Review of The Visitor by K.A. Applegate
by K.A. Applegate
We continue my epic re-read of the Animorphs series with book 2, because I’m boring and read series in order, OK?
Animorphs resembles an after-school kids show: each book is like an episode of the show in which the kids have an adventure while learning an important life lesson. In The Invasion the lesson was, “Yes, your principal is an alien bent on enslaving humanity.” The Visitor is about the harsh effects of marital strife on children and their friendships.
We are eternally indebted to The Invasion for kicking off the series. As I explored in my first review, it is a great series opener. Nevertheless, as a story it has a lot of problems. Applegate has to do a lot of heavy lifting to establish the ground rules of the series. If that book is all about the Animorphs getting powers, then The Visitor, as the sequel, is about them exploring what it means to have powers, and the consequences of discovering an alien invasion in progress.
I criticized Applegate’s writing on a technical level. While I stand by that criticism in general, I have to backtrack and admit that there is one area in which her powers of description excel: describing the experience of a new morph.
This isn’t like television, where we can see someone turn into an animal. And I would argue that television is a less useful form here, because it’s harder to telegraph what someone is feeling as they become that animal. It’s hard enough to do that in writing, but Applegate manages. She doesn’t stop after describing the physical transformation. No, she puts effort into communicating the psychological effect of having that animal’s instincts, and she does so with deftness. Here’s Rachel on becoming a cat named Fluffer McKitty:
But it wasn't just how well I saw that was strange. It was what I noticed.
A human being will notice colors, for exam ple. Now, a cat can see colors, more or less. He just isn't interested in colors. It's like, okay, that thing is red. Who cares?
What cats really notice is movement. If anything moves, even the tiniest bit, the cat sees it. I was standing there on the grass, looking around with my big cat eyes, and I saw nothing but movement.
Applegate could have remarked on the cat’s cool night vision and left it at that. I love this extra touch. It’s accurate and apt and entirely on a level that both kids and adults can relate to. Becoming another animal isn’t just about looking different and walking on four legs or having wings. It’s a whole new way of viewing the world and a different set of priorities.
The narration and descriptions of other things are still underwhelming. But I can live with that to get more of the above.
Rachel is our narrator this time around. She fills the roles both of Action Girl and Girly Girl in our band of merry alien resistance fighters. That’s right: Rachel is athletic and aggressive and dresses fashionably. What’s up with that?
I’m being deliberately flip and superficial, because Applegate decidedly is not: Rachel has a complexity of character that belies all such neat attempts to pigeonhole her. Just as we learned about Jake’s changing relationship with his Controller brother, Tom, in the first book, here we learn about Rachel’s home life: her estranged father whom she rarely sees; her overworked mother who isn’t always able to be there for them; her two younger siblings who look to her for support. Rachel has to shoulder much more responsibility and maturity than we think adolescents should have to bear, and that goes a long way to explaining her motivations and her attitude.
If I had to choose one word to describe Rachel, it would be resilient.
Her gung-ho attitude is easy to mistake for mindless aggression, but that’s not the case at all. Rather, Rachel simply falls into the “a strong offence is the best defence” school of thought. So far what she has seen of life has taught her that no one can be absolutely depended upon. She has already learned she has to look out for herself—and for those who depend on her, like her siblings, her friends, and even her mother. And there is so much in the world that can hurt you and the ones you care about—better you strike out at them first, strike back while you are strong, than scrabble to defend yourself later.
It’s this pre-emptive strike philosophy that Rachel embodies. We see it a lot in later books—made more ragged and morally ambiguous by the fog of war, yes—but it’s apparent early on. Rachel doesn’t go back into the Chapmans’ residence, risking her life and risking exposure of the Animorphs, just to get more information. She goes back in there for her friend Melissa:
I had stopped purring. Probably because I was preoccupied, arguing with Tobias. I started purring again. I felt Melissa needed me to purr.
She was still crying. Still scratching slowly behind my ears.
"What did I do, Fluffer?" she asked again. "Why don't they love me anymore?"
I felt like my own heart would break right then.
Because I knew now why Melissa had stopped hanging out with me. I knew why she had become more withdrawn. And I knew how little hope there was for her.
My stomach turned and twisted.
Next time Marco asked why we were fighting the Yeerks, I knew I would have a whole new answer. Because they destroy the love of parents for their daughter. Because they made Melissa Chapman cry in her bed with no one to comfort her but a cat.
My heart did break right then. How can you not cry?
I know what it’s like to feel alone and upset and have only your cat to hold and cry against. (It is one of the universe’s most beautiful paradoxes that, while pretending to be aloof and uncaring at all other times, most cats will magically appear next to you when you are crying and purr. I think it’s a bonding thing.)
Rachel chooses to spend a little time comforting Melissa while posing as her cat. Then Rachel decides, unequivocally, that the Yeerks must be opposed and that she will be the one to do it. Because friendship. And love.
And it breaks my heart to know what will happen as the series progresses. It’s all so fresh and new at this point—sure, the Animorphs still haven’t fully realized what it means to be in this fight. They haven’t conceptualized what is to fight yet, let alone whether they might win. They are poking the anthole with a stick so far.
A lot more than ants are about to pour out.
Rachel, you are and always will be my favourite Animorph. Cassie gets the label of Compassionate One, but you simply wear your compassion in a different way. You are the avenging angel, the brightest light.
The Invasion is a book of action and discovery, of intense revelations. The Visitor is more down-to-Earth—well, as down-to-Earth as Andalites and Hork-Bajir can be…. But it’s more about hidden costs, and empathy, and what it means to be human in the face of a non-human threat.
This might be written for kids. But it’s a lot more mature than some things out there written for adults.
Next review I’ll get to praise Rachel a bit more, even though it’s a Tobias book. And we learn why Red Bull doesn’t give you wings.