I loved this book when I was little, but had I known what it was really about I’d have been seriously freaked out. To five-year-old me, it was a nice story about a gorgeous Old English Sheepdog, a sleek black cat, and an old lady who reminded me of my grandmother. A couple of outdoor scenes in the dark of night were a bit spooky, but everything was all right because the story had a happy ending.
Or so I thought.
Little did I know that the old widow, Rose, was tired of life. Little did I know that the Midnight Cat represents death, and that it was highly symbolic that John Brown the protective dog refused to allow the cat inside. Little did I know that the final stages – when Rose is sick in bed and John Brown opens the door to the Midnight Cat, the only thing that can make Rose “better” – are very final.
But you know what? Learning about the hidden meaning has only made me love the book even more. It takes remarkable skill to create a work with such layers, as author Jenny Wagner and illustrator Ron Brooks have done here. In fact, the Midnight Cat As Death is just one of multiple possible subtexts to this book.
Perhaps a short summary here would help. Rose is an elderly woman whose husband died long ago. For many years she has passed the time with her dog, John Brown. One night, Rose looks out the window and sees a black cat. John Brown refuses to look, but when Rose has gone to bed, he goes outside and threatens the cat to stay away.
But Rose keeps seeing the cat, and John Brown keeps ignoring it. “You don’t need a cat,” he says. “You’ve got me”. One morning, Rose remains in bed, and tells John Brown she is sick. John Brown spends the day thinking, and in the evening asks Rose if the Midnight Cat will make her better. “Oh yes!” she says. “That’s just what I want.” Reluctantly, John Brown lets the cat inside.
On the second-last page, the three are all sitting in the living room, Rose gazing lovingly at The Midnight Cat, a portrait of her late husband staring down on them from above the fireplace. “Then Rose got up and sat by the fire, for a while.” As illustrator Ron Brooks writes in his memoir Drawn from the Heart:
Note, and think about, that comma.
The comma makes you pause. It makes you wonder what happened after the “for a while”.
And the final sentence is split across the last two pages: “And the midnight cat sat on the arm of the chair ... and purred.” A close-up of the black cat ends the book.
I don’t think I’ll be able to read this to Heidi without choking up just a little, now that I know its true meaning. For me, the most poignant pages are the double-page spread on which John Brown, in close-up and filling almost the whole space, cuddles one of Rose’s slippers while thinking about her lying sick in bed. You can almost see that he is mourning, realising that it’s time to let her go.
This was not the first collaboration between Wagner and Brooks. They had earlier teamed up to produce The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek, which also had layers of meaning, though perhaps less subtly than John Brown. Again, Brooks’ cross-hatching and line-work brings such texture to the book. He is at his best when creating a dark night-time atmosphere, yet not so dark that we cannot see the action.
And Wagner skilfully imbues her words with many possible meanings. When we read this to Heidi, the first subtext that my wife Zoe picked up on was that John Brown might represent an eldest child, struggling with the jealousy that can arise from the impending arrival of a new baby. Whichever way an adult interprets the meaning, a child will still enjoy the surface-level story, which is charming.
Ron Brooks in his memoir mentions that the Waiting for Death reading of the story was the one Wagner mentioned most often, but he entertainingly (and a little mischievously) sums up the other possible interpretations:
The English (ever democratic) reviews of John Brown pointed out endless possibilities in the book, story and pictures. Among the more interesting was Margery Fisher’s observation that Queen Victoria also had a friend called John Brown, and that the relationship there was very similar indeed.
The Germans (who take their children’s books very seriously) suggested that John Brown was a sensitive study of the problems sometimes involved with a first child coming to terms with the impending arrival of a second, and that ‘parents in this situation may well find the book helpful’.
The Americans, on whom one can always count for – shall we say – a certain clarity of vision, seemed mostly to think John Brown was ‘a lovely book about an old woman, a dog, and a cat’.
So perhaps Zoe is German and five-year-old me was American. But five-year-old me lived on an Australian farm and recognised much that was familiar in the illustrations: Rose feeding the chooks; the windmill behind the house; the garage housing an old car that looks like it hasn’t been driven for years; Rose’s stockings down around her ankles, like my own grandmother.
It is notable that John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat won Australia’s Picture Book of the Year award in 1978. The judges were unanimous and described the book as having universal themes but many distinctly Australian touches, and that it “comes as close to the perfect picture book as Australia has yet produced”.