Friday, January 9, 2009

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

There were some things I liked very much in The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, and some things that I was very dubious about.

I liked the descriptions of the cat, Good Fortune, as well as all of the deftly portrayed animals that the unnamed Japanese artist thought about for his painting of the Buddha's death scene. Coatsworth uses simple yet poetic words in her short story (is this the shortest of the Newbery winners? I think it must be, except perhaps for one of the poetry collections - it's only 74 pages!):
So the old woman put down the basket and opened the lid. Nothing happened for a moment. Then a round, pretty, white head came slowly above the bamboo, and two big yellow eyes looked about the room, and a little white paw appeared on the rim. Suddenly, without moving the basket at all, a little cat jumped out on the mats, and stood there as a person might stand who scarcely knew if she were welcome. Now that the cat was out of the basket, the artist saw she had yellow and black spots on her sides, a little tail like a rabbit's, and that she did everything daintily (p. 10).

She is like new snow dotted with gold pieces and lacquer; she is like a white flower on which butterflies of two kinds have alighted...(p. 11).
I did wonder why the cat had such a short tail. Was this some genetic thing, like a Manx cat, or was it cropped or lost in an accident? Frustratingly, my library book had a sticker over the rear end of the cat shown on the cover, but it did appear that the pencil illustrations by Lynd Ward and Jael inside this 1990 edition showed a short-tailed cat. When I went to look at what I think was the original cover art, this is what I saw:

Every single copy of this cover image that I can find on the internet has the Newbery medal stuck on the cat's tail! Is it a tiny nub or what? I think if the cat had a normal tail it would extend out beyond the medal.

Now for the things I didn't like about this quiet little story that a lot of people find so charming and inspirational.

I really wondered about its authenticity (ooh, big literary word alert), and question how much of Coatsworth's portrayal of Japanese culture and Buddhism is accurate. I did some Googling and didn't turn up a legend about cats spurning the Buddha's blessing on the first couple pages of hits. Does anyone know if Coatsworth made this story up out of whole cloth, or is it really a Japanese legend? The fact that schools and homeschoolers alike use this book to fulfill a reading or social studies requirement on world cultures and/or religions makes this question rather important, I think.

In a similar vein, the Newbery Book Discussion Group at the Allen County Public Library ranked The Cat Who Went to Heaven 81st out of 87 winners, noting that it was:
Blessedly short. Some of us were bothered by seeming cultural insensitivity in the title, since the book is a story about an artist and the Buddha...So, shouldn't it be "The Cat Who Went to Nirvana"?
Finally, I absolutely hated the book's ending. I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it, but if you want to read about the part that bothered me, highlight the following paragraph.

The cat dies because she's so happy? WTF? What kind of ending is that for a children's story? I don't demand "and they lived happily ever after" for all kid's books, but isn't it a little disturbing to suggest that "pure joy" will kill you?

Anyway, it was a mostly enjoyable story, but not one I'll probably ever re-read or recommend to anyone but hard-core cat lovers, who might enjoy the gentle creature that Coatsworth portrays as colorfully as the artist in the story.


Wendy said...

Sandy, I think it really is based on an actual folktale or religious story; I'll try and find a source. There are still issues of cultural appropriation, of course, that we're much more conscious of now than they would have been back in the thirties, but I thought this read pretty authoritatively and sensitively.

As for the "nirvana" issue--perhaps "heaven" isn't exactly the right word, but for me it really works; using the familiar word "heaven" helps child readers fit the story more into their frames of reference, and the book doesn't specifically talk about the Christian heaven.

I was fine with the ending, but I can see how it might be disturbing to some. I think most kids would take it in stride, kind of like Charlotte's death in Charlotte's Web--it upsets a few, but for most, it seems natural.

All in all, for me it was a nicely written and evocative book.

Sandy D. said...

The ending just shocked me, I guess. I actually yelped out loud when I read that part. I *so* didn't expect it (unlike in "Charlotte's Web").

Cathy said...

The short-tail thing is accurate -- there's a Japanese breed called the Japanese Bob-Tail, and I guess they are the most common cat in Japan? Or at least very common. If they have a three-colored coat, they are considered very good luck!

I own a stub-tailed cat myself, so when we adopted her we did some research to try to figure out how she got that way. In the process I picked up a lot of arcane knowledge about short-tailed and no-tailed cat breeds. ;-)