First Paragraph: THE TWO TIGER CUBS, romping in the jungle undergrowth near their den, prick up their ears.
Lynne Reid Banks will be here Thursday to face the 7 Questions.
Esteemed Reader, it's been amazing how regularly we've been able to have the Ninja's childhood heroes appear at this blog, and this week is a very special one for me. I've been trading emails with Lynne Reid Banks and I have to say, the experience has been surreal. I read all The Indian in the Cupboard books when I was a wee Ninja and loved them all. I've felt about chatting with Lynne Reid Banks the way I suppose a modern fourth grader might feel if he grew up to chat with J.K. Rowling.
She read my review of The Indian in the Cupboard, which I posted back on August 10th, 2010 It was one of my first classic Book of the Week reviews and when I wrote it I had no idea Lynne Reid Banks might actually read it! Once in a while, life is just too good, and being able to tell my favorite authors how much I love her books is a thrilling experience I highly recommend having:) Her interview is charming and very, very funny, and you don't want to miss it as posting it will forever stand out in my memory as one of my proudest moments as a blogger.
Today, however, we are discussing another of Banks's classic works. Tiger, Tiger is historical fiction that while written with younger readers in mind, like the best middle grade works, is a book meant to be enjoyed by adults as well. The trick, as always, is a good story well-told, and content that would be of interest to any reader at any stage in their life.
It's obvious Banks means for children to read her book as she slows down for them on occasion:
To launch the entertainment, two tall, splendid gladiators were set to fight, one armed with a sword and the other with a net and a trident—a fork with spiked tines and a long handle.
Yet, for passages such as the one above, where definitions are made explicit for readers, what I admire most about this book is that it does not talk down to the reader. As is characteristic of her writing, Banks keeps the pace moving forward. She presents aspects of history, the relevant information the reader must know, and goes on with the story with remarkable speed.
And Tiger, Tiger contains a lot of complex themes and ideas. It's an epic tale of the Roman Empire, the beginnings of the Christian church (not exactly in favor of it), animal and women's rights, and true-to-life historical depiction. A lesser writer might've taken 600 pages to tell this story, but Banks trusts her reader to be smart enough to keep up with her. She insists children bring themselves to her level rather than lower herself to theirs and the result is wonderful book still being read and celebrated.
The main story of Tiger, Tiger is of two tiger cubs later named by two-legged masters Brute and Boots. In the opening pages, the cubs are stolen and their mother is killed. They're dragged back to Rome where Brute is trained to be a killer in the coliseum (can you really have a Roman epic without gladiators) and other is de-fanged and fixed like a house pet to live with a princess in her palace. Much of the novel is devoted to the tiger's experiences in their new lives:
On the fairly rare occasions when he was allowed into the arena, Brute killed again—not perhaps with the spectacular ferocity of the first time, but from the point of view of the spectators, satisfactorily enough. He developed, as man-eaters will, a taste for human flesh, which added to his enthusiasm for the occasions when he was allowed to hunt down and eat two-legged prey, and maintained his growing reputation as the sanguinary star of the circus.
Only for Boots, nothing changed. His fortunate, pampered life continued. Catlike, he was content with enough to eat, comfortable sleeping quarters, and the petting and affection of his mistress. He no longer missed his brother or the beautiful, savage world he had been bred in. If things had continued as they were, he might have lived out this placid, unnatural life until he died of old age.
But there were cataclysms ahead for him—for all of them.
I love that last line, which, naturally, precedes a break. Banks may be giving a history lesson, but she still keeps the reader hooked and keeps the pages turning first and foremost. Of course, the nice thing about history is its filled with necessary violence and taboos. There is plenty of horrendous violence sprinkled throughout, all of it historically accurate, which also helps to keep pages turning.
Over the course of the novel, Banks demonstrates her gift for putting the reader in the viewpoint of multiple characters both human and animal. What would it be like to be a nearly 13-year old princess in ancient Rome whom men thought eligible to be married? What pressures would that bring? Here is what the crowd has to say when poor princess Aurelia is dragged at last to the coliseum to witness for the the first time the slaughter of humans and animals for entertainment:
“How lucky we came today! Imagine how excited she must be, to see the circus for the very first time!” Many were remembering their own first visits. There was a general feeling of privilege and rejoicing, as if the daughter of Caesar were passing through a sort of initiation into the glorious state of being a full Roman citizen.
For much of Tiger, Tiger the reader comes to the story from the third person perspective of the tigers. They never talk nor have thoughts that a tiger couldn't conceivably have. Their take on the world around them in unique and interesting, but Banks makes no attempt to personify them. Instead, she presents their world as they would likely perceive it:
The smells were bad because there was no way to bury their scat. And there was the smell of other animals, and their fear. And there was a strange smell they didn't recognize, a salt smell like blood. But it wasn't blood. It was bad being enclosed. All the smells that should have dissipated on the wind were held in, close. Cloying the sensitive nostrils. Choking the breath. Confusing and deceiving, so that the real smells, the smells that mattered, couldn't be found, however often the cubs put up their heads and reached for them, sniffing in the foul darkness.
A coarse, loud voice shouted, “Quiet, you little brute, or I'll give you something to howl for!” The threat in it was unmistakable. The bigger cub urinated with fear, then found a corner, pressed himself tight to the cold wall, and lay down. He didn't sleep. He was too nervous. He shivered and all his striped fur stood on end. There had been something in that voice that filled him with dread.
Ultimately, of course, Tiger, Tiger is more about humans than tigers--nearly all stories written by humans are. By putting us in multiple perspectives, both human and animal, Banks is cultivating in her reader a historical perspective. After all, those who do not lean history are destined to repeat it. By presenting us with characters as they would've likely been in their time and place, we're able to consider who they were and thus who we were:
“All societies have hierarchies,” she was told. “All societies have higher and lower, masters and slaves.”
“It must be terrible to be a slave!”
“You must not entertain such thoughts. Waste no pity on slaves. They have no responsibilities, no traditions to maintain, no laws to make and keep. They have no concerns about food and shelter. They only have to do what they're told, and live out their simple lives in peace and order.”
In the end, Esteemed Reader, isn't gaining perspective why we read stories in the first place? We want to know how we're to live, so we look to stories to teach us. By considering humans through history, we can learn to be better humans now.
Tiger, Tiger is a wonderful tale sure to enthrall readers of all ages and teach them a few things they didn't know before while entertaining them. What more can a reader ask for? As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Tiger, Tiger:
Julius swallowed hard. The pictures in his mind almost unmanned him.
Her mother smiled. “It should, perhaps, but it doesn't. People are bloodthirsty. It's the nature of simple folk. Blood excites them, and they love to be excited. It takes them out of their boring lives.”
...appealed to Aurelia about as strongly as being tied up in the arena and fed to the wild beasts, like those strange, death-inviting Christians
A spear that whistled past him— reminding him of his trainer's proddings—simply enraged him more, so that he pursued the thrower in an avenging bound, and tore out his throat. But after a few minutes of frenzied whirling, pouncing, rending, and clawing, Brute's killing urge left him. He remembered his hunger, lay down—but warily—beside his first victim, and began to eat the man's entrails.
Since he had held her in his arms he ached to hold her again. The little head he had pressed protectively to his chest had left an invisible imprint there that called insistently to be filled.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn't happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.