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 OpenLibrary.org (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.