Known for her feminism and political activism, writer Marge Piercy has long had another great passion: cats. They saunter in and out of the pages of her engrossing memoir Sleeping with Cats, a book that candidly details the forces that shaped Piercy's development as a leading poet, novelist and essayist. If you aren't familiar with her work, there is much to discover, including 15 novels, 15 volumes of poetry and a book on the craft of writing, penned with her husband Ira Wood. Though she makes her home on rural Cape Cod, Piercy is a child of the city. Born and raised in Detroit, she had a Jewish mother and Protestant father. Both had difficulty relating to their scholarly, often rebellious daughter. Yet these hard-working blue collar parents imbued her with a love of poetry. Though Piercy's father was unhappy at home, he did something many other fathers didn't: he stayed. The ensuing family stability helped foster Piercy's writing, and the family cats triggered a lifelong love and respect for felines. "My life has a spine of cats," says Piercy. And so, they become central characters in this memoir.

In fact, the author attributes her civil rights militancy to a cruel act wrought upon her beloved pet Fluffy. A boyfriend poisoned the cat in retaliation over the sale of her family's house to an African-American doctor. "I understood hatred as I never had," Piercy relates. That same year, a close friend died of a heroin overdose, and the author's beloved grandmother passed away. The 15-year-old Piercy, who belonged to a girl gang and was sexually active, did an about-face, becoming involved in school activities, studying Shakespeare, and reading and rereading Faulkner. As a college student during the 1960s, she became an activist via the radical Students for a Democratic Society. Her metamorphosis as a feminist and a writer also encompassed myriad relationships with women as well as men and two failed marriages. Through it all, cats provided cheer and challenges. "The love of a cat is unconditional but always subject to negotiation," Piercy says. "You are never entirely in charge."

Biographer Pat H. Broeske has four cats, including Skeeter Joe from Memphis, the mascot for her 1997 Elvis book,
Down at the End of Lonely Street.

 

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