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River Rats
Caroline Stevermer
Magic Carpet Books, 305 pages

River Rats
Caroline Stevermer
Caroline Stevermer grew up in Minnesota and graduated from Bryn Mawr College.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Grand Tour
SF Site Review: Sorcery and Cecelia
SF Site Review: When The King Comes Home

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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I believe we are right in the middle of a Golden Age in Young Adult (YA) Literature. There are so many wonderful books being published for the teen reader -- more than ever before, and most of them better than ever. This is a very good thing.

Another very good thing is that older YA books are also being reissued by some publishers. These, too, deserve to be read -- they hold up well, they have a distinct contribution to make to the fireworks display of story, voice, and ideas happening in YA fiction these days.

Such a book is Caroline Stevermer's River Rats, first brought out by Jane Yolen Books (Harcourt) in 1992, and in paper through Harcourt's Magic Carpet line in 1996. The reissue caused me to reread this book with an eye to how it holds up against the new work appearing these days.

The story begins after the "Flash" (an unexplained global disaster, followed by a terrible epidemic) transformed the Mississippi into a polluted waste lined with little scratch towns, a village controlled by a tough family, the Lesters, and, in the ruins of a once-big city, a gang of Wild Boys. This gang stays young because though new boys, lost or abandoned or running away, seem to appear, the older ones apparently pretty much die off before they hit adulthood.

The protagonists are a small group of kids who lived on an old paddle wheel steamboat that was serving as a grim sort of orphanage. A terrible storm threatened. The other orphans were taken away, the four were abandoned on the ship. They survived, and took the ship. They soon gain a couple more crew members, one who knows engines and one who knows something about music. Bonded into a kind of family, the two girls and four boys ride up and down the river hauling freight, delivering mail, and putting on impromptu rock concerts in return for food and clothing. One of their rules (besides the democratic discussion and vote taking that the narrator, Tomcat, hates) is to never take passengers.

The River Rats, as they call themselves, break their vow about passengers when they save a man named King who is fleeing from the unsavory Lester family. King tells them that the Lesters are after him because he knows where a cache of guns is hidden, in an underground survival hideout built before the Flash by a famous rock star.

Chased relentlessly by the Lesters, and at last defeated aboard their own steamboat, the River Rats and one of the Lesters follow King, who says he's not sure he remembers where the hideout was. The Lesters keep the boat and one of the orphans hostage. The Rats want to save them, but they do not want the Lesters to have guns. More important to them is the idea of all that survival gear, a treasure in these desperate times, that awaits them if they can get past the Wild Boys and pestilence and other dangers to find it.

What they find, and how it is dealt with, is impossible to guess, keeping the tension up until the very last page.

The first-person narrative is told with beautiful restraint, the more noticeable when many writers today test the limits with graphic savagery and violence. There is no whitewashing: the kids are dirty and smelly because water is precious. When they give a rock concert, both they and the audience know they won't play really well because they haven't enough electrical power to practice. And when the power gives out, the concert is done. But since that's all they have, everyone accepts it won't be any better. Little is made of gender difference; they are too busy focusing on survival. But the subtle signs of adolescence are there for the discerning reader to pick up.

The older reader also knows what the threat is when Bud, the Lester who goes on their hunt, figures out that Lindy is a girl -- and the Lesters know just what to do with girls. Younger kids won't get the sexual context, but the danger of the stranger who means no good is terrifying enough. The Wild Boys are particularly well done. There is no preaching whatsoever. Far more effective is the vivid depiction of kids who have no sense of responsibility, and thus no defense against disaster. Yet the Wild Boys have their human side -- having invented a bonding ritual that Tomcat ends up enduring, making them, too, into a kind of family. Belonging is one of the themes here. However it is defined in terrible times. Family is important, as important as survival.

The test of a good book is that it can be reread, and though the initial surprise of the plot can never be recaptured, there are new discoveries to be made. My first read of River Rats kept me tensely focused on the kids' hunt and what would happen. This reading I knew the ending, but I enjoyed the book, if anything, even more. I was able to figure out some of the geography as I've traveled since that first read. I noticed Stevermer's compelling eye for detail, just the right detail, enabling me to hear a single sound; smell a smell, understand a character's hidden thought. I appreciated how deftly Stevermer makes the characters come alive, and how she avoids the standard clichés: Estaban, the martial artist who tends to speak in gnomic utterance, is regarded with exasperation and not awe by Tomcat. King, though a grownup, is no leader -- he's the first to admit that, when threatened, he has a tendency to blab in order to save his own life. Some of the best moments are as brief as they are revealing, like after the kids play their concert. One might almost miss King's reaction, it's so understated, which makes it the more effective. The Wild Boys' sheer joy when the kids accidentally send an abandoned car careening down an old offramp.

I would have loved to discover River Rats at age ten, and read it again at thirteen, fifteen, and onward -- which is why I have a copy at home for my kids, and a paperback at school. I can see my young self sharing it with friends, perhaps making up further stories about the River Rats. "Once a Rat, always a Rat," Jake said. Yeah, we would have belonged.

Copyright © 2005 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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