In this novella set in 1950s Oregon, a girl and her cousins put on a play to catch the conscience of their abusive grandfather.
In summertime, a large family comes together for regular visits at Grandma and Grandpa Scheibert’s Oregon place, which features homemade cookies, a swimming pool, and an old two-story woolen mill full of interesting things. But to reach the mill, visitors first have to pass the rat tree. This summer, the narrator—a girl in early pubescence—is coming to some realizations, most importantly about Grandpa. His smile is “devious, disturbing”; he leers at women, including his daughters; and when the grandkids pile on for a hug, he pushes his fingers inside the narrator’s “private area.” When she begins shouting “Run from Grandpa!,” her own mother admonishes her, suggesting a deep-rooted family sickness. Nevertheless, the narrator instructs her sisters to yell “RUN FROM GRANDPA” as loud as possible if he should ever touch them inappropriately. With her sympathetic cousin Carl, the narrator explores their grandfather’s trunks in the mill’s attic, uncovering in old letters references to the Fatherland and a mother who was cruel to him. Carl and the narrator vow to protect their younger cousins, making them pledge to run if Grandpa tries anything. With her cousins, the narrator puts on a play based on Grandpa’s papers that’s designed to expose his childhood hurts—with explosive and distressing results beyond what she’d reckoned. The doubly painful topics of Nazism and incestuous child abuse could become sensationalistic, but Carr (The Ballad of Desiree, 2016, etc.) avoids this through her narrator’s point of view, limited because of age and inexperience. The girl just wants to put a stop to Grandpa’s abuse through whatever practical means are available, but darker undercurrents flow through the story, particularly in the image of the rat. The narrator sees her methods as innocent, but the tale’s ending suggests it’s not that simple. In telling secrets, she too could be considered a rat, and she feels “sick and sorry.” The mixed-media illustrations by Iida (Rattan Woman, 2018, etc.) feature a cut-paper technique and have a vintage feel that goes well with the text.
Emotional complications add a fresh note to an abuse theme that’s seen heavy use in recent decades.