[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.]
At your local Barnes & Noble, the Lloyd Alexander selection is probably small. You’ll find all five books in the Prydain series and rarely anything else—but these days, if the store stocks any other Alexander novel, you will see, inexplicably, Time Cat.
By 1963, Alexander had written five books for adults and two books for children, but Time Cat was his first attempt at young-adult fantasy. He sets up the premise hastily: While hiding in his bedroom, a boy named Jason convinces his cat, Gareth, to spend his nine lives taking him on a tour of history. By the fourth page, with no further explanation, Jason and Gareth are romping through ancient Egypt and Roman Britain; soon they’re offering advice to Saint Patrick and posing for Leonardo da Vinci.
Unfortunately, Jason and Gareth never stay anywhere long enough for Alexander to turn his favorite historical figures into memorable characters, and his writing is sometimes awkward. Sentences like “Jason, expecting he didn’t know what, breathed a sigh of relief,” are oddly informal, and the emotion in Time Cat feels false:
“You know, Gareth,” he said, “your whiskers do look like the rays of the sun. And I do think you could hold the moon in your eyes if you wanted to.”
“So the Egyptians say,” Gareth answered.
“Oh, Gareth,” Jason whispered, “why don’t you try?”
The lessons of Time Cat are simple and repetitive. Jason and Gareth humble the Pharaoh when he learns that cats won’t heed his commands; they teach the emperor of Japan the same lesson; and in 16th-century Peru, they frustrate a Spanish captain who also wants cats to do tricks. When Jason and Gareth return to the present, Gareth declares, “If you think back, everybody we met had something to tell you—about themselves, and about yourself. It’s a way of finding out a part of what you have to know to be a grown-up.” Alexander’s later novels made this same point with eloquence and wit; in Time Cat, Gareth’s conclusion isn’t supported by a hasty field trip through history.
For some readers, that field trip may be enough, and I’m sure Time Cat has introduced many children to the study of history. But in the past 45 years, young-adult literature has grown so sophisticated—and Alexander’s later novels are such fine examples of their genre—that the current marketing push behind Time Cat is peculiar. It’s troubling to see Alexander at his most tentative, but I’m heartened by how quickly he bounced back: The Book of Three was published one year later.