Published: 2000 by Hodder Children’s Books
My copy: Bought in secondhand (for 1p, no less, can’t argue with that) in paperback
Memorable quote: “Even crossing the deck it stole the precious warmth from our bodies like a thief. We learned to keep out of the wind. We were lucky. Our bodies were already close to the ground.”
I wouldn’t normally pick up or review a children’s book but I couldn’t resist this one for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s from Hodder, who published what I remember as unequivocally my favourite reads from my own childhood, The Deptford Mice series by Robin Jarvis. I dread to think how many times I read and re-read this trilogy and the ones that followed it when I was younger – are there any other Jarvis fans out there? Secondly, and perhaps more obviously, The Pole Seekers is possibly the only book in existence that combines two of my most avid cultural interests: rats and historic polar exploration. For that alone, I felt this slim volume deserved a place on my shelves.
Yes, here Hooper tells the story of Hackle and Eddie, two black rats, or “Ship’s Rats” who stow away on a vessel bound for the Unknown Land, a vessel that just so happens to be Captain Scott’s first polar ship, The Discovery. The rats are hoping to find a new home, somewhere that has not already been overrun by their ‘enemies’ the brown rats. I liked the way this story explored the tension between black rats (Rattus Rattus) and their now more common cousins (Rattus Norvegicus), albeit in a very basic way. Ship Rats in the UK have now been all but ousted by their hardier cousins and today a black rat is a rare sight indeed, with only a few colonies surviving in port towns. So black rats have a real connection to ocean travel, and to exploration that makes them a nice fit for a story like this. The experiences of Hooper’s Hackle and Eddie parallel those of their human (or “Heftie” as the rats call us) namesakes, Shackleton and Edward Wilson, as they explore Antarctica’s landscapes and fauna, and make a bid to penetrate its forbidding interior. This book could be a nice way to introduce kids to the exciting world of historic polar exploration but Hooper doesn’t preach and it never feels like a didactic read: much more of an icy adventure tale than a dry history text book – although when history is this rich to begin with, how could it be dry? In fact I would have liked some of the Discovery expedition parallels to be made a little more apparent, but then I am a nerd and a bore.
The pace of this book was very fast, designed – I presume – to stop kids from getting bored. But, even taking into account its target market, a few of the big set piece scenes such as the balloon flight, could have been a little more developed. Filtered through Hackle’s idiosyncratic perspective, I’m not sure that a reader (adult or child) with no previous knowledge of the expedition at all would always understand what is taking place. My other criticism was that the characterisation of the rats was a little inconsistent: sometimes they seemed very convincingly rat-like, at others more like tiny humans. I would have liked to see more of the descriptions of the Unknown Land pitched from a more distinctly ratty frame of reference (in a similar way to how Caroline Alexander’s Mrs Chippy uses unmistakably feline similes “mouse-grey” in her similar toned book). But there are some lovely touches here: the illustrations, by Trevor Newton, are charming. I particularly liked the one of the rats gathered on the bow overlooking the pack-ice. There are also some lovely comic touches, such as when the hungry rats complain about the lack of fresh food: “we’d been eating powdered cheese for too long, fit for Hefties, not rats.”
Overall, though, this is a sweet novel and a good way to introduce a child to the wonderful world both of rats and of Antarctic exploration. And for a big kid with a fascination for both, it’s definitely a book for keeps.