Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Books I've Read: My Life as a Rat


I have always meant to read more Joyce Carol Oates because the few times I've picked up one of her books, I've enjoyed them.  But somehow I have never really sought her out.  I think that might change after reading this fascinating and challenging book.

It's about a young girl called Violet Rue Kerrigan.  She's the youngest of seven kids in an Irish Catholic family living close to the poverty line in a small town near the Canadian border.  Much adored by her father and doted on by her mother, she's happy enough, even if life isn't always easy.  

Everything changes when two of her older brothers come home late one night and wake her.  She eavesdrops on their panicked conversation and sees something that changes the story they will later tell everyone else about what happened to the Black boy who was killed on the road that night.

When, sick and terrified, Violet blurts out the truth about what she saw and heard, she is firmly and permanently ejected from the family, branded a 'rat'.  At just twelve years old, she is set adrift and forced to figure out who she is without the family she has never considered life without.

I really liked this book.  It had some deep, moral questions at its core yet never felt like it was preaching one way or the other.  Violet is a wonderful character in that she is very flawed and her choices don't always make sense.  Yet at the same time, in the context of the life she's ben forced into, they make perfect sense.

Her longing to reconnect with the family who cast her out creates tension throughout even as she tries to forge a life for herself away from them.  It speaks volumes to how important those roots can be.

I definitely recommend this one.  It's not always an easy read because Violet's life is anything but easy and some of her experiences are horrific.  But she is resilient enough that each time you think this is the thing that will break her, she comes back for another round.

But don't just listen to me.  Here's the blurb:

Which should prevail: loyalty to family or loyalty to the truth? Is telling the truth ever a mistake and is lying for one’s family ever justified? Can one do the right thing, but bitterly regret it?

My Life as a Rat follows Violet Rue Kerrigan, a young woman who looks back upon her life in exile from her family following her testimony, at age twelve, concerning what she knew to be the racist murder of an African-American boy by her older brothers. In a succession of vividly recalled episodes Violet contemplates the circumstances of her life as the initially beloved youngest child of seven Kerrigan children who inadvertently “informs” on her brothers, setting into motion their arrests and convictions and her own long estrangement.

Arresting and poignant, My Life as a Rat traces a life of banishment from a family—banishment from parents, siblings, and the Church—that forces Violet to discover her own identity, to break the powerful spell of family, and to emerge from her long exile as a “rat” into a transformed life.

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