Willie Morris,
My Cat Spit McGee
(Vintage, 2000)

Willie Morris, a noted American writer of numerous works of fiction, memoirs and essays, and for many years a creative editor of Harper's magazine, has written a reminiscence about cats, focusing in particular on one special eponymous cat, in the book My Cat Spit McGee completed shortly before the author died in 1999.

Morris spent most of his life in rural Mississippi, as a dog person, recording this in his exceedingly popular book, My Dog Skip which mostly celebrated the beloved canine companion of his boyhood and which was made into a successful film. It was only in his mature years, after he married his second wife (who was a cat person) that Morris had the opportunity to get to live with felines. The latest in a succession of cherished canines had just passed on from old age and his spouse surprised him with a rescued white cat for a Christmas present. The cat soon gave birth to the titular Spit McGee (also white, with one blue and one gold eye), named after a boy protagonist in one of the children's books Morris wrote -- a kitten whose life Morris saved when it was 3 weeks old, thus forging a bond that would last for life.

Written in a vivid conversational style, Morris's book eloquently recounts a series of linked cat tales that describe the growing attachment the author formed not only to Spit but to his three siblings (and various strays that passed through) as well. The anecdotes, steeped in the atmosphere of the bucolic small town of Jackson, Mississippi (and near his boyhood home of Yazoo), where Morris spent nearly his entire life, sparkle with humor as often as they touch upon Spit's aura of mystery. The writing is perceptive, poignant and heartwarming as Morris attempts to fathom the cat's interest in the telephone, his eccentric eating habits, his apparently psychic abilities, his uniquely feline communicative gestures (many of which have to do with the language of the tail) and his amusing sleeping positions mostly on his back with all four feet in the air. Morris also muses over his eight years (as of his writing), of association with Spit who embodies such typical feline traits as perpetual inquisitiveness and resourcefulness, makes general comments on feline-human history, ponders how the behavior of cats has been irrevocably influenced by their long-ago jungle origin and notes how they differ from dogs and yet are no less lovable after all.

A particularly memorable portion of the narrative describes the fascinating and humorous antics of the Hollywood cast and crew that came to Morris's area for authentic locations to use in the filming of the movie My Dog Skip. Observing the actors, the building facades, the props and the cars all recreating the 1940s period of the project, Morris experienced a deja vu of the most impressive kind. That it took eight trained terriers to recreate the actions for Skip as required by the script, also fascinated Morris.

For all of Morris' testimonials of affection for Spit and the other cats that followed, he often neglected to have his pets neutered, typical of southern rural culture, a significantly disturbing note in this otherwise captivating book filled with regional lore and background details. The colorful Mississippi backdrop for charming and moving reminiscences, sentimental but not maudlin, makes My Cat Spit McGee a classic cat memoir to be cherished by animal lovers, fans of Willie Morris' work and admirers of great writing in general. The lovely black-and-white pencil sketches by Mercedes Everett that adorn the title page and each chapter heading adds to the book's appeal.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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