Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1931)

(Before I dig into The Cat Who Went to Heaven, I want to make one other comment about Hitty.  I realized a few days ago that something bothered me about the book.  The main character never made a single choice to impact any other character in the book.  Her presence was appreciated by her owners, and she was missed when removed from the scene, but she, herself, did not have the ability to choose and to make a  difference in the lives of those around her.  Now on to the current book...)

How many different ways are there to say, "I liked this book."?  Since I am reading Newbery winners, I expect that most of them will be ones I like.

Elizabeth Coatsworth tells the story of a poor artist in Japan.  Nobody buys his paintings and there is barely enough for him and his housekeeper to fend off starvation.  But one day the housekeeper brings home a three-colored cat, considered good luck, who they name "Good Fortune".  The artist's luck does change when the priest from the Buddhist temple in their town commissions him to depict the death of the Buddha.  It is a very great honor.

The artist takes the job with deep gratitude and humility.  He greatly desires to make his art worthy of the Buddha, so he meditates on the life of the Buddha.  How he began as Prince Siddhartha, wealthy and pampered.  How he came to know of death and disease and sadness in the world.  How he gave up all of his worldly possessions to find peace and love in the world.  How he was prepared when the time of death came.  All of this, the artist imagined in great detail, putting himself in the place of Buddha in order to have the empathy necessary to create a work of truth.

The artist then goes on to imagine each of the animals he will depict in the picture and how they loved and revered the Buddha.  He thinks of stories of each animal and in all his imaginings, he remembers that the cat would not be allowed into paradise.  "'Ah, the cat refused homage to Buddha,' he remembered, 'and so by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face.'" (p. 20)  This made him sad, for he had come to love Good Fortune.  As with us, it is be our own independent acts that will close the doors of heaven.

When he looks upon his completed work, he knows that something is missing.  He adds a cat, even though the priest might not accept the painting with the cat in it.  He knows it might ruin him.  When the priest sees the cat, he does indeed reject the painting, and would in fact burn it, but the artist is glad that his beloved cat looks out from the painting.

The story has a bittersweet ending which I will not reveal.  I loved learning about Buddha, his teachings, and some of the stories surrounding him.  I was recently asked to speak in church on the topic of humility.  This book has made me think about how Buddha was so humble and gave all his possessions away to come to enlightenment, peace and love.

A good, quick read.

Coatsworth, Elizabeth. The Cat Who Went to Heaven.  Macmillan Publishing Company, 1930.