A Christmas story with all the ingredients to make a reader like me happy:
Drama in the form of a good human, willing to sacrifice all to save his friends.
A setting in a place familiar to us, and beloved.
A storm at sea.
An heroic cat who saves the day.
And a happy ending at Christmastide.
Put it all together in a book with beautiful illustrations and it becomes the story of The Mousehole Cat, by Antonia Barber and illustrations by Nicola Bayley.
This is another book I put out at Christmas when I remember, and I am always glad when I remember, to take time to re-read this beautiful book and enjoy it. It’s a children’s book and yet . . .
The book is set in southwest England, in Cornwall, in the tiny village called Mousehole. That’s pronounced “Mowzle,” unless you’re an uninformed American tourist (don’t ask me how I know this. I just do.) This is a beautiful region; we’ve been there, to see the tiny harbor at Mousehole and the wild sea beyond the harbor wall.
As the story goes, old Tom, a fisherman, and his cat Mowzer live in the town. They live alone together, their families long grown and gone.
A fishing village, Mousehole flourishes until one year at Christmas when a great storm rages for days. Mowzer knows it’s the Great Storm-Cat brewing.
The fishing boats of Mousehole cannot leave the harbor and, as Christmas approaches, the people, not to mention the village cats, are starving.
Tom tells Mowzer:
Mowzer, my handsome, it will soon be Christmas, and no man can stand by at Christmas and see children starve.
Someone must go fishing come what may, and I think it must be me. It cannot be the young men, for they have wives and children and mothers to weep for them if they do not return. But my wife and parents are dead long since and my children are grown and gone.
Because it was the same for Mowzer, and because, if old Tom did not come back, she would not care to carry on without him, Mowzer decides to join old Tom on his boat.
Mowzer and Tom set off and the Great Storm-Cat toys with them, plays with them, batters them, as a cat with a mouse, swatting the small boat around, threatening them . . . and enjoying the game.
At the critical moment, though, when the Great Storm-Cat comes in for the kill, Mowzer starts to feel “a sudden, strange sadness for him” in his loneliness, and sings to him, and purrs.
And her purring rose like a hymn to home above the noise of the Great Storm-Cat’s howling . . .
Puzzled, he paused in his howling, bending his ear to catch the strange sound. It seemed to him that he had once heard such a song long before, when he was no more than a Storm-Kitten . . .
Then the Great Storm-Cat began to purr with Mowzer, and as the soft sound grew, the winds waned and the waves weakened.
Night fell and the little boat sailed back across a slackening sea . . .
Mowzer and old Tom return to their village and find all the people and cats keeping vigil for them.
They come back with a hold full of fish. On the night before Christmas Eve, the townspeople cook and fry the fish and bake half a hundred star-gazy pies.
“Then, people and cats, they feasted together, until the hunger was no more than a memory.”
Sigh. I love a happy ending. And a sensitive, sweet cat who uses her purr to good effect.
This isn’t a traditional Christmas story. No Christ child, no manger, no Santa, no snow, no red-nosed reindeer.
But it still honors the best of humans (and cats!) at Christmas–community, compassion for the less fortunate, sacrifice, peace, plenty, and thanksgiving.
Do you know a more beautiful book for this time of year?