But anyway. Today's book is: Time Cat, by Lloyd Alexander (Henry Holt, 1963), Alexander's first book for children. It is not gloomy. It tells of Jason, a boy, and Gareth, a cat, and how Gareth uses his catly magic to take them both back in time.
"Lucky Gareth," Jason sighed, lying back and closing his eyes. "I wish I had nine lives."Gareth might not have nine lives, but he does have something else. He can visit nine different lives, in nine different times and places. And he can take Jason with him.
The cat stopped purring. "I wish I did, too." he said.
Jason started up in surprise. Not because Gareth had spoken. Jason had always been sure he could if he wanted to. It was what Gareth had said." (pages 4-5)
Boy and cat travel around the globe, starting with ancient Egypt and ending in Revolutionary War Massachusetts, and everywhere they go, a little vignette of interesting encounter/adventure awaits. They meet Leonardo da Vinci, become friends with the young Japanese Emperor, are taken hostage by the Incas, and are found guilty of witchcraft in 17th-century Germany. And more.
Their travels through the past are particularly fascinating to Jason, Gareth, and the cat-loving reader because of the great variety in people's attitudes toward cats--there's veneration, appreciation of their utility, affection, and fear. Without being too overtly didactic, Alexander gets some decent non-cat history and cultural anthropology into the story too....and (being Alexander) he underlines the moral point:
"I learned a lot about cats...and different places," Jason said.Not exactly subtle, but I think it does encapsulate one reason why books mean so very much to the avid young reader. Alexander went on to write the Chronicles of Prydain just after finishing this book, and the theme of "finding out what you have to know to be a grown-up" is central to those books. I was just the right age when I read them, and I know that the messages he put in those books hit home for me...Of course, Lloyd Alexander went on to write the same story over and over again, and this theme of growing up began to grow old, and not other book of his ever became dear to me. Oh well. Back to Time Cat.
"That was only part of it," said Gareth. "If you think back, everybody we met had something to tell you--about themselves, and about yourself. It's a way of finding out a part of what you have to know to be a grown-up." (page 205).
In Time Cat the "lessons" are much less overt, and much less powerful. It can be enjoyed as just a fun and colorful romp through time, a book to give to the fan of the Magic Tree House books, for instance, when those are outgrown. I plan to try it on my own boys, and I bet they'll like it.
But its episodic nature, which allots only a fleeting bit of time for each character interaction, makes the book feel a lot like a series of postcards. It doesn't quite have enough to hold the attention of an older reader looking for the numinous, the truly engrossing, the beautiful enchantments of a true classic. Bottom line--it's not going to go to the nursing home with me and my best beloved books, but it's a perfectly fine young middle grade story. Especially, most emphatically, a good one for the young cat lover.
Here's another review at Under the Covers.