The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint found it’s way onto my summer reading list because it was a gift from from a friend (guest blogger Megan Harrison) and it just so happened to fit with the Fantasy theme for June.
I have to say, I love cats and, consequently, I receive a lot of books about cats. Having read lots of them, some good (Tad Williams Tailchaser Song and Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander are two I’d vouch for) and some bad (there are a lot of them…) I was relieved when within the opening pages of Tanglewood I felt like I was swept away into the mind and imagination of Lillian Kindred. This book felt like a cross between Anne of Green Gables and The Wind in the Willows and, perhaps Alice in Wonderland? Or heck, it doesn’t have to be a cross between something already written, this book was original and had such a spark to it. It was captivating and magical in a way that isn’t intrusive as it did seem to reside solely within the magic of nature and childhood. Just a wonderful tale for readers young and old.
The story follows Lillian Kindred, who lives with her Aunt, as she helps run the farm and then runs wild in the woods. de Lint perfectly nestles the reader within Lillian’s mind as we learn of her hatred for shoes and her affinity for leaving tasty tidbits for the birds, the cats and the Apple Tree Man. We run with her through Tanglewood and we read her mind prattle on about superstitions, life and all things wild. One day, while chasing, racing rather, a deer through the woods she runs faster and farther than she had ever done before. When she looses the trail she finds an old Beech tree where she promptly lies down for nap. Fate interrupts Lillian’s simple and happy life when a snake, rudely interrupted by Lillian’s sleep, bites her. Lillian is saved from death by the cats of Tanglewood who use their magic to save her life – but in so doing they transform her into a kitten.
Only she is now a kitten but also a girl. Stuck in this liminal form is not an option for hasty and adventurous Lillian Kindred and so the tale begins. To set your minds at ease you will be happy to know that Lillian does not spend the entirety of the book bumbling around as a kitten but rather her story takes quite a few unexpected twists and magical turns. She meets trustworthy creatures, encounters ambivalent strangers, cryptic witches and makes friends with a fox named T.H. Reynolds (short for Truthful and Handsome).
Ostensibly this book wasn’t necessarily a discovery of oneself within a coming-of-age tale but rather a reminder that you are always who you are. Despite Lillian’s form (whatever it may be) she is told that she will always be who she is. Who she is won’t ever change. I really liked this assertion, it is quite refreshing within the sea of texts about self-discovery. Lillian has character – and she even says this at one point in the text:
Lillian frowned. “I don’t know. I wish people would just say what they really mean instead of getting all triskcy about it. Both Aunt Nancy and Mother manan triscked me. It wasn’t any fun being a slave.”
“Just think of it as something that builds character.”
“I’ve got plenty of character.”
The fox chuckled. “That you do.”
The consistency with which Lillian was portrayed, despite her growing up, was spot on. She loses none of her spunk or courage while she does gain knowledge, wisdom and a little patience. She will always hate shoes, but she does get a little wiser and learns a little more about the world – which is a heck of a lot bigger than she originally thought.
Along with this wonderful message were the illustrations by Charles Vess (renowned illustrator and comic artist). Lillian’s adventures in the wilds of Tanglewood come to life in beautiful brush strokes and rambling images. The art sometimes takes up whole pages, half pages, but the paintings often escape their frames and intrude on the text, colouring it both literally and figuratively.
Though this book is recommended for ages 8 and up (and I assume that’s because there isn’t any romance in it) I would recommend it for anyone of any age. This would be a wonderful read-aloud as it has images to accompany the roaming sentences of Lillian’s mind. And, because it often reads like a story much older and wiser than Lillian it was very enjoyable to me and I therefore recommend it for more experienced readers as well. This is a sophisticated book and I think anyone who loves a little magic, a great heroine and wholesome adventure will enjoy it.