The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis

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The Cat at the Wall

 I had really high hopes for this book after reading and loving all of Deborah Ellis’s Parvana books and thoroughly respecting her ability to take highly complicated world events and presenting them in a compassionate palatable manner for elementary aged students to digest and benefit from.  The premise of the book intrigued me, a reincarnated 13 year-old-girl comes back as a cat in the middle of Bethlehem and is soon in the middle of a village conflict between Israeli soldiers in a Palestinian’s home.  I wanted to love it, but ended up just liking it and wishing there was more substance.  I was hoping for more understanding of the conflict and the history not just of an arrogant bratty girl, reflecting back on her life as a human now that she is a cat in a volatile region. The book is a fairly easy read as you really have only three main characters that you get to know, the others just transparently breeze through, and the book is only 144 pages and an AR level 4.8.

SUMMARY:

Clare is an incredibly abrasive teen that bullies students at school, lies to teachers and her parents, constantly berates her sister, steals, cheats, and who is not someone you would want to be around or be like in any way.  So while her dying is sad, in and of itself, when she comes back as a cat with the exact same characteristics, she is still hard to like and root for as a whole.  As a cat, Clare understands all languages and finds herself in a home that is being commandeered by two Israeli soldiers, Simcha and Aaron.  Simcha is an American who has come to Israel, joined the IDF, knows little about the Palestinians and is full of hostility.  Aaron is Israeli and speaks Arabic and has more compassion. Clearly Ellis was trying to show that while both are soldiers their attitudes are vastly different, even if their actions are more or less the same.  While scrounging for food, Clare realizes, with her heightened cat smell, that there are more than just the two soldiers in the small home, there is a boy hiding in a trap door in the floor.  The soldiers are at a loss what to do with this small terrified seven or eight year-old-child who recites the same poem over and over and rocks back and forth.  As the soldiers spy on the neighbors, their presence is uncovered and a stand-off between the angry villagers, the people inside the home and the Israeli army ensues.  What can be done to prevent the loss of life? What can Clare the cat do? What is she willing to do, if anything at all?

WHY I LIKE IT:

The words and sentences are simple, which balances out the flashbacks that could be confusing to students younger than fourth grade.  The story flows between the current situation, Clare’s life as a human, and Clare’s life as a cat before coming to the home with the soldiers and boy.  I like that it isn’t made a black and white issue, but I don’t know if based on the book alone the reader truly understands why the villagers would be upset, how much of a reality it is to be berated by soldiers, to have your home taken over, to have kids being beat by soldiers and the dehumanization of checkpoints.  Ultimately the story is about Clare and if she can change, if she wants to change and can she make a difference in the world, the backdrop is simply the Israel Palestine conflict.  Obviously I would be nervous to introduce the concept of reincarnation in an Islamic school setting, but I have recommended the book to certain students who are mature enough to respect that some people do believe this, that the book is fiction, and are aware of the daily oppression of the Palestinians, and the violence that is a reality for so many.   I think as a teaching tool the book offers a lot in terms of teaching point of view, personification, and organization.

FLAGS:

There is violence and the threat of violence, but it is handled respectfully.There is talk of Christianity and Jesus that most students would be fine with.  Reincarnation is present, but played down at the end leaving the door open for interpretation. The human Clare is rather despicable, but she is painted as such and her flaws are not celebrated.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a nice question and answer section with the author at the end of the book.

The author’s website: http://deborahellis.com/books/#cat-at-the-wall

An educator’s guide: http://groundwoodbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/9781554984916_guide.pdf

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