I know I had intended to examine more recent entries in the cat-fiction genre, but let us consider this classic children’s book an aperitif. It seemed wise to start with something simple and gentle, something guaranteed to elicit positive responses from myself and readers alike. Believe me, there is darkness yet to come! But for now let us consider the adventures of the ever-cheerful Captain Kitty…
Told in verse by the Captain himself, this is the charming tale of a bold seafaring cat and his loyal crew of fellow-felines who set out from Catville-by-the-Sea to explore the Tropical Isles. Captain Kitty is joined by his First Mate (and, one assumes, lady-love) Tabby, and a pair of kitten-twins called Pearly (female) and Mew (male). While sailing, they reach a tropical isle inhabited by a peaceful population of native cats, ruled by a magnanimous King and Queen, who share their food and pearls with Captain Kitty and his crew and take them on a tour of their island home. There they witness pearl-diving, a tree-top avian spelling-bee, and the near-capture of a cetacean (albeit a rather puny one) by Pearly & Mew, before the Captain & company decide it is time for them to return home to Catville-by-the-Sea.
A simple story, yes, but there are depths to be plumbed here.
For example, the narrative appears to take place in a world inhabited entirely by subtly anthropomorphic felines. Rather than relying on humans to build and crew the ships, these industrious cats appear to have constructed their own ships and buildings and cities, and clearly handle all the details of sailing by themselves. There are no humans visible, no other sapient creatures at all, only different varieties of sapient, bipedal felines. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t sound lovely…
These cats wear clothing modeled roughly after human clothing from the era in which it was written, and the Tropical Isles clearly resemble the fantasy of the South Sea isles held by Western humans in the early 20th century. Yet the cats themselves are distinctly feline in appearance, possessing true paws, tails, ears, whiskers, and eyes – their faces are simplified, yet they are never at any point anything other than feline, and their expressions are generally those of cats, rather than felinoid humans. If a complaint could be made about the art, which is otherwise truly enchanting, it would be that the cats all look more like kittens than full grown toms and queens. The only real difference between Captain Kitty & Tabby and Pearly & Mew, for example, is that the former are twice as large as the latter; and the same may be said about the King & Queen of the Tropical Isles and their subject-kittens. But this is understandable, if I am honest, as humans show a marked preference for things that are smaller and cuter. This was, after all, a book intended for small human children to read with their parents, and we all know how squeamish human parents can be. It’s a wonder any of them reach maturity, since here in the West their parents generally shield them from any knowledge of death or reproduction, let alone the first-hand experiences we cats know to be necessary in a young kitten’s upbringing.
Now, I hope you will forgive me if I indulge in a bit of personal philosophizing: as a black cat in a white cat’s world, issues of colour-prejudice and racial inequality are forever on my mind – if not always at the forefront, then always lurking somewhere in the background…bottom wiggling…tail lashing…ready to pounce on a catnip-filled toy rodent. But I digress!
Of particular note is the book’s significant lack of racism. Humans from the era in which this book was written were known to have been exceptionally and often unwittingly racist, as even a cursory viewing of “South Pacific” will demonstrate. Yet the cats and kittens of the Tropical Isles look functionally indistinct from Captain Kitty and his crew, differing only in their attire (which the aboriginal cats generally lack). And because one is more accustomed to seeing felines in the altogether, it is the crew of visitors who appear the most peculiar – clad, as they are, in human clothing. The cats of the Tropical Isles are presented as equal in their intelligence, sophistication and etiquette to the (presumably) “Western” cats; far from the noble savages so often envisioned by well-meaning-but-condescending humans, these aboriginal cats are essentially the same as their Euro-American counterparts. And far from trying to “civilize” or exploit their aboriginal feline hosts, the Captain, Tabby, Pearly and Mew are all on their best behavior and defer to the authority and customs of their hosts. The cats of the Tropical Isles are not amazed by their foreign guests, impressed neither by their technology nor by their appearances – rather, they regard them with a dignified warmth, hosting them, offering them politely from the food and treasure they have in abundance, and showing them the local sites.
Really, the cats of the Tropical Isles treat Captain Kitty and his crew much the way one might a friend from another land who is visiting one’s hometown for the first time. Both parties of cats demonstrate respect for one another, the crew of Captain Kitty’s vessel expressing admiration and gratitude while the inhabitants of the Tropical Isle play the part of perfect hosts. And, being excellent guests, Captain Kitty & co. voluntarily depart before they have overstayed their welcome or taken advantage of their hosts’ hospitality. Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, Captain Kitty, Tabby, Pearly & Mew do not share the colouring and markings of the King and Queen! The Queen, first to appear in the book, is a beautiful longhaired Persian cat with lush, snow-white fur; and the King, who only appears from the neck up, appears to be a ginger longhair of the same breed. The visiting cats, on the other paw, more closely resemble the King and Queen’s subjects, many of whom share their grey-and-white coloring and black stripes. The book almost seems to be saying that ethnic or regional divisions are not only poor grounds for prejudice, but entirely invented within the mind – for the only true division lies between the nobility and the common-folk.
I suppose a modern audience might take umbrage with the fact that the cats of the Tropical Isles live under a monarchy and appear entirely content with this, but: A) those taking umbrage are likely grand hypocrites who in another situation might huff and puff about the virtues of cultural relativism; and B) everyone knows that we cats are invariably monarchists, objectivists or libertarians. Cats have neither the patience for the slavish, canine obedience to authority required by Statism, nor the mad-cap avian mob-rule required by Democracy, nor even the crude, lawlessness of Anarchy. Proud though we might be, we cats are consistent, precise and orderly creatures who respect the need for authority under certain circumstances – even if that authority proceeds largely from the enlightened individual self.
Finally, it should be noted that this book is a brief thing, a mere trifle of 20 pages or so. Charming, beautiful and uplifting, but there are more words, indeed, more sentences in my review than in the book itself!
All told a splendid book capable of being enjoyed by children and kittens alike. And their parents might not mind reading it through a few times either!