Book Review: The Rat Queen by Pete Hautman
From National Book Award winner Pete Hautman comes a mysterious modern-day fairy tale about developing a moral compass—and the slippery nature of conscience.
For Annie’s tenth birthday, her papa gives her a pad of paper, some colored pencils, and the Klimas family secret. It’s called the nuodeema burna, or eater of sins. Every time Annie misbehaves, she has to write down her transgression and stick the paper into a hidey-hole in the floor of their house. But Annie’s inheritance has a dark side: with each paper fed to the burna, she feels less guilty about the mean things she says and does. As a plague of rats threatens her small suburban town and the mystery of her birthright grows, Annie—caught in a cycle of purging her misdeeds—begins to stop growing. It is only when she travels to her family’s home country of Litvania to learn more about the burna that Annie uncovers the magnitude of the truth. Gripping and emotionally complex, Pete Hautman’s inventive yarn for middle-grade readers draws on magical realism to explore coming of age and the path to moral responsibility.
I read books that pile up here in order of publication date. I like systems, and this system works for me, even though it means sometimes books sit there for weeks or months waiting for me, even if I want to read them early. So this book sat there, waiting for me, and when it was time for me to pick it up, I was sick. My body’s illness of choice is monster sinus infections, the kind where you can’t think straight and just want to sleep. Thanks to medicine, I started to feel a tiny bit better, but still mostly wanted to cease to exist. I picked up this book, knowing I’d hardly read anything for a week, knowing I’d probably have to keep it waiting longer. But I didn’t. I tore through it.
Annie is about to turn 10 and lives in our world—the one we know and understand, that is. But there’s this other place she’s always heard about, Litvania, where her family is from. It’s not on any map or globe other than those her father keeps, but she knows it’s real, because he goes there often. She hears stories and fairy tales from Litvania, and often they star a young girl like her or seem somehow relevant to her life. But Annie has other things to worry about, like her best friend pulling away from her, like being homeschooled when she longs to go to public school, and like the fact that she never seems to grow taller. To complicate things, her father has now given her the odd task of writing down her transgressions on a piece of paper and feeding them into a hole in the floor. When Annie does this, she feels free from regret or guilt or any of the other nasty feelings humans must contend with. But strange things are going on. There are the rats, and the fact that her father comes home from work looking exhausted and old but, after a little quiet time, reemerges young and refreshed. There’s the weird illness the rats cause, and the fact that Annie suddenly grows while in the hospital, and the bits of all of these stories that seem like some kind of truth that Annie just can’t quite see right. And, of course, there’s that hole for the pieces of paper. Where does it go? What’s down there? Why does it work? And, most importantly, is it a good thing? What happens to us when we divest ourselves of our regrets, of our guilt, of our conscience? What happens to us when we don’t have to take responsibility or feel a consequence or worry about a choice? Annie’s father knows the answer to these questions. And the truths that wait for her in Litvania are just as surprising and strange as any fairy tale.
I am a huge fan of Hautman’s books. Part of what I like so much, beyond his consistently stellar writing and storytelling, is that I never know what I’m going to get with the next book. I mean, I know I’m going to get a good story, but I can’t predict what genre he will tackle or what weird (I mean that as a compliment) plot will come from his brain. One of the consistent requests at my school library is for scary/creepy/strange books. Readers drawn to that will love the unsettling atmosphere of this whole story. I admit to not being the hugest fan of fantasy, but what I really love is when it feels mostly realistic, but a little off, when it’s mostly set in our world, but there’s a small change, a place a little different. This is the kind of book that a young reader could conceivably read and ask, “Wait… is Litvania a real place?” And I love that. An excellent story about truth, betrayal, responsibility, and consequences. A fantastic read.
Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the author
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 10/11/2022
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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