Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Doll and a Cat Who Went to Heaven

After many, many months of ignoring my Newbery reading project, I've managed to make a good start into the 1930s era (I still have three books from the 1920s to endure read).  The 1930s, it seems, was the era of books about Maine.  I don't know if any other era featured a number of books set in a specific state, but Maine features prominently in several 1930s Newbery books: Calico Bush (1932 Newbery Honor), Bright Island (1938 Newbery Honor and recently back in print), and Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (1930 Newbery Medal).

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years is definitely a product of its era.  Despite my initial distrust of doll stories, I found the story somewhat charming and amusing.  That is, when I wasn't cringing at the unfortunate dated stereotypes sprinkled throughout the story.  Told through Hitty's perspective, the story tells of Hitty's many adventures on land and at sea, from the harbors of Boston, to the unfamiliar grounds of India, to the grand opera houses of Philadelphia, the sultry heat of New Orleans (with the obligatory Mardi Gras scene), and, of course, Maine.  If you like old fashioned (and quite prim) stories, you may like Hitty: Her First Hundred Years.

I read The Cat Who Went to Heaven  (1931 Newbery Medal winner) in one sitting. Okay, okay--easy enough to do when it's only 62 pages.  This is definitely one of the most unusual books I've encountered in this Newbery reading project.  A poor Japanese artist is commissioned to paint a scene depicting the death of the Buddha.  As the artist paints the profiles of the animals receiving the blessing of the Buddha, a little cat watches and waits.  According to Buddhist tradition, the cat was the only animal that refused to accept the teachings of the Buddha.  Therefore, including the cat in the painting would surely upset the Buddhist priests who requested the painting.

This mystical and rather dreamy book (with mesmerizing illustrations) is remarkably free of unfortunate depictions of the Japanese artist and his housekeeper, especially compared to other Newbery books published in the same era.  Sensitive animal lovers might balk at the ending (the title gives a clue as to what happens to the little kitty).  If the story was published today, I would expect verification on this Buddhist legend about cats (some quick research shows that it appears to check out).  It's an intriguing little oddity for its era.

I'm reading a fabulous YA historical novel--more in an upcoming post.

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