The Rat Fan Club

Book Reviews:  Non-Fiction

by Debbie “The Rat Lady”



Book Review: The Rat: A Perverse Miscellany

This book, collected by Barbara Hodgson (1997, Ten Speed Press), has some interesting bits, but it is almost all about wild rats and therefore heavily oriented toward the negative side of rats.  The press release says it is “a compendium of rat facts, rat fiction, rat lore, and rat art.”  I found very few rat facts in this book.  It is basically a collection of quotes from other books and periodicals, mostly focusing on the image of horror that is perpetuated in the popular media.

The book is divided into 11 chapters plus a preface, in which the author describes some encounters with wild rats she has had during her international travels.  She met her first wild rat in a hotel room in Greece.  When she saw wild rats playing on the bank of the Nile river in Egypt, she thought they were cute, and so did others until they discovered they were RATS!  (Sound familiar?)  Her third rat encounter was in her own backyard in Vancouver where she watched “a rat gone berserk”, chasing its own tail for 20 minutes.  I wonder if the rat wasn’t berserk, but instead was just trying to retrieve its tail, as a substitute for bedding or a baby, something I’ve seen several of my females do.  In fact, I saw Hexa doing it just last night!

But while Hodgson found wild rats in Egypt cute, the first sentence of her first chapter, Rat Talk, is “Few people, rat fanciers excepted, would describe rats as endearing, cute or loveable.”  And she goes on to perpetuate this statement by failing to mention anything more about pet rats until the end of the book.  In the whole book, there are only three entries about “pet” rats, one a roof rat mentioned in a book called Wedding Cakes, Rats and Rodeo Queens, by Anne Cameron, one a wild rat in a cage that a poor child is showing off to a rich child in the story “The Pauper’s Toy” by Charles Baudelaire in the magazine Parisain Prowler, and one from Little Women (although this appears to be a wild rat).  There are only three entries about lab rats.

The chapter Rat Talk goes on to discuss the various terms using rat, such as rat-fink and rat race.  One interesting entry is the word raternity, which was coined by Michel Dansel in his book Nos Freres les Rats (Our Brothers the Rats).  Raternity describes the relationship between rats which allows them to communicate survival details such as the appearance of a new poison.  On page 4, there is a list of “Other rats, real and otherwise:” including the “Muskrat” and the “Pouched rat,” however Hodgson does not explain which are real and which aren’t.

The next chapter, Around the World, is a selection of writings from or about different countries which mention rats.  The selection for Java says that to encourage the killing of rats, the government required that people applying for marriage licenses had to supply 25 rat tails.  Enterprising Javanese began to manufacture artificial tails (impossible to tell from the real ones), so the government began to require 25 rat bodies.  The Javanese then began to breed rats!  The entry for Florida was about an older man taken for a psychiatric exam because he had over 230 rats in his home.  Like most articles of this type, it didn’t mention if they were wild or domestic rats, although because it says “The rats, who had lived with Russo for years, were exterminated,” I sure hope they were!  This chapter includes a map of the world featuring the word rat in different languages.

The next chapter, The Essential Rat, supposedly supplies the “rat facts,” but much of the information is wrong.  For instance, one quote says about the wild Norway rat: “They cannot vomit and so can eat almost anything.  They are almost totally blind and ‘see’ with the hairs on the sides of their bodies.”   Although it is true that rats can’t vomit, this is not why they can eat almost anything!  In fact, they must be very careful of what they eat.  And I don’t know about your rats, but mine seem to be able to see just fine!  Hodgson also perpetuates the tooth myth by saying: “If they didn’t gnaw continually, their incisors would grow 4″ a year and cause the animal great difficulties.”  A drawing in another chapter of what is supposed to be rat incisors from a U.S. Land Survey shows the “rat” having 4 incisors on the top!

In the next chapter, The Fabled Rat, Hodgson lists several familiar stories, although in most versions, like the City Rat and Country Rat, the rats are replaced by mice.  She describes a turn-of-the-century children’s book La Guerre des rats et de grenouilles (The War of the rats and frogs) which she calls delightful, but a picture of rats stabbing frogs with knives and spears turned my stomach.  I found one interesting entry in this chapter which belongs in the previous chapter because it is true.  In reference to cannibalism, Mr. Bewick, an illustrator from Great Britain, said, “the skins of such of them as have been devoured in their holes have frequently been found curiously turned inside out, every part of them being completely inverted, even to the ends of the toes.”  Although the author who quoted Mr. Bewick didn’t quite believe his statement, calling it alleged, I actually saw this in the lab.  In several cases where rats had been eaten by their cagemates (after dying of natural causes), the skins were almost always turned inside out, although I never noticed the toes.

The next chapter, The Fictional Rat, offers a few more negative quotes, although Hodgson does mention Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and two other books, Racso and the Rats of NIMH and R-T; Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, written by the original author’s daughter, which I didn’t know about.  The next 5 chapters, Gothic Rats and Other Terrors, The Cinematic Rat, The Four Deadly Sins, Plagues and Cures, and To Catch a Rat, are pretty much what you might expect.  In The Cinematic Rat Hodgson includes several short synopses of movies in which rats appear, but some of them don’t give you enough information to let you know exactly how the rats appear, and whether or not it would be worth watching the movie.  The chapter To Catch a Rat is especially disgusting.

The final chapter, Rats and Man, includes several interesting bits, including a photo of a suit of armor for a rat and a quote from a book called The Rat Report! (apparently “written” by a lab rat.)  Another quote I liked was “A rat is unimpressed by talk of a just peace, he recognizes no flag and his ideology is food. Food! Food!”  But right below this was a poem called Rat Jelly which was one of the most disgusting entries in the book.

The bibliography is extensive, and I will probably try to locate some of the books Hodgsen quotes from, but I wish she had included short synopses of the books (like the movies) so you would know if it was worth trying to get the book.  I found the index very limited, listing mostly authors or book titles, with no entries for topics such as “teeth” or “tails.”

There are a few interesting illustrations in the book, as well as many of dead rats, rats being killed, or rats attacking people.  All in all, this is not the best book for someone who loves rats.  If you find it in your bookstore, I suggest you take a look at the suit of armor on page 105, but buy the book at your own risk!




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