Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander
Square Fish, 2012
Originally published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963
Price I paid: Having fun’s not hard/when you’ve got a library card
He doesn’t have nine lives, it’s true, but Gareth the cat is far from ordinary. For one thing, he can talk. What’s more, he has magical powers that even Jason hasn’t dreamed of.
“Anywhere, any time, any country, any century.” Gareth tells Jason he can take them traveling through time. And in a single wink of the eye, he does. From ancient Egypt to Japan, from the land of young leonardo da Vinci to the town of a woman accused of witchcraft, Jason and Gareth are whisked from place to place and friend to foe.
Full of excitement, discovery, and a world of intriguing history, Time Cat takes the imagination on an unforgettable ride—into nine amazing adventures in life.
It’s finally happened. I’ve read a children’s book, and now I’m going to critique it.
I had a busy weekend so this children’s book seemed like a good idea just because I could read it quick and be done with it. My plan to get this review done a day or two early didn’t pan out, which is why I’m getting this review out so late in the day. I have a bad work ethic and I’m increasingly okay with that.
Lloyd Alexander’s not a forgotten author, either. It’s my first time reading him, but word on the street is that he’s a beloved children’s author, if by “street” I mean “the promotional material for this very book.” Still, Time Cat is his first novel for children, and has two things I love reading about more than most others—time travel and cats—so I thought this would be a fun diversion from the extremely boring book I thought I was otherwise going to read this week.
Seriously, I really enjoy books about cats. I don’t care what kind of story. Maybe it’s that Little Golden Book about barn kittens talking about what they’re going to be when they grow up, or maybe it’s a cozy mystery where the magical cats solve the crime, or the Poe story, whatever. I’ll even give that latter-day Heinlein book that everybody justifiably hates a broad pass because it has a cat in the title. I love cats and I love stories about cats.
And, it turns out, I love Time Cat.
I thought about mentioning that I’m not qualified to talk about children’s lit, even if it is sci-fi or fantasy, but you know what? I’m probably more qualified to talk about it than I am my usual oeuvre. I took a course in children’s and young adult lit while I was in college, whereas I never did such with speculative fiction, barring a Special Topics course in Tolkien. So yeah. Funny old thing, life.
While Time Cat isn’t a flawless work, I really liked it. It had a great voice. Lloyd Alexander never once made me feel like he thinks the audience is stupid, which for me is the cardinal sin of any book, regardless of the intended age group.
I was hooked from the first paragraph, which I’ll share with you now because dang this is good writing
Gareth was a black cat with orange eyes. Sometimes, when he hunched his shoulders and put down his ears, he looked like an owl. When he stretched, he looked like a trickle of oil or a pair of black silk pajamas. When he sat on a window ledge, his eyes half shut and his tail curled around him, he looked like a secret.pg 3
As you probably gathered, Gareth is the cat in this story. He is a big black tom, except that he has a white bit on his chest that is, we later learn, shaped like an ankh. He is friends with a boy named Jason, who is a standard everyboy.
One day, while Jason is feeling down about something, Gareth starts to talk to him. This is one of the things I loved most about this book. A book for adults probably would have had to dwell for pages on this, full of “did the cat talk” and “cats can’t talk” and “talking is human thing” and “cat talk?!?!?” and blah blah blah. Jason, however, takes it in stride. He had always figured that Gareth could talk if he felt like it.
I love this because a) it’s pretty true to most of the children I have known or been, and b) it lets the story get freakin’ started.
Quick as a flash, Gareth explains that cats all know how to time travel and that he’s going to take Jason on a trip through time. Jason is basically like “Okay, cool” and so they go. No ho-hum, no questioning, no “but my parents,” no “time cat travel talk quantums grandfather paradox?!?!?” They just go.
Together they visit nine distinct periods of history. I won’t summarize each trip because that would be tedious and, to be fair, you could probably read the book in less time than it would take to read my embloggéd version of it. A few bits stand out, though.
They first land in Egypt, around 2700 BC. They are in the city of Bubastis, holy to Bast, the cat goddess, and soon they meet Pharoah Neter-Khet, whose existence I have not been able to confirm. At first the Pharaoh is stern and mean, threatening to take Gareth from Jason and yelling orders at him (Gareth), orders to play or to stay on his (the Pharaoh’s) lap and purr. Eventually he gets so upset that none of this happens that he admits that he’s just sad because despite being a mighty Pharoah, all he wants is a kitty to love him.
Reader, I cried.
Jason explains that even a Pharaoh can’t command a cat to like them. In fact, you can’t command a cat to do anything.
