The Cat at the Wall
By Deborah Ellis
Hardcover, 152 pages
2014, Groundwood Books
Clare was once a thirteen-year-old girl, but now lives her life as a cat on Israel’s West Bank after being hit by a truck. She follows two Israeli soldiers into a Palestinian house they covertly decide to occupy, hoping to find some food. Instead, she finds herself entangled in the politics of the situation and wondering if she can help the little boy trapped in the house.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I understood and enjoyed the message but Clare was obnoxious and frustrating and I didn’t find her character growth to be believable.
I initially picked this book up because I saw the word cat, then decided I liked the cover art and then thought the blurb sounded interesting. I had credit at the used bookstore, so I didn’t pay for it, but I’m thinking I’d be a little miffed if I’d paid full price. I think this is an excellent book for pre-teen readers that will help them understand the importance of understanding differing points of view, as well as how your actions towards others can affect not only those others but yourself.
But Clare is a full-on bitch.
This is a tough book to read because for all but the last maybe four pages, she’s an incredibly selfish brat, cruel to her friends, family, classmates and teachers and utterly consumed by her own feelings. She often misconstrues the feelings of others to support her own cruelty and it’s obvious that while she understands she’s not a very good person, she doesn’t understand how much that really affects others, nor does she really seem to care.
“I sized her up right away – forty, frustrated, forgettable, a long way from young and a long way from retirement.”
“It’s not right that I should escape lice when I was a girl but have to deal with fleas now that I’m a cat. People who have lice when they’re alive should be the ones to get fleas in the afterlife because they already know how to deal with them. Fleas would be no big deal.”
“The difference between the two is animals can’t like. Or don’t. Really, they have no reason to lie. Humans wouldn’t hear them and other animals wouldn’t believe it. Which is too bad for me because lying is the thing I was best at when I was a girl.”
“There was one kid in our school in a wheelchair. He had cerebral palsy and was really popular, even though his family had no money, he couldn’t play sports and he didn’t wear cool clothes.”
See what I mean?
I know we’re not supposed to like Clare. It’s obvious that after her death and subsequent reincarnation as a cat, she still has a lot of life lessons to learn. While her thoughts were an interesting mixture of feline instincts and human tendencies, she’s still thinking mostly the same as she was when she was a girl. My issue is that, throughout almost the entire book, it’s clear Clare either doesn’t understand how horrible she was, or doesn’t want to face it and improve.
Then, the last few pages of the book, Clare does a 180 and decides to think about people other than herself. The story ends with the lines (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler):
“Maybe the world is not completely rotten. Maybe I’ll strive to be happy.”
I don’t buy it, Clare. You’re not fooling me.
I would think that Clare is not a role model character for any child reading this book – I’m sure readers will understand that she’s selfish and thoughtless. My issue is that her character growth feels disingenuous. I think if the book was longer and Clare’s transition from little brat to someone who cares about others could have been more gradual, I would have loved this book.
All in all, this isn’t a bad book by any means. I enjoyed Ellis’s writing style and despite the heavy topic, it’s very appropriate for middle-school readers. She tackles some very valuable themes, I just think it was wrapped up too quickly. But if you’re looking for something for readers around 11-14 (just an estimate, depends on their reading level) that deals with a more contemporary social event, I would recommend The Cat at the Wall.