I like books about cats, and I also like short books. So I was (somewhat) eager to read Elizabeth Coatsworth’s 1931 Newbery, The Cat Who Went to Heaven. The book is about a Japanese painter and his housekeeper and the little cat they adopt. The housekeeper goes to the market with the last of their money and spends it buying a cat instead of, you know, a sandwich. The painter is really mad because now they’re going to starve and he throws a fit, but then the little cat spends all her time sitting in front of the statue of the Buddha and makes the painter feel a bit ashamed of himself. I mean, here’s this cat—the only animal that doesn’t get to go to heaven—spending all its time apparently praying, when the painter himself always forgets to pray and mostly just feels cranky because he’s hungry and nobody likes his paintings. So he vows to do better, thanks to the example of the little cat.
The painter ends up getting a commission to paint the death of the Buddha and decides that in order to paint the Buddha’s death, he has to understand the Buddha’s life. So he sits and meditates for long hours and kind of pretends he’s the Buddha. He basically channels different scenes from the life of the Buddha. It’s kind of awesome. Once he gets a handle on the Buddha, he paints the deathbed scene, then he starts adding all these animals who have come to pay their respects to the dying Buddha. There’s the elephant and the crane and so forth and so on. But never a cat. At the end of each day, the little cat comes to look at how the painting has progressed, and each day she finds a different way to signal her disappointment that the painter hasn’t painted a little cat. Finally, the painter paints a cat into the picture. He may go to hell for doing it, but by God, he’s going to paint that devoted little cat into his picture.
The cat is so happy when she sees a cat in the painting that she keels over dead. Like instantly. Dead. She dies of joy. I kid you not.
I know the title of this book is The Cat Who Went to Heaven, so my husband laughed at me for being so shocked that a cat dies in this story. But I really thought the cat was going to go metaphorically to heaven.
That’s not the end of the book. It looked like I was on the last page when the cat died, but there was one more.
The twist: the cat croaks, the painter gives the painting to the monastery, the monks are horrified that a cat is in the painting with the Buddha since everybody knows cats don’t get to go to heaven. They’re going to destroy the painting and, you know, ex-communicate the painter or whatever it is Buddhists do. But then the magic happens: the little cat disappears from the spot where the painter painted it and shows up right under the Buddha’s hands, like the Buddha is petting her. It’s a miracle! Everybody lives happily ever after. Except for, you know, the cat. WHO IS DEAD.
At least this book was short. And it didn’t put me to sleep. Those are good qualities in an old Newbery.
Apparently the 1931 committee really couldn’t make up its mind OR it was a banner year for children’s lit, because they honored EIGHT additional books, including Queer Person by Ralph Hubbard (a Google search tells me that this book is about an outcast deaf-mute Indian boy) and Ood-Le-Uk the Wanderer by Alice Lide & Margaret Johansen (about an Eskimo who crosses the Bering Strait).
Feeling grateful right now that I got to read about the cat who keels over rather than books about Native Americans published in 1931. Because I don’t know about you, but I remember all those things Ma Ingalls says about Indians in Little House on the Prairie (pub. 1935).
NOTE: Just googled Cat to try to find a copy of the really ugly edition I read and instead, I found this: A JAZZ PUPPET PRODUCTION of the book. This is EXACTLY the kind of thing that makes me glad to be alive. Who doesn’t want to live in a world where someone creates a jazz puppet show based on this book?!