Frank de Caro, editor,
The Folktale Cat
(August House, 1993)

Frank de Caro pulls together just over 50 folk tales, fairy tales, urban legends and anecdotes about cats large and small in The Folktale Cat, a compendium of cat tales sure to fascinate any feline fancier.

De Caro organizes the collection into five sections. The first, called "On the Nature of Cats," contains stories about cats demonstrating their, well, cat-ness. Here, the cat is clever, as in "The Cat and the Dog" or "Why the Leopard Can Only Catch Prey on Its Left Side," curious, as shown in "The Cat and the 'Jam'," and courageous, as "Why the Cat Falls on Her Feet" demonstrates. The crueler side can be seen in "The Cat and Mouse in Partnership," and "The Cat's Judgement" while "The Cat and the Crab" reminds that occasionally -- very occasionally, cats can be clueless.

The second section, "Cat Adventurers and Adventures With Cats," includes familiar tales such as "Puss in Boots," "Whittington and His Cat" and "The Bremen Town Musicians," as well as less well known stories such as "The Colony of Cats," "How Raja Rasalu Played Chaupur with King Sarkap" and "Catskin," a Cinderella variant. The focus of the third section is "Legendary Cats," and this section explores stories about the otherworldly characteristics of cats as demonstrated in "The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima," "The Baldheaded Cat of Kowashi" and "King Arthur's Fight with the Great Cat," among others. Most of the cats in these stories are fierce and fearsome, but they prove loyal as well, as in "The Story of the Faithful Cat." This section also includes some of the popular "urban legends" about cats, such as "The Bungled Rescue," "The Poisoned Pussycat at the Party" and "The Flying Kitten."

The fourth section, "The Comic Cat," contains amusing stories and anecdotes about cats, including "King Cat," "The Wooden-Legged Cat" and the faintly naughty "Three Wishes." De Caro cautions that not all the tales will appeal to all sensibilities, but even with this disclaimer it is difficult not to flinch when reading "The Lazy Cat," in which a husband who has promised not to beat his lazy wife beats the cat instead. The fifth and final section is about "A Few Wild Cousins" and includes among its tales of the bigger cats "The Tiger, the Brahman, and the Six Judges," "Mrs. Cuttle and the Catamount" and "Tiger and Bra Nansi."

De Caro includes an introductory section "On Folktale Cats and Folklore," and prefaces to each section. An afterword containing more information and sources both for further reading and for each tale rounds out the book Line drawings by Kitty Harvill capture the essence of the cat, and the cover is especially captivating: a cat lolls on its back on a patchwork quilt while batting the letter "a" in "Cat" in the title out of line.

The range of tales and international representation is excellent and supports the theme of universal recognition of cat behavior; regardless of where the story comes from, readers will find themselves nodding and saying "Oh, yes." Rather than rewriting the stories, de Caro uses the stories as presented in their sources, making for a rich and rewarding patchwork of voices and traditions. With perhaps the exception of "The Lazy Cat" -- and one can understand the inclusion from a folkloric point of view -- his selection is unerring.

Regardless of your feelings about cats, you're sure to find something to like in this book, and it would make a nifty gift for your favorite cat devotee.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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