I was a Rat!

by Philip Pullman

Published by Knopf

165 pages, 2000

Buy it online




Not So Happy

Reviewed by Monica Stark


Bob Jones is a cobbler. His wife, Joan, is a washerwoman. They are childless, aging and unaware that there's a hole in their life. Late one night, the couple are disturbed by a knock at their door. Bob is surprised to find a young boy, dressed in the uniform of a page. "It had once been smart, but it was sorely torn and stained, and the boy's face was scratched and grubby."

Bob and Joan ask the boy, in turn, who he is. "I was a rat," he says. When asked a second time, he says it again. Thinking that their late night visitor must have suffered a bump on the head or be otherwise demented, they take him in and feed him. He seems able enough to talk, though his knowledge of common things -- like how to use utensils and what simple household items are called -- is limited. Also, he has the most annoying habit of eating almost everything not nailed down and eating it rather rudely, at that. However, before very long, they realize that Roger, as they name their rat-boy, has brought into focus what was missing in their lives. "I reckon we got a purpose in our lives now, that's what. We been just trundling along all these years like a pair of old trams," Bob says to his wife. Unfortunately, by that time Roger had disappeared without a trace.

I was a Rat is a charming and absolutely creative reworking of a classic fairytale, but from the backend. Filled with thieves and princesses, politicians and carneys, I was a Rat is slender, action-packed and, in all ways, a highly entertaining tale.

Marketed to the 8-to-12-year-old set, I was a Rat is solid entertainment for all ages. Philip Pullman, the author of nine other novels for children and young adults, pulls no literary punches with his language: a delight in books aimed at this age group. He seems not to hesitate using words that might send younger readers scurrying for their dictionary: except that the words are used in context so well that their meaning will likely be apparent to most children.

Like all authors who write successfully for this reading age, Pullman's language is clear and simple, while never approaching simplistic. Quite the contrary: his prose leaps along with great energy:

Normally at this time of day, the King liked to chat with the Philosopher Royal over a cup of coffee and a biscuit, discussing thing like why toast always fell on the buttered side or whether flies looped the loop before landing on the ceiling. But with the Royal Family away at the Hotel Splendifico while the Palace was being redecorated for the Royal Wedding, there was little call for philosophy.

Punctuating Pullman's lucid prose are illustrations by Kevin Hawkes. While the cover art that Hawkes has produced for the North American edition is slightly cold and somewhat off-putting, the sketches that illustrate the book are warm and skillful. Another illustrative element is the frequent introductions of the front page of the fictional newspaper, The Daily Scourge that, alone, forms a sort of distant, running narrative of its own. The Scourge entries give an outside view of the events that are transpiring in the story. The result is a hilarious -- and not very flattering -- commentary on modern journalism. This is a theme that runs through the text of the book, as well:

The editor of the Daily Scourge encouraged his reporters to listen up for every kind of weird or sentimental or horrible or sensational story that could find, and then he printed them, whether or not they were true. The best kind of story was one that went on and on, with a new twist every day, and could be easily understood even by numskulls in a hurry.

Politicians and bureaucrats are likewise lampooned and in a style so humorous and cheery that, while younger readers might not fully understand the humor, they'll certainly know -- and enjoy -- that adults are being made fun of in a rather endearing way. This is one of the things that makes I was a Rat a complete delight: it works on many levels and is approachable by readers of varying age and sophistication. | May 2000

Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.