Not all novels contain a hero who wants to save the day. Sometimes, a novel can feature a “dark hero” or a “bad ass” character as the protagonist. The difference between the these two heroes is quite distinct. Heroes may have flaws, but they typically stand on the side of good. The reader usually likes the hero and wants him/her to succeed. Not so for the bad ass hero. They usually possess immoral, sinister and evil characteristics. The reader can find these protagonists hard to like and impossible to care about. This creates a challenge for the novel writer. How to make the reader care about this type of hero and remain involved with the book? In The Cat at the Wall, Deborah Ellis creates Clare, a “dark middle-grade hero” who is completely unlikable. But Ellis employs a successful technique that makes us care about Clare. She uses a cat as the narrator of this story, and this feline is no ordinary storyteller.
Thirteen-year-old Clare dies and returns in the form of a stray cat, living in Israel’s West Bank. Ellis makes the cat’s voice engaging, funny, and as expected, with plenty of natural self-important feline attitude. The cat describes her life now: hungry, homeless, chased, and beaten. The reader can relate to and fall in love with this distinct, finicky animal character. “It was all so unfair! Bad enough to be dead at thirteen, but then to come back as a stray cat in this awful place, full of rocks and shooting and ridiculous heat and way too many other cats” (20). The technique works because cats are inherently self-centered and self-indulgent. We expect this and are willing to overlook nasty characteristics in this household pet while we could not easily do the same for a thirteen-year-old girl with identical negative traits.
The cat describes Clare in the previous life as “really, really bratty “(22). Her misdeeds include: being a bully to classmates, teachers, and even family members; stealing random items (33); purposely jeopardizing her sister’s speech by stealing her notes and then ridiculing her in public (74 ); manipulating her parents (128) vandalism (122); and blaming her teacher for her own careless death (129). Clare is a terrible, ‘bad ass’ character who is impossible to like.
In The Cat at the Wall, Ellis begins to meld the two characters into one as the cat tells the story of her present predicament of being stuck in a house with two Israeli soldiers and a small Palestinian boy. When the cat steals batteries from the soldiers she says, “I like [t]hings. I did when I was a girl and I still do now that I am a cat” (33). Also, “I learned that grooming my fur is as soothing as brushing my hair used to be when I was a girl…no matter how often it made my mom late for work” (23). And a very important fact, both the cat and Clare hate the “punishment poem” the Desiderata. A poem Clare had to write out repeatedly as a form of detention. A poem the small Palestinian boy keeps repeating about accepting the world as a wonderful place and striving to be happy. This poem is important to both Clare and the cat. Clare never understood it. In fact, she hated it so much she even refused to read it aloud in class which briought about the last confrontation between herself and her teacher, and ultimately led to her death. In the end Clare never experiences redemption, a change in heart or personality. She never accepts the poem’s value, and she blames her teacher for her own careless demise. We may dislike Clare. We may even have little interest in her story about being a bully and a brat, but we love the cat and can’t stop hoping the cat survives the fighting and chaos. By endearing us to the cat, we keep turning the page. By doing this, Ellis can draw us into the full depth of Clare’s story.
We see the turn around when the cat retells what happens to her at the church in Bethlehem during a magical moment at the stroke of twelve on Christmas Eve. Time stops, and everyone speaks in the same language. “It’s like they were all saying, ‘I had this precious thing and I wasted it…”(86). This angers the cat. “I was the only one who was dead. I was the only one who really had the right to have regrets because it really was too late for me. Too late for me to be nicer to Polly [her sister]. To late to tell my parents I loved them…” (86). Clare (as the cat) is beginning to show signs of self-awareness. This scene leads to a flashback that is very important to linking Clare’s character as a ‘bad ass’ girl to the cat.
It was the last class before the Christmas holidays and Clare sees a girl’s wallet fall to the floor, and she steals it. “I had no idea why. I just did it without thinking” (88). Her sinister nature is obvious.
In the present time chaos, the village Palestinians discover the soldiers in the house. Fighting erupts. The boy cries. The Palestinian people shoot at the house. The Israeli army shoots at the people. “It looked like all hell was going to break out right over us. And that’s when I made my move. I did it without thinking…I leapt down from the boy’s arms and out into the little space between the enemies. I started to dance….up on my hind legs…And everybody shut up and stopped to watch” (140-141). The cat saved lives. She did something good, and she did it without thinking. Her now natural response is to help and stand on the side of good. The cat may have been a reluctant hero, but she is no longer a dark one like Clare had been.
Ellis creates a final link in The Cat at the Wall to strengthen our attachment to Clare through the cat. The cat says,
“I don’t know the point of this new understanding. I can’t do anything with it. I can’t repeat the eighth grade and do it the way I should have done it the first time…Unless this is all a coma, and I’m going to wake up and get my life back. Or unless God decides I’ve done my detention as a cat, moves me up to heaven and let me see my grandma” (143).
Through the cat’s redemption, Clare is redeemed. We finally love Clare and for a moment, hope that maybe there’s a chance she isn’t dead. But that’s not life. In the end, Ellis still offers us comfort with a final irony. The cat gains an understanding of the “punishment poem”, that had evaded Clare. This is life. It’s not all bad. What will Clare do as a cat? She repeats the last line of the punishment poem, “Maybe I’ll strive to be happy” (144).
Stories with dark protagonist may be harder to write. They may require creative structure, complex plots, and innovative points of view. But when they are done as successfully as Deborah Ellis has accomplished, then the reader gains a bigger “aha” moment when the bad ass hero reforms. Ellis illustrates that it is well worth the effort to use a dark hero , even if it means creating a more complex novel. The Cat at The Wall is a fine example of how to endear the reader to a dark hero in a story, even if he/she is totally unlikable.