Pamela Dean is a writer of books for children and adults. She is best known for her contribution to Terri Windling's Fairy Tale Series, a modern retelling of the Tam Lin story (which Publishers Weekly called a "quintessential college novel, anchoring its fantastic elements in a solid, engaging reality.") and for her Secret Country Trilogy, inspired, in part, by the Carbonel books. We thank her for sharing the story of how a Midwestern girl became enamored of a royal cat.
I found The Kingdom of Carbonel in the St. Louis County Public Library when I was about ten years old. I didn't know that there was an earlier book. I didn't know what had happened to Rosemary and John in Carbonel: The King of the Cats. I knew nothing about life in England in the 1950s, either. I was growing up in a brand new suburb in Missouri, one not unlike the hastily built towns spreading like ribbons across Carbonel's world.
It might be more correct to refer to Carbonel's worlds, for there were two: The everyday world of England, where schools broke up rather than letting out, where war widows had a hard time making ends meet and twig brooms and patched cauldrons were sold in street markets; where the change from braids and sandals to ponytails and flats signaled a girl's growing up and suddenly refusing "to play anything sensible"—a fate that at the time I was very keen to avoid, however it might present itself. To Barbara Sleigh's British readers at least, that was the mundane world. The second world would have been as astonishing to them as it was to me, for this was the world of Cat Country, which appears when darkness falls and all the straight lines of wall and house redraw themselves into wilderness, there streams run with milk that has had herring boiled in it and every chimney pot is a tree or bush. C.S. Lewis talks about a sensation that he calls "Joy," which can be derived from many sources, but which I experienced reading fantasy. Lewis connects it with the divine, but I don't go so far; I merely record it. The moment when Cat Country first made itself known in The Kingdom of Carbonel gave me that flash of wonder, of entering into a larger world. Books that do this are to be cherished.
After all this, you'll be thinking that the Carbonel books are quaint, old-fashioned things, good for training aspiring writers but perhaps not much good for actually reading. But that's all wrong. They are excellent stories, imbued with wonder and practicality in equal measure, dry humor, and a clear-eyed and sometimes sardonic love of cats. They have a healthy interest in food and a ruthless interest in the logical working-out of the implications of magic. Luckily, since Rosemary is still in the pigtails-and sandals stage, the gender-role differences are not as pronounced as they might be. Both children get into trouble and make mistakes, but they also both get to be competent and clever, they get to try to reverse the trouble they've caused others, however inadvertently. They even feel sorry for the people who mean them ill. And in The Kingdom of Carbonel, Rosemary gets to do the ultimate good deed, by giving up something she loves very much for something else she loves very much.
These books have moved me to laughter and tears, as a child, and again as I write this, even though I am just recalling rather than rereading them. I'm very, very glad that they will be in print in the United States.
All three books in the Carbonel Series are currently on sale
at 30% off the cover price.