What up, Ratbridge? This funky little town has plenty of bizarre stuff going on, and frankly, we're surprised it's not a more popular tourist destination. We'll take you on a little tour to get you situated. Pro tip: Make sure you taste the cheese.
Pass the Cheese Please
Cheese is fundamental to understanding Ratbridge. As Grandfather puts it:
"Ratbridge was founded on the cheese, but when new industries came to town, the smoke and waste they produced poisoned the water supply and a lot of countryside around here. It got so bad that the local cheeses were decreed unfit to eat, and the cheese industry collapsed. The cheese barons went bankrupt overnight." (39.20)
The grand Cheese Hall is still one of the more prominent buildings in the town.
We'll also note that Snatcher's little adventure riding Framley-the-war-rat reintroduces cheese to the town, but not in the way he'd intended (which was to take over the town and bring the Cheese Guild back to its former glory). When Snatcher overeats and explodes, his insides coat the town in a filmy layer of gooey cheese. Ew. We bet they have to scrape that stuff off for the next few months.
We're guessing that Ratbridge has an interesting history, based on this sentence describing Snatcher's parade through town on Framley's back: "Ratbridge was a strange town and had seen some very strange and fearful sights during its history, but none as strange and fearful as that making its way through its streets now" (50.1). And Ratbridge is clearly placed in an alternative/fantasy reality of sorts, given the existence of creatures like boxtrolls and cabbageheads.
Thanks to author Alan Snow's mad illustration skills, we have maps of the Ratbridge town center as well as the outlying landscape. Between that and the in-text descriptions, we know that there are a number of large buildings, like the Cheese Hall, the Glue Factory, the Patent Hall, and Town Hall. Mixed in are houses and shops, like the old pet shop where Willbury now makes his home.
The market is an especially interesting and crowded part of Ratbridge. Arthur, having grown up underground with only Grandfather for company, is stunned by all the sights and smells:
He had never seen such a profusion of things. Stacks of sausages, bundles of new and secondhand clothes, strange tools and gadgets, bottles of grim-looking medicines, stacks of broken furniture, toys, clocks, pots, and pans… The list went on and on. Even when he couldn't see much about him, the smells kept flooding into his nostrils. Some were familiar, some new, some sweet, and some very, very unpleasant. (12.19)
So yeah, the market seems pretty lively.
Ratbridge also has its very own pirate ship (except they don't call it that). The Ratbridge Nautical Laundry is parked in a canal that runs "along the backs of factories" (16.1). Now that the canal isn't used as much, the ship can hang out there while its crew takes on laundry in an effort to earn an honest living. The crew includes talking rats and crows, so again, we're not quite in the real world here.
Based on the technology we see (excluding the obviously made-up resizing machine, because nothing like that is possible in our world) like coal and magnets, we're guessing Ratbridge is a British-ish town in the early-to-mid-1800s. We're curious to see what kinds of new technology the characters come up with in future books.
Underground is Where It's At
The underground bits of Ratbridge are just as interesting as the above-ground bits, if not more so. Arthur has grown up underground, so he knows a fair bit about it. For instance, he's observed boxtrolls in their natural habitat:
Boxtrolls were timid creatures and always scuttled away as soon as they noticed his presence. Arthur had heard that boxtrolls loved everything mechanical, and he'd seen their work everywhere underground—draining the passages and shoring up the tunnels and caves. (5.2)
However, knowing a little about boxtrolls and actually getting to see their habitat are totally different things. On the search for tunnels under Ratbridge to get into the Cheese Hall, Willbury, Marjorie, and their friends get to see where the boxtrolls call their home:
Everywhere there were machine tools, half-built pumps, broken bicycles, bits of wire, and pieces of metal of every shape, color, and description. The place was an Aladdin's cave of engineering scrap. (38.12)
This is the place the boxtrolls use as home base when they're not repairing the Underworld or being captured and shrunk by Snatcher.
For a taste of something even more surreal, though, check out the caves that the rabbit women live in:
Hundreds of jam jars filled with glowworms were tied to roots that hung from the ceiling, and a pale green light fell on the scene below. There were small groups of rabbit women working at looms and spinning wheels, and tending raised vegetable beds. All around them were thousands of rabbits. By each group of workers sat a rabbit woman reading aloud. (36.29)
It's like a women-only utopia of gardening and books and bunnies.
The cabbageheads also reside underground, in caves where they can cultivate vegetables. They're so shy you're unlikely to run into them, though. Another notable species found underground is the trotting badger. And since they're ferocious and dangerous, you'd be smart to try to avoid them.
As we've seen on this brief tour, the Underworld is full of fascinating and sometimes dangerous subcultures and species. Visiting would be great—but living there? No thank you. We're starting to understand why Grandfather and Arthur are happy to be able to live in the town at the end of the book.