The Rag And Bone Shop Essay Contest

The late Cormier’s final work is a tense thriller exploring how confession affects those who give it and those who get it. Sometimes it’s not good for the soul, as in this recounting of an innocent boy’s earnest intent to assist in an investigation that has decided he is the culprit and must be coerced to confess. Pared-down characters are matched by straightforward prose in this spare account. Drawing on the Catholic doctrine stating that absolution follows admission of guilt, Cormier inverts the paradigm and shows the effects of confessing when there is no real wrong done. Part one is detective Trent’s extraction of a chilling admission to multiple murders by Carl who seems to have aimlessly slid into doing horrible deeds. In part two readers meet Jason, who slid by in the seventh grade, almost unnoticed, and arrives at the first day of summer vacation looking forward to an easy time. Lacking confidence in himself, he spends time with neighbors more focused on seven-year-old Alicia than the boys his own age whooping it up in the pool. Along the way are glimpses of the detectives and local politicians whose intent is to catch the killer, as quickly as possible for the sake of their own reputations as much as the security of the community. Tension builds as Jason’s earnest desire to see the culprit caught and his internal monologue about the completeness and veracity of his memories counterpoint the clever techniques used. Trent is the priest who not only hears the confession, but extracts it. By the end, the evil has spread like a miasma to cause further death. Highly discussible, the ethical questions contained are intricate and absorbing, but detract not at all from the increasing tension as the story unfolds. Chilling. (Fiction. YA)

Robert Cormier's final novel, THE RAG AND BONE SHOP, takes its name from a line in a poem by William Butler Yeats --- "I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag–and–bone shop of the heart." In this novel, Cormier explores the lengths to which a person might go. In the end, both of the book's main characters discover they have gone too far. 

A good portion of the book takes place in a small, hot, windowless room --- the interrogation room. Cormier describes it in enough detail to make the reader as uncomfortable as Jason is while he is being questioned. The way Trent works is also detailed --- first he does everything he can to gain Jason's trust, then Trent tries to persuade him to confess to killing his young friend. At the same time, Jason struggles to understand both what Trent wants from him and what he remembers about Alicia's last day alive.

Cormier moved smoothly between the two characters' points of view, building suspense and driving the story to its powerful conclusion --- a conclusion with no winners.

Although the book is very nearly flawless, it may be one chapter too long. The final chapter concerns the aftermath of Jason's experience with Trent. It wraps up the book with a shocking surprise, but it also seems a bit unrealistic, taking a believable story and stretching our ability to believe it a little too far. The chapter is unnecessary due to the excellent job Cormier did describing Jason late in the book.

Even with the last chapter, however, THE RAG AND BONE SHOP, like many of Cormier's classics, including THE CHOCOLATE WAR, is a dark and fascinating book. Cormier died in November of 2000 at the age of 75, but THE RAG AND BONE SHOP clearly reveals that he was still at the top of his game, writing in his characteristic uncluttered style and making full and powerful use of his knack for revealing the motivations of his characters in this suspenseful and sad story. Part mystery and part cautionary tale, THE RAG AND BONE SHOP is a fine finale to Cormier's career.

Reviewed by Rob Cline on May 13, 2003

The Rag and Bone Shop
by Robert Cormier

  • Publication Date: May 13, 2003
  • Mass Market Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Laurel Leaf
  • ISBN-10: 0440229715
  • ISBN-13: 9780440229711

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