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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Book Seven

We don't particularly like cats (unless they are well-done). Even the favorite pet of another leaves us as cold and uninterested as, well, a cat. But never before had we read a cat's diary.

Our seventh book is Mrs Chippy's Last Expedition, 1914-1915: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton's Polar-bound Cat, by Caroline Alexander. The subtitle is a bit misleading, because the expedition was Ernest Shackleton's, but the cat was the carpenter Harry McNish's. When it was time to go, the cat loaded himself into his mate's toolbox, and McNish agreed to bring him along. Shackleton approved, knowing the cat would help control the mice that might otherwise damage their stores. The feminine name was given the cat by the crew once on board, because he would follow McNish everywhere like a harping housewife. When Perce Blackborow stowed away, Mrs Chippy took to him immediately. The only known photograph of Mrs Chippy is upon the shoulder of Blackborow. He adopted much of the care and feeding of the cat, freeing McNish to focus on his duties.

Other accounts of this expedition that we have read make scant mention of Mrs Chippy. Most often he is noted for teasing the sled dogs by scampering across the top of their shelters, tantalizingly just beyond their reach. This journal makes Mrs Chippy come alive. Though he lies around and sleeps like most cats, he also assumes a great deal of duties on board the Endurance, and takes them seriously. While his main duties are stern watch, seal watch, and watch below decks, his greatest function is in providing a distraction to the crew and a boost to their morale. Mrs Chippy is a stickler for Ship Routine. The major tribulations suffered by the crew are often overlooked by Mrs Chippy for the smaller details, such as examining the nets as they are brought out of the water, chasing down errant nails from his mate's carpentry work, and even keeping oneself clean. Mrs Chippy's calm and nonchalance are directly attributable to his experience and dedication as a sailor.

The journal leaves off with a delicious meal and the warmest affections from every member of the crew. Mrs Chippy doesn't know the end has come, but we do. When Endurance is lost to the ice, Shackleton plans a 200-mile march to Robertson Island, commanding that the value of every item the men considered carrying with them had to be weighed against their own survival. Even when he hears the Boss say, "Anything that cannot pull its weight or is not useful to the Expedition must be put down," Mrs Chippy remains unconcerned, secure in the knowledge his only things are a bowl and a blanket. The journal ends before Mrs Chippy, and several puppies, are carried away from camp and shot by Second Officer Thomas Crean. Though the fate of these animals stirred little compassion when read in the accounts of Shackleton and others, now, after experiencing the expedition from Mrs Chippy's first-cat point-of-view, we are moved to sadness. Early on, Shackleton called the cat "one of the more industrious members of our crew," which made the tips of Mrs Chippy's wiskers glow with pride. He truly was a fine sailor.

This book makes a wonderful addition to our Shackleton collection. Ms Alexander is curator of a Shackleton exhibition, as well as author of The Endurance. Her extensive knowledge of the expedition perfectly serves the recording of this journal. Inspired by her idea, a life-sized bronze statue of Mrs Chippy was recently commissioned and placed on the grave of his mate, Harry McNish.

From early on Shackleton had reservations about McNish. Though the carpenter served well, and his work was instrumental to the survival of the crew, he became ornery and disobedient to Shackleton following the loss of his cat. Even to his death, McNish resented Shackleton for ordering Mrs Chippy shot, despite the fact that by Shackleton's leadership the entire crew of Endurance was returned home alive.

We give this book two paws up.

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