Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier
English 394: Young Adult Literature
Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.
Some things to consider
From an interview with Cormier
Q:Your books are often considered dark. Why do you choose to write about the
dark side of life?
A: I think they are probably shadowed but not completely dark. On the surface they may look dark, but a closer reading reveals moral values. I am fortunate that teachers teach the books, because more than a casual reading will reveal those things. However, I must contradict myself and say I'm not in the business of creating role models or sending out lessons. I am a storyteller trying to write believable stories with believable characters. For instance, in The Chocolate War, the main character Jerry gets defeated because nobody comes to his rescue. The implicit lesson is that bad things happen when good people don't do anything. All the books tend to have these values if people care to look.
Q:The main characters in In The Middle of
the Night, The Chocolate War, and I am the Cheese are all loners. Why are you
so interested in the loner?
A: As an adolescent I always felt like an outsider and I think a lot of kids feel that way. They want so much to belong to the group but there is something shouting in each of them that they are really alone. I have always had a sense that we are all pretty much alone in life, particularly in adolescence.
Q: None of your characters have intimate relationships with their parents and there are many secrets between parent and child. Why is that?
A: I think that is typical of adolescents. I believe that there is chasm between young people and adults. Kids are looked down upon by adults and are not recognized as separate, individual human beings. Kids lead very separate lives from their parents. They are really secretive and parents are secretive towards their kids too. That division of age adds up to loneliness I don't dwell on the parents in my books because I like to have the characters judged for themselves on their own actions. I didn't want people to say, well Archie comes from a broken home or a too wealthy home or a dysfunctional family. I didn't want him to have any cop outs.
The Rag and Bone Shop (the title is taken from a Yeats’
poem, “The Circus Animals’ Dessertion”) is a nice way
to close out a career. It’s a slim book—more novella than novel—but it packs
plenty of trademark Cormier punches.
“I take real people and put them in extraordinary situations,” Cormier once said in an interview with School Library Journal. “I’m very much interested in intimidation. And the way people manipulate other people and the obvious abuse of authority.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in The Rag and Bone Shop, the bulk of which centers around an interrogation in a police station. Jason Dorrant, enjoying his summer between the seventh and eighth grades, is accused of a horrible crime: the murder of a seven-year-old girl in his neighborhood. A professional interrogator named Trent, with the reputation for getting blood out of a stone, is called in to shine the light in Jason’s eyes and pummel him with questions (though, actually, Trent’s methods are more along the lines of withholding water from the parched boy). There are also political forces at work in the background, putting pressure on
At only 154 pages, The Rag and Bone Shop moves quickly, never meandering from its ever-tightening course toward denouement. Along the way, there are several typical Cormier moments where he juxtaposes the sunny with the dark. Here, for instance, is the jarring transition from one chapter (where Jason is happily contemplating his summer) to the next:
The day loomed ahead, free, no classes, no demands, not even any household chores that he knew about, and he lay there feasting on the thought of the long summer days ahead.
The body of seven-year-old Alicia Bartlett was found between the trunks of two overlapping maple trees in dense woods only five hundred yards from her home..
It’s amazing what nightmares Cormier can create with just two sentences. He himself summed it up best in an interview published on Amazon.com shortly before his death: “I like to leave the reader with a sense that there are things still going on, that they [characters] don’t walk off into the sunset. Or even if they walk off into the sunset, there’s probably a cliff waiting right around the corner.”
As always, Cormier’s strength lies in creating protagonists teenagers can relate to—characters who aren’t sugar-coated or fluffed with
Not that they [other kids at school] were cruel or mean or made him the object of pranks or tortured him or anything like that. Mostly, they ignored him. He was rarely asked to join in their games or activities. He usually sat alone in the cafeteria and felt alone even when others were at the table. The other students seldom talked to him or asked him his opinion about anything. When they did encounter him in situations where he couldn’t be avoided, they addressed him in an absentminded way, didn’t seem interested in what he had to say, quickly turned their attention elsewhere.
Excerpt from another Book Review
interrogator is left with a tattered reputation and in the shocking denouement,
Jason realizes that he has become a person capable of contemplating and thus,
he asserts, carrying out a murder. The suggestion seems to be that childlike
innocence, when betrayed by powerful, manipulative adults, can be easily
subverted. Readers are shown a psychotic killer in the process of becoming.
Themes in Rag and Bone Shop
Evil: An intent to cause emotional trauma, to terrorize or target the helpless, to prolong suffering and derive satisfaction from it all. The key trait in many evildoers is the lack of a capacity for empathy. They are unable to understand with the mind and feel with their heart the pain and terror of another human being. They cannot see the self in the other. Some sociopaths often know full well what their victims feel, and revel in it. To be truly evil seems to require a void where compassion would be: an evildoer like a serial killer knows full well, but does not care a whit, what another feels. Acts of unspeakable evil also seem to require a bent toward dehumanizing others.
Human Evil: Suffering which results from morally wrong human choices
Natural Evil: Result of disasters, e.g., earthquakes
Evil does not really exist; it is an illusion.
ü Evil is a necessary part of a good whole! Contributes to the perfection of the whole.
ü Aquinas – Evil is the privation of the goodness of something. Blindness is the privation of the goodness of the eye! Emerson: Good is positive. Evil is merely privation, not absolute. It is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real.
The Problem of Evil – Reconciling god with Evil
ü Atheist argument – No perfect God exists – In today’s post-modern culture, words like good and evil are often deemed too judgmental for public discourse. Nietzsche (who died in 1900) said, “God is dead.” Moral Relativism: Evil exists in the eye of the beholder. The Post-modern tendency in higher education to explain all formulations of good and evil as authoritarian and repressive categories imposed by a society’s ruling class.
ü How do we explain Columbine? Serial killers, maniacal despots, ruthless genocide (the Holocaust). Timothy McVeigh seemed to be a normal youngster. Why do we need to see him as evil incarnate—as depravity in human form? Doing so allows us to place him in a category labeled EVIL with a capital E, but also, more importantly, one labeled NOT US.