“A painful truth of family life: the most tender emotions can change in an instant. You think your parents love you but is it you they love, or the child who is theirs?” --Joyce Carol Oates, My Life as a Rat
Which should prevail: loyalty to family or loyalty to the truth? Is telling the truth ever a mistake and is lying for one’s family ever justified? Can one do the right thing, but bitterly regret it?
My Life as a Rat follows Violet Rue Kerrigan, a young woman who looks back upon her life in exile from her family following her testimony, at age twelve, concerning what she knew to be the racist murder of an African-American boy by her older brothers. In a succession of vividly recalled episodes Violet contemplates the circumstances of her life as the initially beloved youngest child of seven Kerrigan children who inadvertently “informs” on her brothers, setting into motion their arrests and convictions and her own long estrangement.
Arresting and poignant, My Life as a Rat traces a life of banishment from a family—banishment from parents, siblings, and the Church—that forces Violet to discover her own identity, to break the powerful spell of family, and to emerge from her long exile as a “rat” into a transformed life.
Oates's remarkable latest (after 2018's Hazards of Time Travel) chronicles how a 12-year-old girl's fate is determined after her family disowns her. The story opens in 1991 as Violet Rue Kerrigan, the youngest in a large Irish-Catholic family where loyalty is highly valued, grows up doted on by her loving but short-tempered father. She witnesses what later turns out to be her eldest brothers, teenagers Jerome and Lionel, attempting to get rid of evidence that they had participated in the racially charged beating of a high school kid. Violet's guilt compounded by Lionel assaulting her and the death of their victim makes her blurt out the truth unsolicited. Her parents, who can't bring themselves to believe the truth about their sons, send Violet to live with an aunt in an upstate New York town 80 miles away. Violet spends her life hoping for her family's change of heart and worrying about her brothers' retaliation. Her urge to not betray anyone again makes her vulnerable to sexual abuse by a teacher and a lecherous uncle. Despite it all, Violet becomes a survivor who ekes out a living through manual labor and manages to attend college at night. Oates's novel adroitly touches on race, loyalty, misogyny, and class inequality while also telling a moving story with a winning narrator. This book should please her fans and win her new ones.