The day a stray cat unexpectedly arrived in our dog-centric home, my ardently cat-loving cousin Jeanne had a word of advice. “He’s not a dog,” she reminded me. “A dog leaps immediately into your heart. A cat arrives with a slow crawl.”
That pretty well also describes my experience with Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter. I picked this book up dubiously, expecting a big, gooey cinnamon roll of a read – way too sticky-sweet to merit more than a few bites.
Instead, I made it to the last page and I was crying when I got there. Sure enough, the little guy had crawled his way right into my heart.
Myron, the former director of the Spencer, Iowa, public library, tells the true story of the tiny, frozen kitten she found pushed through the book-return slot one bitter-cold January morning in 1988. She and her staff revived him – and decided to keep him.
They named him Dewey (naturally) and he lived the rest of his 19-plus years in Spencer’s library.
Dewey greeted patrons when they arrived at the door, snoozed on the shelves, snuggled in the laps of readers, and attended all meetings and story hours. Always, he exhibited exemplary behavior – “calm, patient, dignified, intelligent, and above all, outgoing.”
He was also a handsome devil, with a lustrous orange-and-white coat and huge golden eyes. “A 1950s matinee idol, suave and cool,” according to the smitten Myron.
It was the right moment for Spencer to have a library cat. Crushed by the US farm crisis of the 1980s, the town was awash in foreclosed farms and the storefronts along its quaint, Prairie Deco main street were rapidly emptying out.
Spencer’s survival was anything but certain.
Dewey never did anything concrete about the panic, Myron admits, but he did cause an increase in the number of townsfolk who visited the library and somehow he made them all feel better once they got there.
He gave the town something else to think about.
Then, as the years went by, Dewey turned Spencer into a destination.
Word of mouth traveled about the charismatic library cat who would slalom cheerfully down bookshelves and pose winningly for cameras. Visitors began to turn up from all across the US and finally from all over the globe.
When Dewey died (at a ripe old age), his obituary ran in more than 270 newspapers around the world.
Myron does a good job of situating her story in northwest Iowa, where “in the winter, the sky swallows the farmhouses.” She also shares her own life story, which includes illness, single parenthood, and a strained relationship with her teenage daughter.
But through it all there is Dewey, the good-natured cat who waves at her (yes, she swears it’s true) every morning as she arrives at the library.
How you react to Myron’s claims that Dewey could read moods and even minds may depend on your own experience with animals. (I know where I stand on this but others may be skeptical.)
However, even for nonanimal lovers, there is an everyman charm to Dewey’s story.
Dewey never performed any heroics, Myron admits. But he was “like one of those seemingly ordinary people who, once you get to know them, stand out from the crowd.... They know what they are meant to do in life, and they do it exceptionally well.”
Every town should have a Dewey.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.