Review Blog

Sep 17 2015

The cat at the wall by Deborah Ellis

cover image

Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781760112448
(Age: 11+) Recommended. Palestine, Conflict, Israel, School, Family. When Clare dies in her home town of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, she is reincarnated as a cat in Bethlehem, the West Bank caught between the enmity of the two opposing groups as she takes refuge in a Palestinian house which two Israeli soldiers are using as a observation post. Here the cat is grudgingly befriended by the two National Service soldiers, one from the USA and the other an Israeli, but the cat can smell another human in the one roomed house. A child is hiding from the Israelis, and becomes a catalyst when his teacher knocks on the door wanting to know why he is not at school. The situation escalates when she sees the soldiers inside and while calling for help, some older children arrive with stones ready to fight.
Ellis masterfully aligns the two stories, that of Clare at school, a knowing thirteen year old, pitting herself against a disliked teacher, and the cat in the Palestinian house watching the events unfold. Both stories reveal the nature of conflict built up over a period of time, with suspicion and a lack of trust taking only a small flash point to become a major incident. As the cat tells what is happening inside the house, she also relates the events in Pennsylvania leading to her death, the antagonism with the teacher, her bullying of her sister, her manipulation of her friends and family. She is a selfish young girl, one who steals and tells lies to get her own way. And it is the situation in the Palestinian house which eventually makes her see herself for what she was.
The continually enthralling story of Clare and her manifestation as a cat will intrigue readers as they see her become a more humane person, just as the two soldiers and the crowd outside the Palestinian house peacefully resolve the conflict which is about to happen with the cat leading the way for Clare to redeem herself.
Ellis has distilled a major conflict on the world stage to a story involving just a few people, reminding us all that no matter what we see on the news or hear politicians say, these are people like any of us, wanting to live on their own patch of land in peace.
The background against which the drama unfolds is well drawn allowing younger readers to develop some understanding of the mistrust between some and the efforts by others to keep the situation conflict free.
And overlaid with the Desiderata, several lines seem to run as a theme through the story, Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Deborah Ellis is the author of a growing group of stories for middle school people, giving a point of view not often exposed to our readers such as the Parvana series and the Diego books about children's involvement in the cocaine trade in South America, amongst others.
Fran Knight

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