Learning the profound arts of purring, mousing, and, above all, washing.
I was sent scurrying to a re-read of this following a chance post by a fellow blogger about fictional books with a cat-focus Interesting Literature. Particularly as another post by a different blogger, about a book by Beverley Nichols Kaggsy’sBookish Ramblings had sent me to my bookshelves in remembrance of a book from childhood by Nichols, about his cats. Beverley Nichols’ Cats’ A. B. C.
I first read Paul Gallico’s delightful (and sobbingly heart-aching) book about a little boy who finds himself changed into a cat, when I was probably at target age 8-11, I think. And I have occasionally read it again, and it’s similarly cats-eye view orientated successor, Thomasina.
Although the protagonist is a little boy, this is by no means childishly written, nor does it just offer whimsicality about cats. I’m afraid, despite of course knowing the story well, that I sobbed in all the places I had ever sobbed before – perhaps partly because of memories of the first sobbing, aged somewhere around 9 or 10, but also, because some quite deep themes are being explored – particularly loss, friendship, betrayal of trust, death.
Hers was the call of the loneliness of the rejected, the outcast of the granite heart of the unheeding city
Peter Brown is a lonely rather privileged little boy – he has a Nanny and two successful, socialite parents who are too busy to give him much love and affection. Above everything, he wants a cat, but as Nanny doesn’t like them and his parents are too occupied with their own concerns to risk upsetting Nanny, Peter’s dearest wish is denied. Seeing a little kitten across a busy main road, Peter follows his tender instincts and runs, without doing his Green Cross, across the road. And is knocked down. Unexpectedly he finds he has become a white cat (I know, I know, but stick with it, this is far from merely twee fantasy)
Gallico, a life long animal, and particularly cat-animal lover, absolutely takes the reader inside cat-dom. Peter retains human consciousness, and has no idea how to circumnavigate his new world. Starving, chased away, stepped on by unaware people because he lacks the cat sense to get out of the way, Peter is almost killed by a ferocious territorial feral top cat. Fortunately, he gets rescued by the eponymous Jennie, a sweet-faced, sweet-natured, intelligent and rather plain fellow stray cat. Jennie is a cat who now hates people, following her abandonment by the loving family who were everything to her. She begins to teach the little boy trapped inside a cat’s body how to be a cat. And the reader too! Peter must learn the intricacies of being able to wash himself, the difference between the game of catching your breakfast mouse and killing a deadly rat, cat courtesy, the rules of cat conflict, how to open dustbins – and much more.
Although Peter comes to think as cat, he also retains his little boy ability to understand human language, and, rather importantly, to read. He has many exciting adventures with Jennie – including travelling, as the two stowaway and work passage on a Glasgow steamer. They have several instances of narrow escapes from various dangers which might befall a cat, and, as in all good books, grow, develop and change through their relationship with each other and external events.
Peter and Jennie learn from each other and teach each other how to be more – soulful, whatever the shape of the body that encloses them.
Gallico leavens sadness with much fun and good humour, and all his characters, feline and human are quirky, recognisable and sharply delineated
This is a gorgeous book for a tender-hearted child, and a tender-hearted adult too. And with even more appeal if some of your tenderness is cat shaped
Happily now re-issued as a Modern Classic, it was originally published in 1950