Dover Book

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    What an absolutely captivating, comical and clever story written by a woman who obviously was intimate with cat psychology. If you love cats, you will love this book. (Everyone should love cats!) Written for children (supposedly), but adults will also appreciate the sly and scheming humor, when Elephi (the cat with the high IQ), becomes determined to rescue his new friend, the abused and abandoned Fiat named Whitey! As with many children's books and stories, they can be read and appreciated at different levels by adults. That was certainly the case here. Written in 1962, Stafford has also painted a quaint historical portrait of New York City life. Was there really a major snowstorm in NYC back then? Perhaps if there was, it provided the inspiration for the story. The only possibility that my research turned up was this one.
Today in history: Pre-winter blizzard dumps 21 inches on NYC, 61 years ago
    That was on December 12, 1960. Here's a quote, and it sounds a lot like the storm Elephi experienced. And the picture certainly fits!

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.—On Dec. 12, 1960, a blizzard dumped a near-record 21 inches of snow on Staten Island.

The storm was accompanied by strong winds, gusting to over 90 mph, and a dangerously cold air mass left in its wake. Snowdrifts reached 10 ft. in height, and abandoned vehicles rendered many roadways impassable. Some communities effectively isolated reported The Index-Journal on Dec. 13, 1960.

Drifts of the white stuff stalled traffic, and schools were closed. Bus services were halted, and trains were running sporadically. Schools re-opened, but attendance remained low for a couple of days after.

Dec. 12, 1960 Staten Island Blizzard

Illustration from Book, Pages 14-15

    The article later states that the blizzard was responsible for 268 deaths, 54 of them from the NYC area, so it was obviously a very serious weather event.
    Below that is an illustration from pages 14 and 15 of the book. HA! You can see the similarity!! There's the poor abandoned Fiat, Whitey, and a mean Mr. Blaster, cursing it for getting stuck. It belongs to his sweet daughter, Alice. He had to take it to Wall Street that day because his Cadillac had a head cold.
    There was very little to be found about the author, Jean Stafford. Her brief Wikipedia page doesn't supply much information other than the fact that she was married three times, was in a horrible automobile accident, suffered from depression and alcoholism, yet was still a successful writer, especially of short stories, winning prizes and acclaim. Born in California in 1915, she died at the way-too-early age of 63 in New York, in 1979, after she had almost stopped eating. It is so sad to hear of the tortured lives of so many artistic people. Why is that so?
    This is Stafford's only children's novel, inspired by her own cat. She also wrote a story collection for children. The Good Readers at Goodreads had great things to say about this book, including the regret that she had only written one children's novel. Here are some of their comments, beginning with Mary, who gave it Five Stars.

Elephi Pelephi Well-Known Cat Formerly Kitten, aka The Cat With the High I.Q. is everycat, and like every cat, he is delightful, incredibly naughty, exceedingly noble, and oddly compassionate. Loved this book!

Favorite quote: "Whenever Elephi was unhappy, or whenever he had done something wrong, or when he was faced with a problem that he could not solve, he found that the best policy was to go to sleep."

    Rachel gave it Four Stars and says:

A charmingly unbelievable tale of a sophisticated but lonely cat trying to befriend a small white car in the throes of a winter storm. Delightfully dated in its richness of language and social setting. But reader beware: you'll likely find yourself sad that this is the only children's book that Jean Stafford ever wrote, apart from some retellings of the Arabian Nights. My son enjoyed it so much that he immediately demanded to read Elephi's next adventure, so I've already promised to make up another Elephi story for him.

    And here's Josh's enthusiastic review! He gave it Five Stars.

Smart and caring cat. All he wanted was a friend and he was willing to risk his life to get one. In the end, the lesson he learned was, he got what he wanted but just in a different way . . . although he thinks it was the perfect, being a cat and all.

Will read it many times when I am down. Only 73 pages and lovely old-timey drawings. Read it to yourself. Read it to your kids. Read it to your grandkids. Volunteer to read to all kids at the local library and seniors at nursing homes. Just read it!

