Among the five Thompson books that I borrowed from the library (I have a feeling these books cost a small fortune), The Staircase Cat is the only one where he has a co-author in the presence of Anna Pignataro. After Kevin the dog, we go to the Staircase Cat.
The presence of a co-author may somehow explain the muted drawings, that is more impressionist rather than magical realist or surreal in style. I am no expert in art, but the muted watercolors and blurred imagery is a sharp contrast to the bold, confident lines and vibrant colors of Alchemist. And the story begins with a line that would capture any child’s (or adult’s) fancy: “There were ghosts in the house.” The story talks about a building, once teeming with life, now abandoned by its inhabitants – during the time of war.
While there were occasional visitors who lodge in the building (tramps as Colin Thompson call ’em), they were made aware of a strange presence in the house, ghosts moving in and out of the deserted rooms because “there was no peace for them among the fallen plaster and broken glass.” It speaks of a town, once filled with music and laughter, transformed to a warehouse of rats (like the Pied Piper himself played his dirge around town), while the Staircase Cat moons about in the windowsill, wondering when his masters/humans would come for him.
Strangely enough, the entire town was revived after the bombing stopped and the soldiers left. Flecks of green started to appear in the derelict streets, roofs were rebuilt, walls repainted, music once again soaked through the walls of houses slowly being rebuilt. Yet, the Staircase Cat remains alone in this abandoned building while there is growing life all around him. Still, he waits patiently, as if the world itself has stood still for him, and time suspended in the spirit-filled dusty building.
“For the first time in his life he felt lonely. He had forgotten the comfort of sitting by a fire, of sitting in someone’s lap and being stroked. He had even forgotten his name and realised that there was probably no one left who knew what it was.”
Then it all changed one day, when the caretaker’s daughter revisited her old hometown years and years after the war. The cat knew her as a little girl in that encapsulated time and space. This time around, she was a grown woman who remembered Oskar the cat and was amazed at the fact that their kitty cat has survived after all those years.
What amazes me about Colin Thompson is that he skilfully conveys the ravages of something as devastating as war in such a subtle, yet immensely powerful way. He speaks simply and guilelessly about war through the eyes of a cat in a children’s book. How magically surreal can you possibly get.
I would strongly recommend this to primary level teachers who may be discussing the effects of war as they explore the dynamics of history and how the war can be perceived from various angles. Perfect for an after-discussion of history lessons that detail these issues/topics.