I got the galley for this collaborative affair by writer Charles de Lint and artist Charles Vess way back in August of last year, if memory serves me right. However, that galley was missing one essential aspect of the story as the artwork, though charming, was but the preliminary black and white sketches for the color artwork that would grace, and that’s the proper word, the final book. I now have the published book in hand, so let’s discuss this work in its considerable beauty, both for its words and for its art.
This is not their first collaborative take on Appalachian folk — that would have been the superb Seven Wild Sisters, of which our reviewer said ‘The language of the tale, moving seamlessly between first and third person narrative, adds to its authenticity. Nothing scintillates or coruscates. Nobody spends much time thinking about their inner self or the true nature of reality. There are no fancy or false notes here, just a straightforward this-happened-that-happened presentation of the facts. This simple conversational tone, which presents a fairy attack in the same tone as a schoolgirl prank, makes the magic of the story both inescapable and acceptable.’
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest started life as something rather different, as it is an expansion of an illustrated children’s book, A Circle of Cats. Again, a few words from our reviewer: ‘A Circle of Cats is intended to be the prequel to the de Lint/Vess collaboration Seven Wild Sisters… …It is a bewitching little book, much bigger inside than out, and a wonderful collaboration between two enormous talents. There’s a place of honor on my bookshelves for this one … when I can finally stop going back to it every little bit and actually bring myself to put it away.’
So this is really the third work in a series of hopefully ongoing books by these two talented individuals, as it’s really a completely different work from A Circle of Cats even though it started out there. The story follows that of the first telling in that work as tells the story of Lillian Kindred, a spirited orphan living on a farm at the edge of a forest with her beloved aunt. Out in the Tanglewood Forest, which she believes (correctly as it turns out) is full of all things magical, Lillian is bitten by a snake but saved from death by the magic of the feral cats she has befriended, who turn her into a kitten. A very cute kitten.
(Digression: Tanglewood Forest is a character here as the first words here demonstrate: ‘Once there was a forest of hickory and beech, sprucy-pine, birch and oak.It was called the Tanglewood Forest. Standing at the edge of a farmer’s pasture, it seemed to go on forever, uphill and down’ Like Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood, it’s one of the great forests of myth and story.)
Now Lillian must set out on a journey that will lead her through lands of beings friendly and unfriendly, cooperative and hostile. From the seemingly harmless Old Mother Possum to the quite fearsome Bear People, from the Apple Tree Man (one of my favorite characters in Seven Wild Sisters) to Mr. Fox (not the nasty version found in English folklore!), her journey back to be a human is complicated. Really complicated. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll understand that there are far worse things than being a feline creature.
And it interests me that the Charleses collectively create a story that neither could create separately. It has the possibility of becoming a true classic that older kids and adults alike read generations from now, and I can imagine a storyteller deep in the Blue Mountains taking this story and adding parts of it to her collection of stories told on a night by the fire as she plays her fiddle.
If you love this story, and I know you will, you should read Seven Wild Sisters as well. It is collected in Tapping the Dream Tree, a superb collection of de Lint’s Newford stories. Alas, it does not have the accompanying Vess art which you’ll only find in the original Subterranean edition and that edition will cost you dearly.