The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone, by Timothy Basil Ering [an offbeat review]
The title is a brilliant hook. Sort of Depression Era blues musician at the Crossroads meets horrific ‘poke it with a stick’ discovery in the woods behind your house. When I free-associate, I go strange places. Obviously.
Most books with a message are about as enticing to me as an asphalt popsicle. This one, I’ll allow. Only by the skin of its teeth though. It’s the story of a “special boy” who lives in Cementland, a carbon footprint stomping ground that looks like a Fred Sanford fever dream. Deep in the tetanus-rich wasteland, he discovers a literal strongbox full of figurative treasure. A collection of brightly packaged, but poorly labeled seeds. [groan]
I put my cans and bottles in the appropriate bins. I ask them not to include extra utensils in my food takeout orders. I employ a crucifix to ward off plastic grocery bags. Still, I do not want to read another Mother Earth Needs Our Help book. I dipped into my shallow well of patience though and muddled on. The boy plants his seeds, which fail to grow in the first 3 minutes. He throws up his hands in frustration and heads home. Something I can identify with. Alright, personal connection. Keep going.
He comes back to find they’ve been dug up and stolen during the night. His natural reaction is to build a golem out of garbage, infuse it with life, and christen it Frog Belly Rat Bone. Whaaat? Frog Belly, if I can use the familiar, looks like a cross between Frosty the Snowman and roadkill. Luckily, his attitude is more faithful butler than homicidal automaton. They plant more seeds, and Frog Belly volunteers to stand guard. When the culprits return- a rat, a rabbit, and a fruit fly- Frog Belly scares the crap out of them. They run screaming, presumably in search of clean Fruit of the Looms. Frog Belly indicates he knows a thing or two about gardening, perhaps because he’s 85% compost himself, and teaches the kid how to tend the plants. Given enough time to grow, the seeds blossom and spread, transforming Concreteland into a veritable Garden of Eden. In time, the rat, rabbit, and fruit fly are welcomed back with open arms. Seriously, the rabbit leaps into Frog Belly’s coat hanger arms, which is both unsanitary and a bizarre way to apologize for petty theft. They hold a feast of fresh fruits and vegetables (propaganda?), and the story comes to a close with a message about patience. Or conservation. Or rejection of Mary Shelley’s theory of the Modern Prometheus. All of the above.
For me, the illustrations helped the medicine go down. It wasn’t that the writing was weak or clunky; it’s solid. It’s just that the chaotic, frenzied artwork gave it enough rough edges to keep the scales from tipping into a heavy-handed ecological fable. Crunchy toffee swirled in an otherwise smooth wheat grass and acai berry frappé. The post-apocalyptic setting, the charming but otherwise nightmarish trash monster, the color palette formulated from discarded art supplies. Count me in. So, whether you’re looking for a marginally left-leaning environmental tale, or you can’t get enough of mad scientists and creatures that serve them (Fun Fact: Boris Karloff provided the voice of the Grinch in the original 1960’s cartoon.), this is an easy one to stomach. No nose-holding required.