Friday, March 20, 2009

Review - The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth

Review Contributor: Tanya of
The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
illustrations by Lynd Ward and Jael, 74 pp, Reading Level 3 

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth and winner of the Newbery Award in 1931 is a jewel of a book. It may also be the shortest book to win the award since it was first given in 1922.

At it's heart, this book is a collection of Jataka Tales (explanation to follow) woven together by the external story of a poor young artist who sends his housekeeper to the market to buy food with the last of his money. She returns not with food, but with a cat.  Angered at first, cats not always having the best reputation, the artist relents and says, "Sometimes it is good fortune to have even a devil in the household.  It keeps the other devils away."  And, upon finding that she is a tri-color cat, which is a sign of good luck, the artist agrees to allow the housekeeper to name her Good Fortune. 

She proves true to her name when the artist is commissioned to paint the scene of the Lord Buddha's death for the village temple.  If his painting is well received, the artist will never have to worry about going hungry again.  If it is rejected, his career will be ruined.  The artist meditates long and hard on his subject matter, first imagining himself as Siddhartha, the Indian Prince, in his final human incarnation before he attained Enlightenment and became the Buddha.  In Buddhism, there is no heaven, but rather nirvana, which is the state of freedom from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, freedom from the restraints of a corporeal body. Nirvana, a oneness with the universe, is the goal of enlightenment.  As he sits, near death, the Buddha's disciples and the animals of the earth come to bid him farewell.  However, the cat does not join them, refusing to pay homage.  Remembering this, the artist thinks to himself, "and so, by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face."  With his affection for Good Fortune growing, the artist is saddened by this fact. 

However, he continues to meditate and paint, depicting the various animals did come to pay homage, Good Fortune always by his side, encouraging and offering her praise of his masterful work.  With each animal he considers painting, the artist remembers a different birth story, or Jataka Tale, from the Buddha's many lifetimes, of which there are over 550.  The stories illustrate Buddhist virtues, particularly those of charity, compassion and self-sacrifice, through the stories of the Buddha's various incarnations, both human and animal.  Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma, the law of cause and effect.  The karma or one life sets up the next life, but does not determine the unfolding of that life.  Good acts in one life make it possible to be be reborn into a life that allows you to continue practicing good virtues on the path to enlightenment.  The traditional birth and death dates of Siddhartha are 563 - 483 BCE.  The Jataka Tales are dated between 300 and 400 AD and are believed to have influenced Aesop's Fables and other traditional folktaled. 

Although the book is only seventy-four pages, Coatsworth manages to fit in more than ten Jataka Tales, including that of the Banyan Deer.  As he nears completion of his painting, the artist struggles with his love for Good Fortune and his sadness that he cannot paint a cat in his picture.  Trying to find a way around this, the artist thinks of the tiger and how devoted it is to it's mate and cubs.  He remembers the story of how Siddhartha won the hand of Princess Yosadhara by out performing the other contestants in a match for her hand.  As he was led to the side of the Princess, her face hidden behind a gold and black striped veil, Siddhartha leaned in and whispered, "By you veil I know that you remember how once, in another life, you were a tigress, and I was the tiger who won you in open combat against all the others."  The artist discovers that the fierceness in love and love in fierceness can been seen as a virtue, as a "narrow pathway by which the tiger reaches the Buddha."  Looking at his painting after adding the tiger, the artist finds his "scroll of silk seemed scarcely large enough to hold all those varied lives, all that gathering of devotion about the welling up of love." 

The artist imagines how his little cat feels, excluded from this scene, and tears come to his eyes as he imagines all the other animals receiving the Buddha's blessing.  He hears the doors of nirvana close before Good Fortune and decides to add her to the painting.  When the priest from the temple arrives the next day to view the finished painting, he rebukes the artist for painting a cat into the picture when he knew that the cat did not belong there.  The priest says, "The cat must suffer for her obstinacy and you from yours.  As one can never erase work once done, I will take the painting tomorrow and officially burn it.  Some other artist's picture must hang in our temple."   The artist thinks sadly of what this will mean for his life and the housekeeper weeps for bringing the little cat home in the first place.  The artist meditates through the night and sees the sun rise.  And our after dawn a commotion arises in the village as the priests of the Temple run to the artist's house, speaking of a miracle granted by the compassion of the Buddha.  The artist finds his painting altered.  Where the last animal, the cat, had been painted there is only white silk.  The Great Buddha, whom the artist had painted with his hands folded upon his chest is now reaching out an arm in blessing.  Underneath the Buddha's hand sits a tiny cat with "her white head bowed in happy adoration."  Brilliantly, Coatsworth manages to take her story of the artist and the cat and turn that into a Jataka Tale as well, illuminating the virtues of charity, empathy and compassion that the housekeeper and artist showed for the cat upon bringing her into their home.

This story bears reading more than once because it is deceptively simple in it's many layers.  It is easy, upon first reading, to get caught up in the Jataka Tales and gloss over the story of the artist.  However, upon second reading, the empathy that the artist gains through his mediations in preparation for each stage of the painting are truly profound.  He is not just remembering a story, but imagining himself to be each creature and human that he is thinking of.  And, finally, there are the poems in the book, the eight songs of the housekeeper that tell her story as well.  The illustrations of Lynd Ward and the wood block prints of Jael add yet another wonderful layer to this story.  Simple as it is, I think that this story should be read in context with a discussion of the teachings of the Buddha, especially the virtues that the Jataka Tales illustrate.

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