Catwings & Catwings Return

After recently reading what I at first considered to be my first Ursula K. Le Guin work, I was reminded of the fact that I was quite wrong... and that as a child, I had actually loved two Le Guin books, though that may have been because they included the young-Alana prerequisite for any good book: cats.

Catwings focuses on the Tabby family, or rather, the four children of Mrs. Jane Tabby. Without a father and with their home in a neighborhood that was growing worse, Mrs. Jane Tabby has her paws full and so there was no real time to worry much about the fact that her children had wings. There comes a point when Mrs. Tabby believes that her children need to leave and find a better life for themselves, and so she insists that they use their wings to fly away and do just that. She is left behind, newly engaged to a good tomcat, and while her words are a bit brusque, no one doubts that all Mrs. Tabby wants is the best life possible for her children. So Thelma, Roger, James, and Harriet fly into the country, where they make a life for themselves, but learn that life can be just as dangerous there as it was in the city. Ultimately, they befriend two human children who understand that they can never tell anyone about the flying cats or everyone would try to trap them. Instead, they give the cats a home in the top of their family's barn and the story ends happily with the semi-domestication of the flying cats.

Catwings Return focuses primarily on James and Harriet, who decide that they wish to visit their mother in the old neighborhood, and so they leave their siblings in the country for what is supposed to be a simple visit. (Roger and Thelma believe the children they have befriended would be far too worried if everyone left, so they stay behind.) Of course, when James and Harrier arrive, they find that construction crews are demolishing the neighborhood, their mother is nowhere to be found, and their attention is caught by a mewing sound -- which turns out to be a black winged kitten in a condemned building. With patience, they befriend the kitten (who clearly must be their mother's kitten, they believe, given the wings) and manage to save him in the knick of time from the encroaching bulldozers. They find Mrs. Jane Tabby in a rooftop garden, their mother having recently been taken in by an old woman after the first bulldozers drove her from the neighborhood. Her husband was away on business (and she seems little concerned with his loss) and she cannot get down from the rooftop garden, but now that she knows her kitten is safe, Mrs. Jane Tabby is perfectly content to stay right where she is -- provided James and Harriet take her kitten with them to the country. They do so and the kitten is named Jane, happy in her new country surroundings with her older siblings.

There were two other books in the Catwings Collection -- named Marvelous Alexander and the Catwings and Jane on her Own -- but they never really captured me the way the first two did. At the time, I was charmed by the drawings and, let's face it, any story that featured kitties. Now that I'm older and know a bit more about Le Guin's work, I find them to be embedded with deeper concepts about parenthood, survival, independence, and trust. With Le Guin's interest in gender roles, it's unsurprising that we have a strong single mother and a similarly strong female leader in Thelma. The dangers of the world are quite present, both in the city and the country, and Le Guin is not afraid to make those manifest in attacks on the individuals and long-term repercussions.

I hadn't been that keen on picking up another Le Guin book after reading a series of her stories for adults, but this re-read of Catwings may have actually won her another chance. It's all a bit deeper than the simple story of flying cats and touches upon ideas of growing up and finding one's own way in the world (though there's still a healthy reliance on family). Catwings: not just for kitty-obsessed kids anymore. Though if you have one of those, then you should definitely introduce them to Mrs. Tabby and her children.

No comments: