Title: Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin
Author: Marguerite Henry
Major Themes: Art, Benjamin West, Drawing, Painting, Pennsylvania, Quakers
Synopsis: His cat helped Benjamin West to become the most famous artist from early America.
Many, many years ago, I read a story in an old reader about Benjamin West and how, as a young boy, he was drawing a picture. The Indians who were with him thought the picture needed color, so they showed him how to use colored earth to make paints. A number of years after that, I happened upon a copy of Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin in a library that had a lot of lovely older books, and loved the whole story. Now, I’ve finally been able to get my hands on a copy of this beautiful book so I could read it to my children.
Benjamin West was the youngest of at least ten children in a Quaker family in Pennsylvania before the American Revolution. His father was the proprietor of an inn, so Benjamin was used to people coming and going at all hours. One night, though, he woke with a start to the sound of a boy crying. What could be wrong? Soon, he and the young German boy who was traveling with his parents to the frontier were close friends as they tried to save the life of a tiny black kitten. When Benjamin’s cat adopted the orphan, he was left at the inn when the German family moved on the next day. Soon, Grimalkin, as Benjamin named his new pet, was a beautiful, big cat who believed he was personally responsible for running the entire establishment!
However, this is not only a story about a cat. Benjamin had a nearly uncontrollable urge to draw pictures—but his Quaker father frowned on such worldliness. He finally allowed Benjamin to draw when his work was done, but would the work ever be done? And when it was, Benjamin was frustrated to have only black and red ink. How could he find color? That was where the Indians came into the story—but then Benjamin was frustrated because he couldn’t figure out how to apply the paint. And that is where Grimalkin is so important in the story! You’ll have to read the book to find out how a cat helped Benjamin West to become America’s first great artist, so great that he became court painter to King George III.
This is a very sweet story. We thoroughly enjoyed it. My 5-year-old, the one I had in mind when I chose the book to read, said he liked it. The 14-year-old, who, of course, listened in as well, said he really liked it, too. He enjoyed getting a glimpse into Quaker life, and liked the history in the book. We agreed that Marguerite Henry has done a wonderful job of bringing this time and place to life. Wesley Dennis’s beautiful and humorous drawings really add to the charm of the book. I highly recommend this story for any family.
The one thing I disliked a little bit was the way Benjamin, with his mother’s silent approval, drew pictures even though he knew his father wouldn’t like it. Benjamin was never forbidden to draw, and he did have a God-given talent, which his father came to realize and bless, but I didn’t really like the feeling that he was going behind his father’s back to a certain extent.
WARNING: As noted in the last paragraph.
Read Aloud—Ages 3 – 4, 5 – 8, Family Read Alouds
Reading Independently—Ages 8 – 12