Book Review: The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Scholastic, Inc. 1987

I’ve always liked stories that begin, “Once upon a time.”  Those four simple words impart a timeless quality to the narrative that follows, and all by themselves, do a commendable job of setting the mood for the rest of the story.  I like them also because they evoke memories of my early childhood, when almost every story I heard began that way.  In any case, that’s the way The Cat Who Went to Heaven begins:

Once upon a time, far away in Japan, a poor young artist sat alone in his little house, waiting for his dinner.  His housekeeper had gone to market, and he sat sighing to think of all the things he wished she would bring home.  He expected her to hurry in at any minute, bowing and opening her little basket to show him how wisely she had spent their few pennies.  He heard her step, and jumped up.  He was very hungry!

But the housekeeper lingered by the door, and the basket stayed shut.

“Come,” he cried, “what is in that basket?”

What is in the basket?  Perhaps a few of the rice cakes so beloved by the artist, or little cakes filled with sweet bean jelly?  No, it is a cat that the housekeeper bought from a fisherman in the market.  The artist is angry at first about the new arrival, but grudgingly agrees to keep her:

“Let us see the creature,” he said, pretending he scarcely cared whether he saw it or not.

So the old woman put down the basket and opened the lid.  Nothing happened for a moment.  Then a round, pretty, white head came slowly above the bamboo, and two big yellow eyes looked about the room, and a little white paw appeared on the rim.  Suddenly, without moving the basket at all, a little white cat jumped out on the mats, and stood there as a person might who scarcely knew if she were welcome.  Now that the cat was out of the basket, the artist saw that she had yellow and black spots on her sides, a little tail like a rabbit’s, and that she did everything daintily.

“Oh, a three-colored cat,” said the artist.  “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning?  They are very lucky, I understand.

Was it just luck that brought the cat into their lives, or was it something else, perhaps the kind heart of the housekeeper?  Whatever it was, the artist decides she may stay, and at the housekeeper’s suggestion, they name her Good Fortune.

Initially, the artist merely tolerates her presence in his house…

But one day he was forced to admit that Good Fortune was not like other cats.  He was sitting in his especial room watching sparrows fly in and out of the hydrangea bushes outside, when he saw Good Fortune leap from a shadow and catch a bird.  In a second the brown wings, the black-capped head, the legs like briers, the frightened eyes, were between her paws.  The artist would have clapped his hands and tried to scare her away, but before he had time to make the least move, he saw Good Fortune hesitate and then slowly, slowly, lift first one white paw and then another from the sparrow.  Unhurt, in a loud whir of wings, the bird flew away.

“What mercy!” cried the artist, and the tears came into his eyes.  Well he knew his cat must be hungry and well he knew what hunger felt like.  “I am ashamed when I think that I called such a cat a goblin,” he thought.  “Why, she is more virtuous than a priest.”

It was just then, at that very moment, that the old housekeeper appeared, trying hard to hide her excitement.

“Master!” she said as soon as she could find words.  “Master!  The head priest from the temple himself is here in the next room and wishes to see you.  What, oh what, do you think His Honor has come here for?”

It turns out that the head priest has come to commission a painting of the death of Buddha to hang in the temple, a commission that would mean a complete reversal in the fortunes of the artist, for as the priest remarks, “What the temple approves becomes the fashion in the town.”  The next day, the artist undertakes to begin the painting, but before he sets out his silk, ink, and water, he first meditates on the Buddha.  He realizes that “…he must strive to understand the Buddha before he could paint him.”  When he has finished painting the Buddha, he begins to meditate on all the animals he has yet to paint, animals that came to honor the Buddha on his deathbed: the snail, the elephant, the horse, the swan, the water buffalo, the dog, the deer, the monkey, and the tiger.  While he is reflecting upon them…

Good Fortune came out from his shadow.  When she saw the tiger she trembled all over, from her thistledown whiskers to her little tail, and she looked at the artist.

“If the tiger can come to bid farewell to Buddha,” she seemed to say, “surely the cat, who is little and often so gentle, may come, O master?  Surely, surely, you will next paint the cat among the animals who were blessed by the Holy One as he died?”

The artist was much distressed.

“Good Fortune,” he said, gently taking her into his arms. “I would gladly paint the cat if I could.  But all people know that cats, though lovely, are unusually proud and self-satisfied.  Alone among the animals, the cat refused to accept the teachings of Buddha.  She alone, of all creatures, was not blessed by him…”

The Cat Who Went to Heaven was the winner of the 1931 Newbery Medal for children’s literature, but it is one of those rare books – like Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia – that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike.  There are lessons to be learned from it by readers of all ages, not the sort of lesson we learn consciously, but longer lasting lessons that we absorb without knowing it, lessons learned by example.  It is, of course, a story about an artist, a housekeeper, and a cat, but it is a great deal more.  It is a story about sacrifice, compassion, and mercy.

Illustration by Lynd Ward (Click to enlarge.)

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 6:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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