Book Review Monday: Four Little Kittens

four kittens cover

“Four Little Kittens”, a Little Golden Book by Kathleen N. Daly, should be enjoyed for the colorful and soft illustrations by Adriana Mazza Saviozzi, rather than scoured for any life lessons. Indeed, I must have been a child to have enjoyed a tale in which children are encouraged to choose between a life of homelessness, vagrancy, killing, or freeloading.

The “Four Little Kittens” of the title are born in a barn to a single mother with very little education or experience of the world at large. While being a caring and proud parent, her ability to envision a future for them is limited by her narrow scope of reality. She is also rather quick to force upon them the kind of decisions that are difficult to make when one is still a very small animal.

“Children,” she says, “the time has come for you to decide what kind of cats you will be.”

Before they have been properly socialized and before she has had the time to observe their personalities and preferences, she foists identity upon them in the form of occupation, reinforcing the uniquely American idea that “you are what you do.”

Because of her provincial nature, her already limited vision of the future is further limited by her presentation of only three kinds of individuals: one can be an alley cat, a ship’s cat, or a farm cat.

four kittens cover 1Alley cats are described as care-free anarchists, like the beatnicks of the feline world. They don’t have to wash, and they “make fine music at night.” Of course, they are vagrants, subsisting off the scraps of human city life, and they create no social value. One could argue that they help to control the rat population, but my guess is that rats and cats in this particular ecosystem are competitors rather than predator-prey. Tuff, the biggest cat, chooses this life and takes off immediately.

This would be a good time to talk about sexism and gender roles. This feline world reflects the human mores of its time: America in 1957. Of the four kittens, Tuff, Luff, Ruff, and Muff (we could have a separate review discussing the ingenuity of names in this tome), only one, Muff (of course), is a girl. This will play out in the mother’s discussion of occupation.

A Ship’s Cat is a stowaway. They are described as “jolly” and “roving.” Much like members of the armed services, they get to travel abroad, meet interesting foreign individuals, and kill things, as they are expected to keep the rat and mouse population under control. Luff chooses this life.

Farm Cats, like the mother cat, are killers. They catch mice and rats and live in a barn. “No House Cat am I,” says the mother proudly. She is “splendid, useful, and strong,” insinuating that House Cats are none of those things. Ruff chooses to be a Farm Cat.

The smallest, youngest, and most traditionally female kitten, Muff, is “gentle, playful, and pretty” as well as fastidious about her white paws. Clearly, she’s a nuisance and is ill-suited to any sort of life of hard knocks or challenges. The mother cat is frustrated with her, sighing “I don’t know what kind of cat you are,” before going off to catch a mouse for dinner.

Muff is afraid of big rats, likes to be clean, doesn’t want to travel, and she despairs of ever finding her purpose. In a classic depiction of the pathetic fallacy, she is rained on as she wanders the streets of the city alone, feeling cold and hungry and cross. She is then saved by a paragon of the patriarchy: an older, white male.

She winds up anfour kittens cover 2 a warm house with a little girl. She is given saucers of cream and cozy fires. She “jumps” and “pounces” in her “prettiest way” and never looks back to her siblings or mother. She discovers that she is “a cushion and cream cat, a purring cat, a cuddlesome cat, a playful cat, a little girl’s cat… a House cat!”

It’s a thinly veiled lesson to the little girls who are no doubt attracted to this little kitten book: boys can Be Someone, even if that Someone is of dubious value to society. Girls must be taken care of and fill their role as a pretty object, expected to perform at the will of the master. They are chosen not for their skills or their qualifications, indeed, they are not even expected to develop skills; they are chosen for their looks and their temperment, both of which are tied in to the societal expectations of their gender.

It would be one thing if this sort of attitude were confined to a time when we just did not know better, but, sadly, it is all too contemporary.

“Four Little Kittens”
Written by Kathleen N. Daly
Pictures by Adrianna Mazza Saviozzi
A Golden Book, copyright 1957

David Brooks and the Election of Inevitability

When did David Brooks become Dumbledore, explaining the prophecy to Harry Potter?

“This is also a moment for redefined compassion. Trump is loveless. There is no room for reciprocity and love in his worldview. There is just winning or losing, beating or being beaten.

It is as if he was a person who received no love and tried to compensate through competition. That is an ugly, freakish and untenable representation of the human condition. Somehow the Republican Party will have to rediscover a language of loving thy neighbor, which is a primary ideal in our culture, and a primary longing of the heart.”

Love? Really? You, sir, are no Dumbledore. And Trump/Cruz (Crump?) is no Voldemort.

Listen, I know you are losing your shit over the rise of Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz (because let’s be honest, the main difference in these two is choice of profession), but you can’t seriously say you didn’t see this coming? At least Dumbledore admitted to his lack of foresight. The republicans lovingly crafted their horcruxes with forethought and care and data.

