Atta: A Novel of a Most Extraordinary Adventure; Odyssey from River Bend; and The Cat

reviewed by Fred Patten
©2008 Fred Patten

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Atta Odyssey from River Bend The Cat

Cover of Item 1
Cover of Ace paperback edition
Title: Atta; A Novel of a Most Extraordinary Adventure
Author: Francis Rufus Bellamy
Publisher: A. A. Wyn, Inc. (NYC), Sep 1953
216 pages, USD $3.00

   It is with a singular bitterness that I begin this memoir of my youth.
Here at my table, west of the Mississippi, I can turn in my chair and gaze out my window at sixty acres of green hillside, orchard, and valley. They are the actual scene of the greater part of the adventures I am about to relate, adventures for which I myself can vouch. (pg. 1)

   Two pages later the narrator, Brokell, says these events happened forty years previously. 1953 minus forty years would be 1913, which would explain why he was riding about the countryside in a horse-and-buggy, and why he writes in such an old-fashioned, formal style.
   Brokell is waiting in a flowery meadow with a box of candy for his betrothed. She is late, and after a half-hour he notices that red ants are crawling all over the candy. Infuriated—“Darn you, anyhow!” I said aloud.—he picks up a rock and starts smashing the ants. Suddenly:

   For scarcely had my missile left my grasp before I was conscious of a hitherto unseen dark mass in the sky above me. Even as my own missile left my hand this mass became instantly larger in size and rushed down at me and the earth. (pg. 7)

   Brokell awakens to find himself in a bizarre landscape which bewilders him for many pages (until page 90!), but which the reader instantly recognizes as the ground from an ant’s-eye view. He is attacked by a monstrous beetle which he slays with a steel lance he finds (a broken needle; he shelters inside a discarded thimble). After wandering dazedly for a day, he comes upon a trapped animal:

   One of the most grotesque creatures I expect ever to encounter in my life lay stretched on the ground, almost beneath a rock that had evidently fallen upon him, pinioning one of his legs. He lay nearly on his back, his other legs, of which there seemed to be three, lying limply outstretched beside him, mute evidence of his exhaustion. He had apparently given up the struggle to free himself at the exact moment when I caught sight of him. Now both his arms lay lifeless at his side, and his head had fallen back upon the pebbles, his two large, extremely wide-set eyes staring faintly at the sky. He was clad in a sort of dull brownish leather-like material, burnished in places until it looked like natural armor. And two delicate feelers projected from his enormous head, weakly tapping the boulder beside him from time to time as if he considered some despairing plan of moving it from his imprisoned leg. (pg. 27)

   Brokell frees Atta and nurses him back to health over the next month, during which they learn to communicate. In his own country, he said, he was one of the leaders of a populous city long established, which in the far distant past his ancestors had conquered. He himself was of the present ruling class, a circumstance that had allowed him to go out on a scouting expedition. (pg. 38) Atta comes from a warrior Caste within one nation of the land of Formica (which Brokell eventually realizes is within one meadow in western Iowa). Atta does not think much of Brokell’s soft skin; but he is very favorably impressed by the crude bow and arrows, ax and club, and other portable weapons that the human makes. Atta leads him to aphids, which give the ants milk, but as a warrior he does not know how to milk them; Brokell, a farmer, figures out how to feed them both. Brokell breaks a green beetle, Trotta, for riding.
   After wandering together for several weeks, Atta and Brokell are captured by the Rubicundians, a nation of red Formicans. Most of the ant nations enslave each other’s citizens when they can, so Atta accepts this as natural. It is Brokell who insists they escape, especially after they meet Subser, another slave from Fusa, Atta’s nation of brown ants, who knows the way back there. It is a return to home for Atta and Subser, but Brokell must prove his right to be there:

   “That is the South Entrance,” said Atta. “It is closed at night.” He hesitated. “Subser is merely the name of all the Cutters,” he added with no change of tone. “The first Cutter was named Subser.”
And Atta?”I asked.
“My name is Atta,”he said, “as my father’s was before me, and his father’s, and his father’s. We are of the Maternity Guards and always have been.” He plucked a piece of a long creeper and began chewing it while he continued to stare at the distant gateway. “I have brought you here to tell you,” he said at length, “that Subser is right about the tests. I can be of help to you only in bringing you before the Great Oval. Beyond that, there is no such thing as friendship in Fusa. Our cities are not as you have described yours to me. Do you understand?” (pg. 120)

