Rats In The Trees is Jess Mowry's first book -- written in 1989 and published by John Daniel & Company in 1990 -- a collection of interrelated stories about street kids in Oakland, California, though mostly about Robby, a 13-year-old African-American boy from Fresno, California who runs away from an abusive foster home. Robby arrives in Oakland on a Greyhound bus, then, lost and alone, he's befriended by an interracial "gang" of 12 and 13-year-olds with a united passion for skateboarding, who call themselves The Animals.
The stories were originally "told stories" for kids at a West Oakland youth center where Mowry worked at the time; and when he began to write them down he kept that gritty rawness. The boys skate with the gear of the times, speak their own dialect of black and skate-punk, relate to a mix of rock and rap, defend their ground and try to be kids while fighting to survive. Rats In The Trees, while not pretending to be a documentary, portrays the conditions for many inner city kids during the late 1980's -- around the end of "Reganomics" and the beginning of George Bush's "kinder, gentler America" -- which was when crack-cocaine was starting to flood into mostly poor black neighborhoods, as if designed to bring down the people, and especially to destroy kids. The times of happy black music of the late 1970s and early 80s were ending. So was the social-awareness and Brotherhood which had bonded, strengthened and sustained black people during the '60s and 70s. The break-dance era was over, and the brutal years of gangster rap, of self-hatred fostering black-on-black crime, and guns, gangs, drugs and violence were beginning as if in retaliation for that brief interlude of relative peace. Robby and The Animals were old enough to remember the days when black people seemed united in a common cause of freedom and justice; and like most black kids at the time they knew they were losing something. Sadly, all the predictions made in Rats have come true, the ever-increasing black-on-black crime, the guns, gangs, drugs and violence in the U.S., kids killing kids, and the shameful decline in the quality of public education. School shootings were also mentioned. Of course, much of the language and many of the expressions, as well as some attitudes toward certain types of people, have changed since 1989 -- or are at least masked by political-correctness these days -- but after reading this book judge for yourself if the U.S. has gotten kinder, gentler or any more enlightened since then despite all the political-correctness and Pollyanna lip-service given to equality. Rats In The Trees received a PEN Josephine Miles Award in 1990, and was published in the U.K., Germany and Japan. It was also reprinted by Viking in the U.S. The stories were originally "stand-alone" stories, and several were published on their own in the U.S. and abroad. The author has done some editing where there were repetitive descriptions of characters and settings. This Anubis Edition includes an extra story and additional material not available in print editions, as well as a foreward by the author.