Written in 1989, fourteen years after publishing Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt’s Nellie A Cat on Her Own is timeless. Independence, friendship, and the beauty of being alone are at the heart of this picture book.
Nellie is a wooden marionette cat who lives with the old woman who made her in their little cottage. Nellie hangs on a hook in the cottage but every day the old woman takes Nellie down from her peg, winds up an old music box, and makes Nellie dance. Nellie loves the old woman.
There was a real cat living in the cottage, too. The old woman called him Big Tom. But he didn’t belong to her, as Nellie did. He belonged only to himself. Still, he liked a warm fire and a bowl of milk, and so he stayed.
Big Tom tries to convince Nellie she should learn to dance on her own but Nellie insists she can’t and she spends her days dreaming about when the old woman will take her down and she can dance again.
One night, when the old woman was asleep, Big Tom said to Nellie, “It would be better if you danced all on your own.”
“I could never do that,” said Nellie.
“Moonshine! said Big Tom. And he sprang up to the window and went out into the dark, as he always did, to go wherever it is cats go and do whatever they do.
One day the old woman becomes sick and soon she dies and Nellie is helpless and lonely. Big Tom tries to convince Nellie it is time to leave the cottage but she disagrees; sad, lonely, and afraid. Finally, Big Tom chews off Nellie’s strings despite her protests, plops her into a large straw hat with ribbons, grasps the ribbons in his teeth, and takes her off into the wide world.
Nellie is frightened but soon, as she trundles along behind Big Tom, they begin to meet other cats who remind them of the gathering that evening. Apprehensive Nellie doesn’t want to go to the gathering but Big Tom takes her anyway.
The gathering is at the top of a hill. As the moon rises, out from the shadows come dozens of cats who begin to dance. Nellie finally finds her feet, stands on her own, and dances too; this time without an old woman to pull on her strings. When the night is over and the sun rises again, Big Tom offers to take Nellie to a new old woman’s house but Nellie chooses to stay on her own, though Big Tom visits, of course.
This book encapsulates the transition from the domestic to the wild. Nellie learns to stand, and dance, on her own two feet once her strings of dependency have been removed. What is wonderful about this book is that it is a book about independence that is not some vehement escape from a cruel master. Nellie is happy and comfortable even while she hangs on her strings on a peg in the wall of an old woman’s house. The arrival of independence is much more subtle than a rebellion.
My one concern is that while Nellie says no, Big Tom persistently pushes her into the wide world. Though this push from Big Tom leads to a happy ending it also, in part, counteracts the importance of free will, personal choice, and independence that is at the core of the book. This is a matter that feminist scholarship would take issue with, and rightly so, but I do not feel that it impedes the book or it’s initial readership. The gender of the wooden cat and the tom cat are not the focus of the text at all and Nellie’s original owner was a woman, so – for me – gender issues are not at play here. Throughout the body of the text, Big Tom persistently places Nellie out of her comfort zone but the ending shifts the power dynamic back to Nellie, who has the choice to go to another old woman’s cottage but instead chooses to belong to herself. This decision is Nellie’s exclusively, not Big Tom’s.
The text and illustrations are straightforward yet the magic of the text leaves the book wrapped in mystery. I tend to favour the text over the illustrations in Babbit’s story but the image of the wooden Nellie is haunting and the double page spread of the revelry of cats under a full moon is hypnotic. It was extremely hard to pick and choose quotes from the picture book for this blog as I love every word and strongly recommend this book but Big Tom’s appropriation of the word moonshine to scoff at an acclamation of impossibility is a lovely way to foreshadow the potentially magical presence of the moon. The specter of Nellie and her magical world linger in the reader’s mind after the final page has been turned.
I couldn’t find anymore images online other than the above but click here for a link to three from another website.