I'm not going to lie to you. This is a disturbing book. Then again, Deborah Ellis has never been shy to take on difficult topics.
It starts out innocently enough. Clare, our narrator, begins by telling us that she died and came back as a cat. Then she proceeds to say that something happened a few days ago that she can't stop thinking about.
Initially, Clare was a thirteen year old girl who lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She was hit by a truck, and after a period of darkness, woke up in the body of a cat in Bethlehem, Israel. After being chased by a group of other cats she ended up in a one room house with two young Israeli soldiers and one younger palestinian boy.
Clare as a cat, watches and takes part in the scenario taking place in the West Bank. Throughout this she reminisces about her life as that girl back in the United States. In her last year of school Clare ended up with a teacher, Ms. Sealand, whom she couldn't trick or manipulate. Ms. Sealand caught Clare numerous times behaving cruely to other classmates and adults, which lead to many detentions. For detention, Ms Sealand had students copy out, by hand, the poem, Desiderata. This poem plays a significant part in knitting Clare's past and present life together.
Through Clare, the cat, we get to know more about these two young soldiers and the young Palestinian boy. They are complex characters who appear to be caught up in circumstances beyond their ken. While the young boy says little, he crafts a miniature city out of recycled materials, and when he is worried or afraid, he rocks and recites the Desiderata.
I'm thankful that Ellis portrayed so much humanity in all of these characters.
Tension mounts when the soldiers are discovered; first by the boy's teacher and classmates who have come to see why he didn't come to school, then by rock throwing boys and eventually, the Israeli army.
To be honest, I thought Clare was a self centered, nasty character then, and is marginally less noxious in her life as a cat. There is something sociopathic about her in both of her incarnations. At the same time as tiny glimmers of humanity emerge as intimations of guilt, she also takes pleasure in making other people around her miserable.
Somewhere in the middle of this read I anticipated that Clare would have her eyes opened and end up with an aha moment whereupon she would wake in a coma back in a hospital in America a changed person.
I was wrong.
I suppose Clare does manage to transform a bit. I won't tell you how she does it, but suffice to say, she actually does something good for others. This ending takes us back to the beginning where she states, "I can't stop thinking about it, and I'm not used to thinking very much about things."
I feel like I need to have another read of this book. It is a superb representation of what it must be like to live in the world of the West Bank, but there is more about Clare's character that I think I might be missing - her stubborn recalcitrance is perhaps symbolic of people trapped in that seemingly never ending struggle. Perhaps her eventual questioning and wondering reflect optimism for some kind of Peace in the Middle East. I sure hope so.