The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles De Lint. Illustrated by Charles Vess.
I was slightly hesitant when checking out this book, as animal fantasy has never really been my thing. However – Charles De Lint and Charles Vess! De Lint of course is a fantasy great (my first introduction to him was his Jack of Kinrowan duology, part of Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale series, but.) Vess may be less familiar to my readers, but he is a graphic novel artist great and has illustrated such things as Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. (His style is somewhat similar to one of my favorite picture-book artists Trina Schart Hyman.) Put the two of them together and you can’t help but get a magical book. It’s not a graphic novel – much like Stardust, it’s told in prose with frequent watercolor paintings, large and small, but all beautiful.
Our story is set in an indeterminate time near a rural mountain town, with a nearby Native American tribe. Orphaned Lillian lives with her Aunt on a small farm, mostly on their own but with some dealings both with the town and the tribe. Lillian really wants to see fairies, and after her farm work is done, she goes out into the nearby forest, leaving small gifts of food for the fairies and for the oldest apple tree in the orchard, even though all she sees are ordinary birds and animals, and large numbers of wild cats. One day, she falls asleep in the forest after chasing a deer. Still sleeping, she is bitten by a poisonous snake. The wild cats feel sorry for her – they having drunk most of the milk left out for the fairies – and decide to brave the wrath of the ancient cat father to save her life. Except that the only way they can do so is by turning her into a cat. And the only problem with that is that poor heartbroken Aunt doesn’t recognize Lillian in her cat form. However, Lillian’s journey to set things right again isn’t the straightforward quest that it first seems to be. Simply turning human again is easily accomplished, but only makes the situation worse and requires her to try again, and then again. On the way, she meets several characters who try to help her, including some brothers from the neighboring tribe and T.H. Reynolds the fox. There are wise old women of multiple traditions – some more sympathetic and helpful than others – including Old Mother Possum, Aunt Nancy of the Crow tribe and Mother Manan of the Bear people. These last two helped to navigate the treacherous waters of Wise and Innocent Native Persons, by being decidedly not innocent rivals engaged in an ancient feud. That being said, I was still not entirely comfortable that the waters had been entirely successfully navigated.
It’s pretty obvious from the premise that the book deals with death – but there is not a lot of violence otherwise, and nothing in the way of romance. Its easiest target audience is the middle grade cat-loving girl. However, it is less full of cats than the cover and title would indicate – Lillian spends most of her journeys traveling in human form and the fox character is more clearly drawn than the cats. I think there’s enough suspense to keep boys interested as well. My own boy, almost of target age, was certainly interested, and kept peering around to see the pictures as I was reading. It feels like it would make a perfect read-aloud book for him, and I plan to suggest it when we’re done with our current book. It looks like a companion novel, Seven Wild Sisters, where Lillian is the older aunt, is set for publication next winter, and I’ll keep an eye out for this as well.
I think that Charlotte liked it somewhat less well than I did; you can read her well-written opinion over at Charlotte’s Library.