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Review: Rotters

Rotters by Daniel Kraus. Delacorte, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: After Joey Crouch’s mother dies suddenly, the sixteen year old is sent to live with a father he’s never met. Chicago’s DCFS assures Joey that his father is expecting him and that the local county services has ensured it will be OK. Reluctantly, Joey leaves Chicago, the only place he’s ever lived, leaves his best friend, Boris, and goes to the small town of Bloughton. Nothing is as he expected; no one meets him at the train station. The house his father lives in is a one-room shack, dirty and smelly, with his father, Ken Harnett, nowhere to be seen.

School is even worse; Harnett is the town outcast, and Joey quickly becomes the target of bullies, both students and teachers. Joey thinks he’s discovered Ken’s big secret, that Ken is a thief. Joey thinks he’ll catch his father in action and then . . .  what? Turns out, Ken is a thief. Just not the kind that Joey and the towns people think. Turns out, Ken robs graves.

The Good: Rotters is a haunting book. It is horror, that unique type of horror book that has nothing to do with either the supernatural or serial killers. How can digging up the dead, disturbing corpses, stealing jewelry and gold teeth be anything other than horrifying?

And yet . . . And  yet when Joey discovers the truth about his father, he stays. He not only stays, he semi-forces himself onto his father as an apprentice in graverobbing. Soon Joey is learning about the ancient craft of robbing graves, with ties to both the “Resurrectionists” who stole bodies to sell to medical schools and the people who plundered the tombs of ancient Egyptians. Ken, who lives off the grid, relies on his memory, books, and newspapers to determine which graves to target. It’s not just who died, but who they were, as he decides who is likely to be buried with something worth digging up

Usually “world building” is something one thinks of for fantasy, or perhaps historical fiction, but rarely for contemporary fiction. In Rotters, Kraus has created a secret society composed of those who live beyond the edges of polite society. There are rules and treaties, ways of doing things and ways of not doing things. Kraus’s world is so full that I found myself wondering what parts of the world of cemeteries, decay of bodies, and burial were true and what parts made up.

Rotters is disturbing — the reader is there with Joey, shovelful of dirt by shovelful, as he digs up his first grave, uncovers his first corpse. The dirt, the smell, the aching muscles are all painted in detail. I’m going to be looking at cemeteries in a whole new light.

Rotters falls under the category of “books I want to discuss”. Part of it is to figure out, to explore, to go deeper into what Kraus has written. As mentioned in my review, and others, Joey’s father is a grave robber. Joey doesn’t learn about this right away. The first part of the book sets up Joey’s isolation and abandonment: his mother dies, he leaves his city, his best friend moves on, and in his new town his father is neglectful and he is shunned and mistreated at school. Why, I wonder, does it take so long to get the digging? Is it for the reader to understand, to sympathize with Joey, to understand why he takes the leap to embracing something so terrible?

The structure of the book continues in such a way that I kept thinking of it as independent Acts. Act I, Joey has to start at a new school were he is ostracized. Act II, Dad’s a gravedigger. Act III, the world of gravedigging revealed. Act IV and Act V, well, that would be spoilers.

Once Joey learns his father’s secret, a strange bonding / apprenticeship begins. Gradually, Joey finds out his father is not the only grave robber out there. It’s an odd world, a world of outsiders, who are driven by — what? And this is where I want to really discuss this book with others. What is the motivation? Am I too turned off by the desecration these men practice to buy into their fascination with the dead? Through the world of gravediggers, Joey gets what he lost: a father, a family, friends, a place, a history. He even gets his mother back, in a way. Rotters continues with strange and sudden twists — a reunion of sorts, a demented road trip, a character named Boggs/Baby who I pictured as Truman Capote playing Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, a family seeking revenge for their families’ graves being dug up, and a fight scene played out during a hurricane.

I admit, one reason I want to discuss this is I’m not quite sure of Joey’s own journey and relationship with grave robbing and graves. Much horror is metaphor: high school is hell, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught us. Joey is attracted to grave digging, but why? What drives him?

Stephen King said, “We make up horrors to help us cope with real ones.” What fascinates for Rotters is that it is not made up horror — Joey’s isolation, abandonment, torment, are all real. Yet even with that, the horror of gravedigging — while not made up by Joey — helps him cope with his life. Is it because gravedigging is hiding in the past, his own past with his mother? Is it believing that there is something noble in something that is base, does it make Joey think he is more noble than his everyday life indicates?

