The Most Important Book Ever: Jennie by Paul Gallico
A couple of weeks ago, an author friend quizzed me about my favorite Star Trek and Star Trek Next Generation episodes. The original series episode that immediately leapt to mind (Tribbles aside) was “The Paradise Syndrome,” in which Kirk loses his memory and lives a peaceful, happy life for months with Miramanee, a pseudo-native-American on an unspoiled planet in the path of an asteroid. They fall in love, they marry, and they almost have a child before tragedy strikes and the ship returns for Kirk. My favorite Next Generation episode was “The Inner Light,” in which Picard falls into a coma on board and mentally awakes on the planet Kataan, where people insist he is a man named Kamin. As Picard lives for years on this planet, he falls in love with the woman who calls herself his wife, fathers a girl, watches her grow to adulthood, and learns to play the Ressikan flute. Inevitably, he awakens on board from his 25-minute coma to find the terrible and beautiful memories of the past forty years were caused by a special mental probe of sorts from an extinct people. He retains the ability to play the flute. Every time I hear that piping theme, I cry for the world and the love he knew both for a lifetime and for only twenty-five minutes.
What do these stories have to do with Jennie? In that novel, a young boy named Peter, much neglected by his busy parents, darts away from nanny in front of a carriage and is run over. He awakens as a white kitten, immediately to be tossed out of his London townhouse and onto the cruel streets of London. Adopted by a sweet, knowledgeable tabby named Jennie, he learns how to survive as a homeless stray, travels to Glasgow and back, and blossoms into a big, strong cat under her intense loving care. Eventually he challenges a bully tom cat to a death fight to save Jennie from being “claimed” by him. I won’t spoil the ending. Suffice it to say, this story about someone who escaped a mundane, troubled life and lived an entire lifetime as another before returning. The poignancy of all three of these stories hits the same achy spot in my heart, but I had no idea until I reread it, that for ten-year-old-me, Jennie had been the foundation, the model, the prototype, even the archetype for this kind of heartbreaking, bittersweet story.