You know, if somebody just told me the premise of this book (“American girl dies suddenly and finds herself reincarnated, with all her memories intact, as a cat living in Palestine”) I would have thought, That is too cheesy for words!
But it is not cheesy. It is brilliant. Because In The Cat at the Wall, Deborah Ellis is able to bring together a cast of unlikely characters: a young Palestinian boy who suffers from autism, two Israeli soldiers doing a stake-out in Palestine, an American girl (as a cat), and a group of Palestinian schoolchildren and their teacher. An American teacher also plays a rather large part of the story, even though she remains firmly in the past, in the U.S., and never makes an appearance in Palestine.
The story is told from the cat’s point of view, an interesting and perfect choice, as the cat is able to go places a human wouldn’t be able to go. The cat used to be an American girl named Clare. And Clare was an awful little girl–selfish, self-absorbed, cruel. Her parents unthinkingly encourage her behavior and her sister bears the brunt (though I’m glad to say that her sister rises above it, a fact that never ceases to anger Clare.) The story of the conflict between the young Palestinian boy, the two Israeli soldiers, and the group of Palestinians who eventually gather outside the house in which they are bivouacked is mediated through the eyes of this American-girl-now-cat as she remembers the last year of her life and the story of her death.
The story will suck you in.
Deborah Ellis manages to stay out of the politics of the story, that is, unless you think emphasizing the humanity of all actors involved is political. (Sadly, some people would think that is political). Although a couple of characters say things that reveal the hardline prejudices of both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict, other characters always manage to respond in such a way that suggests the issue is more complex, and it is more complex because we must never forget that the conflict wounds real humans on both sides in painful and dramatic ways.
It is two teachers who are ultimately the heroes in this story, by the way, not the cat or the soldiers or the boy or the army or the ordinary Palestinians who become angry at the soldiers. It is two teachers–one American, one Palestinian, linked by a single poem (the “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann)–who are unwilling to compromise their strong ethic for respecting the humanity in other people and being compassionate and kind, no matter how different another person seems. In this story, teachers are the ones who see beyond the politics to the people who are suffering.
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 should.