The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, written by Charles de Lint, and illustrated by Charles Vess (Little Brown, March, 2013), was not quite what I expected. I knew that it told the story of a girl who was bitten by a snake out in the woods, and saved from death when a community of cats turned her into a kitten. And so I thought that she would be a kitten for most of the book, learning kitten-ways and such, until she was transformed back at the end (like Jennie, by Paul Gallico, only in the woods).
Turns out the girl, Lillian, has a much more tangled path to follow--a fairy-tale journey, full of talking animal people, obstacles, forks in the road, and more than a bit of the "be careful what you wish for" motif. And for most of the story, she journeys in human form.
Lillian lives with her aunt on the edge of Tanglewood forest, a place she knows is full of magic, though she's never seen any in all of her exploring. One day her path takes her to the very heart of the old woods, and there, sleeping in the shade of an ancient tree, she is fatally poisoned by a snake bite. But the wild cats of the forest save her, transforming her from dying girl to living kitten; the spell, though, is something they can't undo. Though Lillian is not unappreciative, she wants to be a girl again, and so, guided by first a crow and then a fox, she makes her way to the home of Old Mother Possum, a bottle-witch who's part human, part possum. And Old Mother Possum's magic lets her follow a different path, one in which the snake doesn't bite her.
Much to Lillian's horror, when she goes back home in girl form, she finds that in this reality, it is her aunt who has been killed by a snake. Now she has another tangle to undo, one that will take her to the wise-woman of the Creek Indians who live near by, and then on to the incredible, and dark, world of the bear people, and on...
From one magical encounter to the next, Lillian travels in search of an answer, and at last she returns to the heart of Tanglewood Forest, where all is resolved.
It's very folk-lore-ish fantasy, with bits of magic and story taken from the desperate cultures (African, Native American, and European) that have converged in this forest. The story is given some coherence by Lillian's determined quest, but is primarily episodic, in good fairy-tale like fashion. The illustrations add to the dream-like feel of events, conveying the magic of the forest and its peoples rather nicely.
In short, I think this is a fine book to share as a read aloud with a child--some bits are scary, and darkly magical, so the younger reader might welcome the comforting presence of a grown-up. American fantasy, exploring the convergence of different, is thin on the ground, so this is a welcome book in that regard.
Though I found it memorable, and interesting, and powerful in places, it wasn't quite one that worked for me. I tend not to like episodic stories, and though it is good to have a variety of cultures represented, the jumps from bottle magic and mojo to stories of the Creek Indians were a tad abrupt, and I never felt quite grounded in the story. This feeling was compounded by the fact that the story isn't set firmly in time (a feeling that came more from the illustrations than the story).
Lillian's dress, sleeveless and short (shown on the cover), looks modern (except that if it were really modern, wouldn't she be exploring the woods in jeans, and there's a reference to the Creek Indian "rez," which makes me think its contemporary. The two Creek boys who help Lilian on her way could be contemporary kids, shown wearing denim overalls, but other members of the tribe are shown wearing traditional regalia. There's one illustration that I found particularly jarring, in which members of the Creek community are shown looking like they're back in the 18th-century (reminding me unpleasantly of stereotypes of the timeless,
romanticized Indian). And yes, it is a fairy-tale sort of story, so firm time and place aren't necessary, but I would have preferred not having to be bothered wondering about it.....
That being said, most readers seem to have loved this one considerably more than I did--it got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, for instance.
One last postscript about expectations--I kept waiting for the cats to get more page time than they did (which wasn't all that much), so be a tad wary of buying this for a kid simply because they love cats. It's not at all like the Warriors books, for instance. However, if you buy books simply because they have excellent fantasy foxes, this is one for you!
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher