As a rule, I’m not crazy about stories in which animals talk, but I just finished The Cat Master, a lovely book by Bonnie Pemberton, and I’ll never look at a feral cat in the same way again. According to the promotional material, it’s for ages 10 and up, but up is the significant word. Like Watership Down, it’s a story about animals in a well-established culture with its own rules and rituals and mythology. Indoor cats yearn for the freedom enjoyed by outdoor cats, while outdoor cats sometimes huddle miserably in the cold and dream of a warm hearth and a bowl of food. Each looks down on the other as inferior, and at the same time each is jealous of the other.
Two male cats each claim the title of Cat Master, and every cat who is able journeys to the meeting place where the two cats will have a final showdown. The story follows the journey of four of those cats — it might have been more effective if there’d been one less cat to remember — and the dog, possum, mockingbird, and lizard who help them. Only one cat can be Master of the feline world, and that cat will have to kill the other. By the time the showdown comes, you know the back story of every character, the vicious and the gentle, and you know that a little compassion from a human would have changed the personalities of the killers. But this isn’t a story in which all the humans are old meanies, either. Cats are rescued and fed, they are taken to vets and healed, they are loved. Some cats who are given the choice between outside freedom and living with humans gladly choose to stay inside.
It was a cold night when I finished the book, and the story had made me especially mindful of all the outside cats trying to find a warm place. As I drifted to sleep, I sent a mental image of warm cocoons wrapped around every outside cat. I’ve done it every night since. When a book has that much effect on a reader, it’s a good book!