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the cat who went to heaven
20 march 2019
The Cat Who Went to Heaven is one weird book, especially when you see it for the first time in a 21st-century paperback with contemporary illustrations (as in the current edition done by Raoul Vitale). Elizabeth Coatsworth's early-1930s Newbery Medal winner doesn't have the themes or focus of a 21st-century children's book (why would it), but here is it perpetually in print, and continually bought by libraries, and one assumes read and reported on by schoolchildren.
For one thing, there isn't a child in sight, which is scarcely ever the case with a present-day children's book. For another, the text, though strongly about a non-Anglo culture, is rather obliquely written and doesn't do a lot of direct exposition. For yet another, The Cat Who Went to Heaven takes social-class certainties for granted in ways we wouldn't nowadays: a servant/master relationship is at its heart, and that relationship is celebrated rather than being problematized. It's also overtly about religion in a way that (even though it's a non-Western religion) you might not see nowadays. It does have a cat, though. But the cat dies! Of course, how else would it get to heaven.
An unnamed artist is doing the starving-artist thing "once upon a time" in Japan (1). His needs are seen after, within the limits of his nonexistent budget, by a faithful housekeeper. One day, instead of food, she brings home a cat. The cat is such a mensch that the artist gets over his initial exasperation. This is the kind of cat who will go hungry while you eat what little food is in the house. Unlike any cat of my acquaintance, but that's sort of the point.
Before long, the artist has a commission to paint a picture of the dying Buddha for the local temple. (That's another plot turn you might not see in a 21st-century children's book.) To get into the spirit of things, our hero enters trance after trance, imagining himself not just as the Buddha but as all the animals that the Buddha came into contact with. Emerging from the trance, he is able to paint them, in a hyper-realistic style much approved of by his cat.
But there's one animal he doesn't paint. A cat! Apparently the Buddha hated cats. I can't say this endears the Buddha much to me, but wait for the end of the story. As the due date for delivering the painting nears, the artist considers his #1 fan and thinks it a crying shame that there can be no cat in the picture. So he paints in a cat. Whereupon his cat drops dead out of sheer gratitude.
The priests of the temple vow to burn the painting, because it has that darn cat in the middle of it. The artist feels he's thrown away money and fame just to please a dead cat, and he is feeling rather sorry for himself. But then the Buddha himself relents, and allows future cats into Heaven.
That sounds like a nice enough fable, but at 88 (small, large font, copiously illustrated) pages, it's too long for its own good and at times becomes fiercely tedious. A curiosity to show, though, and I'm glad I took a look at it.
Coatsworth, Elizabeth. The Cat Who Went to Heaven. 1930. Illustrated by Raoul Vitale. New York: Aladdin [Simon & Schuster], 2008. PZ 7 .C6294Cau