Published: 1997 by Bloomsbury
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback
Memorable quote: “‘Yes,’ the Skipper continued, ‘Chippy is the great equalizer. We are all mere Men in the eyes of God and Mrs Chippy.'”
A polar exploration book with a definite twist! The subtitle of this is “The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar-Bound Cat” and it tells the story of the Endurance expedition through the eyes of its smallest “shipmate” Mrs Chippy, Carpenter Harry McNeish’s (male) cat. The book is amusingly framed with a (fake) introduction from an eminent Cat biographer Lord Mouser-Hunt, singing the praises of Mrs Chippy as the premier “explorer’s explorer” (in a way that offers a surprisingly astute satire on “biographer’s-bias”) and the text is then presented as a series of entries from Mrs Chippy’s diary, with footnotes of commentary and additional quotations from the (actual) diaries of other expedition members. It’s a lovely little book. Caroline Alexander is clearly a cat lover and she really brings Mrs Chippy to life, both in his behaviour – demonstrating “how mice work” to his friend the stowaway turned steward, Blackborow – and in his feline perspective on the polar landscape: “the sky mouse-grey, the sea like frozen milk.”
Of course, there’s not a great deal of action. The narrative covers the year Endurance spent trapped in the ice so there’s a lot of waiting around, and when he’s not tormenting the dogs, Mrs Chippy spends a good deal of his time sleeping – sorry, “supervising the stores room” and “testing the bunks.” Chippy is written genuinely believing himself a crew member with important supervisory duties on an equal, or even superior, footing to the human explorers. It’s a cute gimmick, of course, but cat’s eye view also provides a very egalitarian lens through which to view this quite rigorously hierarchical expedition. In Chippy’s eyes lower-class characters like Blackborow and the cook, who are often overlooked in more canonical expedition narratives, really come to take centre stage and the book paints a vivid picture of everyday life below decks.
As for the ending? Put it this way, those who know the story of Shackleton’s expedition will read the last few journal entries very differently to those who don’t. Me? I sobbed!