So imagine my surprise when I came across a copy of My Five Tigers at Half Price Books recently. In fact, it was an original hardcover, published by Thomas Y. Crowell in 1956, with a pristine dust jacket identifying the copy as a second printing. Also interesting is the fact that, as a pre-Prydain book, the dust jacket blurbs talk Alexander up for his translations and memoirs alone, which offers a very interesting, and very different perspective on the man who would later become so famous for his fantasy. So, altogether a fantastic copy in rare condition for its age (just over fifty years old). The price? $3.00. No, I’m not kidding! Is that good fortune smiling down on me, or what?!
The book is a wonderful read, especially for fans of Lloyd Alexander, cats, humorous memoirs — or all three. The books is also charmingly illustrated by Peggy Bacon. In it, Alexander recounts how he became a “cat person” (a reluctant one at first) after returning to America with his new (French) wife, Janine in 1946. Settling in Philadelphia:
That first spring, while Janine set about getting the house in livable shape, I undertook to find a pet. Naturally, I chose a dog: an eight-months puppy from the local animal refuge. I named him Barkis — Barkis the Unwilling — and his conduct was enough to try the patience of the most unshakable dog-lover [...] One day he ran off and never came back. (p.2)So, at Janine’s urging, they turned to cats. And over the ensuing 120 pages, Alexander recounts the adventures of daily life with their first five felines: Rabbit, Heathcliff, David, Solomon, and Moira (the only female). Each has his (or her) own unique personality, hangups, entertainments, and habits. All of it is delightfully shared with readers. (There is one sad story, but I will say no more than that.) The other thing I should point out is how well-written the book is. Alexander fans will know (and I wrote about this recently) that as good as his novels are, they can begin to feel a little — how shall I put this? — stale? recycled? Again, I mean only the gentlest criticism by this. But My Five Tigers feels very fresh and original! There are very few of the “Alexanderisms” we’ve all come to recognize (e.g., “vexed”, “took to his heels”, “his head swam”, “into the bargain” — sound familiar?).
Also, attentive readers might notice a few images that pop up again in Alexander’s fiction. For example, Rabbit likes to curl up next to an old Irish harp and occasionally pluck at the strings (p.7) — perhaps this helped Alexander to envision the relationship between Fflewddur Fflam and the great mountain cat, Llyan, for The Castle of Llyr. And then there’s the image of Alexander practicing the violin, the noise of which Heathcliff could not tolerate — “Balancing himself on his hind feet, he reached up and sank his claws into my knees. The more I played, the harder he scratched” (p.35). I can’t help but picture Sebastian and Presto from The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian.
So, if you can get your paws on it, look for My Five Tigers. It’s a charming, wonderfully entertaining (and short), book. Alexander fans will simply devour it like so much catnip. And now — any of you have a copy of And Let the Credit Go or Janine is French you could lend out? :)