Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dewey: the Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World (non-fiction book) by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

I had never heard of Dewey before this book came out, although I had heard of library cats. Myron's assertion, throughout the book, that people far and wide had heard of Dewey and, in fact, sometimes visited her library in Spencer, Iowa just to see him was a little hard for me to believe. Still, just because I hadn't heard of Dewey didn't mean that all those other people hadn't.

Anyway, although I rarely read warm, fuzzy animal stories, because I don't like their tendency to make me cry, I decided to read this one. As a librarian, I felt like I should probably read this book, since it focused on a library cat. I enjoyed it, for the most part, but, yes, it did make me cry.

Synopsis:

On one especially cold morning in Spencer, Iowa, Vicki Myron, the director of the Spencer Public Library, opens the library book drop and finds a tiny kitten. The kitten had been in the book drop long enough that he not longer felt warm enough to be a living being, but Myron and the others at her library took care of the little kitten and took him to the vet.

Amazingly, the kitten, who is eventually given the name Dewey Readmore Books, survives, although it takes him a long time to recover (his feet are frostbitten). Even more amazingly, Myron gets permission to keep Dewey as the library's mascot - Dewey becomes Spencer Public Library's library cat.

For the next 19 years, Dewey greets and spends time with library patrons, forms bonds with people, and brings the library and the town of Spencer more recognition than anyone ever expected. People don't just come from all over Iowa, but all over the United States, to see Dewey, and Dewey is even in a Japanese documentary about cats.

The book isn't just about Dewey, though. It's about small town life, the Spencer Public Library, and Vicki Myron. Myron writes about what it's taken for Spencer to survive and what it's taken for the library to survive and thrive. Although Dewey wasn't solely responsible for both the town and the library making it through tough times, Myron believes that he definitely played a part. When unemployment rates rose, Dewey may not have gotten unemployed Spencer Public Library patrons jobs, but he was there to give them company and comfort while they conducted their job searches. For those who had to move away from Spencer, Dewey was a good memory they could take with them.

Myron writes about her own family and life. Several members of her family, and Vicki Myron herself, have had to deal with cancer. Myron had to deal with being married to an alcoholic husband. For years, she also had a rocky relationship with her daughter. When Myron brought Dewey home for the holidays, Dewey and Myron's daughter formed a bond that became something Myron and her daughter could share together - when it was hard to talk about other things, instead of ceasing to talk to each other at all, they could at least talk about Dewey.

Well, that's not nearly all of it, but I'm butchering the emotional impact of the book. This probably isn't a book that will rock most people's worlds, but quite a few people will likely be able to find something to identify with in it.

Commentary:

I'm a pet lover, a cat lover, and a person who has had a family member die of cancer. There was a lot for me to identify with in this book, even though I don't have the warm fuzzy feelings for small town America that Myron has and I've never been to Spencer. I read this book mainly because I'm a cat lover.

The parts I enjoyed the most, even as some of them made me roll my eyes, were the parts with Dewey. Myron describes him as a very friendly, very charismatic cat. The parts where I rolled my eyes were the parts where Myron described him in ways that made him seem more special than other cats. Apparently, Dewey was the best cat in the universe, and he understood exactly what his job as the library's official library cat was. Right. Myron occasionally admits that Dewey wasn't completely perfect (he was a picky eater and suffered from constipation, for instance), but the book as a whole tells a different story. I roll my eyes because probably everybody feels that way about at least one, if not all, of the pets they've had. My family used to have a cat who seemed like she could understand us, and I used to have a pet rat who would curl up on my lap and fall asleep. To Myron, Dewey was one of a kind. That's probably true, but I'd have to say that he was really just one special pet out of many.

