It’s weird that what struck me the most about this second book in the series after reading it for the first time in lo these many years is how small everything feels. As the series goes on, every book features our young heroes taking on bigger challenges with more and more devastating consequences, but here, the mission is small, and Rachel’s goals even smaller. It’s emotionally intimate.
The Visitor is Rachel’s first POV book. Rachel is the beautiful, fashion-conscious one, but she’s much more than that under the surface. Rachel is fierce and protective, and Rachel is angry. There’s just the subtlest start of it here, but the seeds have been sown. We can also see here her tendency to be overconfident, and charge into dangerous situations against all common sense. The cat morph that she adopts is the perfect example of this. His arrogance and misplaced confidence, mixed with his tendency to fight back against overwhelming odds he is sure to lose against, mirror Rachel’s. Or, perhaps, reveal them.
So the mission here is to infiltrate their Vice Principal’s house, Chapman, a prominent Controller in their area who runs the secret Yeerk recruitment group, The Sharing, and who reports directly to Visser Three. Jake refuses to use Tom as their way in again, and because the only entrance to the Yeerk pool they knew about has been closed, they need to find another one, intending to find and destroy the Kandrona that supplies the Yeerks with their life-giving rays. Chapman is the only other Controller they know about for now, and moreover, Rachel used to be close friends with his daughter. It’s risky, but they decide to send Rachel in disguised as Melissa Chapman’s pet tom cat, Fluffer McKitty (that name!).
Spoilers in the following paragraphs:
Rachel’s mission is reconnaissance only, which does happen on the first go, with a bit of a close scare with Chapman and Visser Three. But of course, on that same trip she also realizes why her old friend Melissa has become so withdrawn. Both of her parents are now Controllers, and despite their trying to act normally to their daughter, she can tell that the two beings calling themselves her parents no longer love her. Rachel witnesses some heartbreaking stuff, and resolves then and there to fight the Yeerks as hard as she can. It’s a dark moment for a children’s books series, not even the first, not the last, not even the darkest. Rachel becomes almost foolhardy in her determination to help or protect Melissa, and doesn’t tell the others about her close call with Chapman. She goes back in, and of course, is caught and recognized as an “Andalite Bandit,” which is how Visser Three refers to the Animorphs.
This is probably the most important piece of intel Rachel learns, that the Yeerks still have no idea that there is a band of morph-capable humans beginning to resist them. She also witnesses him close up and gets a better idea for how he operates, intel which will surely become important later, but pales right now in the face of her close call with being captured. Because of course the rest of the Animorphs come to her rescue, but not before both she and Jake are almost stuck in a morphs, as a cat and a flea, respectively. And not before traumatizing Melissa Chapman with even more atrocious behavior by her father, who at one point seems to be taking her cat away from her for no reason at all.
The more intimate tone of this second book really lets you know as the reader that this isn’t just going to be a series chock full of kids fighting aliens while in the form of badass animals. It’s also going to be a series that examines the smaller emotional consequences of what a war like this could do to all involved. Melissa Chapman is emotionally bereft by the disruption of her family. Rachel and the rest of the Animorphs are learning how to be suspicious of everyone around them. And even if nobody else they know is a Controller, they’re already learning how to keep secrets from those that love them the most, if not lying outright. There’s just a small moment in this one where Rachel wonders whether or not her little sister or her mother are Controllers, and it’s just enough to keep her (and us) on edge.
As for the book itself, the writing is still so-so. I really can’t stress how little I cared about that when I read this as a kid. It was fun, the ideas were great, and also I thought it was hilarious. The references are very 90s, but it was actually some of the jokes that bombed the most for me now. Marco’s sense of humor is a little bit sexist. I don’t think he is, but I’m sure if Miss Applegate wrote this now, she would change a lot of that. (I wonder if they changed some of it in the new editions? I know they made continuity changes and things like that. Hmmm.)
Anyway, another successful foray into one of my childhood favorites. Can’t wait for our first Tobias book next time. He’s my favorite, that boy is.