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.



Book Review

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
Trent to extract a bloody confession from the stony Jason.

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.
chapter break]
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.”

Just as
Trent coils around Jason, Cormier twists the rubber tourniquet around the reader. It’s a shorter, less fully-developed story than something like The Chocolate War, but The Rag and Bone Shop is relentlessly suspenseful—right down to the very last sentence which stabs the reader with a jolt.

As always, Cormier’s strength lies in creating protagonists teenagers can relate to—characters who aren’t sugar-coated or fluffed with
Hollywood meringue. Jason is the kind of outsider who I, for one, could see every time I look in the mirror:
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

The 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. However, Jason, Trent, and the book as a whole present more questions than answers. Readers will be compelled to keep turning the pages, but will never know why Brad killed Alicia or if Jason is really capable of such a crime. These are things only individuals can know as they explore the dark interior of their own rag-and-bone shops.


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

  • Can rational people choose evil as such?  Does anyone choose evil for its own sake?  Socrates asserted that no one can know good and yet choose evil; if one knows good and yet commits an act that society calls evil, then that person mistook an evil act for a good one.  This may be especially true for children.  Many “child monsters” literally didn’t know better.  Even in teenagers, there is a moral development lag—morality doesn’t keep up with physical development and/or intellectual reasoning development.
  • Orthodox Christian view – All humans have a “fallen” nature and will inevitably choose evil unless given powerful incentives not to—This is why we have priests and pastor!  E.g., religious sanctions and state sanctions.  For the Puritans, Satan was never just a metaphor for evil; he was Evil personified, an intimate cosmic presence transcending individual sins and sinners.
  • How is evil compatible with a definition of God as omnipotent and all loving? 

ü      Evil does not really exist; it is an illusion.  St. Augustine:  Evil has no being of its own, but exists only as the absence or perversion of the good created by God.  In other words, evil on the cosmic scale is like an entropic black hole in the orders of creation; on the personal level, it manifests itself in acts that deny or negate what a human being is or ought to be.

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.