Myron does admit that, although Dewey was the library's cat, he was also her pet. She cared for him like he was her personal pet. There was a bit of eye rolling again on my part, when Myron wrote about library patrons who all felt they had a special bond with Dewey, telling themselves that Dewey went to other patrons because that was part of his job. She writes that, and yet, of course, her bond with Dewey is special, more special than his bonds with others (except her daughter, who had an even more special bond with him). I wonder if there were any Spencer residents (or staff members at the library) who were upset about their own relationships with Dewey being minimized. Well, maybe not exactly minimized, but it's like every sentence or paragraph in the book has to be taken on its own - it's not possible for everyone to have the "most special" bond with Dewey, otherwise.

Even though I picked up the book because I'm a cat lover, the bits about Spencer were still interesting and certainly related to Dewey's story. The bits about Myron's own life and her personal tragedies were, for the most part, also related to Dewey's story, in that Myron was the one telling Dewey's story, but... Although a member of my family has died of cancer, I didn't pick this book up to read about others' cancer stories. I'm sure there are those for whom the parts of the book specifically about Myron were some of the most interesting, but that wasn't the case for me. I don't generally read memoirs, because it feels awkward to me, reading about others' personal lives.

Overall, I liked this book. This isn't a book I would reread, and there were parts I didn't like as much as others, but the cat lover in me enjoyed reading about Dewey. Myron's experience with Dewey reminded me of my experiences with pets I've had in the past and pets I have in the present. For those who need the warning, this book does deal with Dewey's death. When I read about Dewey getting old and eventually having to be put to sleep, I remembered the deaths of all the pets I've ever had. When Myron wrote about Dewey's relationship with her daughter, I remembered one of my family's cats, who had a similar relationship with me. I used up a lot of tissues reading this book.

The list below could include just about any animal or cat memoir, but, being only one person and not wishing to spend forever writing this post, I have only listed a few titles.

Read-alikes:
  • Amazing Gracie: A Dog's Tale (non-fiction book) by Dan Dye and Mark Beckloff - Dan, sad over the loss of his last dog and unhappy with his job, takes home Gracie, a deaf and partially blind albino Great Dane puppy. The book shows how, over the next 10 years, Dan's relationship with Gracie changes his life and inspires him to do work that he actually enjoys. Although it's not about a cat, animal lovers who enjoyed Dewey's story might like this one.
  • Clara: The Early Years: The Story of the Pug Who Ruled My Life (non-fiction book) by Margo Kaufman - Kaufman knew after her first meeting with Clara that she was a bit different. This book hilariously describes how Clara came to rule Kaufman's household and steal the show at book tours. There's some conflict when Kaufman and her husband decide to adopt a child, but things work out in the end. Again, not about a cat, but, again, animal lovers who enjoyed Dewey's story might like this.
  • Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog (non-fiction book) by John Grogan - I know, I know, another book with a dog. I promise, there's going to be a book with a cat in this list, really. Anyway, John Grogan and his wife Jenny decide to get a puppy, sort of as a way to ease into parenthood. The puppy, Marley, grows up into a hyperactive but lovable dog. Grogan writes about life with Marley, his wife, and the kids he and his wife eventually have. Animal lovers who liked Dewey's story might like this funny memoir (although, be warned, this one will require tissues, too).
  • The Cat Who Went to Paris (non-fiction book) by Peter Gethers - This is the first book in a trilogy about Norton, a Scottish Fold who won the previously cat-fearing Gethers over. Those who'd like another story about a Very Special Kitty might want to try this book.
  • A Lion Called Christian: The True Story of the Remarkable Bond Between Two Friends and a Lion (non-fiction book) by Anthony Bourke and John Rendall - Anthony "Ace" Bourke and John Rendall, two visitors to London from Australia in 1969, purchased a lion cub they named Christian from the pet department of Harrods. It quickly became clear that they couldn't keep him forever, so, when they eventually had the opportunity to have Christian flown to Kenya, they took it. A year later, John and Ace went to Kenya themselves and received a surprising and touching welcome from Christian, even though he was, by then, fully integrated into life in his new home with other lions. You've probably seen the video of their reunion on YouTube. Anyway, animal lovers who enjoyed Dewey's story might want to try this book.

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