by Sam Juliano
Death is only the beginning. -Imhotep
At the halfway point of Karl Freund’s classic Universal horror film The Mummy it is revealed that around 3,000 years ago the high priest Imhotep, during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep fell in love with Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, a priestess of the goddess Isis. She came down sick and died, causing her devastated lover to enter the temple and abscond with the Scroll of Troth, subsequently breaking in to his lover’s tomb, hoping to resurrect her with its properties of eternal life. But soldiers broke into the tomb before he could set the ritual into motion, and he is summarily sentenced to death by being buried alive for his sacrilege along with the forbidden scroll. The subject of eternal love spanning hundreds of years is also the premise of an exquisite picture book by Marcus Ewert and Lisa Brown titled Mummy Cat. The love in the book is between an Egyptian queen named Hat-shup-set and her cat. regarded by her more as a hero than a pet. Both are fatally stung by a scorpion, and mummified. After hundreds of years the mummy cat awakens and looks for Hat-shup-set. Along the way he chances upon striking paintings of the great times many years before when he stood by the side of his beloved master drawing, making music and playing jackals.
Mummy Cat, like Freund’s film features a story within a story, as the awakened cat gazes upon ornate murals of the glorious life he once led alongside his queen while roaming the tomb covered by gauze. After a wind-swept double page spread showing a sphinx and a pyramid Ewert establishes the mise en scene: Deep within this maze of stone/a creature wakes up, all alone./For the first time in a hundred years/he shakes off dust/He flicks his ears./From head to tail, dry strips of cloth softly russstle like a moth. The implication is that the mummy cat awakens every one hundred years or so to seek out the love of his life. A Cat who moves without a breath: a mummy cat/Who’s passed through Death. The reason for his his single night return from the dead every century was to re-unite with his “loving friend” who can bring his “lonely time to an end.” The vivid murals show the wondrous life he had, one where he posed as a miniature sphinx, clawed a miniature boat on the riverbank and sat on the lap of his queen on a couch. Still the lively reminders of a time long gone also included the most painful re-enactment of all – the bite from the scorpion and the quick spread of poison, culminating with the most horrific aftermath of all: An end to dances, games and feasts/two small bodies wrapped by priests. It is clear enough the scorpion bites were not accidents, but the result of betrayal from within.
Then there are no further paintings and mummy cat is again doomed to cope with silence, dust and dull gray stone. Mummy cat comes upon a door that leads to a room that contains a “throne, a crown, four golden rings, mirrors, dolls and makeup kits” and a golden coffin, with a lifelike engraving of his beloved master. He asks: Will tonight be the night that she comes back? Will the coffin open, even a crack?/He’ll wait, he’ll wait, till his friend reappears/The queen of his heart. Alas the queen is seen moving out from her sarcophagus. Then there is a prrrrrrrrrring reunion of sorts in a visual limbo.
Brown’s art is extraordinarily beautiful throughout. The method is ink, gouache and watercolor on paper with digital collage. The murals are rich in green, yellow and orange and are framed by the ornate borders, columns, head gear, various configurations and striking hieroglyphs. The illustrator has superbly evoked the supple design of ancient Egypt, one that is lively and kid-friendly yet handsome and moodily alluring to the older readers. There is plenty going on in Mummy Cat, and each and every panel is worthy of deliberation. Brown brings a welcome level of illustrative diversity to the proceedings, employing colorful vignettes documenting the camaraderie and activities in the sadly brief time the two are together before the tragic intervention. The three tone borders are lovely and the use of symbols is effectively sparing, adding heft to the period’s underlying spirituality. The very first recollection of the cat’s life with the queen – All all around are painted scenes of his past life with Egypt’s queen is especially sublime and provocative, as it clues in the readers to a rivalry during a game of jackals that later turns deadly. The magnificent time portal to the past is propped up against a wall in the tomb, with the antique accouterments long since abandoned lying in cobwebs. The following panel, an aquatic showcase, furthers the arc of impending treachery in a delightfully elaborate convergence of harp playing, oarsmanship and and living creatures from sea, land and air. The following tapestries, featuring drawing, game playing and the final act instigated by jealousy and ambition are engineered by a series of vignettes, notable for their well-researched Egyptian clothing and various clues to the plot, including a scorpion lying next to the an ancient incarnation of King Claudius. The cat now knows the truth and enters another room in the tomb that contains further evidence of the happiness that once was, and again Brown’s art is ravishing, much as it is in the fantastic panel of the queen’s final resting place, where she begins to emerge.
Mummy Cat is lovingly mounted with age friendly end papers, a section on mummies, cats, queens and hieroglyphs and a terrific glossary of specific uses of the latter that are found in the text. The book is a wonderful and surprisingly intricate immersion on the ancient Egypt experience that works for the earliest readers for its lively and descriptive narrative, and for older ones for his dark subtext. For grown ups it is never less than magnificent. The bottom line is that it is unquestionably one of the finest picture books of the year, and it well deserves repeated scrutiny from Caldecott committee members.
Note: This is the eighth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.