(I’ll attempt to slide past the idea that republicans have ever had “a language of loving thy neighbor” because I have stuff to do to day. I’ll let others ponder that little chestnut.)

Image-1The roots of the present situation go back to Reagan and the rhetoric the republicans have been employing since he ran for office (remember “welfare queens” and the I’m-oh-so-clever “nine most terrifying words” statement?). The roots go back to the right’s cynical courting of evangelicals and their co-opting of progressive language to convince (white) people to vote against their economic self-interest in favor of a false morality that they could in no way deliver on.

If you don’t see that, perhaps even you can glimpse it in the spread of ballot measures in presidential years designed to encourage conservative voter turn out so boys can’t marry boys and girl-on-girl action would stay in their fantasies only.

If you can’t see it starting back then, certainly you see it in the beginnings and rise of the Tea Party after the election of Barack Obama, and the rampant racism uncovered by the fact that a black man was elected to the highest office in the land. No? All your present pearl-clutching and hand-wringing while you dab lightly at your moist eyes with the crumpled tissue you pulled out of your handbag notwithstanding, this was bound to happen.

It was practically inevitable that we would be subjected to the spectacle of a narcissist and a sociopath vying for the GOP nomination for the President of the United States. (You choose who is who.) Unfortunately, the spectacle is not just an unsettling and mildly entertaining side show act, it’s an all-too-real GOP prophecy being fulfilled right before our eyes, with real-world implications for anyone not at the top of the heap. And only the American voter has the power to destroy these horcruxes because it’s clear the GOP’s lust for power is beyond their control.

Book Review Monday: Waggles & the Dogcatcher

waggles coverPenned in 1951, “Waggles and the Dogcatcher” is a classic feudal tale of the struggle between the worker and the state. Alternately, one could label it a gross stereotype, reclassing the homeless victim as a carefree, clever tramp who outwits the establishment to win economic success, leaving the dimwitted authority figure scrounging in vain through the very same trash cans once frequented by the clever, carefree tramp, wallowing in the frustration and anger created by the cage of his pedantic choices.

“Waggles,” the sympathetic protagonist, is a small, white dog. He is a stray who enjoys carrying things in his mouth and trotting the streets of the city. It is never explained how a stray came to acquire a name, and one must assume that this nomenclature is a fabrication invoked for the sake of the narrative. “Small White Dog” repeated over and over again would not inspire the freewheeling ease and casual tone so often required of children’s literature, and the imaginative stretch can be accepted for the sake of brevity.

When Waggles is mistakenly perceived as a thief, the law, here in the form of an obsessive and bitter civil servant, is sent after him. Through a series of comic accidents, Waggles appears to change into many different dogs: a black dog, a grey dog, a black dog with a white tail, and a black dog with white spots, clearly evoking the racial tensions of the time. The witless dogcatcher, a white male, is unable to see that it is the same dog, but instead gives up each previous quest in favor of the immediate quarry, ever the opportunist.

In sum, “Waggles and the Dogcatcher” is an entertaining reflection on the mores of an America awash in a post war struggle with its identity. The drawings are cute without being cloying, and the entire piece is evocative of a time when women still wore hats.waggles back cover


“Waggles and the Dogcatcher”

by Marion Beldon Cook
Pictures by John Peterson
1951, Scholastic Book Services

Next up: “Four Little Kittens”, a socioeconomic study of geography and class in America.

Happy Easter!

May your holiday time machine piloted by a French caterpillar who is friends with a beloved musical film star masquerading as a magical gardening peddler land on the correct festival day.IMG_6263

Kids ask questions

I often worry that we are not doing enough to educate our seven-year-old in comparative religion, then I remember he’s seven, he’s immersed in different cultures in his school, and he’s already asking important questions such as:

mimes

Indeed.

“Mama, Who’s a Christianity?”

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and we have just returned from ten days in Ireland. During that trip, we were treated to a whirlwind tour of Irish history, including the people’s transformation from Celtic religions to Christianity. The “credit” for this is most often given to St. Patrick in the 5th century CE because he was the first to create a record of his actions, not necessarily the first to unpack Jesus on the Emerald Isle. Also there’s no evidence as of yet in the fossil record that there were ever snakes in Ireland. Plus, St. Patrick was probably Welsh.

In my world, nine years ago, St. Patrick’s Day was just an annoyance. Amateur Day; an excuse for Americans to get trashed at 11:00 in the morning and pretend they are Irish or care about their Irish roots. It was a day to stay home with a quiet pint and a Powers or perhaps head to the local non-Irish bar for a Guinness before 5:00 pm. Then my husband and a friend of his started an Irish band because you can’t make money playing your own songs—it’s covers or Celtic for cash. That’s when St. Patrick’s Day became a hellscape. A money-making hellscape, but a hellscape nonetheless. At least Satan gets souls. [Read more…]