August 30, 2014

The Cat at the Wall

by Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books
154 pp.
Ages 8-12
For release September, 2014

Many people believe that we are each put on this earth for a specific purpose: to love, to suffer, to teach, to battle, to learn humility, to help others find their voices.  But, if one is placed here to learn a lesson that doesn't get learned, the consequence might be reincarnation to try again. I suspect that's why thirteen year old Clare from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania has returned as a scrawny cat in Bethlehem on the West Bank. And judging by her attitude, she still has a lot to learn.

Clare the cat becomes immersed in a situation in the West Bank that has her reflecting on the circumstances that led to her death and her return as a feline struggling for food and shelter and avoiding skirmishes with other cats, including the king tom and his bunch.  Her past human life and current feline existence are told in parallel lines, allowing comparisons between her role in her own demise and in helping to resolve a conflict in which she is essentially an observer.

After being chased from the wall at a checkpoint from the West Bank to Israel, the cat sneaks into a small house when two Israeli soldiers break in, planning on setting up a surveillance on another residence.  Happy for the safety, shelter and opportunities for food and the occasional scratch, the cat makes herself quite at home, even creating some of the same mischief she enjoyed in her previous life.

When she exposes a young boy hidden under a toy city constructed of boxes and cans and other garbage, the two soldiers first restrain him as a potential threat before coming to his aid with an inhaler for his asthma and food. Sadly, the two Israelis do not understand the child as he chants and rocks himself back and forth.  However, Clare the cat has the distinct ability to understand all languages spoken by humans and animals and recognizes the boy's repetitious murmurings as the famous poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann (1927), words that she despises because of their negative association with a teacher, Ms. Sealand, whom Clare blames for her death.  Aaron, the more seasoned soldier, a commander from Tel Aviv, is more intuitive about the boy than Simcha, the gun-happy young American private who came looking for a chance to fight and who is suspicious of everything including the scared little boy.  Even while they wonder about the young boy's family, Aaron is able to empathize with the youngster, seeming him as vulnerable and as scared as any of them.

Meanwhile, the cat watches and judges all those around her: Aaron, Simcha, the boy, and others who later become players in the situation, all the while recalling events involving her younger sister Polly, her parents, Ms. Sealand (rudely called Ms. Zero)–everyone.  Her own refrain seems to be "Not my fault.  Not my problem." (pg. 24), acknowledging that "Being kind doesn't lead to anything good." (pg. 63) 

But even the cat (who understands all linguistically) could never have imagined that the life lessons shared with her before she'd died as a thirteen-year-old girl would be others' salvation.  Not that Deborah Ellis ever writes anything that contrived or convenient.  Clare the cat doesn't just, bang, recognize how she can help resolve conflicts; Clare the girl never did.  The cat is still essentially the brash female who absolves herself of any responsibility for the consequences her actions bring about.  It's almost impossible for her to look beyond herself, to see the big picture, the context in which she experiences life.  That is, until she realizes she must do something quite extraordinary.

The concept of karma is well-illustrated in The Cat at the Wall, as is the idea of a purposeful life. But Deborah Ellis does not belabour these themes to teach responsibility or gratitude.  She simply tells an extraordinary story of conflicts that can spiral out of control and be resolved by adherence to some simple truths. The Cat at the Wall is a touching allegory that should remind us all to live a life of goodness and honesty.  It will be well worth it in the end.

Here, for context, is Max Erhmann's famous poem:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and 
remember what peace there may be in 
silence. As far as possible without surrender 
be on good terms with all persons. 
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen
to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too 
have their story. 
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are 
vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself
with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser 
persons than yourself. 
Enjoy your achievements as well as your 
plans. Keep interested in your own career, 
however humble; it is a real possession in the
changing fortunes of time. 
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for 
the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind
you to what virtue there is; many persons
strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is
full of heroism. 
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. 
Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of
all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as
the grass. 
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth. 
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in
sudden misfortune. But do not distress
yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are
born of fatigue and loneliness. 
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with
yourself. You are a child of the universe, no
less than the trees and the stars; you have a
right to be here. And whether or not it is clear
to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever
you conceive Him to be, and whatever your
labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion
of life keep peace with your soul. With all its
sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still
a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
 © Max Ehrmann 1927

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