Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Rat Life

In Tedd Arnold's first young adult novel Rat Life, it is end of the school year; almost summer in 1972 and fourteen year old Todd is balancing homework with chores at his family's motel. An avid writer, Todd amuses his friends and classmates making up stories and writing about every day life. One afternoon Todd meets Rat, a young Vietnam Vet, and they strike up an unlikely friendship. Working with Rat at the local drive-in movie theater, Todd meets an array of characters including Rat's mother, the owner, and several of Rat's 'unks.' When daily gossip turns to Todd's preoccupation with a local murder, things begin to quietly unravel as circumstances lead to the possibility that Rat may be involved. Issues and prevailing attitudes of the country towards Vietnam War vets, as well as 1970's pop cultural and musical motifs, are seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of this coming of age novel that does not shy away from difficult issues of war and survival. "I know now that some things people do are impossible to understand unless you've lived their lives" (Rat Life, p. 199).

Rat Life is the second book I have read in the past few weeks set during the Vietnam War era (The Wednesday Wars). Both books tackle the country's unrest during that time, but Rat Life deals more realistically with the attitudes of people towards veterans. Rat's depiction of his home life, filled with physical and emotional cruelty, is related in a non-nonsense manner that is almost casual. However, it provides insight to his abuse; further expanded upon when readers learn Rat's mother enrolled him in the army at age fourteen with forged enlistment papers (Arnold provides an interesting historical footnote to this at the books conclusion). Though the classical dead body mystery is eventually solved during an emotionally charged town flood (mirroring an event in the history of Elmira, NY), it takes second place to Todd's maturation and acceptance of Rat and the choices he made to survive.

This book is the first of several I will be able to pluck off the cart at my leisure without disturbing anyone in technical services. The acquisitions librarian, cataloging librarian, and technical services assistant, all responsible in some major way for preparing books for the shelves, are on vacation for the remainder of this week and part of next. Additionally, I will be able to tag several picture books with hopes of adding them to my Mock Caldecott shelf for late August/early September.

In the famous words of Col. Jack O'Neill, "It's good to be King."

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