The Tiger Rising is quite short, just over 100 pages with chapters of 3-4 pages each. However, there’s a lot contained in this slim volume. It has “Literature Circle Questions” at the end because it was pretty much designed for that kind of situation—short enough for everyone to read, with enough metaphor to fuel tons of discussion.
Rob has recently moved to Lister, FL, after the death of his mother. He and his dad live in a motel where his dad works. One morning he discovers a tiger in a cage back in the woods owned by Beauchamp, who also owns the motel. That same day, a new girl, Sistine Bailey, gets on the school bus. Rob’s life is about to change significantly.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Death and Grief
Rob’s mother recently died, and Rob and his dad aren’t coping with it very well. Rob’s dad refuses to talk about her or even say her name, and they moved because he was reminded of her too much. Rob locks everything up inside his psychological suitcase—he’s actively putting things into it so he doesn’t have to deal with them. He has a rash on his legs that Willie May, the housekeeper at the motel, says is a physical representation of the grief he won’t let rise to the surface.
Rob and Sistine eventually decide to let the tiger out of the cage and set it free. Willie May anticipated them, so Rob’s dad is prepared with his gun. He shoots the tiger to keep it from hurting anyone. This second death releases all the grief from the first—Rob beats on his father, saying hurtful things he’s been keeping bottled up. Rob’s dad takes it, and then softly says his wife’s name. He says it hurts to remember her, but for Rob’s sake he’ll do that.
Rob is bullied on the school bus every morning. He just takes it, knowing that the busdriver won’t do anything about it, even as two boys are physically assaulting him. Sistine is also bullied, but she fights back. Every day she gets off the school bus with new bruises and with her clothes torn. Rob thinks she ought to run instead, but she says she likes to fight—sometimes she even starts it. Rob’s dad thinks he ought to fight, but knows he won’t. Neither approach seems to have much impact, though.
When Rob finds himself opening up to Sistine, he welcomes the beating on the school bus that pummels him back into silence.
Rob’s dad is a complicated character. When Rob cried at his mother’s funeral, his dad slapped him and told him that crying wouldn’t bring her back—after that, Rob works hard to never cry about anything. In a flashback, we learn about a time that he shot a small bird just to show that he could, even though neither Rob nor his mom wanted him to do that. On the other hand, every evening he rubs salve on the rash on Rob’s legs, and he lets Rob stay home from school for a few days before beginning the fight to let him back in because his rash isn’t contagious. When there isn’t a lot of food, he says he isn’t hungry so Rob can eat as much as he wants. Rob explicitly notices how complicated his father’s hands are, just in case the reader didn’t pick up on it.
Sistine moved from Philadelphia when her mom left her father because he was having an affair with his secretary. Sistine really doesn’t want to be in Florida and says her dad is coming to pick her up next week. In the end, she faces the truth that he’s not coming for her. Her mother forces her to wear dresses to school every day, which is part of what makes her a bully magnet. Her mom seems terribly out of touch about what her daughter really needs.
Boys and Girls
Sistine and Rob become good friends through the book. They challenge each other and have occasional spats, but that’s kind of what they need right now. There are no romantic overtones, even when they hold hands. However, Beauchamp says that Sistine is Rob’s girlfriend because, in his limited view of the world, that’s all they could be.
Rob and Sistine bond over art. She assumes he can’t know about the Sistine Chapel (which she’s named after), but he proves her wrong. He whittles beautiful carvings, a skill he learned from his mother. Sistine sees the art in what he creates. Art plays a significant role in awakening their friendship and allowing Rob to finally deal with all the stuff he’s been actively ignoring.
Willie May is the only character explicitly called out as black. She’s uneducated but very wise and insightful, to the point where Sistine and Rob call her a prophetess. She knows exactly what’s going on, what they’re dealing with, what they’re going to do. She denies that she has any magic, but the kids certainly think she does, and the plot kind of acts like she does.
Willie May smokes cigarettes, which is mentioned several times. The principal’s office smells like pipe tobacco.
When Rob stays home from school, his dad also lets him have a cup of coffee since he’s going to be working with him. Rob likes it. I feel I should note that he’s in 6th grade.
Rob’s dad has a gun case in their tiny motel room. He stares at it when he gets mad at his boss, Beauchamp. We know he’s a good shot, because he shot a small bird out of the sky. In the end, he takes down the tiger with one shot to the head.
Willie May remembers a parakeet she had when she was young. She couldn’t bear to keep it caged, so she let it go. She never saw it again, but her father told her it was probably eaten by a snake. Likewise, the tiger meets the only possible end—it was wrong to keep it caged, but it couldn’t be allowed to roam free. It seems clear that death is preferable to being caged up—and we should see that allowing painful grief and anger to pour out is preferable to locking up those emotions inside us.
Sistine, unpleased at moving from a northern city to a southern small town, tells everyone that they’re hicks and she can’t wait to leave. The bullies call Rob “retard” and “disease boy” because of his rash.
If I was still teaching middle school English, I would seriously consider teaching this book. I’m not sure how many kids would like it, but there’s so much to talk about in a short and easy to read novel. They wouldn’t have a lot of time to hate the act of reading it, and the discussion questions pretty much write themselves. It’s not terribly subtle in the metaphor of the tiger, but for tweens, that’s kind of what you need most of the time. Yes, it’s a story that ends with a somewhat senseless animal death. But the tiger was barely a character to begin with, and the metaphor is impossible to miss. Plus, leaving the tiger in the cage in the care of Beauchamp was hardly a viable option.
This is a great book for reluctant readers—it moves along at a good pace, the chapters are short, and it’s full of things to discuss. Precocious readers should probably read it with an adult who will challenge them to see the symbolism, figurative language, and metaphor throughout the book.
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo
Published in 2001 by Scholastic, Inc.
Read my personal paperback copy