“…where the reading light was better, meow-meow-meow.”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

I had expected to kick off this review of My Five Tigers with a story about my own childhood cat: a plump, patient tabby named Scritchy who let us dress her in babushkas, who often sat upright like a human, and who clearly enunciated the word “ham.” I planned to deploy these and similar anecdotes more out of sarcasm than nostalgia, prepared as I was to cringe my way through Lloyd Alexander’s second book. How, in 1956, could a publisher commission an unknown author to write a 118-page account of his five house cats for adult readers? With a dismissive review half-composed in my head, I opened the book and braced for a great wave of treacle.

A few pages in, I grew downright reflective. In a chapter or two, I was near-elegiac. O Scritchy, why did you have to die?

Lloyd Alexander started out skeptical, too. As he explains in My Five Tigers, he and his wife returned from France after World War II and decided to take in a dog. Only when the dog ran away did they stumble into the enigmatic world of the feline. “[A]s I was to realize, humans are not always the most important features in a cat’s life,” Alexander muses, recalling his first encounter with a purring cat. “A strange kitten, in particular, has a number of affairs to settle. There are times, with cats, when we may only watch and try to understand.”

My Five Tigers is a patient philosophical exercise. Alexander admits to barely understanding cats, but he seeks greater understanding by describing what cats are like. New similes spring from every page: his cats are like Dickensian street waifs, Civil War soldiers, and African game beaters. His cat David is “respectful as an Etonian, a proper lower-form boy in a black suit” who, when caught bringing local strays into the house, starts “grinning like a night-club manager.” Moira, Alexander’s only female cat, is Annie Oakley when she’s active but remains at heart “a boudoir revolutionist, a violator of established order, a maker of exceptions who played by boys’ rules when it pleased her—and fell back on female prerogatives the rest of the time.” In keeping with Alexander’s insistence on similes, his conclusions are both tentative and characteristically humble. “At bottom,” he suggests, “cats are like music. The reason for their appeal to us can never be expressed too clearly.”

When My Five Tigers was published, The New York Times noted that the book was graceful but unsentimental. Reviewers might have said that about most of Alexander’s books; throughout his career, he steered free of cloying sentimentality by knowing how to make readers feel without telling them what to feel. Near the end of My Five Tigers, when Alexander introduces Solomon, a neglected and half-starved city kitten, he writes that “[h]is body had the shape of a half-deflated football and his spine showed through his red fur like a string of beads.” This one vivid sentence suggests cruelty and indifference, but it also offers an antidote: a tiny dose of basic human tenderness.

Thanks to Alexander’s talent for making readers care about the mundane—will Rabbit recover from his torn tendon? Can David Blacklamb adjust to new feline housemates?—My Five Tigers is more than a trifle. I can’t imagine a more eloquent first-person narrative about house cats, but Alexander’s discovery of love, heartache, adventure, and mystery in the world of suburban felines also hints at the wonderful novels he hadn’t yet written. This book shows that he already knew how to make a tale timeless: by dabbling in something like myth.

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