Whenever someone asks whether I’m a dog person or a cat person, I tell them, “both, with cats ahead by a nose” or something similar. Because my landlord prohibits pets, informally adopting a stray dog is out of the question. Cats present a different situation. During the past few months, an orange tom has been stopping by for early morning breakfasts. After he finishes his meal, he allows me to pet him for a few minutes, then he scampers away. I’ve named him Felix, because he reminds me of a close friend I once had.
Anyway, a few days ago, I stumbled across an old book with an irresistable cover photo. The title convinced me to bring it home. The Silent Miaow: A Manual for Kittens, Strays, and Homeless Cats Translated from the Feline by Paul Gallico with photographs by Suzanne Szasz. My copy is a pristine paperback edition that was printed in 1985. The original hardback was published in 1964.
Before I decided to write this review, I wanted to make sure the book is still available to cat fanciers. I touched base with the usual Internet sources and found several copies for sale.
The story begins when a manuscript is found on the doorstep of an editor of a publishing company who was the friend of Paul Gallico. The job of deciphering the incoherent text went to Gallico. He discovered that the manuscript was typed by a cat and why the text appeared as gibberish. Gallico goes on to “translate” the mishmash of type into coherent English. The Silent Miaow takes place in the enigmatic world of a female cat.
Right away, we are told to believe that the book is a sort of self-help manual for the benefit of other cats. The “author” was a cat named Cica, a feline of superior intelligence who had access to a typewriter. Fortunately, Gallico knew Cica’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. Ray Shorr. It turns out that Mrs. Shorr was a published photographer, who had several of her photographs published in Life magazine. Her professional name is Suzanne Szasz.
The photographer and her husband were sufficiently charmed by their cat, so they took many photographs of Cica as she went about her catty days. The book is illustrated with these black and white photos on almost every page.
The story or “manual” is narrated from the social point of view of the early 1960s, so the descriptions of family norms are a bit quaint and dated, but they do not detract from the charm of this slim book. The same can be said about the photos. I deduced that the photographer owned a late model Lincoln convertible because of photos of Cica in the car. Clothing styles and home decor were also good clues about the era.
Cica’s “manual” is presented in the form of a narrative that tells how she was able to manipulate and train her human caretakers. The book purports to tell her kittens and other cats how to take over the homes of human beings. Cica is an expert at human behavior control. The chapter “Attitudes” tells the secrets about how to keep people fascinated with cats.
The “manual” is arranged in short chapters that address topics of feline interest. Some of the titles are: “Property Rights”, “Food”, “Going to the Vet”, “Travelling”, “Motherhood”, and “Speech”. Any cat fancier will enjoy the contents of these chapters.
Paul Gallico’s best known works are the novels The Snow Goose and The Poseidon Adventure. He was a prolific author of many books, stories, and film adaptations. The New York City born Gallico travelled extensively around the globe and the United States. Besides The Silent Miaow, some of his other cat-themed books include The Abandoned (internationally titled Jennie); and Thomasina: The Cat Who Thought She Was God later adapted to the Disney movie as “The Three Lives of Thomasina”. Gallico also wrote essays and a book of poems about cats. Gallico died in Monaco in 1976.
Suzanne Szasz was a famous photographer of children. She arrived in the United States from Hungary in 1946 and built up an extensive portfolio of published fine photography. Her work was featured in The Ladies’ Home Journal, Life, Look, Parents, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Family Circle. Szasz passed away during a visit to her native Budapest in 1997.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders this snippet from the book’s chapter “Love”: “And be careful of this human love, for it can be more painful than being beaten with a stick. People often stop loving and leave one. We never do.”