The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (Newford #18), by Charles de Lint (author), Charles Vess (illustrator). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, March 2013
Review by Lis Carey: Lillian Kindred is an orphan girl living with her Aunt on a farm in the hills, surrounded by a very tangled forest. When she is not doing chores, she wanders the forest, looking for fairies and spirits and spirits and magical things. Aunt warns her spirits don’t necessarily want rambunctious little red-haired girls bothering them, Lillian says she’s not bothering anyone. She just wants to say, “Hello hello.”
One day, Lillian is out wandering, and lays down under a tree to rest. She falls asleep, and is awakened by a snake biting her. It’s poisonous, very poisonous, and Lillian realizes she is dying.
Many of the local cats gather around her, though, and realize that they can’t save the little girl’s life, but they can use cat magic to change her into something that isn’t dying–a kitten. Lillian agrees, and when she wakes again, she’s a kitten, and very healthy. This is when Lillian starts to get her first tough lesson in not thinking things through. She heads off for home, knowing Aunt will be worried about her.
Aunt is worried. And remains worried, not realizing that the kitten is Lillian, because of course, why would she? As the day gets late, Aunt gets very worried indeed, and starts organizing the neighbors, the few neighbors they have, to search for Lillian.
Lillian goes looking for her next excellent magical solution. She can’t find the cats; she doesn’t realize they weren’t supposed to use cat magic that way, and they’re keeping scarce for fear of the anger of the Father of Cats. She meets a fox, with whom she forms a tentative friendship, and visits Old Mother Possum, who is a witch. Old Mother Possum rolls time back for her, so that the snake bite never happened.
She goes home, and discovers the snake has bitten Aunt, instead, and Aunt is already dead. This is her second lesson in not thinking things through, and what major effects small changes can make.
But Lillian doesn’t give up. She has a lot to learn, and that includes staying for a while with the nearest neighbors, the Welches, and learning about the harder tasks of running a farm. She’s Aunt’s only heir, and while Mrs. Welch wants to make her a proper, respectable girl, Lillian is determined to run her aunt’s farm, not sell it.
Eventually, though, not accepting Mrs. Welch’s plan for her means setting off to find another solution, hopefully one that doesn’t involve Aunt dying. Along the way, she meets Jack Crow, the terrifying Bear people, the Father of Cats, and other magical creatures. None of the lessons are easy ones, and before she gets home again, she’s learned to speak to the animals, to think things through a bit better, to take responsibility–and taken on an obligation to the Father of Cats, which may not come due for many, many years. It’s a wonderful, magical story, and at the same time, one that makes clear that even magic can’t make things perfect, that happy endings are provisional and the result of hard work and careful choices.
And Charles Vess’s illustrations are wonderful and magical in themselves, making the story even better.
I received this book as a gift, and am reviewing it voluntarily.