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wildcat under glass

19 november 2022

Wildcat under Glass is an evocative title, suggesting suppressed power. It is also literal. Narrator Melia's family, in their home on a Greek island, own a taxidermied wildcat in a glass case. Wikipedia tells you that Alki Zei's Greek title translates to The Tiger in the Shop Window, but even if the individual words can have those meanings, the title cannot. There is no shop in the story, and there is no tiger.

There is instead an engaging story of resistance to the 1936 "fourth of August" dictatorship in Greece. Zei writes about the rise of fascism from a child's perspective and in children's terms. She portrays no great violence, no huge historical events. She book ends on a hopeful note. But I think that, despite its mildness, Wildcat under Glass captures the fear and disorientation of a nation's slide toward autocracy.

Melia and her sister Myrto lead an idyllic childhood on a Greek island, punctuated by their grandfather's retellings of classical myths, summers in a beach village, and visits from their dashing older cousin Niko, a student in Athens. And peeks at the strange wildcat under glass that is the centerpiece of their home.

But things start to unravel when Greece lurches toward dictatorship. It's not that hordes of jackboots descend on the island – outwardly, life remains banal. But the family is split over political developments, some favoring democracy, some autocracy. The girls' father constantly worries that he will lose his bank job if he puts a political foot wrong. Myrto opts to become a fascist-youth Legionnaire, and even sitting out the rallies and songfests makes Melia suspect at school.

And Niko disappears. He has gone from progressive student to all-out dissident, and the authorities are looking for him. This being a kids' book, only the kids know where Niko is; they get messages that he hides in the wildcat's glass case, and they bring him provisions while leading his pursuers astray.

And this being a kids' book from the 1960s, there is no terribly traumatic denouement. But there is the stress and corrosion of a society turned against itself, of informers and betrayers, of the suppression of conscience. It can be as simple as two inseparable sisters gradually drawn towards conflict with each other. The costs of fascism are not trivialized in such a telling; if anything they are made all the more vivid and dramatic.

Wildcat under Glass was an early winner of the Batchelder Award, given to the publishers of children's-book translations in the United States. The Batchelder Award is still going strong, though it carries little of the impact of the Newbery or Caldecott awards and its recipients go out of print after a while as most children's titles do. Alki Zei's deserve a revival in the current domestic and international climate.

Zei, Alki. Wildcat under Glass. [To kaplani tis vitrinas, 1963.] Translated by Edward Fenton. 1968. New York: Holt, 1969.