October 30, 2014
(++++) BITTERSWEET ANIMALIA
The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family, and a Family Saved a Cat. By Lissa Warren. Lyons Press. $21.95.
The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Enzo Races in the Rain! By Garth Stein. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.
The optimism and gratitude pervading Lissa Warren’s memoir will be immediately clear to anyone who reads the book with its title in mind. This is a work that could just as easily have been called “The Bad Luck Cat,” but no: through trouble and turmoil with the cat at the center of her family’s life, Warren persists in identifying Ting, a seven-pound Korat, as a positive force. To outsiders reading The Good Luck Cat, this may on the face of it seem to be something of a stretch. One example among many: new to the Warren home, Ting goes exploring and falls into the toilet, and “we heard a huge splash coming from the half-bathroom by the kitchen, followed by what can only be described as a death yowl. We went running and Mom got there first, reaching into the bowl just as I plowed into her, unable to stop because I had on socks and we have hardwood floors. We fell, and Ting, who had hooked a desperate paw into the sleeve of Mom’s sweater, came with us. Mom whacked the back of her head on the bathroom wall, ‘Mommy Lissa’ (as I had come to be called) whacked the back of her head on her mom’s front teeth, and Ting whacked both of us with her now-free scissors-paws in an effort to get the hell out of Dodge as the towel bar came down with a clatter.” This is a good luck cat?
Yes, anecdotes like this are common in pet-loving families, and they attain a veneer of pleasant nostalgia once the inevitable physical hurts have healed. But things get more difficult for the Warren family, not less, as The Good Luck Cat progresses. It is not just that Ting climbs to the top of the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve to perch, “a silver star atop the highest bough,” and then manages to “lose her balance and take the entire tree down with her.” That event, and similar ones, are only preludes to grimmer occurrences. Halfway through the book, “around the time Ting became a teenager…Dad’s health really started to decline.” Ting, along with the other family members, knows something is not right, and then begins a series of events with which, unfortunately, families must cope all the time – and which are never easy. Warren details her father’s pain, his depression, his back surgery, his diagnosis with myeloproliferative disease (which frequently progresses to leukemia), his angina, and his eventual hospitalization and death in December 2008. Warren both personalizes the emotional pain and keeps it at something of a distance by focusing on how Ting, as a member of the family, responds to Jerry Warren’s death. And then there is more: Ting is diagnosed with a heart condition, and the book becomes the story of saving her by arranging for implantation of a pacemaker – a human pacemaker, further cementing the bond among family members. “Soon her fur grows back. She is her old self again, save for a pronounced bump near her ribs – like the face of a watch atop a tiny wrist. She is completely oblivious to it.” But the Warren humans are far from oblivious to Ting’s condition, and the cat seems equally aware of developments around her – which become still more complicated when Warren herself starts having a series of mysterious symptoms and eventually gets a serious diagnosis of her own: she has multiple sclerosis. The Good Luck Cat? The fact that Warren calls Ting that is testimony to the close bond we humans feel with our companion animals – and to the level of unquestioning support we receive from them in a way that is so often sadly lacking in those of our own species. Over time, Ting needs ever more medical care, as Warren herself comes to terms with her own illness and her mother “mothers” both human and feline. The depth of the family’s bond with Ting is shown in Warren’s comment, “When I lose her, I will mourn her like I’ve mourned all the other people I’ve lost.” All the other people…not “all the people.” Turning Ting into an honorary human may be hopelessly anthropomorphic, but it testifies, as does Warren’s entire book, to bonds not easily explained and, like all bonds of love, never sundered – not really. Good luck, indeed.
