Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The House Of Thirty Cats
Mary Calhoun, il. Mary Chalmers
1965, Harper & Row

Sarah Rutledge is lonely since her only friend moved away, so her mother says she can have a kitten. In the small town where she lives, this means visiting Miss Tabitha Henshaw's little cottage at the edge of town, but Sarah is reluctant to risk breaking the enchantment she instinctively feels hangs around what she privately calls The House of Thirty Cats. What if it turns out to just be another ordinary house? But Sarah wants a kitten, so she shyly starts for the house. But just as she reaches the gate, a prowling black cat attacks another cat without provocation, and as Sarah tries to force the invader off his victim, Miss Tabitha intervenes, mistaking Sarah for the aggressor.

Miss Tabitha realizes her mistake, but although she welcomes the little girl, she also welcomes the black cat, soon dubbed Tarnish. Sarah senses that Tarnish is not the sad wayfarer Miss Tabitha claims, but an evil cat. And Tarnish is soon leading the other cats in midnight forays around town, causing trouble that culminates in a decree that Miss Tabitha must get rid of all but a few of her cats. Which is when shy, dreamy Sarah comes reluctantly out of her introspective world to study her neighbors, searching to fit cats to people. At the same time, she tries to keep Tarnish from hurting her kitten, Lilybug, whose sweetness seems to attract the maurader.

While Miss Tabitha toes the party line on redemption and second chances, it's ultimately Sarah's instant, instinctive judgement of Tarnish that carries the day. Which is so unusual in children's books that it's like a lightning bolt. At the end, she wonders if Tarnish was drawn despite himself to the goodness of the other cats, but her final comment on the cat is Tarnish's possibilities were ended. And though it contains some sadness, it also contains the relief and rightness that Tarnish's evil possibilities are ended.

But apart from this, the book contains various magical scenes, among them the feline birthday party for Horace. And while most of the book is from Sarah's point of view, there is one passage that briefly shows a cat's-eye view of the proceedings in a style that evokes pure cat:

Mine, thought Horace. All for me. Horace sat up proudly in the grass and surveyed his party with satisfaction. Of course all this excitement was just for him. The nose-tickly smells of hot fish and sweet cookies, the woman making a fuss over him, cats dashing around like sillies. All because Horace was wonderful. Of course.

Other Books by the Author
Katie John
Honestly, Katie John!
Depend On Katie John
Katie John And Heathcliff
Magic In The Alley
White Witch Of Kynance
The Horse Comes First

Easy Reader
Cross Country Cat
Henry The Sailor Cat
Henry The Christmas Cat
High-Wire Henry
Blue Ribbon Henry
Audubon Cat
Wobble The Witch Cat
Tonio's Cat

About the Illustrator
Mary Chalmers was born March 16, 1927 in Camden, N.J. She studied at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now the College of Art and Design within the University of the Arts) and the Barnes Foundation. A cat owner (obviously) who lived in Maryland. The illustrations in the original book were wonderful. Other books illustrated by Mary Chalmers include my beloved The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom, and many popular beginner books including Three To Get Ready by Betty Boeghehold and The Happy Birthday Present by Joan Heilbroner.

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