When a young poverty-stricken artist is commissioned to paint a picture of the Buddha for the village temple, he rejoices with his elderly housekeeper because his fortunes have turned around for the better. Elizabeth Coatsworth's story, which she claimed was an old Buddhist fable, takes place in a Japan where miracles seemingly happen all the time, but only some of them are noticed.
As the painter works on his depiction of the Buddha blessing the animals at the end of his life, he recalls several stories about the life of the Buddha, as well as legends about different animals serving the Buddha or other humans. A cat, Good Fortune, that his housekeeper brought home instead of food, watches the progress of the painting with admiration and sadness.
Good Fortune admires her master's skill, but she's sad because she knows she'll never be in the painting. The Buddha had never blessed the cat because cats are aloof and proud and independent; though Good Fortune is none of these things, and can in fact be seen often praying in the temple, she knows she'll never be painted with the other denizens of the forest. The resolution of this difficulty is the great surprise and the best part of this little book.
It's hard to say who this book is for. As one who'd traveled widely in Asia, Coatsworth seems to grasp Buddhist culture, religion, and thought, and she ably describes them in The Cat Who Went to Heaven, but not necessarily in a way most kids will care for. The story is far too serious, for one thing; for another, because it's so deeply Buddhist in character (whether Coatsworth's depiction of Buddhism is accurate or not is another topic), this seems more like a religious text than a short novel.
Coatsworth writes as though to 8-10 year olds, with short sentences and simple words (other than a few foreign names). Lynd Ward illustrates, though it's not his best work—it's hard to tell if he's trying to portray Japan or India. This may be due to the fact that, though the story is set in Japan, Coatsworth tells us far more about the India of the Buddha than the Japan of the artist.
Sometimes it's hard to see why a particular book has won the Newbery Medal, and The Cat Who Went to Heaven is one. It's a pleasant enough story, but there's not much to it, and the whole thing seems like a set-up for the surprise ending. There's no real character development, a lot of sober Eastern mysticism and philosophy, and pretty standard prose.
At the same time, you can breeze through the novel in very little time, and the story is heartwarming. Christian parents will want to point out that the way the Buddha loves all things is very different from the way the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob loves all things, and that we receive mercy from Him despite our works. The Cat Who Went to Heaven is fun, but not much else.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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