Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Newbery Medal Winners: The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The 1931 Newbery Medal went to The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth. For once, a nice, short, succinct little story won. This was not a long slog of a read like some winners have been. A poor straving artist in historical Japan adopts a kitten when his housekeeper brings it home one day, because she can find no food. Named Good Fortune, the cat's name proves to be prescient as the artist then receives a commission to paint the death of Buddha for the temple. As he paints, the artist contemplates the life of Buddha and the roles the various animals he paints had in his lives. It's a neat framing device to tell a series of short animal stories. Coatsworth also tells the story of Buddha himself. A Western writer in the 1930s writing about historical Japan could be cringy today, but this respectful treatment holds up well, even if it may not be completely accurate. Because of the complicated relationship between Buddha and cats, Good Fortune has a lot of opinions about the artist's work. It all works out in the end, however, as one would expect.

My local library did not have a copy of the book, so I put in an interlibrary loan request. They acquired a copy from the local university. Normally libraries let their books out to other libraries for three weeks, but they let me have it for seven! And when I saw the book, I knew it wouldn't take me near that long. (Sure enough, I read it in less than an hour!) The big surprise, however, was the age of the book. Although it's still in print, this was a fourth printing of the first edition, from August of 1931 and only a year after the initial printing. If it weren't for the library tape and card pocket in front, this could be a very valuable book! It's held up well for being over ninety years old, but I don't plan to just leave it in the outdoors return box anyway, I'll make sure to return it when the building is open and I can return it directly to the librarians.