Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Firmin

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Firmin

by Sam Savage

Firmin by Sam Savage
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  • Paperback:
    Jan 2009, 176 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Allison Stadd

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Literary Rats

Though his book is wildly inventive, Savage is far from the first novelist to anthropomorphize a rat. Firmin stands out for presenting literature as sustenance for the body as well as the mind - as Firmin eats his way through the books, the thoughts, words and deeds contained consume him with intoxicating curiosity.

For every work of literature that contains a positive description of an anthropomorphized rat, there are probably at least a couple where rats come off less well; they seem to do especially poorly in books 'peopled' only by animals where they tend to be typecast as villains or outcasts. 

From the rats of Hamlin to Dilbert's co-employee Ratbert, rats feature far and wide, although not nearly as widely as mice.  Here's a quick run down of a few of the better known literary rats.

  • The rats of Brain Jacques's Redwall series - possibly the nastiest and most villainous of literary rodents.
  • The rats in Animal Farm by George Orwell - outcasts on the edge of society who, along with the rabbits, are deemed to be unworthy of the title 'comrade'.
  • Templeton in E.B White's Charlotte's Web, a rat who's out for himself and can only be persuaded to help others if there's a clear benefit to him.
  • The former lab rats of The Rats of NIMH who help Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with a sick son, in Robert C. O'Brien's classic - a rare occasion in which rats and mice co-exist in literary harmony.
  • Ratbert, another former lab rat and one of Dilbert's fellow cubicle warriors - a simple minded optimist who just wants to be loved, but is doomed to ratdom.
  • Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, who's actually a water vole so doesn't really count.
  • Ron Weasley's pet rat in the Harry Potter series - another dubious inclusion because he's really the odious Peter Pettigrew, AKA Wormtail.
  • Roscuro - a nasty piece of work to be found in Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux.
  • Samuel and Anna Maria Whiskers who try to make roly-poly pudding out of Tom Kitten in Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.  The story is dedicated to Potter's pet rat Sammy who, it is said, she acquired from Jack Black, Queen Victoria's rat catcher. Black didn't just catch rats but also bred the more interesting colored ones to establish new breeds, thus setting off the fashion for keeping pet rats.

Interestingly, the Western view of rats is at odds with the view of the rat in Chinese culture, where it is considered a symbol of good luck.  People born in the year of the rat are expected to possess the qualities associated with rats including honesty, generosity, ambition, quick-wit and even temper.  If you were born in 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972 or 1984, you were born in the year of the rat.

Article by Allison Stadd

This article is from the January 21, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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