Friday, March 28, 2008

Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander (Book 13/50)

Lloyd Alexander's Time Cat is a (mostly) delightful little book chronicling the nine adventures of a young boy and his cat through different times and places. Jason, the boy, learns from Gareth, the cat, that cats do not have nine lives as is popularly believed. Even more fantastically, they they have the ability to travel to nine different times and places. Upon revealing his secret, Gareth takes his person with him to visit Old Kingdom Egypt, Caesar's Rome, the Ireland of Saint Patrick's day, Heian period Japan, Renaissance Italy, Peru beset by Spanish conquistadors, the Isle of Man at the time of the Spanish Armada, Germany during the witch hunts, and revolutionary America. The episodes are only loosely connected by occasional references. Each one has didactic value - a little insight into the character of cats as well as of humans.

I don't mean to dismiss the book by stating that the episodes weren't historically accurate or believable. In many respects they aren't. The chapters on Ireland, for example, portrayed the island as benighted and superstitious until Saint Patrick came to drive out the "snakes". Perhaps a biased interpretation...

To be honest, I don't think I would have liked the book if I had read it when I was younger. There is no sustained plot - it is episodic, and it makes little sense that Gareth and Jason should have all of their nine adventures at once, rather than taking them gradually over the course of years. Jason is a normal little boy - there is nothing special or noteworthy about him, apart from the fact that he understands cats fairly well. The historical inaccuracies are somewhat annoying - when I was younger, I was much less forgiving of perceived slights to different cultures or people. I'm not any more forgiving now, but I try to consider them within the larger context of the book. Time Cat was published in 1963, after all, and it merely reflects the popular biases of the time. And the book is no worse for the lack of an overarching plot - it just makes better bedtime reading this way. (Unless one decides to finish the book in a single night, as I did.)

Time Cat sat untouched (by me) on the shelf for years... more than a decade. I usually devour cat-themed books very quickly, but perhaps the cover just didn't draw me. I think the boy's expression annoyed me. I remember looking at the book, but always passing it over for something else. If it had been published in one of the new covers, no doubt I would have read it when I was ten or so.

As my ramblings may indicate, I feel generally ambivalent about this book. I like it out of loyalty to Lloyd Alexander, a cat lover, and because it conveys insight into felinity.

I loved the way Alexander described the Time Cat:
Gareth was a black cat with orange eyes. Sometimes, when he hunched his shoulders and put down his ears, he looked like an owl. When he stretched, he looked like a trickle of oil or a pair of black silk pajamas. When he sat on a window ledge, his eyes half-shut and his tail curled around him, he looked like a secret.
It contains undeniable wisdom, such as, "A cat can belong to you, but you can't own him". Or, "any bed is soft to a cat" - an axiom even the pampered Prince Tantra proves almost daily. "You can say some of the loveliest things in the world - without words." And finally, something to remember when you feel overwhelmed by everything that needs to get done: "The only thing to worry about is what's happening right now. As we tell the kittens, you can only wash one paw at a time."

No comments: