The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint
From its charming dustcover to the muted two-page illustration at the end, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is a beautiful book that I would love to read with, or to, a child. Charles de Lint and artist Charles Vess form a perfect collaboration here, with a wonderful, magical story for middle readers.
This novel is an expansion of de Lint’s novella, The Circle of Cats. De Lint uses as inspiration many of the Appalachian folk-tales, most prominently the strange old story about the King of the Cats, but stays close to his own roots, yarning about the old magic and new magic that imbues the American continent. Lillian is a little girl, an orphan, who lives with her aunt on a farm at the edge of the Tanglewood. Lillian plays in the woods; she scatters scratch for the wild birds after she’s fed the chickens, leaves saucers of milk for the feral cats and puts out a biscuit at the base of the gnarled old apple tree, for the “apple tree man.” The wild cats in the woods like her for this, and when Lillian is fatally bitten by a snake, they decide to save her, using magic. The Father of Cats has warned them about using magic, but they do it anyway, saving Lillian by transforming her into a kitten.
After the initial shock, Lillian finds that it’s not so bad being a kitten, but when she returns home, Aunt doesn’t recognize her. Aunt’s increasing desperation as she searches for Lillian makes Lillian worry, so she sets out to find a way to undo the spell. This quest introduces her to forest creatures, folk creatures and magic, and she discovers the law of unintended consequences. Lillian has to figure out who she can trust; the fox who tells her his name is “Handsome and Truthful?” Mother Possum, the witch? Aunt Nancy, the shaman of the Creek tribe, or Mother Manan of the Bear People? She must also decide not only to do the right thing, but just what is the right thing in her situation.
De Lint writes beautifully using the simple language of folk ballads and fireside tales, and that simplicity is one strength of The Cats of Tanglewood Forest. When resourceful, clever Lillian talks to a crow about her options, we are reminded that, human or feline, she is still a child.
“… Old Mother Possum’s got herself a den down there, under a big dead pine. You can’t miss that tree.”
“Is — is she nice?” Lillian wanted to know.
The crow laughed. “She’s a possum that’s part witch — what do you think?”
Lillian didn’t know what to think, except she wished that mean snake hadn’t bitten her in the first place.”
Vess’s artwork is a seamless complement to the story and the folksy tone. His work is uncluttered, simple-looking at first glance. Then you realize how much he is doing with abstract designs in the reflections of water and the clouds in the sky. A simple illustration on page 222 shows what he can do with line and shadow. Lillian is climbing a tree, and the extension of her leg mirrors the sweep of Handsome and Truthful’s tail, while the stippling on the tree branch brings it out from the vague, shadowy background, and re-creates the dappling of sunlight through foliage. The reddish border repeats Handsome and Truthful’s color, Lillian’s hair and a small pouch she carries; just enough red to accent. If the book has a color scheme, it’s green, and the sheer green-ness alone of the book was a treat. On page 69, the drawing of Mother Possum is another treat, plausibly bringing in an Asian influence. Vess’s artwork is available for purchase.
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is clearly a children’s book, but consequences aren’t sugar-coated, and real choices have to be made. De Lint maintains the folk-tale tone of the book. The cover, with its embossed copper-metallic title is just one more tiny joy (and a good argument for reading this in hardcover rather than on an e-reader). Adults will enjoy reading it themselves, but I think reading to someone would be even better. The book opens the door to discussions about folk tales like Johnny Appleseed and the King of the Cats. A bonus for grownups or children is the artists’ notes at the back, where Vess talks about events that inspired the book. I’m a hard grader, but The Cats of Tanglewood Forest gets five stars from me.
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.