I don't really do animal stories. There are only two that I have ever read and desired to reread or read aloud to my children. (Charlotte's Web and The Tale of Despereaux) Now a third book can be added to this collection. I saw enough reviews praising The Chesire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale, some written by others also wary of animal stories, that I decided to give it a try. Really, the premise is hard to pass up even for someone like me who is jaded toward the genre. A cat who likes to eat cheese forms a partnership with an Inn full of mice, and then throw Charles Dickens in for good measure. I ask, who can resist that?
He was the Best of Toms. He was the worst of Toms. Fleet of foot, sleek and solitary, Skilley was a cat among cats. Or he would have been, but for a secret he had carried since his youth. A secret that caused him to live in hidden shame, avoiding even casual friendship lest anyone discover-
Skilley, a cat who hates the taste of mice and the feel of them going down, finds the perfect job as a mouser at the Ye Olde Chesire Cheese. He can appear to ferociously chase the mice and in reality eat the cheese. The problem is the cheese isn't so easy to get to for cat. When Skilley makes the acquaintance of an extraordinary mouse named Pip who figures out his secret they strike a deal. Skilley will protect the mice and the mice will provide him with the cheese they have ready access to. Simple enough until a mouse hating serving girl brings in another cat to help with the mouse problem, a vicious killer of a cat who is Skilley's arch nemesis. Then there is the Queen's injured raven being cared for by the mice that needs returning as well. Skilley and Pip have their work cut out for them, and not just when it comes to protecting the mice and helping the raven. They also must learn to confront the difficulties and obstacles they encounter in their most unlikely friendship.
There is lots to like here. The cast of characters is large and quirky, very fitting in a Victorian era novel that is a tribute to Dickens. The mice, the cats, the humans, and the raven are all brought to life vividly through the language of the story. I read an ARC of the book from NetGalley that did not contain the illustrations, and even without the pictures to help the words painted a clear picture of, not just the people, but also the time and place.
And this brings me to what I loved best about the book. The language. It is one of those books that would make a terrific read aloud, so you can savor every word. In fact it might actually work best as a read aloud. It is not just the words chosen but the rhythm of the sentences:
Then Maldwyn gathered himself and stood erect. Once more Skilley witnessed the rising majesty of a Tower raven. Even with his head averted, there was royalty in his form.
"You want the truth, Master Skilley? Find out what manner of cat you really are...and then brazenly, unabashedly, boldly, be that cat."
"You eat cheese." The words emerged from Pinch's clenched jaws with slow hiss.
So, he knows.
Skilley allowed himself an instant of surprise to savor how little he now cared. "Yes. I eat cheese. What's more, my truest friend in this friendless world is a mouse. And I would risk my life for him...
The way the theme of friendship is explored through all of the different relationships is another aspect of the book I quite enjoyed. Particularly when Skilley has hurt Pip and their friendship looks as though it might fall apart. Through the way these creatures interact with each other there are sage glimpses into human nature and relationships. The book is eminently quotable while not being preachy or becoming about any given message.
The average child who is reading this book is not going to get the Dickens references. But they don't have to. His character is portrayed in such a way that you don't have to know and understand his work to appreciate his role. For the adults who might read this book to and with children the allusions are an added amusement.
I very much enjoyed this and highly recommend it to anyone, not just lovers of animal tales. Clearly you don't have to be one of those to appreciate this book.