Luck is much worse for a hamster named Sweetie Pie in a Chris Van Allsburg book that, although intended for younger readers, raises some of the same issues of human-animal interaction that Warren presents. The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie is a happy-sounding title, but just like The Good Luck Cat, it is a title not fully descriptive of the events detailed inside. A pet-shop hamster, deliberately drawn by Van Allsburg with human mannerisms and expressions, goes home with a girl he calls Pigtails, who names him Sweetie Pie and holds him constantly. Van Allsburg makes it clear that this is not a story of warmth, though, stating, “Since [holding and petting time] was the only time he was let out of his small cage, he pretended to like it.” Clearly, this is scarcely a typical warm-and-fuzzy story: the girl soon loses interest in Sweetie Pie as she spends more and more time using the computer, and the hamster has nothing to do but eat – getting fat and feeling lonely. The girl ends up selling the hamster to a boy who takes Sweetie Pie home on his bike, and “for the second time in his life, the hamster felt the wind in his fur and smelled the great outdoors. He breathed in deeply, but was back inside before he exhaled.” Unfortunately, the boy’s family has a dog that repeatedly attacks the hamster’s cage – the picture of the teeth-bared canine attacking the cage bars, seen from the hamster’s point of view, is genuinely frightening – so the boy gives Sweetie Pie to his cousin. She is something of a nightmare, forcing the hamster into doll clothes and then into a hamster ball that rolls away down the street, into and through traffic (another scary scene), and eventually into a park. The girl does not even go after the ball, leaving Sweetie Pie abandoned. Another girl finds the ball the next morning and, delighted, takes Sweetie Pie home, but her mother screams and refuses to have the “rat” in the house. So the girl brings Sweetie Pie to school, where he becomes a class pet and gets more and more lonely, especially when he notices a squirrel on the window sill, in the outdoors that Sweetie Pie can never reach. Then winter break comes, and a boy takes Sweetie Pie and his cage out of school for the holidays – but he forgets all about the hamster while playing ball, and leaves the cage behind to be covered with snow. The picture of Sweetie Pie blanketed in white, with only his ears and nose showing, is filled with pathos, and by this time the book has become genuinely depressing in a way that is highly unusual for a children’s picture book. Van Allsburg, however, manages to figure out a way to create a happy ending, in which it turns out (in a scene after winter ends) that Sweetie Pie was able to escape the cage and is now living in the trees with the squirrels, “with no bars between him and the deep blue sky.” Unfortunately, this conclusion feels tacked-on and is scientifically inaccurate: hamsters are burrowers, not tree climbers, and the notion of one being in effect “adopted” by squirrels is an outlandish one. The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie is really a cautionary tale, from which sensitive children can learn a great deal about the right and wrong way to interact with any companion animal. But it is also a sad story, one that those same sensitive children may have difficulty handling on their own if they are not taken in by Van Allsburg’s valiant attempt to craft a happy ending. This can actually be an important book for a child to read before getting a pet – but parental oversight is advised to be sure that the child ends up feeling reassured, not saddened, by the tale.
Another cautionary people-and-pets story, whose happy ending is less contrived and whose overall tone is somewhat lighter, is Garth Stein’s Enzo Races in the Rain! Enzo himself – a puppy named after race driver Enzo Ferrari – narrates the book, explaining “I feel more like a person” than a dog, but people “don’t understand my barks. It drives me crazy.” Enzo lives on a farm until he is sold to a man and his daughter, Zoë. The man himself is a race-car driver – it is he who suggests the name Enzo – and just like the unfortunate Sweetie Pie, Enzo gets to see a lot of the world on the way to his new home: “Who knew the world was so big?” Enzo soon finds that he needs to adapt to a lot of non-farm things: there is nowhere to run with abandon inside a house, and Zoë’s stuffed animals are scary. Before Zoë can put a collar on Enzo, he pushes through the pet door into the yard, and then under the fence through a small gap – suddenly finding himself in the middle of traffic, and soon after being pursued by a whole crowd of people. Enzo simply wants to run and play, but even young readers will quickly see that he is in real danger, made worse by the people’s inability to catch him – he is simply too speedy. Then it starts to rain, and Enzo is soon miserable – until he realizes that he can use his speed and his nose to find his way home. He does just that, returning to find Zoë in tears and her father trying to reassure her. “I run into Zoë’s arms like a race car driver speeding home,” Enzo says, and the book ends in a burst of warmth and enthusiasm – and a firmly attached collar (and presumably some fence repair). R.W. Alley’s illustrations do a fine job of conveying the many moods of the story’s characters, and the final, wordless page – showing the now-three-member family eating dinner on the home’s porch – is a real charmer. Still, there is a lesson about responsibility and proper pet care for young children in Enzo Races in the Rain! Parents who extract and reinforce it will find the book genuinely helpful in turning children into responsible stewards of companion animals as they – kids and animals alike – grow.