April 2007

The pieces of a small-town mystery

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Todd Anthony is a typical 14-year-old growing up in a small town in the early 1970s. He likes but doesn’t love going to school; he wonders about the things he sees in the news, like Vietnam and the upcoming presidential elections; he goofs around with his pals; and he helps out at his family’s motel. Todd’s notebook is full of his fanciful writings, put down mostly to amuse himself and his friends, but to his surprise, his teacher, Mrs. Hagerwood, actually likes his work so much so that she soon has the entire class writing, first with reluctance, then enthusiasm.

Todd’s hometown of Elmore, New York, sits along the meandering Chemanga River, and soon after a body is found washed up on its banks following a spring rain, Todd explores the levee looking for some literary inspiration. He finds it, but in ways he doesn’t see coming, starting with a heart-wrenching tragedy and his subsequent encounter with a strange young man known as Rat. Todd learns that Rat is a Vietnam vet, despite his youth, and that he’s having trouble dealing with being back in the world, as one of Rat’s veteran friends terms it. Things take a menacing turn when a drunken guest at the family motel has a run-in with Todd’s grandmother, and things get even darker than the rain clouds overhead when Todd realizes that the dead body, the drunken stranger and Rat are somehow interconnected. He’s determined to find out what is going on, and he’s getting close to the truth, but it just won’t stop raining and the river is rising.

In his first book for teens, author-illustrator Tedd Arnold (Hi! Fly Guy) juxtaposes insight and beauty with crudity and violence, and he does it all in a totally plausible context, void of melodrama or pretension. His novel paints vivid word pictures that play out in your mind, from a sunset painting Indian graves in its golden light, to Todd’s moment of incredible heroism. Rat Life is a compelling book not to be missed give it to a teenager or buy a copy for yourself.

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Rat Life

Rat Life

ISBN 9780803730205

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