The Great & the Small, by A. T. Balsara – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

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

The Great & the Small, by A. T. Balsara. Illustrated by the author.
London, Ontario, Common Deer Press, August 2017, hardcover, $31.99 (287 [+ 4] pages), Kindle $4.99.

Don’t be scared off by the price. There is also a trade paperback for $14.99. And most of you will get the Kindle edition, anyway.

The Great & the Small begins with a bustling marketplace scene:

“… in the weak December sun, the harbour city’s popular market was bustling with people looking for last minute presents. Middle-Gate Market was festive with its potted evergreen trees and strands of blinking coloured lights. Shiny red balls trembled on the boughs of the tinsel-dressed pinks as salt air gusted up the hill from the sea below and rattled the lights against the rafters where they were strung.

Watching over all of this, under the faux Gothic clock, stood Middle-Gate’s most famous tourist attraction: a brass statue modeled after the gargoyles of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral. The monster stood on guard, a five-foot winged beast that stood meekly by while tourists thronged around it, snapped selfies, and rubbed the creature’s flared nostrils for luck.” (p. 9)

Then dips beneath it:

“That was the side of the market the tourists saw and the locals loved. They had no idea of the other side, the one that lay below. A distinct world, with its own ways, its own rules: a colony of rats.

Tunnels wound underneath the hill, tooth-carved thoroughfares, veiled from the eyes of humans. There were tunnels high up and tunnels below that snaked deep into the hill’s belly.

The Uppers were dug alongside the city’s swanky cafés and eateries, and food was never far away. But lower down the hill, below the heart of the market, it was different. Tangles of narrow tunnels limped through broken pipes, leaking sewers, and sodden earth, connecting scores of foul smelling, crumbling burrows.

No rat lived in the Lowers by choice. Except one, that is.” (ibid.)

This novel tells two connecting stories; that of the subterranean rats, focusing upon Fin, the young cousin of the rat community’s Beloved Chairman; and that of the aboveground humans, focusing upon young Ananda Blake, a schoolgirl who happens to be the daughter of Thomas Blake, a cancer researcher who experiments on rats.

The Great & the Small appears to be a macabre tale of naïveté leading inexorably to tragedy. It consists of many short chapters of four to a dozen pages, each introduced by a quotation from one of the journals of the Black Death:

“And now disaster is at hand…”

Gabriele de’ Mussis, lawyer, Italy, 1348

“A staggering number of people died…

In many towns only two people out of twenty survived.”

Jean de Venette, Carmelite friar, 1359-60

The implication is that modern civilization will be wiped out by a new Black Death, and that the rats will spread it deliberately; not knowing – or not caring – that it will wipe them out, too.

This germ warfare seems almost to be justified at first, through numerous examples of the humans’ mistreatment of the rats:

“Fin hunched, quaking in the corner of the box. Fish heads cascaded onto him as the box flaps were torn back. The two-leg was monstrous. It spied Fin, and its mouth gaped open in a roar, teeth bared. Its eyes bulged, red-veined and popping. It swung its arm down hard. Fin dived to one side. A knife whooshed over his head.

Again, the knife swung down. Fin leaped out of the box, onto the two-leg’s bare arm. He vaulted of, soaring through the air, and landed on the pavement. His lame paw bent under his weight. He fell, sprawling.” (p. 16)

Ananda, who seems to be a junior-high student, is having an equally hard time:

The bell rang, bringing Ananda back into the present moment. Looking down at her notebook, she saw that she had doodled the rat at the market. She ripped the paper off and bunched it up, gathered her books and, head down, beelined out the door.

Chris was waiting for her. He bumped her arm and scattered her books. ‘Hey, Rat-Girl!’ he said. His cronies snickered behind her.” (pgs. 44-45)

When the novel isn’t quoting journals of the Black Death, it is quoting Josef Stalin, identified as one of the biggest mass-murderers in history. Fin’s uncle being identified as the Beloved Chairman of the rats gives away that he, like Stalin, is not the kindly leader that he pretends to be. Fin discovers rats being experimented upon by Ananda’s father and wants to help them, but his uncle uses their suffering for his own plans:

“Fin said, ‘Papa! Please! I need to speak!’

Bothwell whirled around, his cheeks puffed out. ‘Oi! I am your superior, my lad!’

Fin pushed by him. ‘Oh shut up!   Papa! Rats are dying! They’re dying while we sit around scratching our fleas and talking about… about nothing!’ He burst into tears. ‘They can’t escape. They’ve tried and they can’t. A two-leg has them trapped, and –’

‘Silence!’ said Papa again.

Fin looked up, startled. His uncle gazed down at him from the carved platform.

‘Lesson Number One: ‘There will always be those who die. For the Common Good, we who lead must rise above emotion.’” (pgs. 89-90)

The Great & the Small (cover by the author) is a Young Adult novel. It is a grim novel, full of suffering and death. Will anyone survive, human or rat? Read it to find out.

Fred Patten

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