A cat can belong to you, but you can’t own him. There’s a difference.pg 22
Jason says that to the Pharaoh and it’s an example of the most interesting and also perplexing thing about this book. See, in every historical visit, it’s not Jason learning lessons from history, it’s the other way around. More often than not, it’s the historical figures they meet who learn lessons. Time travel paradoxes aside, this is an interesting take and I like it. In a way, it’s stealth lesson-learning for a child reader. Kids aren’t dumb. They know when they’re being preached to in the guise of preaching to the protagonist. But if the kid in the place of the person doing the preaching…that’s different. Maybe. It’s been a while since I was a kid so this is mostly theory.
Because I’m like that, I have to state that there are some bits of historical inaccuracy that really stood out to me. The biggest one is when the pair visit a young Leonardo da Vinci, who paints a picture of Gareth so well his father allows him to pursue art as a career instead of being a notary. While broadly accurate in many ways, the book keeps referring to them as the “Vinci” family, like a surname, which is not correct. I’m being pedantic and I know everybody hates that but it still stuck in my craw.
Another one that got me was when the boy and cat visited the days just before the American Revolution. They meet a fella named Parker who is delivering kittens to households for various reasons like keeping old people company and playing with children and, most of all, protecting the food from vermin.
Parker has a sign and, as I appreciated, when Jason reads the sign he is confused by the long-esses. You know the letter: it looks like an f without the crossbar. It’s what allows us to say hilarious things like “Maffachuffetts.”
Anyway, my pedantry comes into play here because the ſ was used only when an S was at the beginning or the middle of the word, never at the end, and yet we get things like “Perpetual Mouſetrapſ.”
None of this detracted from how much I adored this book.
Sometimes it seems like there wasn’t any specific lesson to be learned from a time period; there just had to be some mild peril and a bit of historical background. I appreciated that even bad people either turned out to be misunderstood or came around to the right way of thinking and were sorry in the end. It’s the kind of thing that probably happens only in children’s books, but it’s nice to think about. This book was very gentle.
I mentioned that Jason’s lesson-teaching was perplexing to me, and the reason for that is that the end of the book has the pair come back to their proper time, and Gareth explains that the whole trip was not just for fun, but was also so that Jason could learn some important lessons so that he can grow up properly. He compares it to how kittens play: play should be a learning experience, and this trip was both play and education. Jason agrees that this is a very fine thing.
But I feel like Jason didn’t learn anything in this book at all! He did most of the teaching! The best I can figure is that maybe all of the lessons he imparted were things that he just now realized, but the text doesn’t say that.
Another perplexing moment comes around in an early chapter, when our fellas are visiting Roman Britain. For one thing, the book uses Gaul and Britain somewhat interchangeably so I had some historical annoyance when I couldn’t figure out where they were supposed to be at first, but at the end of that chapter we meet a native cat (there are lots of other cats in this book) who, just before the fellas leave, has a litter of kittens. All of the kittens are just like her, except one that is all black with a white ankh on its chest.
I know cats breed quickly but I still feel like they weren’t there long enough for Gareth to have fathered some kittens. Also, the insinuation that there was someone getting his bone on in this children’s book, even if it’s a cat, is kinda weird to me. I mean, I know kids this age probably understand where kittens come from, but this cat is able to talk, and that makes it weird.
But now that I think about it, I don’t know if that’s what happened. Gareth explains at the beginning of the book that cats don’t really have nine lives, but rather they, um, have nine lives? Like, they can visit nine lives. In history. But “anywhere, any time, any country, any century.”
So I don’t understand the very basis of Gareth’s powers. Is this a reincarnation thing? Does he get only nine Quantum Leap jumps and he used them all up today? It really doesn’t make sense the way it’s explained.
Oh, and it’s worth noting that Gareth admits he’s not even that special of a cat. All cats can talk, and all cats can time travel. You know when you’re looking for your cat and you can’t find it and then it appears behind you like magic? It’s because your cat was IN HISTORY.
I love it.
I’m an adult now (at least legally), so of course I’m gonna overthink this book, which it doesn’t deserve. Part of me wonders if Jason and Gareth changed history when they were visiting it, or if they made it happen the way it was supposed to, or something else.
And the fact that the very ending of the book features Jason waking up and thinking it was all a dream was a bit of a letdown, but then he reached into his pocket and found
the keys to a red 1933 Ford “The Eliminator” coupe an ankh, so maybe it wasn’t a dream after all.
I heartily recommend this book. If you have kids, read it with them. If you don’t, read it with yourself. Or maybe a friend’s kids, if everybody’s into that. Me, I don’t have any and the only kids I know are many miles away, so I think I’ll just send them a copy instead.
I see it recommended for the 9-12 age group, but I trust your judgement.
Anyway, yeah, I’m super glad I read a children’s book this week. I dunno if I’ll dive down this well much more often, but you never know.