I am embarrassed to admit that The Cats of Roxville Station is the first book I have read written by Newbery Award and Newbery Honor Award winner Jean Craighead George. Born into a family of naturalists and animal lovers, her first pet was a turkey vulture. As a mother of three, she brought 173 animals into her home and backyard, including owls, robins, mink, sea gulls and tarantulas, to name a few. After learning a a bit about wolf culture, she traveled to the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Barrow, Alaska to learn more alongside scientists who were studying the animal. During this visit the seeds of her book Julie of the Wolves were planted. This scientific passion is evident in The Cats of Roxville Station, one of three books that George published in 2009, the year she turned ninety.
For some reason, I read the author's end note, titled, "Why This Book?" first instead of last and learned that George, after observing social behavior in her daughter's loner cat, began researching cats and observing a group of feral cats and this book was born. Knowing the kind of research and observation that George did before sitting down to write The Cats of Roxville Staion prepared me for the insight and depth of understanding and detail that George would bring to this book. And, while I generally don't like realistic animal stories, I was riveted by this tale, much as I was by Ann M Martin's A Dog's Life and Valerie Hobbs' SHEEP. While I love my dogs like I love my children, I have only been a dog owner for six years now. I have had a pet cat, more often than not, two, for almost three decades and have always considered myself a "cat person." Reading George's book has allowed me to see my cats, one of whom was a feral kitten, in a whole new way and I am sure that any cat loving kid will have a similar experience after reading this book. Tom Pohrt's superb, soft pencil illustrations are reminiscent of those of SD Schindler, who illustrated Ursula LeGuin's marvelous Catwings Quartet.
The Cat's of Roxville Station begins with an act of cruelty on the part of a human that I would like to believe never happens, but know that it does. A cat, no longer a cute, frisky kitten, is thrown over the side of a bridge in the dark of night by a woman who no longer wants the responsibility of a pet since the summer is over and her children are headed back to school. The cat manages to survive and pulls herself from the river near the Roxville train station where she observes and eventually joins, as much as any feral cat is really a joiner, a group of female cats who live in and around the station. Born into domesticity, she learns how to live the feral life from observing these cats. She learns about the hierarchy within the group, and, by watching the others, she learns where to make her home, where to hunt and where to hide when the weather turns bad.
The human in this story is Mike, a fourteen year old boy who is the foster child of the elderly, miserly widow, Mrs Dibber, resident of a dilapidated house now referred to as the "haunted house" by the kids in the neighborhood. The cats are the stars of this show, but, the presence of Mike, the main human character, reminds us that these are at heart domestic animals that have a connection to humans, and we to them. More than once in The Cats of Roxville Station, George refers back to the ancient Egyptians, the first culture to domesticate the wild Kaffir cat when they realized that cats were helping to control the vermin that infested their crops. As George writes, once the cats came out of the Sahara and into the cities, "they charmed the Egyptians into permitting the cats to come into their houses and sleep on their beds and pillows." Eventually, these cats sought out humans, not for "their handouts of food. It was not even for their shelter. It was for that mysterious bond that exists between cats and humans." While the cats of Roxville station are definitely, competently wild, the do seem to intentionally orbit the world of humans, sometimes coming close, other times keeping their distance.
While George's writing is frequently expository in The Cats of Roxville Station, the story that she weaves around the details of the lives of cats is an interesting one and the names that she gives the cats and the other animals who inhabit the small forest area near the Roxville Station are perfectly descriptive and playful. After saving the abandoned cat from an attacking dog she is facing off (she is ignorant of dogs and doesn't know to run away like the other feral cats who are feasting on canned cat food set out at the station by a woman known only as the Bent Lady), Mike names the cat Ratchet and, entranced by her, spends much of his time watching her, learning her ways, much the way Ratchet is watching the other cats. Quietly, patiently, Mike waits to win her over, hoping that she will fill the hole left in his heart after the death of his father and the more recent death of Mr Dibber, who truly cared for Mike. And, as the cats experience again and again, there is something magical about the call of a human. As George writes, "Out of some species memory, that 'kitty, kitty' song" brings pleasure to the cats.
Besides Ratchet, there is Queenella, top dog, so to speak, Ice Bucket, Flea Market, Tatters and Tachometer, litter mates who stick together, and shy Elizabeth. George's omniscient narrator follows the cats as they make their First Homes, select sunning spots and hunting spots. The reader watches as they mark their highways, the paths that they leave their scent on and travel over and over to their selected spots, paths that the other cats steer clear of whenever possible. We learn that kittens have a "miaow," while cats have a special "meow" that they use only when talking to humans. We watch as Ratchet learns, both through instinct and experience to steer clear of Windy, the barn owl, and Shifty, the fox. Wandering feral male cats come through town and litters are born. Life is hard and sometimes brutal for these cats and we see the litters halved, once by human cruelty and again by tomcat behavior that drives them to eliminate potential competition. On top of all this, George manages to weave in the life stories of Monarch butterflies, barn owls and raccoons.
Happily, the book ends with Ratchet watching as one of her three remaining kittens finds a home with a loving human, knowing that Coal Tar would "fill a strange and mysterious need in both human and cat." And, happily for Mike, we see Ratchet slowly circling closer to Mike, moving her first home nearer to his and, finally deciding that, while a box of rags by the hot water pipes in a basement was luxury, a better First Home was Mike.
Jean Craighead George's Newbery winning trilogies:
Readers who liked this book might also enjoy Ursula Le Guin's Catwings Quartet.