By Peter Vankevich
Pat Garber’s latest book, Paws and Tales (Schroeder Publications), is a work of fiction; a novel narrated by Kali, a sailor cat and Harvey, an island dog. The setting is Ocracoke in 1990. Kali is partnered with Sam, a non-practicing vagabond attorney who returns to Ocracoke in his sailboat to confront his haunted past. Harvey, whose partner is Emily, lives on the island. The first encounter for the four of them was due to a cat-and-dog spat with Harvey chasing Kali who ends up in the harbor water, nearly drowning and then disappearing. Sam gets angry with Emily for not controlling Harvey causing her to feel terrible. Kalie rallies and then spends time with the village “ocracats,” the affectionate local name for the feral cats. Eventually she returns to the boat docked near the Community Store and Sam and Emily patch things up by having dinner together. The story involves an off-shore drilling proposal and one murky night on the island several years earlier. I don’t believe book reviews should be spoilers so I’ll stop here regarding the story except to say there were some surprises to me in the end.
Pat weaves the story through the eyes and ears of the cat and dog, and upon whom she bestows a vast amount of human intelligence. Yet they still retain their respective feline and canine characters, loyalty being a major component. When asked if this is a children’s novel, the author paused then said, “I don’t think so, at least that’s not how I wrote it.” Rather, she says, the book was written for the child that remains in us grownups as well as for young adults.
Attributing human traits and qualities to animals, anthropomorphism, in fiction has a long tradition including Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame), the mystery series by Rita Mae Brown, Watership Down (Richard Adams) and Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne). Considering Pat’s love for animals (she has also worked as an animal rehabber treating injured wild animals-mostly birds- on Ocracoke), it is not surprising to see her use this genre.
She illustrated the book herself with many rustic sepia drawings that I really like and do contribute to the book. Each narration begun by Kali or Harvey starts with a quote about cats or dogs from the likes of Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot and John Steinbeck.
Although a work of fiction, the animals are based on two of Pat’s former long-time pets and companions, Huck a Doberman and Miss Kelley both of whom have spent a lot of time on boats with the author who is an experienced sailor. Emily and Sam are pure fiction.
She had started this novel several years ago, then set it aside for five years. When she resumed, it kind of wrote itself, she said. The story line, switching narratives, literary quotes and illustration makes this a very enjoyable read and yes, I guess there is still a child in me.
Pat Garber is a prolific writer. A regular columnist for the Ocracoke Observer, the Island Free Press and the North Carolina Coastal Federation, her features mostly cover wildlife, the environment and in-depth profiles on the many fascinating people who live and have lived on Ocracoke. In addition to these writings, she finds time to write books.
This work is quite a change from her last book, Heart Like a River: the story Sergeant Major Newsom Edward Jenkins 14th North Carolina Infantry, 1861-1865 (Schroeder Publications 2011) which is based on a diary written by her great grandfather’s time fighting for the South in the Civil War. Her most well-known books are Ocracoke Odyssey: A Naturalist’s Reflections on Her Home by the Sea (1995) and Ocracoke Wild: A Naturalist’s Year on an Outer Banks (1995) which are reflective essays on the island’s wildlife and personal observations. She has also written a children’s book, Little Sea Horse and the Story of the Ocracoke Ponies (2007).
For future book writing projects, Pat hopes to release an updated edition of Ocracoke Wild and is planning on a Civil War novel “Letters from Old Bone” based on letters she found in a box of her great-grandfather’s writings. The letters were discovered in the lap of a dead Confederate soldier who was in her great-grandfather’s company
Tales and Paws is available on the island at Books to be Red, The Variety Store and The Village Craftsmen.