   Brokell must prove his value in the Great Oval, a vast stadium where thousands of Fusans watch him defeat several different Formican gladiators and a monstrous Wolf Spider with his portable weapons while riding Trotta. Brokell is awarded citizenship, but soon learns that while the Fusans are eager to exploit his talents as a leader and warrior in battles against other Formican nations, they are hostile to his attempts to teach other Fusans to fight in his manner. Eventually Brokell loses favor with Fusa’s political leaders for being a Stranger and advocating Individuality rather than strict conformity to authority; and only Atta stands by him.
   Atta is an old-fashioned novel, in the style of the World War I-era pulp adventures. It is a bit of a mystery as to why it was first published as late as 1953. (Bellamy says in his dedication that he originally started Atta in collaboration with Walter Brooks, the author of the Mr. Ed talking horse fantasies for adults and the Freddy the Pig series for children.) Atta is still interesting as an early example of the human-mistreats-animals-and-is-transformed-to-live-among-them adventures, and can be read as a forerunner of such modern examples as the 2006 Warner Bros. movie The Ant Bully.

Atta Odyssey from River Bend The Cat

Cover of the UK hardcover edition of LIONBOY
Title: Odyssey from River Bend
Author: Tom McGowen
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (Boston), Apr 1975
ISBN: 0-316-55921-8
ix + 166 pages, $5.95

   This was a minor children’s/Young Adult fantasy in 1975, but it is notable as one of the first novels to promote the theme of talking animals inheriting the earth after mankind has become extinct through its own mismanagement of the environment.

   It was an old village. Many generations of animals had been born, lived, and died in it. Its name was Jallakragga, which in the language of the animals meant ‘river bend.’
   Around the entire village was a stout wall made of logs that had been cut and trimmed by the beaver builders, stuck upright in the ground, and plastered over with clay from the riverbank. The wall formed an irregular circle, and at several places along its length were watchtowers. From these, day and night, the wolf soldiers peered down, alert for any sign of the wandering bands of weasels or wildcats that roamed the forest and sometimes attacked villages. In the part of the wall that faced the great, dim mass of the forest there was a gateway, with a wide door made of thick logs. This door was kept closed and barred during the hours of darkness, and the logs were covered with carved, frightening faces, to scare away any wandering ghosts or wicked spirits that might try to enter.
(pgs. 3-4)

   Jikatik and Ikatibby, two raccoon children foraging for food in the nearby forest in autumn, find an ancient object exposed where the river has undercut the bank.

   “It’s from the Long Ago time!” Jik gasped. “A thing that the Long Ago Ones made!”
   They were both half-minded to scurry away as fast as they could. All the stories they had ever heard came crowding into their heads; stories of other animals who had found Long Ago things, and had been put under terrifying magic spells, or had been attacked by horrible monsters. For the Long Ago Ones had been mighty wizards with strange and terrible powers, and their magic sometimes still clung to the things that were left over from the days when they had ruled the world.
(pg. 9)

   The two bring it to Kippatuk the Wise, River Bend’s elderly badger savant, who pries it open and finds a book of the Long Ago Ones inside. Kipp tries all during the harsh winter that follows to decipher the book, while the village battles sickness and desperately tries to make its food stores last until spring. He appears at the first village council meeting after the winter:

   The other animals glanced at one another. Chuffamup, the beaver who was the village record keeper said, “But that’s just the way things are, Kipp. Long winters and no rain and toothaches and sickness and fleas—we can’t do anything about those things!”
   “The Long Ago Ones, if the legends are true, had no hunger or pain or sickness or misery,” Kipp answered, eyeing the beaver. “They had power over the world and the wicked spirits that cause us so much trouble. You know what the legends say; they lived lifetimes that were many times longer than ours, and were happy every day! They had wonderful food, even more than they needed. They had
   “Well, the Long Ago Ones were the Long Ago Ones, and we are we, and we don’t have their magic!” Chuffamup declared. “Why talk about such things, Kippachuk? They cannot be.”
   “Yes they can,” said Kipp softly. “I think we can learn the magic of the Long Ago Ones, Chuff. I think I know how it can be done!”
(pgs. 26-27)

