Friday, January 27, 2017

1931 - The Cat Who Went to Heaven

Have you ever heard of this one? I had not! Not until the other day, as I was browsing among the kid's books at Goodwill and saw it. There it was, the gold Newbery seal in the corner. The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, is a slim little novel, only 54 pages in this edition. At the start of each chapter there is a small woodcut-looking picture of the cat, and between chapters there is a small poem, the old housekeeper's reflections and observations on the events unfolding.

This is an oriental story, specifically Japanese. It is supposedly based on a Buddhist folk tale, from what I can glean on the internet.

The painter is poor, so poor that he and his old housekeeper are practically starving. He hasn't sold any paintings in so long, there is hardly any money left. The wise housekeeper understands that they are lonely, and buys a cat with some of their last coins. At first the artist is furious. After all, cats are evil!
"'A cat? A cat?' he cried. 'Have you gone mad? Here we are starving and you must bring home a goblin, a goblin to share the little we have, and perhaps to suck our blood at night! Yes! it will be fine to wake up in the dark and feel teeth at our throats and look into eyes as big as lanterns! but perhaps you are right! Perhaps we are so miserable it would be a good thing to have us die at once, and be carried over the ridgepoles in the jaws of a devil!'"

But the cat's meek, polite and well-mannered ways gradually win over the man. Especially when he notices the cat "praying to The Enlightened One," he becomes quite fond of her.

One day the priest brings news that a painting of the Death of Buddha is needed for the temple, and the omens have chosen this artist to provide it. The commission comes with an initial purse of money, to ease his mind while he works.

The artist spends 3 days meditating on Buddha's life, so that he can best represent his death. He paints in all the animals that have a significance in Buddha's life and his past lives. As the painting nears completion, he becomes more and more saddened as his fondness for the cat grows. For everyone knows that a cat has no place in heaven or with Buddha, since the cat was too proud and rebellious to receive his blessing. What should he do? Turn in his commissioned work like he knows they would all want it to be? Or to follow his conscience and paint in this cat, who obviously honors Buddha and wishes to be included?

You'll have to see what happens. I wish I could say what happens. But it should be discovered on one's own reading. Not your typical western children's story finale.

I did enjoy reading it, though it did read equally balanced between a folk tale and religious tract. It was interesting to imagine it told in a western Christian version.

I got this from Goodwill for $1.99.

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