The Great and the Small by A.T. Balsara is an amazing book. On one level, it’s the story of intelligent rats, told from their point of view through vivid descriptions and beautiful hand-drawn illustrations. All of that, however, is on the surface. Beneath the warm and fuzzy characters, we find a story of war and the devastating effect it has on everyone involved. The story follows a young rat named Finn who has a strong moral compass. He is the nephew of Papa, the beloved leader of the rats. Papa and the council wage an all-out war on the humans to stop them from doing lab experiments on rats. Finn leads the charge against the humans until he ends up injured and nursed back to health by a young human girl named Ananda.
In the process of telling the story of The Great and the Small, author A.T. Balsara gives us many details about the real-life plague that took place in the 1300s. Rats were apparently involved in the spreading of that sickness. Having that as a foundation for the war that happens in the story added to its strong emotional impact. At the same time, the fact that 70% of the story is told from the point of view of talking rats, keeps it from getting overly heavy. Some might not like the combination of the fantasy elements with the tragedy of war. But, for me, it worked brilliantly. I would normally not read a book about the horrors of war, but this one I enjoyed. I think that is because Ms. Balsara did such a good job of bringing her rats to life. They had just the right amount of human characteristics to make them relatable, yet they still acted and behaved like rats. They live in nests instead of houses. They nuzzle each other rather than kiss, etc. I’m not sure if her main goal in writing this book was to preach a cautionary tale about war, or if it was to tell a story about cute and cuddly characters who talk. Whatever her intent was doesn’t matter now. The result is an extraordinary book that is mesmerizing on every level.