One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox

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One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox

Category: For Sharing
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: One-Eyed Cat is perfect for reading aloud as soon as you've moved on to "chapter a night" bedtime stories, and for reading alone from about eight. It suits boys and girls alike, sporty types and imaginative types, readers and listeners. It's a definite recommendation from Bookbag, at least for a library choice.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 216 Date: October 1984
Publisher: Prentice Hall & IBD
ISBN: 0027355403

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Have you ever had a guilty, shameful secret? Have you ever had a secret that burned and twisted inside because you'd let down not only yourself but also your friends or your family? One of those that you'd like to confess but you can't, not because you fear the consequences or the punishment, but because you couldn't bear to see your guilt and shame mirrored in the eyes of someone else? One of those that spawns a lie and then another lie and then another lie? Ned Wallis has a secret like that:

"What mattered was that he had a strange new life his parents knew nothing about and one that he must continue to keep hidden from them. Each lie he told them made the secret bigger, and that meant even more lies. He didn't know how to stop."

Poor Ned; he has lied to his father about his acts, and also to his mother. He had always been open with his parents before. It's even worse for him than it is for many of us, for Ned is an only child. His father is a minister and his mother is an invalid, confined to bed suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis. Their household is completed by the self-important housekeeper, Mrs Scallop, who is boastful and spiteful to Ned, but kind to mother. They live in a rambling inherited homestead inconveniently far from the church, rather than the parsonage just a hundred yards away. Ned is a quiet, introspective child with an inquisitive nature. He spends much of his time in observation: of people, of animals, of nature and he is struggling to understand the adult sadness and tension that his mother's illness has brought into the house.

Just before Ned's birthday, the Wallis' receive an unexpected visit from Uncle Hilary, the maverick traveller of the family. He has brought an air rifle as a gift for Ned's eleventh birthday, and Ned is thrilled. However, his father feels that Ned is too young to use the rifle, and puts the gun in the attic, telling his son that he knows it's disappointing, but that he trusts him not to try shooting until he is fourteen. Ned is so disappointed and he burns with resentment. And from that careless gift, and the smouldering anger at his father's rejection of it, comes the beginning of Ned's shameful secret. He is obsessed by the thought of the gun. Quietly, late at night, he goes to the attic, his heart thudding. He takes the gun out of the house, wanting only to feel its weight on his shoulder, to hold it up to his eye and sight along the barrel, to test what it will be like:

"As he blinked and opened his right eye wide, he saw a dark shadow... For a split second it looked alive. Before he could think, his finger had pressed the trigger."

There is a movement, then silence. Nothing.

Just a few short days after Ned's secret night out in the woods with the gun, a feral cat shows up outside Mr Scully's house while he's there, helping with the chores. One of its eyes is missing and the gaping socket is still bloody. Ned is convinced that it was he who shot the cat. Consumed by guilt and regret Ned begins to spend more and more time with Mr Scully, and together they try to take care of the cat; feeding it scraps and providing it with a warm place to sleep. His parents, and especially his acute, sensitive mother, are aware that all is not well with their son but, of course, Ned cannot tell them what the matter is. Ned is not only ashamed but also fears to intrude on the adult concerns of his mother's illness. He doesn't understand the tensions the illness is causing about where they should live, and what they should do, and he can't bear to see the suffering of either of his parents. Like many children, he feels afraid to confront the sadness in his home and sometimes turns away from his mother when she is particularly ill:

"There were mornings when no sooner had he entered her room than he turned right around and left... those were the mornings when her fingers were as twisted as the roots of pine trees, and he would tiptoe away, feeling as if his own bones were turning into water."

How sad and confusing the adult world sometimes is to a child. And how Ned's secret compounds it for him. What is in Ned is in every child really - you'll recognise it in your own children and you'll recognise it from your own childhood too. Because they share the care of the cat, Ned turns to his elderly neighbour for a friendship that doesn't bear a burden of guilt. He and Mr Scully become firm friends until one day the old man has a stroke and is taken away to hospital. Ned must try to help the cat alone. And that's all you're getting.

A book is good when it comment on experience with profundity and intelligence and this comment leads us to some glimpse of the truth about human experience - whether we can put it into words or not. One-Eyed Cat is good. It does that. It is not easy to do when writing for children, for with children the story, the plot if you like, is paramount. Children need a constant flow of narrative and some humorous diversion. You'd love the awful Mrs Scallop:

"Ned didn't think he'd met anyone who said so many nice things about herself."

Paula Fox is a great stylist, writing with penetrating vision and a deep and sympathetic understanding of children, one that will transport adults back to their own childhood and, much more importantly, strike a chord with the little ones. She maintains Ned's viewpoint throughout One-Eyed Cat while writing with a adult's compassion and maturity. Fox achieves that almost poetic use of the just the right word - in just the right place - to make you see more clearly without a lecture. And that is the essence of good style for children; to write in a way that is both memorable and unobtrusive, to tell a good story without ever coming between them and the book. And she never does.

I think that One-Eyed Cat is one of those rare books that strikes both adults and children with equal intensity - reading it aloud to my children, I felt like a child again myself. I remembered exactly how it was to feel ashamed of a childish sin and to be afraid to confess it, and I remembered exactly how it was to feel hurt and confused by those adult things I didn't understand. For parents it's a salutary lesson in how vital it is to include your own children in everything that happens around them, and in understanding why they react to situations as they do. For children it's a lovely story of a young boy, a wild cat and the friendship he finds with a very old man.

It's a beautiful book.

For another poetic book about man's relationship with animals, try our review of Call Of The Wild, by Jack London.

Buy One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox at Amazon.com.


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Magda said:

a salutary lesson in how vital it is to include your own children in everything that happens around them

...all the time reading this review I was wondering, do you think we really should? Do you think there should be no subjects 'not for children'; discussed behind closed doors when the little uns are asleep? And if yes, is it because they are bound to notice something anyway (even if just the mood) or because it's a Good Thing To Do anyway?

We are too lazy and too volatile to do that even if we wanted (keeping hush, I mean) so we are necessarily forced to explain everything to Katie on her level so she doesn't get too confused; and I think my parents were like that too, but I know of many families where it's normal; and I can think of a few reasons not connected to the child's wellbeing for keeping things secret, not the smallest of them the fact that small children are not capable of keeping a secret themselves and you don't necessarily want all your family issues discussed by your child's teachers or her friends' parents.

Jill replied:

Yes, I can see what you mean. However, not everything in a parent's life specifically affects a child's life. I probably wouldn't share financial details with Conor and Kieran, but I would share them generally if we were particularly short of money, say, and their wants were being curtailed because of it. I think if you can't get over personal embarrassment by child, you're probably utterly buggered as a parent all round!