Talking animals. They’re great. Where would we be without our Charlotte’s Web, our The Wind in the Willows or our Babe The Gallant Pig? Kids like to imagine their pets with rich inner lives. I think the recent success of books like The Warriors by Erin Hunter are evidence enough of that. And titles where kids capture and befriend wild animals? Whether you’re talking about Rascal or Wings, we’re all familiar with the set-up. Child (usually a boy) finds and adopts a wild animal, usually injured. The two bond and then comes the painful separation at the end. Sniff snuck you’re done. I imagine Patrick Jennings looking at such stories with a wry smile on his face. I mean, sure it sounds nice when you’re talking about the bond between warm-blooded creatures. So what happens when a boy catches a snake with the sole purpose of seeing it kill and destroy other creatures? And what if we’re getting all this from the snake’s point of view as it desperately attempts to figure out a means of escape? Suddenly this heartwarming trope takes a more interesting turn, and if your author is good (and Jennings is) then you’ve got yourself a book that’s short, exciting, interesting, funny, and touching in turns.
Had the gopher snake Gunnar captured actually been a rattler (as he initially thought it was) he still couldn’t have been more pleased to add it to his collection of wild reptiles in separate terrariums. After naming the snake Crusher, Gunnar proceeds to watch her refuse to eat. Crusher has some standards, after all, and she has every intention of escaping from her unexpected prison. When Gunnar attempts to tempt her with a live mouse (one she mistakenly assumes is named Breakfast) her stubbornness turns the furry neighbor into a surprising friend. Crusher remains dedicated to escaping, but now she has a small mammal to take care of as well. And when the time comes, it’s going to take all her cunning to get them both away safely.
The book stands at a scant 128 pages, ideal for the reluctant reader, in spite of its lack of pictures. In fact I have the strangest feeling that some of the kids who might like the book the most could be Gunnars of their own. The real trick to a book like this, however, is how effectively the writing is going to suck a reader in. For Crusher to be our heroine, she needs to be charming and infinitely all things snake. We need to believe that we’re dealing with a reptile here. Jennings delivers. He knows how to convey snake anatomy and fears ("A snake has no greater fear than of falling. It’s the lack of limbs. We can do nothing to prevent ourselves from flopping onto our ribs, and a snake is all ribs."). Snake maternal instincts ("I can’t imagine living with one’s offspring. I’ve never even met mine."). And snake disgust with human eating habits when confronted with milk in a fridge ("Mammal juice"). It isn’t that you don’t sympathize and grow to love Crusher. You just don’t forget that this is a snake you’re dealing with, and that is exactly how Crusher would prefer it.
The thing about Gunnar is that as a villain he doesn’t harbor the sheer vindictiveness you’d find in, say, Gar Face from The Underneath. No his cruelty is evident far more in his neglect. As a child alternately ignored and pampered by his negligent parents, Gunnar seeks affection from reptiles, even if he mistreats them in turn. He’s a flawed boy, but not entirely unsympathetic. You understand why Crusher would be inclined to comfort him, but you are equally aware that escape is the only option here. The boy is a menace to anything he captures, and getting out alive isn’t just a necessity, it’s imperative.
The friendship between Crusher and Breakfast is delightful. Breakfast has all the brains of a mouse with the requisite panic and limited vocabulary you would expect from such a creature. In fact, Crusher’s slow friendship with Breakfast reminded me of a great line in Charise Mericle Harper’s graphic novel Fashion Kitty. In that book a family of cats keeps a mouse as a pet, but it’s acknowledged right off the bat that this is considered the equivalent of a human keeping a chocolate cake as a pet. The next panel shows a human with a cake on a leash saying wistfully, "I love you, but I really wish I could eat you." Crusher, to my infinite relief, doesn’t become some vegetarian snake either. Sure, she eats a fair amount of eggs, but you get the feeling that Breakfast aside, she still harbors a sweet tooth for a fine frisky rodent.
The book would actually pair quite beautifully with Snake and Lizard by Joy Cowley. Both titles know how to make carnivorous snakes into loveable, if still essentially snakelike, characters. Though I was vaguely baffled by some of the ancient slang peppering this book (Mom, at one point, is said to be in danger of "having a cow" if she finds out something), I’m willing to forgive a book a lot if it includes a character eating a breakfast cereal called "Quasimod-Os". We Can’t All Be Rattlesnakes is such a slim little novel, I worry it will get lost in the vast hoards of titles being released at this time. Do yourself a favor. Find it. Enjoy it. Give it to boys and girls alike, because when it comes to kid-friendly, well-written fare, this book is for everybody. A delicate little jewel of a novel.
On shelves now.
First Line: “I had shed a skin the day of my capture.”
And in case you would like to see it for yourself, here is the book: