Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin Analysis
by Marguerite Henry

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Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin Analysis

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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Henry is a master storyteller, and her account of a humble Quaker boy who becomes court painter to a king is truly the stuff of which dreams and fairy tales are made. In the life of Benjamin West, however, these events are true. Young West embodies a delightful mix of humility, determination, and optimism—qualities that make his dreams come true. He also benefits from some help from his family and friends. The West family members are portrayed as hardworking, devout Quakers, from his father to the youngest child. The family members love and care for one another, although love is expressed through deeds more often than through words. For example, West’s mother is the first to soften in her acceptance of his drawings, and she demonstrates this by allowing him to use her indigo dye. She also sends West into the woods to gather leaves to line her oven, knowing that this errand will also allow him time to work on his drawings.

Henry draws the reader to share West’s apprehension as his father views his drawing of a neighbor’s baby and comments that “the image of Sally should be carried in our hearts, not on a piece of paper. Pictures fade; memories remain green forever.” His father is hopeful that Benjamin will outgrow his desire to draw, but the reader knows that this will not happen. Although firm in his Quaker beliefs, John West is also portrayed as a sensitive, caring father. In recognition of Benjamin’s persistence, he seeks the collective wisdom of the Quaker elders to determine the boy’s future. These men and women conclude that young West has been given a special gift that should not be quenched. “Let him use this gift to portray the best that is in Nature and in Man,” they argue. West is permitted to enroll in the Academy of Phila-delphia. Henry brings the reader into the inner circle of the Quaker community as this tender young boy’s future hangs in the balance.

The conflict over Benjamin’s future, however, should not be interpreted as a story of intense emotions; the story is anything but intense. The ever-present cat, Grimalkin, keeps the tale lighthearted and often humorous, even in the midst of conflict. Grimalkin was nursed as a kitten by young West and is treated by all as an honored member of the household. The cat reflects West’s every mood and is an inseparable companion in all of his adventures. The strength that Henry gives to the character of Grimalkin temporarily causes the reader to forget that this is a biographical work. One of the most memorable chapters from the book focuses on West using Grimalkin’s fur to make paintbrushes. Other members of the family think that Grimalkin has mange “or some winter illness that will vanish...

(The entire section is 721 words.)