Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander (Square Fish, 2012, first published, 1963)
Jason’s cat, Gareth, has nine lives, but not in the traditional sense—rather, Gareth can visit nine different lives in nine different time periods. In other words, Gareth is a time-traveling cat, and his owner, Jason, asks to accompany him on his travels. I (Catherine) am always on the lookout for good time travel novels, and a story involving a time traveling cat is not one I could pass up.
The story moves fairly quickly through the nine periods the duo visit, some of which include pre-Christian Ireland, Imperial Japan, Renaissance Italy, 16th century Peru, 17th century Germany, and America at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Though Gareth and Jason can communicate, Gareth doesn’t communicate with other humans.
What Alexander highlights is the way cats were esteemed in earlier time periods, such as Egypt in 2700 B.C. and Rome and Britain in 55 B.C. Upon their arrival to Egypt, the people are worshiping the sacred cat, and immediately after their second time travel, a group wants Gareth to be their mascot, for good luck, as they make their way to Rome.
Gareth enlightens Jason on certain issues, and this example of animal instructing human gives the reader a new way of thinking about animal/human relations, even though this is a fantasy. The way Alexander does this is through Gareth’s discussion of a real activity cats are involved in—playing. Gareth informs Jason: “Unless you knew,” Gareth went on, “you might think we’re only playing.” He flicked his tail emphatically. “We aren’t. Being a cat is a serious thing. Watch” (30).
Alexander uses humor to poke fun at different groups the two encounter. For example, Jason is caught by the Britons, and the chieftain reflects: “Usually when we catch somebody from beyond the woods, we simply chop them up. But you’re an invader, and some of us have suggested it might be more correct to burn you in a basket. I rather agree. Osric, go fetch the basket” (37).
Alexander intersperses his narrative with asides about the peoples of the various countries the pair visit. In fact, it is the cat, Gareth who helps Jason to improve his knowledge of history.
Alexander’s novel is definitely geared for a younger audience; there’s not much character development, and each episodes resolves fairly quickly. However, by including nine different places and times, the reader is exposed to some history about each location, and Jason and Gareth meet figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci and St. Patrick.
The conclusion of the book frames Jason’s travels within a dream—he debates whether it was only a dream, but he discovers an object in his pocket that verifies its reality. I wonder why Alexander chose to suggest this because there’s no indication that Jason falls asleep at the beginning of the story. There’s a similarity between this fantasy and Alice in Wonderland—Alice falls asleep and wakes to see the White Rabbit.
The important connection between Jason and Gareth lends itself to further discussion, and the notion of connectedness to the past and the significance of historical events on the land are two other topics that relate to the spirituality of this text. Certainly, these aspects are not forced upon the reader explicitly, but their presence again reinforces how stories for young readers can reveal multiple dimensions worth exploring when investigated slowly and with a detailed eye.