Ursula K Le Guin, Illustrated S D Schindler, Catwings (Orchard Books 1988)
–––––, Catwings Return (Orchard Books 1989)
Yesterday, Ruby decided that she’d had enough of the pile of books in our living room, and raided the child-height shelf in the second bedroom. She pulled out a boxed set of Roald Dahl, but before she could get too committed to it I reached for the Catwings books. I thought they’d be ‘too old’ for a three-and-a-half-year-old, but I was delighted to be found wrong.
Mrs Jane Tabby was surprised when she gave birth to four kittens with wings, but she didn’t feel the need to find an explanation. Having dismissed the issue of ‘How come?’, the book moves on to the much more interesting question of ‘What then?’
The kittens were born under a dumpster (which I read as ‘skip’ to Ruby) in an alley, and their mother rightly fears for their safety. In addition to the dangers faced by ordinary kittens, they run the extra risk of being abducted by curious or exploitative humans and subjected to at best humiliation and at worst vivisection, though the book tactfully avoids being explicit about the latter. So their mother sends the kittens off into the world by themselves to find a safe place. After a number of adventures, involving injuries and close shaves, and hostility, especially from birds who don’t want cats invading their airspace, they are eventually coaxed into contact with two human children. The last two lines, which I won’t quote here, echoing Leontes’ wonderful line in The Winter’s Tale, ‘O, she’s warm,’ and have almost the same emotional force.
Catwings Return takes up the story just a little later. Two of the kittens – Harriet and James – decide to go back to the city to visit their mother, and there, in a row of buildings that are being demolished, they discover a tiny black kitten, who also has wings but is too young to fly. Alone, filthy, starving and terrified, it can say only two words, a desolate ‘Me’ and a spitting ‘Hate!’ Of course, the older kittens befriend the little one and all three are reunited with their mother before rejoining their siblings. But there is genius in the scenes where Harriet and James calmly, purringly surround the terrified defensive little one with love and reassurance.
The Emerging Artist and I read one book each – no mean feat for the EA, given that she had cataract surgery two days earlier. Occasionally Ruby would want to turn the page before the EA or I had finished reading it, but she never insisted when we said she needed to wait. S D Schindler’s brilliant illustrations held her attention, especially by setting the mostly impossible task of figuring out which kitten was which. But she also remained rapt for the pages without illustration. In the second book, Thelma and Roger are the two kittens who stay behind. Ruby, who had barely met Thelma in its opening pages, kept asking after her all through Harriet and James’s adventures, and was very pleased when she was found safe and happy at the end. Roger didn’t provoke similar concerns – I suspect gender bias.
We only read the books once each, but we had Catwings themed play for some time afterwards: ‘You be the black kitten and say “Hate!” and I’ll purr at you.’
And so the late great Ursula K Le Guin enters the world of another new person. How good is that?
There are three more books in the series, which I will now go in search of.
[I went searching for my other blog posts about UKLG, and found that they hadn’t been transferred from my old, pre-Wordpress blog. So I’m fixing that.]