Every December I like to recommend a Children’s Classic. With a new kitten in the house, the obvious choice seems to be Paul Gallico’s Jennie. This is the story of a boy who is transformed into a cat and adopted by a streetwise older cat called Jennie. First published in 1950 I don’t think Jennie has ever been out of print. It is easy to obtain as an ebook or in paperback. The original American title was The Abandoned which was appropriate for a story that is tougher and darker than you might expect.
Eight year-old Peter Brown lives in a posh area of London with his parents and a devoted Scottish Nanny. It seems a privileged existence and yet Peter is a very lonely child. His army officer father is often away on duty and his beautiful mother is out socializing most of the time. Peter longs for a pet cat but his Nanny is allergic to cats so this isn’t allowed. One day Peter wakes up feeling strange. He vaguely remembers being hit by something as he ran across the road to play with a stray kitten. He is in his own bed but instead of his Nanny sitting beside him there is a giant striped cat.
Looking into the cat’s eyes Peter sees the reflection of a young white cat and gradually realizes that this is himself. When his Nanny comes into the room she shrieks and chases him with a broom. Peter can still understand her but she can’t understand him. Nanny throws the white cat out of the house and Peter flees in panic. He is soon wet, cold and lost in the back streets of London. His first attempt to seek shelter ends in disaster when he is attacked by a giant yellow tom-cat. Wounded and hungry, Peter drags himself back onto the street and falls unconscious.
When Peter wakes again he finds himself lying on a bed in a warehouse full of antique furniture. Beside him is a thin tabby `with a part-white face and throat that gave her a most sweet and gentle aspect heightened by the lively and kind expression in her luminous eyes’. This cat, whose name is Jennie, has rescued Peter from the street and proceeds to wash him clean. He is horrified when she catches him a mouse but he has enough feline instinct to find it delicious. Peter explains to Jennie that he is a human boy rather than an adolescent cat. She isn’t sure whether to believe him but promises to teach Peter how to be a proper cat.
After much training, Jennie takes Peter to the docks where she knows that the Watchman feeds stay cats. The elderly Watchman is delighted to see the cats and offers them a permanent home in his cosy hut but Jennie insists on running away as soon as they’ve been fed because, after being abandoned by the family who once owned her, she doesn’t trust humans. Instead she decides that they will stowaway on a ship that is bound for Glasgow, her home town. This is the start of some dramatic adventures for the two cats as they face dangers such as huge rats, fierce dogs, perilous heights and near drowning.
Jennie doesn’t find what she is looking for in Scotland and Peter longs to see his home again so they return to London in the hope of some happy reunions. Nothing goes as they expected and after a painful separation, Peter and Jennie have to face a merciless enemy. Will Peter and Jennie ever be reunited with the ones they love?
I loved Jennie when I first read it as a ten year-old child. It was a book which made me laugh and cry and which taught me much of what I know about cats. At that time Paul Gallico was a very popular author famous for books like The Snow Goose. He was an American sports journalist who lived in many different countries after he became a freelance novelist. He wrote for both children and adults in numerous genres. Even if you think you’ve never read anything by Gallico, you’ve probably seen films based on his work such as The Poseidon Adventure or Disney’s The Three Lives of Thomasina. He was a great cat lover. While he was living in Devon he had 23 cats and one dog. Poor dog!
Only someone who was a keen observer of cat behaviour could have written Jennie. Gallico knew how cats move, hunt, eat and fight. Jennie’s first and most famous advice to Peter is `When in doubt – wash!’ Once you have read Jennie’s detailed instructions on how to wash yourself from head to tail, you’ll realize that this is exactly how your cat does it. Jennie has to teach Peter how to swallow a mouse and how to lap up liquids, which isn’t as easy as you might think. Have you ever been annoyed by your cat dithering in a doorway? This is the Pausing on the Threshold rule because a cat must never leave the safety of their home without thoroughly checking what is out there. The book is realistic about the dangers and hardships of a feral cat’s life in a big city. I don’t think you have to love cats to enjoy this novel. If you’ve always found cats enigmatic and aloof, this story will help you to understand feline behaviour. Besides, there are lots of interesting human characters, such as the eccentric captain and crew of the ship that takes Peter and Jennie to and from Glasgow.
You also don’t have to be a child to enjoy this book. Rereading Jennie as an adult, I noticed and understood different aspects of the story. One is the grim post-war setting. This isn’t a fairy tale London full of jolly Cockneys. It is a weary bomb-scarred city with food rationing still in force. Both in London and Glasgow, people are focused on survival after traumatic times. Most don’t have the energy or the resources to help stray cats, which makes the occasional acts of kindness stand out more. In one of the book’s most memorable episodes, Jennie and Peter shelter in the remains of a bombed house close to Peter’s original home. There they find a shifting group of displaced cats from various countries who have lost their human families or been abandoned by them. As a child, I accepted these characters as cats, now I see them as refugees and orphaned children.
In 1950 it was unusual to write a novel in which a wise older female protects and instructs a young male. Modern readers will appreciate this pioneering aspect of the story but Jennie is not some scaled-down all-knowing Aslan figure. She has weaknesses (such as panicking when she is forced to climb too high) and makes mistakes which cause her guilt and misery. Jennie longs to return to the happiness and security of her kittenhood when she should be making the most of opportunities for happiness in her present. One of the lessons I learned from this novel was that even the best of adults are fallible and should be forgiven for this. Peter also does some foolish things but occasionally his knowledge of human behaviour puts him in the right. The friendship between Peter and Jennie has its ups and downs but it slowly becomes a loving bond between equals.
There are moments of great sadness in this story as Jennie and Peter discover that sometimes there are no second chances to put things right. However I wouldn’t be recommending Jennie as Christmas reading if there weren’t also many moments of happiness. Sheltered Peter finds much to enjoy in the freedom of a stray cat’s life and he basks in the warmth of Jennie’s maternal affection. The nature of Peter’s extraordinary experience is left open to various interpretations but I promise that this story ends in joy and hope. May I wish the same to all my readers over the Festive Season. Until next year….