A symphony in five parts: each illuminates and reinterprets the preceding section.
A five-year-old girl is given by her parents to a farm family in the belief that she will be shielded from the Nazis. She is kept in an underground pit. Their grown son brutally and relentlessly abuses her. She befriends a rat, sharing her meager scraps of food. (The Story)
More than sixty years later, she speaks of her captivity, for the first time, to her granddaughter, who needs the text for a school project. But her testimony rambles and, just as she had misunderstood her parents’ abandonment of her, the granddaughter jumps to the wrong conclusion, casting the farmers as ‘righteous gentiles’. The woman finally tells the girl a fable about a rat: Rat asked God to be able to laugh, like people. God relented, telling the rat that when he heard laughter, he would laugh. (The Legend)
Ten years later, poetry that may or may not have been written by the old woman is discovered on the internet. These poems are the highlight of the book; the imagery is simple, stark, and compelling. (The Poems)
In the next section, ninety years into the future, the material has morphed into major entertainment — theme parks and video games. This digression seems not to belong, but it provides distance, perspective, a kind of wistfulness, and ultimately, redemption. (The Dream)
Finally, there are notes from the incredibly compassionate priest who rescues, nurtures, and gently guides the little girl back to humanity. (The Diary)
And the Rat Laughed is an amazing short novel that takes one woman’s story, ‘a Little Holocaust,’ and universalizes it.
Sydelle Shamah has been leading book club discussions for many years, and is a published science fiction writer. She was president of the Ruth Hyman Jewish Community Center of Monmouth County, NJ.