The rat who loved beauty. For ages 12 and up

A Rat's Tale, by Tor Seidler, illustrations by Fred Marcellino. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 187 pp. $12.95. Ages 12 and up. THE word ``rat'' rarely has happy connotations, especially among city-dwellers: It conjures up images of things that go squeak in the night. But ``A Rat's Tale,'' Tor Seidler's delightful and moving novel, may tip the scales back in the rats' favor. Manhattan rats occupy center stage. Not surprisingly, their world resembles that of their human counterparts: They have a fashionable side of town (the wharves) and an unfashionable side (the sewers), and only by accident do the twain meet. Nevertheless, it's a rat from the unfashionable side of town who saves the wharf rats from extermination. In his awkward and humble way, Montague Mad-Rat sends an important reminder to all readers, adults and children: Money and prestige are a kind of power in the world, but ultimately they're chaff to the wheat of a loving heart.

Montague lives in an old but dry sewer near Central Park South with his father, who builds mud castles, and his mother, who makes feather hats and tries to ignore her six squealing ratlings. One day, during a torrential downpour, Montague manages to rescue a young lady rat from an untimely demise in a storm drain. Her name -- Isabel Moberly-Rat -- identifies her as an upper-crust type, a girl far beyond Montague's hopes. But Montague is an artist and a dreamer. While he paints beautiful designs on the seashells his Aunt Elizabeth brings from her stowaway cruises in the Caribbean, he dreams of impressing Isabel.

Does Montague have a chance? How can he? After all, Isabel is betrothed to a Great Gatsbyish type named Randal Reese-Rat, who likes to pose next to cologne bottles with a scarf flung carelessly around his neck.

But by chance Montague attends a mass meeting of the wharf rats, where the head rat -- Isabel's father, of course -- reveals that the human owner of the wharves will exterminate the whole furry flock unless they come up with a goodly sum of money to buy him off. Eager to impress Isabel, Montague offers his shell paintings to Mr. Moberly-Rat as a way of raising money. Isabel's father, however, simply laughs in his face, or snout, and turns his attention back to plans for the rats to scrounge up all the spare change in Manhattan.

Isabel, though, is no dumb rat. She knows real art when she sees it. Taking the shells the crestfallen Montague has left, she creeps off to find a rat she bumped into at the mass meeting -- one who has financial dealings with human beings.

This wheeler-dealer rat is a little odd: He spouts gorgeous poetry and makes fine gold and silver rings for his tail. But he seems to know what he's doing, and when he sees the shells, he heads straight for his human contact -- an uptown jewelry dealer. Like Isabel, the human has an appraising mind. He knows that his customers will pay several hundred thousand dollars for Montague's shells.

So what happens? The usual, you could say -- the money from Montague's shells saves the rats from extermination, and the hero gets his girl. But to say that is to ruin Seidler's real story. The author's rat-world includes a rat race many humans would recognize, and he doesn't mute it or gussy it up: Rats, like humans, can be cruel, careless, avaricious, and vicious. Money makes their world go round; it makes some rats important and others apparently worthless.

Yet it's one of these worthless rats -- one who makes no money but merely paints pictures -- who saves the whole rat culture. How? He remains true to himself and the things that matter to him; he loves beauty and is naive enough -- or smart enough -- to know that love and beauty can work wonders.

Indeed, one of the greatest wonders in the book is the wheeler-dealer rat, who takes Montague's shells from Isabel and delivers them to the jewelry dealer. He turns out to be none other than Montague Mad-Rat the Elder, Montague's wild and much-disrespected uncle Moony, long a family and social pariah. Moony manages to blend a financier's cunning with an artist's scorn for money as an end in itself: His wealth goes right back into his ringmaking.

Other rats seem unable to forget his enchanting poems, which come to mind in times of trouble; and at the end of the novel, after his demise, Moony's spirit remains to soften even the flintiest of rats -- the Dickensian pack rat Pembroke, who bestows one of Moony's handmade rings on Montague as he sleeps. The ring is Montague's link with his devil-may-care uncle; but it heralds the future as well, sealing Montague's love for the fair Isabel. The circle of the ring is also the circle of the family, which widens and gathers new love in its sweep, according to a prediction in one of Moony's poems: Some rings hoop around the heart,

From a lover, or a friend; But all are circles -- none begin,

And none will ever end.

It's hard to imagine a better message for children to read, or for parents to read to their children. The brilliant, touching illustrations by Fred Marcellino make the message stronger.

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