themes of the novel are difficult, intense and tragic. In keeping with her unflinching look at the violence of our time, Ellis does not shy away from explorations of religion, political unrest, and civilian casualties of military conflict. Giving Clare the perspective of a cat allows readers a view of the tragedy that is slightly distanced from the heart-wrenching perspective of the people involved in the war first-hand. This makes the novel accessible for more sensitive pre-teens. As a cat, Clare has an unbiased viewpoint - she is neither nationalistic nor religious. And she is able to see how simple misunderstandings and misperceptions can ignite tense situations. The themes of the novel are also controversial and will, undoubtedly, find detractors on all sides of the religious and political perspectives that surface in the story. This reader hopes that the novel finds its audience and frank discussions evolve in classrooms, libraries, and around the dinner table. North American preteens will relate to Clare's middle school experiences and will, therefore, be able to translate that perspective to the turmoil that touches the lives of the characters in the Middle East. This novel may be disturbing for less mature readers, but even the most tragic situations are appropriately contextualized and, in the face of great devastation, there is hope, moral fortitude and the ability to affect positive change.
Beth Maddigan is Memorial University of Newfoundland's Education Librarian.
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