Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis

A thirteen-year-old American girl dies in a car accident and is reincarnated as a cat living in West Bank in the midst of the Israeli-Pakistan conflict. I know. Bizarre premise. But the author pulls it off and the plot is not about religion - it's about redemption. It's about getting a second chance to do the right thing and doing it even though you are a cat. It's a sad story about a girl that blames herself for her grandma's death and bullies those around her to feel secure and powerful. It's about the choices made in life and knowing when to act for hate or peace. You'll have to try this quirky book yourself. While sometimes the teacher got a tad preachy, it has a good mix of action and deep-thinking. Surprising, because it is only 150 pages.

Two Israeli soldiers, Simcha and Aaron, break into a Palestinian house to spy on the neighborhood. Clare, the cat, sneaks in with them and finds a boy, Omar, hidden under the floor. When the two soldiers find him they try to sneak out with him, but their plan is foiled when they get discovered by villagers. The tension escalates when they start firing bullets at each other. Because the point of view is from a cat, the violence is buffered by the creature's nonchalant attitude, "If people insist on shooting other people, they should do it quietly so that a cat can have a decent nap." Simcha is somewhat stereotyped as the California surfer dude. I would have liked him and Aaron fleshed out a little more. Omar recites the Desiderata poem to control his fear. It is a poem about being happy and treating others fairly and says that fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Alternating with this tense situation is the cat, Clare, having flashbacks to when she was a girl and having problems at school. We find out that Clare lacked character and motivation. She wasn't responsible or honest or kind. A new teacher tried to get her to see the value in character but most of the year was just a power struggle. The teacher made students copy Max Erhmann's Desiderata poem as punishment. While this is not generally how character education is taught today, I see why the author used it to tie it in with the alternating plot. It shows Omar using the poem as comfort in contrast to the self-centered, bully Clare. When Clare thinks about why she took the girls wallet instead of returning it to her it is the first time she questions why she does things "without thinking." At the end when she looks at how the universe is unfolding she thinks it is wrong that she should be alive and her good-hearted grandma dead.

Omar has built an elaborate "City of Dreams" out of cardboard, his refuge and desire for a safe world from his war torn one. Simcha, the American, comes in and kicks down Omar's city not realizing what it was. The author seems to suggest that the United States oftentimes flexes its muscles without thinking of consequences. More importantly, it ties in with the theme of understanding context before taking action. Tragedy results from fears and misunderstandings throughout this story. The teacher doesn't understand the context of Clare's misbehavior. The Israeli soldiers don't understand the context of the boys parents at check point. Simcha and Aaron don't understand why Omar is alone. Clare realizes that hostility and fear create paranoia that will lead to certain death for others and she decides to change the context. It is the first time she chooses to do something because she cares. A terrific novel for studying character development and discuss current events.
4 Smileys

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