Snake, by Kate Jennings (1997)

Cover of US edition of "Snake"Snake is a tight short novel about two people who come at their marriage from very different directions.

Everybody likes you. A good man. Decent. But disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? That wife. Those children.

Your wife. You love and cherish her. You like to watch her unobserved, through a window, across a road or a paddock, as if you were a stranger and knew nothing about her. You admire her springy hair, slow smile, muscled legs, confident bearing. If this woman were your wife, your chest would swell with pride.

She is your wife, she despises you. The coldness, the forbearing looks, the sarcastic asides, they are constant. She emasculates you with the sure blade of her contempt. The whirring of the whetstone wheel, the strident whine of steel being held to it, that is the background noise to the nightmare of your days.

Just 157 pages long with 77 chapters, some no more than a paragraph long, Snake is a novel distilled to a series of moments across a twenty-year relationship, and goes down as strong and biting as a good whiskey. Setting her story in a dry land of farms where drought and dust sometimes leech the life out of all living things, Jennings also reduces her words to lean, sinewy lines: “She chewed on the injustice of it like a dog with a piece of hide”; “Irene always said nobody could read thoughts; they were the only things that were truly your own”; “These were people so certain of their own superiority they need not remark on it; in their complacency, they resembled well-stuffed sofas.”

Snake is one of just two novels written by Kate Jennings. Moral Hazard (2002) is equally brief, with a similar structure of pithy chapters. It draws upon Jennings’ experiences of working as a corporate speechwriter to help pay for care for her husband, graphic designer Bob Cato, who developed Alzheimer’s, and now seems prescient in its depiction of the risk-heedless appetites of Wall Street that led to the crash of 2008.

Both Snake and Moral Hazard are available via

Snake, by Kate Jennings
Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1997

Dear Rat, by Julia Cunningham (1961)

Cover of paperback edition of "Dear Rat"I’m a great believer in the miracle of serendipity. For me, it usually takes the form of the thing that appears in my path while I’m looking for something else. In this case, it was a children’s book that fate had arranged to have misplaced in a shelf of literary fiction in a bookstore in Ellensburg, Washington. I was rapid losing interest in browsing any further, since it was obvious that the store’s stock was almost entirely made up of recent trade paperbacks, when I pulled out a rare hardback, a thin volume titled Dear Rat. I quickly twigged that it was a children’s book from the illustrations, but there was something so likable about the book’s opening lines that I had to buy it: “I am a rat. I’m tough and I’m tender. I know my way around, thanks to having been bounced off the hard surfaces of the world.”

Dear Rat is narrated by Andrew, a rat from Humpton, Wyoming who finds himself in Chartres, France, having smuggled his way onto a freighter and then hopped a train from Le Havre. He quickly runs into the worst and the best that France has to offer. The worst is a thug named Gorge, a local rat gangster whose henchmen dust up Andrew before he manages to get away.

The best is a great building that confronts him when he scurries out of the cellar where he’s gone in search of food: “My brain searches around in my head like a squirrel for a name for this great, wonderful thing. It comes up with ‘cathedral’ and then quiets down again into blank astonishment.” He’s stumbled onto the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres . Wandering inside, he is struck speechless by a statue of a lady on a pillar wearing a crown of gold studded with jewels.

The worst and the best becoming intertwined in a caper that leads Andrew to the court of King Depuis Longtemps the IV, ruler of the Paris sewers and into a romance with the King’s daughter, Angelique Rocqueville de Chenonceau de Tournevallance de Mistraille de Chauminceparcyne de Lot (which is just a big mouthful of French nonsense), or Angie for short. Andrew discovers there’s a rat (sorry) in the court in the form of the Prime Minister, who subjects him to a battle of wits–or, as Andrew puts it, “plays checkers” with him. An upstanding character and a little American ingenuity, however, and, as you might expect, the hero gets the girl.

Dear Rat was Julia Cunningham’s second book, and shared many elements with her first, The Vision of François the Fox (1960), which was also set in France and told the story of a scavenging critter who tries to become a saint after being moved by something he sees in a cathedral. Cunningham had spent a year living in France, and French themes would make their way into a number of her books.

Cunningham’s best-known book, Dorp Dead (1965), about a boy who finds himself trapped as the ward of an abusive grandfather, was one of the first modern works for children to treat a dark subject openly and deliberately, and is now considered a fore-runner of the Young Adult genre. It was reissued back in 2002 but is out of print once again.

Cunningham knew something about grim childhoods. Her father abandoned his family when Julia was six and never returned. Her mother struggled to raise two children on her own, which became even harder when the Depression hit and what was left of the family’s money was wiped out. She made her way through a series of low-paid jobs for nearly twenty years before she saved up enough for her trip to France. In the late 1950s, she moved to Santa Barbara, California, where she worked in a bookstore and continued to send manuscripts to publishers until she sold The Vision of François the Fox Houghton Mifflin.

Cunningham had considerable success as a children’s author. Burnish Me Bright (1970) was selected as a New York Times Outstanding Book for the year, The Treasure Is the Rose (1973) was a National Book Award Finalist, Come to the Edge (1977) won a Christopher Award, and Flight of the Sparrow (1980) won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. But then, in 1986, her publisher, Pantheon, dropped its children’s book line and her contract along with it. She kept writing and submitting manuscripts, but it was not until 2001, when Susan Hirschmann of Greenwillow Books brought her back in print with The Stable Rat and Other Christmas Poems. Cunningham never married, but was close friends with a fellow children’s author in Santa Barbara, Clyde Bulla, and mentored other writers in her community. Her brother John Cunningham was also a writer, mostly working in Westerns. His story, “Tin Star,” was the basis of the movie High Noon. I highly recommend reading her obituary in the Santa Barbara Independent website.

Dear Rat is available through (link), as is Dorp Dead (link), Macaroon, Onion Journey, a lovely little Christmas fable (link), Macaroon (link), The Treasure Is the Rose (link), and several others. Although the site has a link for The Vision of François the Fox as well, it’s an error and leads to a Spanish encyclopedia from the 1800s.

Dear Rat, by Julia Cunningham
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1961