When his inattentive parents deny him a cat, 8 year old Peter runs into the street to save a kitten, and is hit by a car. On the spot, Peter morphs into a cat, in the republished “The Abandoned” (New York Review Children’s Collection 2013) by Paul Gallico—first published in 1950.
The people of London recovering from the devastation of WWII—loss of life and bombed out buildings—were generally not sentimental toward the thousands of stray cats roaming the city. Most saw them as pests. Cats developed a rough hierarchy trying to defend themselves in this tough world—the world into which Peter is cast.
After a brush with death at the paws and claws of a vicious tomcat, a generous cat named Jennie licks Peter clean of soot and blood. What a sensual calming experience it is—reminiscent of those very early days when his mother’s touch was familiar to him. Jennie begins Peter’s instruction as a cat with, “When in doubt, clean,” and we are invited into the world of cats’ contortions (picture one hind leg stretching straight up so she can get her tongue to the back of that haunch) and I now know that feline washing is essentially yoga for cats. Jennie tells Peter that a cat should commence washing whenever confused or when needing a moment to regroup. Sort of a stopgap—perhaps the equivalent of saying “um,” “y’know” or “like.” And think how beneficial washing is.
Jennie explains to Peter (and us), that a cat keeps “…a mouse alive and in the air as long as possible, not to torture it, but to gain skill and accuracy and train his muscles to react swiftly at the slightest movement.” Isn’t that helpful?
Of course, cats have much to teach us. For instance, you never charge out into a new situation. Instead, “You stop, look, listen and feel, before going outside.”
Written in an earlier time, when people had fewer distractions, “Abandoned” includes more description than you’ll find in most contemporary children’s literature. For that reason I’d suggest giving it to young readers who are ready to read at a slightly more adult level. Or read it to the family on a road trip. The abundant description is fascinating, gives one a thorough and charming understanding of cats, and serves to drive forward the story action (of which there is plenty).
Jennie and Peter stow away on a ship steaming to Glasgow, giving us a view of (a former) London’s streets and docks as well as a glimpse into the human working class. The “cat overboard” episode is breathtaking. And there are plenty of high stakes street scenes that are less than gentle.
Best of all, Gallico deeply observes cats and passes along many gleaned truths—confirming what cat-lovers already may know and giving those of us who aren’t born cat-lovers, a deeper appreciation of felines.
Patricia Hruby Powell is a nationally touring speaker, dancer, storyteller, occasional librarian, and children’s book author.