Book Review: Dewey (2008)

The small-town library cat who touched the world
Vicki Myron

DeweyTime for some ‘sloppy sentimentality,’ a story I had not been aware of… but in the latter part of the 20th century came to be a symbol of hope for humanity worldwide. “Dewey Readmore Books,” showed up one minus-15° January 1988 morning in the book deposit box of the public library of the small town of Spencer, Iowa. The author discovered the kitten, just a few weeks old barely clinging to life under the returns. [The narrative of how the staff managed to save the poor cat’s life is a thoroughly amazing achievement in itself, putting flesh and blood (or fur and blood) into the observation that where there’s life there’s hope. Honestly, it borders on the miraculous.]

The Rest is History

… so they say. And if you like extended cat stories, Dewey is a doozie. I’m reminded of young parents who dote on the doings of their precious offspring, which of course are of some interest to grandparents and other relatives, perhaps, but seldom the general public. Or more analogously, the one- or two-page descriptions that sometimes take the place of handwritten warm thoughts as Christmas cards, telling you what a family has done for the year—I used to give these short attention myself… until lately, where increasingly I read some very well-written blow-by-blows of how former coworkers are battling age-related afflictions (or the various modern-medicine alleged treatments for same).

Yes, a lot of the book spells out how Dewey does cute thing A, Dewey does cute thing B, and so on. Even if you’re a dyed in the wool ‘cat lover’—I certainly am—such observations do reach the yawn level soon enough. But author Myron is a skilled authentic writer, born and raised in the Iowa farm country, with a more universal message to convey. I see two main parts to her message: 1) the nature of turn-of-the-20th century life in small-town Iowa (to which Dewey provides a tender counterpoint) and 2) how special and cosmic our relationships with other animal consciousnesses can be.

SpencerMs. Myron does an outstanding job of giving the reader the context of the little town, including a history back to settlement days in the 1860s and her own personal struggles. No she doesn’t dwell on the latter, but in a matter-of-fact tone describes her childhood on the farm and how she attempted to make a marriage work under difficult circumstances: an alcoholic husband and a pregnancy (followed by gross malpractice) that practically killed her—also, what led her to the library and to become the head librarian. Life wasn’t so awfully easy out there on the plains, which may be why Dewey became such an icon of high hopes for the surrounding populations. An indulged one at that.

An important date in the history of Spencer was June 27, 1931, when a fire started by a boy’s dropped sparklers destroyed more than half the city’s businesses. But the date that came to define Spencer was the day after the fire and how the leaders decided to rebuild:

“If you visit downtown Spencer today, you might not think Art Deco. Most of the architects were from Des Moines and Sioux City, and they built in a style called Prairie Deco. The buildings are low to the ground. They are mostly brick. A few have Mission-style turrets, like the Alamo. Prairie Deco is a practical style. It’s quiet but elegant. It’s not flashy. It doesn’t show off. It suits us. We like to be modern in Spencer, but we don’t like to draw attention to ourselves.”  — p. 62

Regarding point 2: As Dewey became part of the neighborhood, so to speak, a number of children’s groups would visit the library. He would make the rounds, typically, one by one just as he did with adults. One of the more severely handicapped children, named Crystal, could not speak and had little use of her limbs; she would be wheeled in and spend her time just being still and looking at the tray on her wheelchair. Dewey started visiting Crystal, and she would perk up and vocalize with delight…

“I can’t imagine Crystal’s life. I don’t know how she felt when she was out in the world, or even what she did. But I know that whenever she was in the Spencer Library with Dewey, she was happy. And I think she experienced the complete happiness very few of us ever feel. Dewey knew that. He wanted her to experience that happiness, and he loved her for it. Isn’t that a legacy worthy of any cat, or human being?” — p. 74

How do I add anything to that?  Dewey the Cat: nothing but “the better angels of our nature.” Thank you for sharing, Ms. Vicki.

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