Elizabeth Coatsworth was an American children’s fiction author and poet. Interestingly enough, she has traveled to the Orient and rode horseback through the Philippines, then traveled to Indonesia and China, and slept in a Buddhist monastery. These travels may have influenced her writing of 1930 Newbery Medal winner, The Cat who went to Heaven.
The novel is a simple story reminiscent of Buddhist parables reminding us of compassion and forgiveness. The story opens to a narrative introducing the reader to the poor artist and his housekeeper. When people say there is no money in art they were most likely referring to this poor artist.
The cat comes into the story when the artist sends his housekeeper to buy them food with the little money they had. Rather than buy food she ended up buying the cat, Good Fortune. The cat, as the artist and housekeeper observed was sensitive to their impoverished circumstances. She didn’t eat too much, she prayed in front of Buddha and stayed away from the artist.
In the way that a fortune comes, our artist finds himself commissioned by the nearby Buddhist temple to create a painting reflecting Buddha’s death. Coatsworth takes us through the artist’s process in creating this painting wherein he meditates and becomes Buddha, as well as the animals that surround Buddha. In many ways, as the reader joins the artist’s meditation we find that he touches on the essence of the animals, painting them as he has discovered them. At each point the artist mediated about Buddha and the animals, he found himself. It was both a personal and artistic journey.
image source via The Buddha’s Face
As he gets into his work, the artist is also disturbed by Good Fortune, for the cat is not depicted in Buddha’s final death. The story goes that the Cat did not pay tribute to Buddha and hence is not given the place in heaven and the honor of being in the painting. But the artist moved by Good Fortune felt in his heart that he needed to include the cat.
“The artist imagined how little cat felt, so gentle, so sweet, but cursed forever. All the other animals might receive the Buddha’s blessing and go to heaven, but the little cat heard the doors of Nirvana closed before her. Tears came to his eyes…He took up his best brush, dipped it in spring water, touched it with ink, and last of all the animals he drew a cat.”
In the end, the story tells us of compassion. In this story the monks were angry at the sight of the cat, because their faith tells us that the cat rebelled against Buddha, therefore undeserving of honor. Yet, true compassion isn’t dictated by history or stories. Compassion is in finding in our hearts to feel for those who are neglected and to forgive them. This is my take from this little novel. When we meet our faith, we discover its essence. For true spirituality, I suppose, isn’t about the rules and rituals, but about the meaning of that faith.
And as the Housekeeper’s eight song goes:
This is too great a mystery
For me to comprehend:
The mercy of the Buddha
Has no end.
This too beautiful a thing
His garments touch the farthest
Grain of Sand.
The Cat who went to Heaven is a simple parable that allows its reader to reflect and reconsider the true meaning of love, compassion, and mercy. It is reminiscent of the Christian story of the woman and her two last coins.
Winner of the 1930 Newbery Medal
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 94 out of target 35
Newbery Reading Challenge Update: 3 of 12