Todd is a fourteen-year-old boy who has just begun to understand the power he holds in his pen. His English teacher sees great promise in his writing, but before he can slip into crafting the same type of gross-out stories that are popular with his peers, a series of events occur that will profoundly affect both the content and depth of what he puts down on paper.
Everything seems to start out pleasantly enough. While riding his bike on the outskirts of town Todd comes across a stray pup. After a few moments spent in gaining the dog’s confidence, he decides to take the wiggling, excited little bundle home with him. Then, suddenly, there is a cement truck on the road, and the boy finds himself pressed up against a guardrail, trying to hold on to an animal that is starting to panic. When the frightened dog bites his hand he lets go on reflex, and in a moment the puppy has leapt out from the safety of his arms and into the path of the wheels. She is not killed instantly, but the back part of her is crushed.
As the suffering cries of the critically wounded animal stab into him, Todd hears a voice of a stranger telling him, “That dog needs killing.” Such is Todd’s introduction to an older boy named Rat, a friendly but complicated companion whose presence over the next several days will make the trauma over the pup’s accident seem minor in comparison.
At 17, Rat has seen too much of the world. Although technically too young to have done so, he has already served a tour of duty in Vietnam. He now works in a drive-in movie theater, and for reasons of his own gets Todd a job there, too. At first things seem to be going along smoothly, and the developing friendship takes on some of the familiar elements one could expect from teenage boys, such as cutting up at work and working together on a tree house. Yet Rat is not an easy person to get to know on a deeper level. There is an air of mystery about him, and it only deepens as Todd begins to suspect that maybe his new friend is somehow involved with the dead man who was washed up on the side of the river.
Winner of the prestigious Edgar Award for the best mystery for young adults, Rat Life is an engaging story that deliberately attempts to cross the line between popular fiction and literature. For example, the author has Todd reading Huckleberry Finn periodically to his grandmother, a not-so-subtle hint that the tale is paying thematic homage to Mark Twain’s work. Like Huck, Rat is hiding from an abusive, drunken father and has lost most of a normal childhood along the way. In addition, the tree house strongly resembles the raft in Twain’s story both figuratively and, at one point, literally.
Still, Arnold’s book merely borrows elements from Twain’s classic work and is not a true retelling of it. Rat would make a very dark Huck Finn indeed, and Todd is more like Ponyboy from S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders than Tom Sawyer or Jim. Also, the author has his own points to make about subjects such as America’s reaction to Vietnam veterans, fatherhood, and the development of a young writer. And, as mentioned earlier, the author seems especially interested in how events can help shape character. True, the novel does borrow heavily from Huckleberry Finn and may one day be taught as a companion volume of literature. Yet it should be read based on its own merits and not due to its allusions to other works.
Like many other modern stories, however, the book has some aspects that Christian readers may take issue with. Crudity in the form of bathroom humor is used periodically, as is profanity. Most of the bad language is of the milder variety that one hears on prime time television these days, but it is occasionally a bit stronger. In addition, the novel contains some graphic imagery that will be difficult for sensitive readers to handle, although it normally serves to drive home a point rather than simply being gratuitous. There is also at least one mild sexual reference.
In general, though, the book has many more positive elements than negative ones. Good characterizations, effective plot development, thought-provoking themes, and healthy doses of mystery and suspense make Rat Life a novel that I will keep on my shelf to read again someday.
Image copyright Dial. Review copy from the reviewer's personal collection.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.