Friday, May 3, 2024

Mickey: The Cat Who Raised Me by Helen Brown


Reviewed by Jeanne

I have been trying to find a way to do a decent review of this book, but it has been a struggle.  Not because I didn’t like it—spoiler alert, I loved it!—but because like many of Helen Brown’s books it isn’t something you can sum up in a quick tag line.  Oh, you could, but to do so would be to miss the depth and nuances which I love and which make all her books instant “must reads” for me. 

Helen is twelve years old in 1966, growing up in a small town in New Zealand.  Her father is an engineer, a champion of using natural gas which is not an easy sell.  Her mother is devoted to theatre and the arts, a mercurial personality who throws herself into preparing for local theatrical productions.  Helen has two older siblings, a sister who has at times been more maternal than her mother, and a brother who is a budding taxidermist. Helen sometimes feels lost and unnoticed.  She doesn’t seem to fit in. She struggles in school, is teased as “Helen the Melon,” and is facing eye surgery.  

Then one day her father takes her to pick up a scraggly kitten, sole survivor of a litter.  Helen names him Mickey but has to hide him from her mother who dislikes cats.  To Helen’s dismay, Mickey seems disinclined to accept her overtures of friendship and instead promises to upend the household.  It’s up to Helen to keep Mickey alive and a secret.

It seems strange to think that a girl in New Zealand would have all that much in common with a girl growing up in Appalachia, but there were so many times that I totally related to what was going on in Helen’s life. While I didn’t see atomic bomb tests on nearby islands, I certainly remember packing sandbags against basement windows and the old atomic signs to show us where to hide in the school in case of nuclear war.  Figuring out who your favorite Beatle was, the benign neglect of parents who let you explore and play without direct supervision, and trying to fit in among your peers is all familiar territory. So many half-forgotten memories appeared as I read this book that I would have to stop and ponder.

While most of her books revolve around a cat—Cleo, Jonah, or Bono, previously—it’s a mistake to dismiss them as “just a cat book.” Not that I have anything against cat books! It’s why I picked up Cleo all those years ago.  But Helen’s books are more than the story of one individual cat; they are mediations on the human experience.

Most of all, Helen Brown has the gift of storytelling, of describing scenes so vividly that the reader can almost see them. She also knows how to find that point of connection between people and make different experiences relatable, and has a delightful sense of humor.  I have always found reading her books to be like talking with an old and dear friend, and this one is no exception.

I now want to go back and re-read her other wonderful books, Cleo: The Cat Who Mended a Family; Cats and Daughters: They Don’t Always Come When Called; Bono; and her novel, Tumbedown Manor. I know there will be laughter, tears, warmth, and love.

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