Cats are not the first animal that spring to mind when one thinks of animal adventure stories. Horses (Black Beauty, War Horse, National Velvet) dominate the genre, with titles like Charlotte’s Web, The Wind in the Willows and The Incredible Journey putting in a show for the wider animal kingdom.
These books generally take the form of a journey, either literally as in The Incredible Journey, or more figuratively, as in The Hodgeheg. Blitzcat does not buck this trend. Part War Horse, part The Incredible Journey, and with a smattering of The Sheep-Pig Blitzcat follows the long journey of Lord Gort, a hearthside puss named after the commander of the British Expeditionary Force slandered in the Pillbox affair in 1939. She’s an apparently unremarkable moggy on her quest to be reunited with her human. She is not anthropomorphous or imbued with any special talents; this is no magic realism. The cat is a regular puss, her journey the framing device to a fictionalised series of incidents drawn together, each of which ‘really did happen’ (author’s note to Blitzcat). Thus we follow Lord Gort through the Coventry blitz, into Unoccupied France and home again, all the way witnessing the heroism of service people and civilians alike.
Slowly things came together, Other useful men cam in, asking what they ought to do. Someone found an old bicycle and was elected messenger. Stevo got [the horse] back into a cart after six hours’ rest, and went off round the farms with a wad of notes that would’ve choked a horse, looking for something to eat. […] a woman turned up who said she was a cook. All she had to cook with was two battered galvanised buckets, and one of them leaked. […] Stevo said that now darkness was falling again, the roads were alive with refugees.
Blitzcat is not Westall’s first novel set during World War Two. His previous publications The Machine Gunners (which takes place during the Battle of Britain), and its sequel Fathom Five (set in 1943) also cover the period. It is a period he is clearly very knowledgeable about, covering the Western and Home Fronts with accuracy and sensitivity, and never privileging one in importance over the other. Here Westall provokes the horror of dog fights and the dread and trepidation of blitzkrieg without hesitation. His prose is forthright, his language firm. That Blitzcat won the 1989 Smarties Award should come as no surprise. It’s ideal as supplementary reading to maintain interest in the period following the primary history curriculum units on the same topic.
Westall captures the apparent aloof serendipity of our feline friends in his prose; his narration is omniscient, zero focalization through Lord Gort and it is flawless. Westall doesn’t patronise or coddle his audience, but speaks with refreshing frankness. Nor is Lord Gort’s experience sanitised- she falls pregnant by wandering toms twice and she hunts, her human interactions are with adults that speak in adult voices and have adult lives. Thus we see an extramarital affair develop between two people thrown together by circumstance, the near suicidal depression of a war widow, the loneliness of the people working in the Observer Corps. The cat brings something to everyone she visits; to some she is a good luck charm, for others an omen of ill-fortune. By merely following her own instincts, Lord Gort changes the lives of those around her. Despite the primary narrative device, Blitzcat is a story of the human spirit – a celebration of the tenacity and endurance of those under pressure.
With thanks to A of Eat, Sleep, Nerd who was appalled that I’d never read this book.