Ahhh, Vess and de Lint — a duet of pleasures!
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is one of those books that gives me hope for humanity and for cat-lit. The art is rich and beautiful, the prose is light and sweet, and if this volume is not quite as cat-full as the title promised, well, that can be forgiven. They may not be the central focus of the work, but they are the Prime Movers (so to speak)!
Adapted from a short work by the two luminaries, this is the tale of a young orphan named Lilian Kindred who lives with her grandmother on a small country farm at the edge of a large forest. When she’s not helping her grandmother attend to the various day-to-day tasks apparently required of rural farmers, Lilian wanders through the forest searching for the fairies she’s convinced dwell therein. Lilian seems like a very kind soul, albeit willful and amoral in the way that children often are; she doesn’t always heed her grandmother’s advice and she is perfectly content to avoid schooling, but she is always kind to the animals on the farm, especially the large population of cats who roam the hills and fields nearby. She even leaves out cakes and cookies for the Apple Tree Man, a magical being she believes inhabits the oldest tree in the nearby orchard; and though she knows that the meals are more likely being eaten by raccoons and squirrels and birds, she still insists on leaving them out for him.
One day, while wandering a bit too far into the forest, she spies a beautiful deer and, in a fit of youthful spirits, chases it deep into the forest for the pure joy of chasing. The chase results in Lilian losing her way in the woods, but too exhausted to turn back, she lies down beneath a large tree and takes a nap. Alas! That nap has frightful consequences – and it is only through the kindly intervention of the feral feline population that she is spared a terrible fate. But the actions of the cats have consequences of their own, as do Lilian’s subsequent attempts to undo them.
This book has a very subtle morality, one which I admire. It could easily have gone the standard “Children-must-listen-and-do-as-they’re-told” route, and on the surface it almost seems to be making that argument. But that message never quite fits the story, and it seems Vess & de Lint preferred a far more mature bipartite message:
1) We can choose our actions but we cannot choose the consequences which follow them. Only the truly immature and spoiled think it unfair that they cannot do as they please without suffering for it.
2) Be kind to all things for kindness never goes unrewarded …even if we do not anticipate the ways in which those rewards come to us.
And it is this, Lilian’s struggle to accept that actions have consequences and find the action that will yield the kindest consequence, that drives what becomes a tale of ancient magic, animal feuds, and wonder at the beauty and the danger of the natural world. Along the way, Lilian meets a fox named T.H. (which, he assures her, stands for “Truthful” and “Handsome”), a swamp-dwelling possum-witch, a Native American woman who may be an ancient spider, a tribe of bear-people, and even the Father of all felines (if this book is to be believed).
This volume is not without its faults – its setting, for instance, seems to exist in an odd mixture of times and places. De Lint usually (read: ALWAYS) sets his works somewhere in Canada, but Vess’ artwork generally makes everywhere look like the American mid-Atlantic seaboard or rural England. Likewise, the book seems to take place somewhere in between the 1800s and the early 1900s, but depending on the location it could be earlier or later. Where are they? When are they? We never can tell! And while both of the chronological and geographical imprecisions do give this story a timeless, fairy-tale feel, the problem is that that makes it hard to fix the book’s place and time solidly in one’s mind, which somehow diminishes the unreality and strangeness of all the fantastic things that take place outside or alongside the seemingly-mundane world. When the quotidian seems dreamlike, what is there left for dreams?
But such faults as these, which may simply be the misinterpretations of a feline with limited life experience, do nothing to ruin the overall effect of this tale. I once found myself sitting down to read a single chapter only to discover that I had instead read twelve! This book is marvelous, rich and enchanting, and I heartily recommend it to all and sundry. And if my review seems a bit shorter than usual, and bit more densely illustrated, well… You have only Vess’ masterful mixture of Alphonse Mucha, Arthur Rackham and Gustav Klimt to blame! I mean, LOOK AT IT ALL!
More such books please, Mssrs. Vess & de Lint!
But with more felines and in more central roles!
 While I am grateful that your species has developed farming, I have never truly understood the nature of it.
 An impulse every feline shares.
 But how can one complain about that? Those are the loveliest lands I ever did see…if only in pictures and by proxy through my human’s own reminiscences about his childhood there.