The Cats of Tanglewood Forest: Adventures Amongst the Animal People
In my last review, I expressed a concern that I may have imagined my love for the writing of Charles De Lint, an author I had loved earlier but hadn't been particularly impressed with in "Moonheart." However, after reading this book, a young adult novel adapted from a previous children's picture book he wrote, I'm glad to report that I still do in fact love De Lint's voice, characters, and stories, and this story was overall a delightful American fairytale.
Taking place somewhere in rural America, Lillian Kindred is a precocious orphan living with her aunt on a farm that abuts on the titular Tanglewood Forest. She often ventures into the forest in her free time, searching for fairies and leaving food for the local tree spirit, the Apple Tree Man, and the feral cats who live in the forest. One day, when venturing deep into the forest, she falls asleep under the roots of a tree and accidentally disturbs a snake, which bites her.
The cats, who wish to repay her for the kindnesses she showed them, decide to save her life by transforming her into something that's not dying. When Lillian wakes up, she has been transformed into a kitten.
While thankful to the cats for saving her life, she realizes that her aunt can no longer understand her, and she endeavors to be turned back to a girl, assisted by a mischievous but apparently good-hearted fox who claims his name is TH (for "Truthful and Handsome") Reynolds, who helps her find the mysterious possum witch who can help her. But even after Lillian manages to be turned back into a girl, she discovers that's not the end of this story....
Charles De Lint is excellent at writing stories that just make you want to read more and more. This book was an insanely fast read, as Lillian goes from one scrape to another, I also loved the underlying mythology of the story, where the leader of the feral cats is an immense black panther that very well be as old as the world, the old medicine woman on the local Kickaha reservation is possibly an ancient spider whose family created the stars, and there's a whole backwoods community of extremely grumpy and hairy people who very well may be descended from bears.
Lillian is your typical YA heroine, precocious, brave, and trying to do what's right. I liked how she was able to adapt to all of the various things the plot throws at her, although I was somewhat annoyed by her refusal to realize something that the audience figures out within the first five chapters or so. All in all, however, she was an interesting character, and I think I would enjoy future books featuring her if De Lint decided to write them.
There is only one major flaw to the story, which is that De Lint pulls one of the plot twists you're never supposed to pull in a story, because it invalidates what it comes before it. De Lint tries to sell how it doesn't invalidate the story he'd just told, and it almost works, but it still cheapens the story in ways that could have or should have been avoided.
Finally, I cannot end the review without mentioning Charles Vess' illustrations, which are beautiful. His ability to imbue magic into normally mundane creatures is amazing, and he and De Lint complement each other amazingly well. I can only hope the two have future collaborations.
All in all, although I disliked the twist towards the end, this is a great book, full of adventure, excitement, and magic. You should definitely check this out if you can track it down. I also hope that De Lint comes back to the stories of Lillian Kindred, as she is both a fascinating character and lives in a fascinating world.