Book Review: The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis

A fellow English student once told me that YA fiction is didactic by both nature and design. Other literature may or may not hide its ideological underpinnings under a veneer of “art for art’s sake,” but literature for adolescents, she said, is much more overt in its efforts to interpellate its readers into particular systems of thought. Since she certainly knew much more about the genre than I do, I’m not particularly inclined to argue with her; on the contrary, I found myself repeatedly returning to the idea of didacticism while reading Deborah Ellis’ latest novel, The Cat at the Wall. It’s an unabashedly moralizing book—narratively, it hinges on the main character’s journey from self-absorption to (relative) altruism as it plays out against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s also a novel that truly believes in the transcendent power of the individual. But while it seems almost mean-spirited to quibble with such unrepentant optimism, I can’t help but wonder whether Ellis has gone too far in her explicit efforts to “figure out a place for individual choice in the face of big events”—whether her efforts have slid into a kind of naiveté that smooths over the rough edges of the conflict and, perhaps, offers the reader a lopsided understanding of what is needed to resolve it.

In The Cat at the Wall, the “individual choice” that counts is, of course, a cat’s (truly, Ellis gives new and unusually literal weight to the idea that any person, no matter how small, can change history). Of course, Clare isn’t an ordinary cat; in her former life, she was a spoiled American teenager who bullied her sister and coasted through school with a minimal amount of effort and a great deal of fashionable apathy. She was killed in a car accident and has since been reincarnated as a street cat in Israel, apparently as penance for her narcissism. But while Clare has lived as a cat for roughly a year by the time the novel opens (and has learned, in the interim, a great deal about how to manipulate humans), her attitude has shown few signs of improvement; for her, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exists largely as a matter of personal inconvenience. Thus, when she sniffs out a Palestinian boy hiding in a house occupied by Israeli soldiers, her initial reaction is to keep her head down: “Not your business, I told myself. You have enough trouble of your own, stuck in this awful place with fleas and no TV. That boy hiding away will never help you. So why should you help him?”. As she has said a moment earlier, “The best thing about being a cat is that nothing is your fault.”

Entertaining as Clare’s bluntly self-serving narration may be, though, she’s clearly overdue for redemption, and the highly charged situation she has just stumbled into proves to be the catalyst. As tensions escalate and Israelis and Palestinians prepare to face off outside the house, Clare begins to reconsider both the life she led as a human and her current stance of cool indifference—a transformation that reaches its crisis point when violence threatens to break out, and Clare alone, perhaps, can stop it.

There’s a lot to like about The Cat at the Wall, even setting to one side Clare’s refreshingly plausible self-absorption (a welcome relief from more blandly saccharine YA narrators). The Cat at the Wall is a compact, tidy little book—its plot unfolds over a matter of hours—and it is all the more powerful for it. Indeed, Ellis is at her best when she is focused on the vignette rather than the big picture—the small, human minutiae rather than the lessons to be drawn from them. The miniature city the boy (Omar) has built out of old boxes and cans, the moment when one of the soldiers (Aaron) covers Omar’s sleeping form with a blanket—there is a quiet pathos to these details that at times reaches the level of profundity. Take Clare’s reflections on the time she pocketed a wallet that had been dropped on a classroom floor:

[I] tried to figure out why I put that wallet in my bag instead of handing it to the girl who dropped it.

I had no idea why. I just did it without thinking.

I did it because I was used to doing things like that.

It is a nicely understated moment, and one that neatly pulls together a number of the novel’s ideas—that callousness is a habit, that caring requires conscious effort, that thoughtlessness can be just as harmful as real malice.

Effective as the scene is, though, it also has a disturbingly flattening effect, and not just because Clare’s petty schoolgirl crimes are held in parallel with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, throughout the novel, cruelty and injustice are repeatedly shown to be the result, not of true ill will or systemic oppression, but rather of ignorance and misunderstandings on the level of the individual. The rawest, most gut-wrenching scene in the entire novel—the death of a Palestinian husband and wife at an Israeli checkpoint—is also a scene of sustained misinterpretation. The efforts of both the couple and the soldiers they encounter to understand one another are—literally—lost in translation.

