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Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Book review - Jennie

Paul Gallico’s Jennie (1950) was first published in the US as The Abandoned. It’s a fantasy novel that will appeal especially to cat-lovers but also to readers with a heart in the right place. Many of Gallico’s works are unashamedly sentimental, and I feel that the world’s better because of that.

Young eight-year-old Peter Brown had wanted to own a cat but his Scotch Nanny was averse to the animals. His mother and father seemed distant; she was always out gallivanting and he was too busy doing soldierly things as a Colonel. When Peter’s father was away his mother was ‘unhappy and bored and went off with friends a great deal seeking amusement’. (p33)

It starts with Peter in bed after a traffic accident – he’d been running across the road after a tabby striped kitten when he was hit by a vehicle. Then when he wakes up, he realises he is a cat, no longer a boy, and Nanny chases him out of the house! So his adventure begins.

Almost immediately he encounters a nasty yellow tom cat, Dempsey, who brutally savages him for ‘trespassing’. Badly cut and battered, Peter is nursed back to health by a small tabby with an enigmatic smile – Jennie.

When Peter explains his predicament, Jennie believes him, simply because he doesn’t exhibit any of the normal traits of a cat. She sets about teaching him how to be a cat. ‘Oh, dear,’ said Peter, who never did much enjoy having to learn things… (p36)Typical boy, then.

When he mentions Nanny not liking cats, Jennie is philosophical about that: ‘There are people who don’t, and we can understand and respect them for it. Sometimes we like to tease them a little by rubbing up against them, or getting into their laps just to see them jump. They can’t help it any more than we can help not liking certain kinds of people and not wanting to have anything to do with them. But at least we know where we stand when we come across someone like your Nanny. It’s the people who love us, or say they love us and then hurt us, who…’ (p34)

One of Jennie’s useful (and amusing) tips is that ‘Whatever the situation, whatever difficulty you may be in, you can’t go wrong if you wash.’ (p38)  ‘Peter, who like all boys had no objection to being reasonably clean, but not too clean, saw the problem of washing looming up large and threatening to occupy all of his time. (p39)

Apparently, Jennie’s ancestors were from North Africa; several of them were ship’s cats in the Spanish Armada; her mother’s ancestor was wrecked on the coast of Scotland.

After a few adventures, the two cats sneak on to the ship Countess of Greenock. Jennie fancies visiting some relatives. To pay their way, they catch several mice and offer them as trophies to the ship’s crew; they’re hired. The crew was an odd assortment; Peter’s favourite among the officers was the second mate, Mr Carluke, ‘who looked somewhat like an inoffensive stoat, and who wrote Wild West and cowboy and Indian stories for the tuppenny dreadfuls and serial magazines in his spare time to eke out his income.’ (p91)

Throughout, Gallico provides little insights. Here, when he decides to wash the body of Jennie, fished out of the sea (this isn’t a spoiler, there’s a clue in the book cover, if you look closely!): ‘… and in every stroke there was love and regret and longing, and the beginning the awful loneliness that comes when a loved one has gone away. Already he was missing and wanting and needing her more than he ever dreamed he could when she had been alive.’ (p110)

It’s a moral tale, too: ‘He knew that neither he nor she would ever forget, that a thoughtless cruelty can be too late repented of, that life does not take cognizance of how one feels or what one would like to do to make up for past errors, but moves inexorably, and that the burden is more often “too late, too late” rather than “just in time”.’ (p150)

‘In the main, on this walk across a portion of London, Peter found cats to be very like people. Some were mean and small and pernickety, and insisted upon all their rights even when asked politely to share; others were broadminded and hospitable…’ (p157)

And, when escaping two vicious dogs: ‘… flying over obstacles with not only the speed and agility of cats, but with that extra something that is lent to the limbs and the feet when a great weight has been lifted from the spirit.’ (p139)

Of course his descriptions of cat behaviour are not the only little gems. Good writers are observant: ‘Everywhere the geraniums in their pots were full, rich, ripe, and blooming juicily, the leaves thick and velvety, and each blossom shedding fragrance so that the room was filled with the sweet, pungent, and slightly peppery geranium scent.

It’s also a love story: ‘… each drop she shed, each nick or bite, cut or scratch she suffered for him and thus it was no suffering at all.’ (p219)

And it’s a tale of bravery: notably when Peter faces Dempsey again in a near-fatal fight. Incidentally, Gallico began his writing career as a sports writer in 1920; he had an interview with boxer Jack Dempsey in which he asked Dempsey to spar with him. He then described how it felt to be knocked out by the heavyweight champion!

It’s not surprising that Gallico shows a great empathy for cats. In 1936 he bought a house on top of a hill at Salcombe in South Devon and settled down for a year with a Great Dane and twenty-three assorted cats! (His second marriage lasted one year and ended in divorce in 1936…)

Among the many books Paul Gallico wrote, the most famous are perhaps Thomasina, The Snow Goose, The Adventures of Hiram Holliday, the charwoman Mrs Harris series, and The Poseidon Adventure. He died in 1976, aged 78.

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