Review: 'The Cats of Tanglewood Forest', by Charles de Lint & Charles Vess
Boston & NYC, Little, Brown & Co., March 2013 Hardcover $17.99 ([6 +] 285 [+ 7] pages)
Kindle $8.89. Illustrated by Charles Vess.
The age rating on this is “8 and up”. This is one of those “all ages” books like The Wind in the Willows that you will not want to miss just because it may be in the children’s section of your bookshop or public library. Seek it out! It is worth it.
Lillian Kindred is a little girl whose parents are dead and who lives with her Aunt on a farm at the edge of Tanglewood Forest. The book doesn’t say how old she is, so that’s probably not important. What is important is that she’s established as old enough to be allowed by other people to play in the forest alone, and young enough to look for fairies. One of the things that she sees is lots of cats wandering freely – feral cats and farm cats. She does not bother them, but she does put out dishes of fresh milk for them.
One day she falls asleep in the forest, and is bitten by a venomous snake. Vess’ illustration shows a coral snake; the worst kind. Wikipedia says that, “Coral snakes have a powerful neurotoxin that paralyzes the breathing muscles; mechanical or artificial respiration, along with large doses of antivenom, are often required to save a victim's life.” Lillian does not have any of that. She is alone at the foot of a tree, dying.
The cats can save her, but only by turning her into a kitten. They have been forbidden to work cat magic by the Father of Cats, but Lillian’s death is imminent so they go ahead. Then, scared of what they have done, they run away. Lillian wakes up as a calico kitten, which is interesting – she can talk with the other animals -- but she feels that she is meant to be a human girl and that she needs to be changed back again.
If you have read any of Little, Brown’s considerable publicity for this book, you probably expect Lillian to go through the book as a kitten, and to get turned human again in the last chapter. Nope. She is restored to her human body very soon; but due to the laws of magic, she regrets it bitterly and is willing to be turned back into a kitten if she can reverse the effect of the magic.
Her quest as a human girl and her interactions with the people of Tanglewood Forest – the talking animals like T. H. Reynolds the fox and the Father of Cats, and the half-humans like the unfriendly Bear People, Old Mother Possum the possum witch, and the Apple Tree Man – are the story.
Lillian as a kitten talks with Jack Crow:
‘Jack Crow,’ Lillian repeated. ‘I’m –‘
‘Lillian. I know.’
‘Because you know everything that happens in these hills.’
The crow preened a feather. ‘That I do. Now a word of warning, little cat girl,’ he added. ‘I know you like those hound dogs at the Welches’ farm, but you need to steer clear of them so long as you’re walking around in the skin of a cat. You see a dog sniffing around, you just go up a tree and stay there until it’s gone. Hounds and foxes and coyotes … none of them’s your friend – not any longer. There’s more than one critter living in these woods that would enjoy the morsel a little cat girl might provide.’
‘I’m not scared,’ Lillian said.
‘I can see that. But you should be. You’re in a dangerous world now.’ (p. 34)
Lillian gave the tree a dubious look. She didn’t see anything that looked like a window, never mind a door.
Old Mother Possum motioned toward the dead pine. ‘The trick,’ she said, ‘is to simply walk forward and expect there to be a door to let you in.’
‘Just do as I do.’
Lillian watched as the old woman walked forward. Just when she was about to walk smack into the tree, she vanished. (pgs. 237-238)
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is a beautiful book, with full-color illustrations by Charles Vess every few pages, ranging from quarter-page to double-page panoramas. All of the fantasy characters, from the realistic talking animals to the gnarly Apple Tree Man, are fully depicted.
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is an expansion of de Lint & Vess’ 2003 picture book, A Circle of Cats (Viking, 48 pages). Now older readers – like you – can enjoy the story; which is basically not about a little girl who is turned into a cat. It is that there is magic everywhere in the world. You just have to decide to see it.