Shadow Walkers – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Shadow WalkerShadow Walkers, by Russ Chenoweth.
NYC, Charles Scribner’s Sons, April 1993, hardcover $13.95 (153 pages).

Shadow Walkers is one of those unillustrated novels that make it very difficult for the reader to decide whether the talking animals are supposed to be natural, unclothed quadrupedal animals or bipedal, clothes-wearing funny animals. Set on Cape Cod during winter, and featuring two rat children, Sara and her brother Peter, the different scenes imply both situations. Cover artist Gregory Manchess has prudently avoided depicting any of the characters.

“Rats are good climbers, but rats are good at many things that they are ordinarily too sensible to do. If Sara had told her parents what she planned, they would have asked her not to do it because it was dangerous and unnecessary. So she hadn’t told them, and that troubled her. […]

The trunk rose above her like a wall for thirty feet before the first great limb jutted out, as large itself as a good-sized tree. […] Sara climbed, carefully and surely, stopping every few feet to listen. She was exposed here and nearly defenseless, but still nothing moved in the woods. She felt safer when she had reached the limb and could stretch out for a moment on the rough bark and look and listen. […]

Two feet below the highest leaf, she had to stop. The branch had shrunk to less than half an inch and bowed slightly with her weight. It was high enough. […]

She never knew what made her glance down in time to see the shadow glide among the dim trunks with the silence of a moth and settle on a limb below her. It was an owl, a very big one, and he had decided for some idiotic reason to change his daytime perch and come to join her in her tree. […]

He couldn’t see her against the light – he or she. It didn’t matter – she’d get no concession either way. Owls had little sense of smell, but they could hear a seed drop on the forest floor. She’d better not shake off any acorns. He would hear her move or cough. […] He might wait all day, knowing she was there, and then in darkness come and pick her off the branch like a ripened peach.” (pgs. 2 and 4)

That certainly sounds like a natural rat and owl in a tree. But then:

“Peter watched from an opening in the tall grass as the large tiger cat progressed down the back steps of the library building and stood at the top of the path, only its whiskers showing any interest in the scene below. […]

‘Melvil,’ Peter called softly.

‘Peter? I thought I smelled a rat.’

Peter laughed politely and came up the path to where the big cat waited.

‘It’s good to see you, Peter. Will you come in for coffee?’

‘Thank you. I’d like that.’ The pleasure in the old animal’s voice had startled him. He hadn’t realized that his visits were important to the library cat. He followed Melvil up the stairs and through the flap into the workroom and then down the dark corridor to the kitchenette. […]

‘Is this a social visit, Peter, or would you like to use the collection?’

‘A bit of both,’ Peter answered with a twinge of guilt. ‘I did mean for us to have a talk.’

‘Well then,’ said the cat, ‘it had best be over coffee.’ He flipped on the light and bustled about the pots and pans while they talked of the small doings of the mid-Cape.” (pgs. 8-9)

So: natural animals or funny animals? Or a bit of both? Chenoweth plays it both ways. Cape Cod has its housepet and its wildlife communities, which despise each other.

“The rats, by contrast, were admired and feared, though equally avoided. The fear was unjustified, but fully understandable. Most animals made do. Rats had made their own society. Its outlines were flexible but strong, and their culture was very old and deep. Peter’s own species, the Norway rat, was the largest and most widespread, and they were familiar to their human neighbors by many names: the house rat, the sewer or wharf rat, and, locally, the water rats. The local phrase had stuck and had long ago become a family name.” (pgs. 9-10)

The rats have taken on a social responsibility to both animal communities:

“French’s old hound had an accident, I heard?’ It was clearly a request for information.

‘I’m afraid so,’ Peter answered. ‘An assisted accident, I gather, though I know little of it. They say he’d become a menace.’ To put it mildly.

‘Oh dear,’ was all that Melvil said.” (p. 10)

Peter’s and Sara’s rat home sounds very like the rats’ home in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH:

“The rough plaster walls of Peter’s room were painted white and hung with drawings, bits of driftwood, and other objects that once had caught his fancy: a barrel stave, a piece of fishing net with colored floats, and Appleton the rattlesnake, the grisly gift of a playmate who’d been ordered to dispose of it. In a place of honor, where he could see it from his bed, was a watercolor of the marsh and dunes and sea and sky as seen from their own porch. His mother had painted it at his innocent request when he was young, and it served him better than a window on the world above.” (p. 18)

“And they talked. What rats do best, Sara thought: talk and eat. They talked about her studies, what all grown-ups asked about, in desperation, perhaps, and hope of some common ground or, as Luc said, genuine interest in her. Luc and Lasa were really interested, it seemed. Sara was learning French this year, from prim old Mademoiselle. She had a name, but she was known to three generations of adoring students as simply Miss. For how long and when the old rat had actually lived in Paris was unclear, but she recreated the experience convincingly for dozens of rat children who dreamed of romantic strolls along the Seine. Sara hoped someday to study Greek literature with Lasa, but not yet. She didn’t dare to mention this.” (p. 51)

“Their music was a shameless and nearly total borrowing from European classical traditions. There was music by Rattish composers, of course. It was interesting and favored the abilities and limitations of rats, but it was rarely adventurous. As with the other arts of life, rats were fine performers and sometimes brilliant in adaptation, but they lacked the demons that drove men to creativity.” (p. 56)

The rats wear backpacks, dig with shovels, have electricity in their burrows, smoke cigars, read humans’ books and write their own in Rattish about rat history, and Peter and his friend Tom are trying to scrounge or build the components to make a radio; but the novel does not contain any descriptions to let the reader know whether they wear clothing or go on two legs or four.

After 68 leisurely pages of building a picture of the peaceful and cultured rat community of Cape Cod, Peter and Tom complete their amateur radio and get into communication with the distant rat community of North Cape. The latter have just had a fire that has destroyed their insulin supply. “There were only about a dozen cases of diabetes at Cape End, Peter remembered. Human insulin would do them no good, of course. The rodent product was made in Bayport, a hundred miles away, but there were supplies here and at several places on the upper Cape.” (p. 69) Peter, Sara, and Tom offer to take the resupply; a journey of a week or more.

It should be safe enough, but the three rats are adventurous adolescents who lose no opportunity to get involved in human affairs. They bring aid to a man having a heart attack; they foil a bank robbery; they discover illegal dumping of prohibited waste. During these mini-adventures, the three young rats debate whether they should follow the age-old rat custom of never getting involved in human affairs, or act for the greater moral good of both species when they discover a crime that should be exposed. The ending leaves their decision still unformed.

Shadow Walkers is a bit frustrating in that there is very little drama. There is no big adventure; the characters are seldom in real danger; and what they decide to make of their adult lives is only implied. But a detailed picture of a peaceful rat society living in the shadow of human civilization is painted. Should this society risk calling itself to the attention of the humans by offering its cooperation for the potential benefit of both? You decide.

Fred Patten