    HA! I suppose to a young person, the 60s would be "old-timey!" I grew up in that era, so I guess that makes me an "old-timer," although I don't think most of us "hippies" consider ourselves that. Yet. But the actual photo above looks even "old-timey" to me! It was taken the day after I turned five years old!! And, yes, it is a very short book with rather large writing and a number of illustrations by Erik Blegvad, so this will be a short review.
    The story begins as Elephi is introduced as "Elephi Pelephi Well-Known Cat Formerly Kitten," who lives a comfortable but bored life with the Cuckoos. Mr. Cuckoo is at his rare book shop and Mrs. Cuckoo is out buying Christmas wrapping stuff. When Madella, the housekeeper, leaves she turns out the hall light, says goodbye to Elephi and tells him to be good. HA!
    The minute she leaves, he jumps and pulls the string to turn on the light, chews a leaf, drinks from the faucet, opens a cupboard and unrolls a roll of paper towel. Then he went to take a nap in the bathroom wash basin, but wasn't sleepy, so he played hockey with his own walnut, then went to the window to watch the nursery school children leaving the Presbyterian church. It was snowing quite hard. But when all the children had gone, he realized he was lonely.
    Then we hear about his relationship with the Cuckoos. He says they are very old. I wonder if The Cuckoos were modelled after Jean and her third husband—a happy marriage, until he died in 1963. She would have been in her forties, and the drawings in the book make them look even younger. Their real name is Moneypenny, but he thinks they're Cuckoo, especially for giving him such a silly name, after a cat they met in Delphi. Elephi points out that he isn't Greek and his ancestors have been in America for thousands of generations. One ancestor, Felix Oglethorpe, had been Mouser-in-Chief for George Washington's barn at Mount Vernon. His name, he believed, should have been Bill or O'Reilly, or Huckleberry. His first birthday was celebrated recently on December 15, and he got a felt sombrero filled with catnip, which he chewed up; a ball with a bell inside, which he lost, and a green rubber mouse, and the Cuckoos played with him all evening. We learn of all the little quirks (and naughtiness) that make up this cat with a high IQ. But something happens outside, and it is here that we learn just what a clever cat he really is.
    As he is dreaming of having a playmate his own age, he looks out the window. The snow is now very deep and the mounted police are turning red and blue in the face from the cold. But it is a tiny white car that catches his attention. It skids around, then comes to a stop by the nursery school. Its driver tries to get it moving again, but its wheels only spin. Finally, an enormous man wearing an enormous coat gets out. Not only was he fat, but tall, and Elephi believes there was not enough room left in the front seat for even a toothpick or piece of paper. He feels sorry for the poor car, especially when the man begins to call the car terrible names and even physically abuses it, finally, in his rage, walking away, occasionally turning to shout or shake his fist.
    Now Elephi is really upset. The poor car will be all alone in the cold and dark, and it was getting buried in the snow. Even when Mrs. Cuckoo returned home from shopping, he didn't go to meet her, so upset he was about the car. Finally, when she called he was distracted by helping her unpack.

For five or ten minutes he was distracted from the plight of the car as he helped Mrs. Cuckoo undo her bundles. He carried some of the string into the bedroom and some into the bathroom. He tore up the cellophane and put bits of it in handy places. And then he got into a brown paper bag that she had emptied and clawed his way through the bottom of it. He could much more easily have got out of it the way he had entered, but that would have been a lazy thing to do.

    Presently, Mrs. Cuckoo goes into the kitchen and sees the mess he had made while she was gone. She tells him to come in here this minute. He doesn't, so she goes to him and scratches behind his ears, calling him a "villainous witch's companion." He wants to tell Mrs. Cuckoo about the car, hoping she could help, but he doesn't know how. She turns on the radio, and when he hears the weather report, he gets even more upset. The weatherman said there was already fifteen inches of snow with no end in sight. It would be cold with the winds out of the west at forty miles an hour. Elephi opens his mouth and lets out a howl. Mrs. Cuckoo is concerned.
    Elephi tries to nap but cannot. He tries to think of a way to get out of the apartment so he can get inside the car and purr to it. He ends up emptying a package of cigarettes and putting claw holes in all of them. The Cuckoos smoked too much anyways. He performed his usual chores which included rearranging some dinner table items onto the floor. Mrs. Cuckoo begins to wonder if Elephi doesn't need a companion. Elephi did not sleep well that night. The snow never stopped and the wind "wailed and whistled and yelped and whinnied. It rattled the windowpanes and it bent the Presbyterian trees. There were cars stalled everywhere."
    The snow finally stopped at noon the next day. Nobody came to dig Whitey out. People laughed at him. Mrs. Cuckoo said that car would probably end up at the car pound. Elephi thought it was like the dog pound, then really worried. Several days passed and still no one came. But an idea begins to form in his head, and that idea is to bring the car up the back elevator and into the Cuckoo's back door. He formulates a plan when he notices the tag on a box that came for the Cuckoos. It says DO NOT OPEN UNTIL CHRISTMAS. He steals the tag and manages to get out the door, down the steps and outside, where he runs to assist Whitey. And here the mischief really begins!
    This is such an adorable little tale, and though certainly unbelievable, as one reviewer above points out, it allows us to see the world through a cat's eyes, and for those of us who are owned by cats, much of that is true. Highly recommended for fun reading, or to read to the children, grandchildren and elderly shut-ins in need of a laugh.
    If you or your children love cat stories, I suggest another great one geared toward young folk, but enjoyed by adults, too. It is one of my favorite stories, and takes place in Ancient Egypt, where cats were revered as holy. This one is better for youngsters a bit older than the Elephi crowd.
The Cat of Bubastes: A Tale of Ancient Egypt

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