Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl by Daniel Pinkwater

If Daniel Pinkwater had kept up his recent naming convention, this book would have been called The Audreyid (following The Neddiad and The Yggyssey, of course), and I think we're all happier that he didn't. Pinkwater is in the middle of a loose, rambling, series of books set in early 1950s America, handing off the narration to a new main character from one book to the next. So The Neddiad was about Ned, and how he got to Los Angeles and saved the world. And then The Yggyssey was about Ned's friend Iggy, and her adventures in what I called "Los Angeles and contiguous alternate worlds."

Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl picks up with their friend Big Audrey, who takes a cross-country ride to Poughkeepsie (city of mystery) with Marlon Brando in the prologue. (If you've never read a Pinkwater book, that sentence will have confused you -- if not, you're probably nodding and smiling right now; Pinkwater is a gentle American surrealist, mixing oddities and the detritus of pop culture into a happy mixture of whimsy and discovery that's exactly what a smart, disaffected kid needs. In the days before geek culture conquered the world, Pinkwater was one of the first signs that the world didn't have to be a morass of jocks, stupidity, and mindless conformity for a whole host of us.)

Like its predecessors, Cat-Whiskered Girl is a low-key, amiable wander through familiar suburbs of Pinkwateria: the UFO bookstore where cat-whiskered Audrey gets an immediate job and a place to live; the strange cafe that only sells apple fritters and coffee, out on the edge of town; the odd old woman, Chicken Nancy, who knows nearly everything and lives in a quirky cottage even further out of town; Professor Tag, who is gently insane much of the time, though not when he's needed; and Molly, Audrey's new telepathic friend. There's no saving the world this time around, though there is an unpleasant ride on the Hudson in a coracle -- propelled by a notably short giant -- as well as a magical creature called the Wolluf and an alternate world filled with bird- and cat-people. Audrey finally finds out who she really is -- though she didn't really think she was looking for that -- and, more importantly for a Pinkwater book, find places where she belongs and people she likes.

Pinkwater isn't writing with the edgy energy and edge of his best '70s and '80s books now -- his protagonists seems to be a few years younger these days, just barely pre-adolescents and unencumbered with any serious worries or cares about who they'll be, or who'll they'll be with -- but Cat-Whiskered Girl is a lovely, funny, warm and happy book, a window into a world where kids like Audrey and Molly are at the center of things and rightfully so. There is no end to the need for new Pinkwater books, and this is one to be celebrated and enjoyed.

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