Friday, April 22, 2011

The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth

It looks like children's books really started to improve in the 1930's. This is the second one I've read that has been reprinted recently enough that kids are still reading it. The edition I read was published in 1990, and I've included an image of that cover as well as an image of what I assume was the original cover just for historical interest.

What gives Cat such great appeal is that it's set in an undefined time, and told much like a fairy tale. I'm glad I didn't spend too much time reading the back cover before starting because it gives away entirely too much, and is yet vague and confusing. I'll admit that it also made me laugh out loud with its mention of "a special Buddhist miracle"- it just put me in mind of Christmas family programs where there's some special "Christmas miracle" we can come to expect. However, in this case, the Buddhist Miracle is a miracle that has actual significance in a religious sense, whereas Christmas miracles are usually some one getting a really great present they were certain Mom and Dad couldn't afford this year, or not dying because of the sheer magic of the snowy season and the tremendous power of love. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

Interestingly enough, none of the human characters in this story have names (well, Buddha and his wife excepted). The artist is poor and hungry, with threadbare clothes and a tired, empty home in Japan. But he loves his work. With him lives the housekeeper. One day she returns from the market, but instead of buying a small meal with the meager sum she had for the task, she purchased a cat to be company for their household. The artist is initially upset; he is very hungry, a cat is another mouth that he can't afford to feed, and cats are related to demons. However, upon seeing the cat, who is pure white with a black and a yellow spot on his side, he decides that she can stay. They name the cat Good Fortune, since three-colored cats are supposed to be lucky.

Within days, the artist receives a visit from a local temple priest, which is a rare and significant occasion. The artist is told that the temple wishes to commission a painting of the death of Buddha. The names of various local artists were written on slips of paper and left before the statue overnight, and the artist's slip was the only one that hadn't blown away by morning, so this was taken as Buddha's endorsement. The artist is given a significant advance and a significant responsibility- should his work be deemed good, he will be come famous and his style emulated and passed on beyond his death. Should he fail, his work will be burned and his reputation disgraced.

In order to properly set the tone, he spends three days meditating on the various parts of Buddha's life. Once he has imagined himself in all of these places, the artist feels prepared to paint Buddha. The most challenging part after this is to paint all of the animals who had come to pay their respects. He recalls the tales of Buddha's other lives in animal form and uses these as his inspiration to give them character when he applies brush to silk. Each day Good Fortune admires his work. She is always reverent and courteous and never distracts, but she seems to be hinting that she would like to be included.

Herein lies the struggle for the artist. It is well known in legend that the cat, because of her pride and independence, was the only animal not to pay respects at Buddha's death, and therefore the gates of Paradise are forever closed to her. The artist's conscience is torn in two ways- does he show mercy to his loving companion, or does he show respect and endeavor to please his sponsor?

I won't give away the "special Buddhist miracle" here but rest assured that all are satisfied at the end!

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