“Into the sea, you and me…”

[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.

4 thoughts on ““Into the sea, you and me…”

  1. Ha! Here’s one I’ve actually read! The cover looked strikingly familiar, and it eventually dawned on me that my sister and I read this when I was… let’s see… well, a young adult. I remember enjoying it then, but I can only imagine what I would think of it now (given the points of weakness you’ve mentioned above).

    Still enjoying your romp through Alexander’s works? 🙂

    Like

  2. Oh, the romp is still very enjoyable indeed. I’d hate to give the impression that Time Cat is a bad book, because it’s not; it’s just unremarkable compared to many of the more sophisticated novels Alexander wrote. But maybe it’s more popular than I realized?

    Like

  3. This was actually one of my favorite books when I was about eight. I read it to MondoSpawn when she was around that age, and it became a fave of hers as well. Probably not great literature, but not bad for a rainy afternoon in Nashville — or Mondoville.

    Like

  4. Time Cat was the only non-Prydain, non-Westmark Alexander novels I read as a kid–Scholastic Book Club–and I enjoyed it very much, read it multiple times. I don’t doubt that you’re right about its lack of sophistication and appeal for adults–your description jibes with my thirty-year-old memories–but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that kids still like it. And I do still employ its explanation for where cats are when you can’t find them. Having three, and a relatively small apartment, I’ve never found a better.

    Like

Leave a Reply to Jeff Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s