   Kipp has figured out enough of the ancient book to feel sure that it shows where a hidden treasury of the Long Ago Ones’ magic is, in the Haunted Land where they lived ages ago. He wants to search for it. The other animals are horrified by the thought of going into the Haunted Land; “it’s the most terrible place in the world! It’s a place of animal-eating ghosts and monsters, where the air is a foul poison and the land is black and dead!” (pg. 28)
   Despite the conviction of most villagers that Kipp is just committing suicide—or worse, that he may anger the spirits of the Long Ago Ones who will come to River Bend for vengeance—several of the younger animals who are bored with their narrow, superstitious life decide to accompany Kipp, to protect him and to see the world. By the time he is ready to start, Kipp is head of an expedition that includes Arwheek the rat, Ushkee the otter, and Riff the wolf.
   The reader will have guessed from the start that the Long Ago Ones were humans. The animals do not know what to expect as they set out:

   “I wonder if the Long Ago Ones had some way of keeping their fur dry on rainy days?” Arwheek grumbled, slogging along with his head and shoulders covered by his food bag.
   “I’m not sure they
had fur,” Kipp told him. “But I am sure they had some way of keeping rain off themselves.”
   “No fur?” Riff was incredulous. “Were they like snakes, then, with smooth, scaly skins?”
   “I really do not know,” the badger answered. “I’ve seen pictures of them; there were many pictures in the Long Ago book. But the pictures made no sense to my eyes. It seemed almost as if the Long Ago Ones had different shapes at different times. Sometimes they seemed to have a kind of fur on their bodies and sometimes not. It’s very odd.”
(pgs. 44-45)

   The questers have several adventures; escaping from a grizzly bear slaver, saving a rat village from a giant rattlesnake, and avoiding the aerial attacks of eagles while crossing a great plain. New animals double the group from four to eight. They are confused to discover that the Haunted Land is a lush forest instead of the black and dead desolation of the legend. Eventually they reach their goal, but the ruined, crumbling city of the Long Ago Ones is more awesome, extensive and decayed than they expect. Do the secrets still exist in the rotted buildings? It belatedly dawns on them: If they want the Long Ago Ones’ magic (science and technology) to improve their lives, and if the Long Ago Ones destroyed themselves with that technology, how safe will it be for them to use it?
   A final revelation makes it clear that the Long Ago Ones did indeed destroy the earth—where the air is a foul poison and the land is black and dead—through pollution combined with a back-to-Nature abandonment of technology just when it was most needed to save mankind. 1975 was in the midst of high-profile super-pesticides vs. no-pesticides-at-all debates. There were no clear-cut answers, and McGowen similarly leaves Kipp and the animals to make their own decisions. It is ironic to consider that if this novel had been written twenty years earlier, during the bomb-shelter panic-stricken 1950s, man’s extinction and the desolation would have been attributed instead to nuclear war and radiation poisoning. Odyssey from River Bend is a bit moralizing, but mostly it is a good talking-animals adventure novel for young readers.

Atta Odyssey from River Bend The Cat

Cover of the UK hardcover edition of LIONBOY
Dedalus UK hardcover edition
Title: The Cat [UK] [US]
Author: Pat Gray
Publisher: Dedalus Ltd. (Sawtry, Cambridgeshire, UK), Mar 1997
ISBN: 1-873982-08-9
124 pages, UK £6.99

Publisher: The Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), Nov 1998
ISBN: 0-88001-614-0
124 + 1 pages, $19.00

   “A dark comedy with universal appeal, The Cat is the Animal Farm of the post-communist 1990s,” says the American dust-jacket blurb, while a Scottish review of the original British edition says that, “Gray’s reworking of the Animal Farm concept brings in a post-Thatcherite twist.” Animal Farm may live forever, but is The Cat really a modernization of Animal Farm for Britain of the 1990s?
   ‘Chez Maupassant’ is the typical British suburban home of the Professor and Mrs. Professor, their pet the Cat, and the presumably unnoticed Rat and Mouse. All live very comfortably, since the Professor is a gluttonous slob who leaves rich food everywhere.

   The cheesecake seemed to glow, luminous and fantastic, as the Professor skillfully slid it off its plate and cradled it in his large hand to prevent it breaking apart as his mouth closed in upon it. A look of childish pleasure crossed the Professor’s face, then a look of guilt, then he rammed the entire cheesecake into his mouth and began to eat. (pg. 11)

   The pampered Cat, the brash Rat, and the peevishly ineffectual Mouse (the latter two living under the house or within its walls) are best friends. Unfortunately, the Professor dies of a coronary three pages into the story (though leaving the fridge open). The animals are mildly distressed, but see no reason to fear a change in their lavish lifestyle—until Mrs. Professor moves to Brighton, leaving the Cat behind.

