In describing the origins of his consciousness as a writer, William Kotzwinkle recalls holding a tadpole and thinking it “was the most exquisite thing I ever felt.” His earliest work, children’s books such as The Firemen (1969) and Elephant Boy: A Story of the Stone Age (1970), are efforts to establish a domain of wonder that expresses this kind of innocent joy. By the mid-1970’s, however, he had moved to rural Canada, a remote region under assault by speculative developers. He had a series of nightmares in which “animals came to me, night after night, telling me, We’ve got something to say!’” This mystic vision led to Doctor Rat, a book designed to demonstrate “a dangerous split between us and our animal nature.”
Doctor Rat is an allegory in the classic sense, arranged as a commentary on late twentieth century life in which symbolic representation reinforces an argument by establishing a different perspective from which to consider social ills. More specifically, it is a fierce “ecofable” joining the form of the medieval beast tale to the cautionary message of an ecological sermon. The idea of an allegory is a direct derivation from Kotzwinkle’s use of nonhuman characters in his books for young readers. He deepens the admirable qualities often associated with animals in instructive children’s literature so that the gravity and dignity the animals exhibit is a direct commentary on the absence of these attributes in many humans. Further, the novel is an examination of the sources of evil and of its most contemporary manifestations. This subject is charged with emotional complexity, and Kotzwinkle’s angle of attack makes it possible for him to cover some issues that require a special...
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