When I’m trying to figure out a book, and I don’t have someone to talk to, I read reviews. What I found that I thought you’d like:

Kraus did a guest post at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, Cynsations.

The Book Smugglers review Rotters: “Elements of Mr. Kraus’s novel were near flawless, in particular the emotions of protagonist Joey, his struggles in school (what with becoming a social pariah and all), dealing with the grief of his mother’s death, and his father’s bizarre sense of paternal investment. Daniel Kraus’s writing style is at turns poignant and insightful, especially at the onset of the novel with Joey’s keen sense of observation (or his tendency to categorize minutia) and narrative voice.” I found their overall observations added to how I thought about Joey, his father, and their actions. Are issues left to the reader to discover on their own?

From The Millions (and the amusing post title, I Was A Teenage Grave Robber): “in a world rife with oatmealy workshop-cookie-cutter fiction, Kraus is absolutely original.” This touched on one reason I liked Rotters; it’s unique. It’s different. It’s over the top, at times, but c’mon, it’s graverobbers! The Millions asked what I asked, “what does it all mean.” Perhaps, sometimes, a story just is. I’m not sure.

Forever Young Adult also had fun with blog post titles with The Worms Play Pinochle On Your Snout. And then this: “Words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘haunting’ encompass a portion of Kraus’s prose, but these words, I feel, are paltry in comparison to how much of an emotional gut punch this book delivers time and again.  I know authors don’t necessarily appreciate being compared to other authors, but the only way I can think to accurately describe Kraus’s writing style in this book is to say that it was as if Flannery O’Conner took a bad LSD trip after watching ‘Faces Of Death’“. Bonus at Forever Young Adult: an author interview.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. I do not know what to think about this book. I loved the first half. It’s fascinating to think of this secret society we are unaware of. And, I enjoyed Joey’s progression-from abandonment to social outcast to digger. But the last half! The last half lost me a little bit. I think it’s because I had to suspend belief about the characters and their actions more than I wanted to. For example…Joey’s revenge at the high school (One boy did all of that?! Really? And no one found out it was him?).

    What really got me though, was Joey’s relationship with Baby. For someone so devoted to his mother, I can’t imagine how he could take the path that he did. It was too much for me.

    A very interesting book, regardless. But gruesome!

  2. I gotta say that I don’t think this one is for me. I can read dark and disturbing sometimes but this sounds a bit too much. Glad to hear it is an interesting and thought provoking read.

  3. Sarah, see, this is why I want to talk about the book, in person and in detail, with others. Joey narrates the book; what that he says can be believed? Has Joey changed, or has he stopped pretending? (I want to reread the book at some point, to decide more on what can be relied on.) Part of the reason I think of the book in “Acts” is how Joey changes in each: the bullied boy, the graveyard apprentice, the madcap apprentice of Baby. I really want to hear others and their theories about Joey, his father, Baby.

    Michelle, it’s not for everyone, but what book is? I think the book that everyone likes would actually be boring and forgettable! I’ve read reviews of books that sound amazing, but, like you — they also tell me enough to let me know it’s not going to appeal to my personal interests.

  4. I loved this book and would love to use it with a small group at our middle school, although I admit some eighth-graders might struggle with the content. The biggest element I drew from the book, that I would want to discuss with kids, is how everyone – no matter what binds them together – has a group with which they can fit. It might not be the sports crowd or the drama crowd, but there’s a group for everyone.

  5. I loved the book and it was really full of suspense!!! I loved the horrifying details of some of the bodies!!

  6. For me the last half of the book is spinning out of control as Joey becomes more and more immersed in the dementia of Baby– but he never seems to accept it, he is only using him to get to the untold riches buried and uncovered in the hurricane scene that is truly a hurricane. There’s some masterful craftsman ship at work here– from the first page where you hear his mother is going to do and then all the ways that it doesn’t happen until it does. Appalling as the subject matter it, I could not put it down for a second. I hope I see you Liz at Midwinter and we can talk more.

  7. can someone tell me what the age range is for this book? how bad is the language? is there sexual content?