   “Moved out, eh!” said the Rat, drying his paws, and replacing the towel in its pouch. “Lock, stock and biscuit barrel. Just like that. I knew she would. Cat! What are you doing here anyway? Mouse said you were in Brighton.”
   The Mouse saw the Rat appraise the Cat’s downtrodden air in one swift glance, and saw him note the slight dusty pallor that now clung to the Cat’s normally glistening coat.
   “Cat’s been told he’s got to f… f… f… end for himself,” said the Mouse significantly, regaining his voice.
   “Fend for myself,” repeated the Cat. His eyes were veiled and hurt. “I mean I don’t know on what.” The Cat shrugged expressively at the spot where the fridge had stood, its position marked by an oblong scatter of sticky crumbs and bright-coloured linoleum.
(pg. 36)

   As the animals realize that they must fend for themselves, their friendship is strained by basic instincts:

   Some memory of upbringing stirred in the Cat’s mind: rats were dirty, rats were diseased. Although the Rat wore a waistcoat, the Cat believed he could still smell the drain and the outfall. The Cat began to wash himself very slowly. The wind strengthened, whistling in the silent telephone lines that reached from beneath the eaves of ‘Chez Maupassant’, making them sing.
   “Now see here Cat,” began the Rat, edging himself closer, his tail nonchalantly laid out behind him in a perfect, motionless line.
   “I don’t have to talk to you,” said the Cat jumpily. The nerves in his forepaws twitched uneasily, making the fur flex as if a fist were being clenched inside a warm winter mitten.
   “We need an understanding,” said the Rat.”
(pgs. 28-29)

   The three tacitly agree on a personal nonaggression pact. Instead, each tries to win the support of the animals in the nearby houses and fields. The Cat appeals to their self-interest in a Capitalistic manner, selling them individual portions of Chez Maupassant’s garden (which he has no rights to), while the Rat (with the intellectual Mouse in tow) harangues them about animal solidarity like a Labour leader:

   The Mouse busied himself setting up a small card table while the Rat paced to and fro, folding the notes for his speech into various shapes […]
   “There’s a few of them here, at least,” said the Mouse. The animals stood, stamping their feet, and coughing in the cold; a few Moles, a gang of field-voles, the Mouse family from the house next door, and some creatures from the meadow beyond the fence that the Mouse took for squirrels.
(pg. 47)

   The Cat decides that since humans have all the benefits, he will impersonate them. He learns to speak English by imitating radio broadcasts, and charms Mrs. Digby, the next-door neighbour. He orders new furnishings for Chez Maupassant over the telephone using the Professor’s credit card:

   “Where’s he getting it all from?” whispered the Mouse.
   “This is fraud. Classic short-termism. It won’t last. We’ll be back to square one in no time at all,” said the Rat grimly, his eyes following each new item as it appeared, and was tallied by the Cat (who would remark from time to time that this or that item might have been slightly marked in transit, or be worth a few bob, or perhaps be needed in a different shade of beige or pink.)
(pg. 84)

   But it does last. Eventually the Cat carries his faux humanism too far, trying to drive a car and getting smashed up. The book ends with the Cat having returned to cattitude as Mrs. Digby’s pampered pet, while the Rat with the Mouse as his secretary take over running the run-down, unsaleable Chez Maupassant:

   The Rat yawned. The Mouse poked the fire by his feet. The Rat sighed. It had been another very tiring day, he thought. The Rat sighed again. As time went on, he was finding the administration of the garden harder; the constant rows and arguments which seemed to erupt about the exact needs of fieldvoles, or the special requirements of pregnant moles, arguments which were not only dull, but exhausting to resolve. He would try to make fair decisions, but everyone would complain, and then he would change his mind, and then … (pg. 123)

   A British Animal Farm for the 1990s? Well, the easy life under the Professor can be taken as the strong economy of the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. But Thatcher was succeeded in 1990 by John Major, also a Conservative, until 1997, the year that The Cat was published. The economy may have gradually declined, but there was no big disaster that caused a dramatic capitalist/labour split. So where is the Orwellian parallel? In any case, The Cat is undeniably a sophisticated talking-animal fantasy, and an exceedingly British one, at that.

Atta Odyssey from River Bend The Cat

Anthropomorphic books for review should be sent to Fred Patten, at:
Golden State Colonial Convalescent Hospital, 10830 Oxnard Street, North Hollywood, CA, 91606

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