As a stand-alone scene, the checkpoint episode has an undeniable force to it. But in many ways, it is not a stand-alone scene; it is a distillation of the novel’s overarching moral—namely, that there is no challenge that greater sympathy on the part of the individual cannot cure. This is undoubtedly a pleasant thought, and that is, in a way, the problem. Apathy and mistrust may be hard to crack, but there are tougher barriers still: deeply entrenched hatred, the inertia of vast networks of power, the natural tendency of the relatively privileged to dig in their heels and protect what they have. But in The Cat at the Wall, every disagreement, every fight, every death can be traced back to a kind of calcified ignorance. Break through it once and you have a new person (à la Clare). Break through it a few thousand times and, Ellis seems to suggest, you’ll have a new world. There is a charming simplicity to this line of argument, but it’s ultimately too simplistic to be wholly credible. Sympathy and understanding are important, but they’re not the be-all and end-all; even in aggregate, concerned individuals often have a difficult time making a dent in institutionalized problems. The truth is that are plenty of Israeli and Palestinian civilians who want peace, but so far, it’s made very little difference.

The second (and related) problem with Ellis’ approach is that it places an undue amount of responsibility on those who bear the brunt of the problem. If sympathy is all that is lacking, everyone who lacks it is equally to blame, and things like the Israeli occupation of the West Bank cease to have any relevance; all power imbalances become a moot point when each and every individual is equally capable of solving the problem. Thus, we have moments like the one when a Palestinian teacher tries to stop a former student from throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers:

He tried to shake her away but she would not leave. The other boys started to make fun of him, but she shut them up with one look.

“Have you forgotten everything you learned in my classroom?” she asked. “You have all been my students.”

“That was a long time ago, Ms. Fahima,” Abdullah said. “Those soldiers in there, they killed my father! They killed Ibrahim’s brother. They put our uncles in prison.”

These soldiers? Are you sure it was these soldiers?”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters.”

To be clear, I’m no advocate of violence. And obviously, Ms. Fahima is correct; these particular soldiers had nothing to do with the death of Abdullah’s father, and it is unfair to hold them accountable. All the same, the idea that you must always turn the other cheek is a bitter pill to swallow when you’re on the receiving end of a disproportionate number of blows.

Perhaps these are unfair criticisms to lob at a novel written for adolescents. On the whole, Ellis has done a good job painting sympathetic portraits of individuals on both sides of the conflict and that, at least, is something that is surely sorely needed. Besides, it was Ellis’ stated intent to find a foothold for individual agency in all the messy turmoil of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; can one really fault her for trying to do just that? In response, I can only argue that individual actions can make a difference—but only when they’re rooted in a nuanced appreciation of the many dimensions of a problem. To be sure, that’s a more complicated lesson for young readers to take in—but then, the sooner they start learning it the better.


The Cat at the Wall was published in Sept. 2014 by Groundwood Books.

Buy it: The Cat at the Wall on Amazon.

Find out more about it: The Cat at the Wall on Goodreads.

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Books I've Read (and Thought About)

2 responses to “Book Review: The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis

  1. Oh dear! I featured this book in a post about Groundwood Books as I thought it looked promising. While I agree that many books written for children end up being morally simplistic, I’ve found that it’s especially prominent in children’s/YA books about WWII and the Holocaust. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a children’s book about WWII that was much good. I suspect that YA gets a bad reputation for didacticism in part because people *expect* it to be didactic.

    • To be fair, there’s a lot that I enjoyed in The Cat at the Wall; it has a creative premise and works well for what it is. The only real problem I have with it is the gritty details of its ideological slant, but those are hardly unique to that particular novel, or even YA fiction–the belief that the individual will can achieve anything (and the corresponding disregard for underlying power structures), is incredibly pervasive. It is something I’m growing increasingly frustrated with, though; if anything, recent events (i.e. Ferguson and Eric Garner) have demonstrated that this is not the kind of theory you should have to have taken a class in gender/race/postcolonial studies to know something about–it should be part of a broader public conversation.

      I hadn’t every really considered this in the context of YA WWII/Holocaust fiction (since YA fiction isn’t really my strong suit in general), but thinking back on the books that I have read, I think you’re right. I am kind of fond of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, even though I think there are a lot of problems with it (oversimplification and historical inaccuracy, for a start). There’s a parable-like quality to that novel that makes the simplification more palatable to me personally, but I know that there’s been criticism of the representation of Bruno as an innocent bystander rather than complicit.

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