Charles de Lint,
A Circle of Cats,
illustrated by Charles Vess
(Viking, 2003)

Charles de Lint has long been creating a new North American mythology through his Newford (and pre-Newford, for that matter) stories of magical realities in a modern world, where Celtic, Native American, cyberspatial and other mysteries combine into a fresh tapestry of lore. Now, de Lint and artist Charles Vess have created a modern folk tale in which a young girl and the spirits of trees interact with the innate magic of cats.

A Circle of Cats (a prequel of sorts to Seven Wild Sisters, although both stories stand entirely on their own) gives us 12-year-old orphan Lillian, who lives in the woods near Newford with her aunt. A fey child, she wants to believe in fairies and seeks desperately for proof of their existence. But she picks a bad place to nap on one of her woodland treks, and a poisonous snake pushes Lillian to the brink of death.

But Lillian has always been kind to the cats who roam the forest, and cats do not forget a debt. They restore her life, but not as she knows it -- to oust the poison from her body, they transform her "into something that isn't dying" -- in this case, a kitten.

Lillian, who is slightly disappointed that fairies aren't involved, doesn't want to remain a cat, however, and to regain her form -- and rid herself of the poison before it kills her -- she seeks the aid of a half-imagined tree spirit and the dark-furred Father of Cats....

The story is written for children, but adults -- particularly those who have been steeped in de Lint's lore in the past -- will still find this tale absorbing. It's perfect to read aloud to a child or for an intermediate reader to enjoy alone. The artwork, too, is an integral part of the story; Vess supplies us with a very vivid, spindly limbed and red-haired Lillian, brimming with sparkle and delight, seeing the world through deep, thoughtful eyes. Equally real is the Apple Tree Man, who is perhaps something like a young Ent (as perceived in Peter Jackson's excellent Tolkien trilogy of films) would look, if only a mere few hundred years old and wearing ragged clothes.

And the cats? Don't be surprised if one pads its way from the pages to curl up on your lap for a scratch and snooze.

We mostly think of folklore as old stories that have been passed down the ages, dry pages lining dusty shelves and all too seldom read by today's young readers. Charles and Charles have put a fresh, new coat on the genre by building something new atop an old tradition. I am pleased to see how comfortably the tale nestles among its older siblings while still bearing the mark of unmistakable innovation. De Lint, known primarily for his excellent adult fiction, would serve his readers well by exploring the field of children's lit further -- it is particularly impressive how easily he manages to write with an intelligent voice to a young audience, without hint of condescension or the "dumbing down" quality that is often found in the genre -- while Vess has just the right hand to give such visions the perfect eye-catching expression.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 28 February 2004

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