Are you interested in studying art with your children? Would your children enjoy a story about a boy and his cat? Are you studying early American history? I just discovered a wonderful story about the “Father of American Painting.” It is called, Benjamin West and his Cat Grimalkin. It was written by Marguerite Henry in 1947. This historical novel was fast-paced and entertaining, informative and inspiring. It would make an absolutely delightful read-aloud for the family!
The setting is of pre-Revolutionary War America. One of the interesting aspects of the story is Benjamin’s interaction with the neighboring Indians. That Benjamin’s parents were Quakers also gives historical interest to the story, as does the fact that his parents were innkeepers housing new immigrant travelers. The ways of the Quakers are treated respectfully by the author. There are no inappropriate sections in this story–a welcome contrast to what we find in today’s novels. This novel mostly covers Benjamin’s youthful development from age 7-17. We learn how he came to have his very special cat with its unusual name–and how his cat “assisted” in Benjamin’s first paintings. Here was a boy driven to paint though he had never before seen a painting. And, here was a boy who found a way to paint, while yet respecting his Quaker roots that placed value on more “useful” trades and that did not encourage ornamentation.
Marguerite Henry is an award-winning author, known to most for her books about horses. She won two Newbery Honors and one Newbery Medal in the 1940’s when her books, King of the Wind, Misty of Chincoteague and Justin Morgan Had a Horse, were first published. She was a prolific writer and published more than fifty children’s books. Her more well-known horse stories are available from Amazon.com, where you can also find Benjamin West and his Cat Grimalkin. This novel was republished by Beautiful Feet Books in 2008 and sells as a paperback on Amazon.com for $12.55. Our small public library does not have this book on its shelves. After reading it, however, I believe it should be considered a children’s classic!
I calculated the reading level of this novel to be fifth grade. (I used a readability graph.) It would also make an absolutely terrific read-aloud for the entire family! It is a fun story and nowhere does it get bogged down. There are black-and-white ink sketches by Wesley Dennis on almost every spread of pages and these could help the younger children with their understanding. The 146-page book is divided into twenty-two chapters that are named and numbered.
A four-page afterword has been added to the 2008 edition and it gives more information about Benjamin West’s life as an adult. You will be surprised by the level of fame he achieved in his day. You will be pleased with the character qualities he displayed. And, you will also be amazed by the story of how he was finally able to marry his sweetheart, in spite of obstacles–and which famous persons helped him to achieve this!
You will find that several of Marguerite Henry’s horse stories have been republished today and have retained their popularity. I used to think that a book about horses couldn’t possibly hold my attention but now that I have read Benjamin West and his Cat Grimalkin by Marguerite Henry, I can’t imagine NOT enjoying anything she wrote. So, I will be keeping her in mind when my daughter goes through that (almost inevitable) “horse-crazy” stage!