For my “comfort read” I chose Tree of Cats by Ellis Avery, the final novel by a college friend who died from cancer in 2019. Another college friend who read the manuscript told me the outlines of the story, which led me to believe it would fit in this category. And in a metatextual way, it comforts me to know that this last work of Ellis’ hands is out in the world. Reader, it was not a comfort read, at least not in the conventional sense. But I was comforted.
The thrilling and heartwarming story of a little black cat who cooperates with a human girl and with other cats to rescue her kitten from an evil mad scientist. Set in New York City’s West Village, this novel is one part mystery, one part fantasy, one part coming of age. Alternating between the point of view of its feline heroine Minna and its human heroine Ava, Tree of Cats delightfully imagines the secret life of cats, which includes an ancient information-sharing network called the Catalogue.
Tree of Cats resonates strongly with The Family Tooth: A Memoir in Essays, Avery’s 2016 book about her difficult relationship with her mother, her mother’s death, and her own severe illness. Tree of Cats is only about cats on the surface; though Avery creatively used a cat’s point of view for Minna, Minna’s concerns are very human. Minna’s relationship with her daughters is fraught, and must be re-established as a matter of survival, while accepting the grief of past events that cannot be changed. Minna suffers major life changes from human actions that she cannot control, and must learn to live and find happiness with the results. Meanwhile, Ava, a thirteen-year-old mixed race girl who lives in the West Village, is navigating her own desires for freedom and individuality while faced with the constraints of being a girl of color, whose world is more dangerous than that of her more privileged friends.
In the end, I came away with a sense of the importance of differing relationships and differing points of view, and memories, and art, all being necessary for survival and for growth. We humans don’t have a Catalogue tree to access memories of the living and the dead, but we do have memories written on leaves, and passed from one to another. We have art, so we are never truly alone.
Content warnings: cat deaths, in general and at human hands; fertility loss; child in peril. Both Ava and Minna survive relatively unscathed.