Some books I enjoy from an intellectual perspective. I can see the skill involved in the storytelling, and appreciate it. Other books I just sink into, too caught up in the tale to deconstruct why it is so good. The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (an expansion of an earlier children’s book, A Circle of Cats, which I adored) is the second type of book. I devoured this in a single day, and will definitely be reading it again to figure out why it works so well from a technical perspective. Let me give you here my first impressions.
The first thing you will notice about this book is that it is gorgeous. A full color slip cover with Charles Vess’s inimitable illustrations can be removed to see that the hardcover itself is gorgeously illustrated. The endpapers are illustrated as well, and the entire book is graced with enchanting, full-color, beautiful pen and ink drawings that evoke the rural Appalachian setting and Depression-era time period with mastery. The paper is thick and heavy and delightful to the touch. This is a book that delights almost all of the senses (I did not actually lick it) before you even get to the words.
And then you start reading and are swept away into a new folktale that feels as ancient as the world. Lillian is a young woman, probably eleven or twelve, who lives with her aunt on a farm deep in the piney-spruce forest. Prone to wandering the hills and forests behind her house, she is bitten by a snake on one of her journeys and dies. Almost. The wild cats see her dying and decide to intervene because she always leaves a saucer of milk out for them when she milks the cow. They turn her into a kitten. And this is where the story really gets interesting.
Like many of the old country folk tales, this one is rife with messages. Be careful what you wish for. Be nice to strangers. Actions have consequences. People can’t always be trusted. Be honest. But like in the old morality tales, these aren’t hammered over the readers’ heads, instead woven in with a dash of humor and wisdom. What you really have is an enchanting tale of a young woman trying to do right by who she is, and by the people she loves. It’s a coming of age story that makes Lillian realize that other people are affected by her decisions, often in ways she can’t foresee, and that if she wants to be a good person, she has to take responsibility for her actions.
The gorgeously realized setting, brought to life in both art and prose, is a major character in this story. The creeks, forests, and glens of the piney-spruce are omnipresent, and provide guidance, both literal and figurative. The setting is fleshed out by bear people, The Father of Cats, an Apple Tree Man, and other enchanted and enchanting figures. The freedom with which this young girl runs wild through the wilderness makes the setting seem almost foreign to anyone who is raising children today, which adds another layer of the fantastical to this beautiful story.
While intended for middle-grade audiences, this is a book that will be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys folktales. While Charles de Lint is often credited as one of the pioneers of urban fantasy, I find his rural fantasy stories to be equally, if not more original than those in an urban setting. People have called him an author of mythic fiction as well, in an attempt to distinguish his brand of injecting the folktales of the First Nations and Native Americans into modern settings from the kickbutt female heroine and her vampire lover brand of urban fantasy that seems to crowd the shelves. Whatever you want to call what he is doing, it is beautiful and heartwarming and deserves to be treasured. This book is going on my shortlist for best book of 2013 and I would recommend it to all readers, especially those who have children. This is worth buying in hardback, which is probably the ultimate compliment.