Friend or Foe?: A Lovely Illustrated Fable About Making Sense of Otherness
By Maria Popova
“The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy,” the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer wrote in his treatise on healing the heart of society. Yet, paradoxically enough, it is often our stories — those involuntary circumstances of our lives dictated by accidents of birth and chance — that cast the air of enmity in another’s eyes: that we were born one race and not another, that we came from one country and not another, that we fell in love with a person of one gender and not another. (This, perhaps, is why the ancient Greek notion of agape is directed equally at friends and enemies.) But the heartening counterpoint to these tragic polarizations is that they can often be undone just as easily, by another accidental flip of circumstance.
That’s what Canadian writer John Sobol and Brooklyn-based Russian illustrator Dasha Tolstikova explore with delightful levity in Friend or Foe? (public library) — a charming modern-day fable, without a simplistic moral, about what makes for and what undoes the sense of otherness.
We meet a lonely mouse who lives in a small house beneath a lavish castle, and a white cat who lives in the castle above. (It is a modernist castle, to be sure — portraits of same-sex royal couples grace its walls and lightbulbs like the kind you’d see in a Brooklyn bar illuminate its halls.) Every evening, the two look at one another for hours on end — the mouse sitting atop the little house, the cat perched at the window of the big palace.
One day, the mouse discovers a tiny hole in the wall of the castle that could bypass the stringently guarded main entrance. Sobol writes:
He stared at the hole for a whole day. He was wondering if — after all those hours of looking at each other — he and the cat were friends.
It’s a lovely question — can sustained mutual attentiveness turn natural enemies into friends? — a question evocative of Simone Weil’s abiding assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Finally, the mouse decides that he cannot go on living lonesome and friendless, and must find out if a friend or a foe resides in the castle. So he skulks inside, past the garrulous royalty in their glittering gowns, and makes his way to the top.
It took all day to climb the stairs. But finally, as the sun was setting, the mouse reached the top step. He peered around the great oak door and there was the cat, sitting on the window sill, staring at the empty roof below.
The mouse creeps quietly up the lush velvet curtain and positions himself on the stone ledge next to the unwitting cat, where he gathers the courage to speak up.
But when he finally does, posing his existential question — “Hello, are you friend or foe?” — the cat is so alarmed by the surprise visitor that she leaps into the air.
The mouse studied the cat’s whiskered face as she flew through the air. At first he felt sure he was about to be eaten. Then he changed his mind. Perhaps they were to be friends after all.
Friend or foe, thought the mouse. In a moment I’ll know.
But in her startled pirouette, the cat slips and falls out the window, landing to safety, in perfect feline fashion, near the little house below.
A moment later, a woman came out of the small house and scooped up the cat.
“Why, we’ve been wanting a cat, and now here you are. Dropped right out of the sky, didn’t you, puss?”
Hopeful that the fortuitous cat will solve the household’s mouse problem, the woman takes her in. And, just like that, the tables have turned, and one can almost hear Bob Dylan singing: “The order is rapidly fading / And the first one now will later be last / Cause the times they are a-changing.”
A cat lives in a small house beside a great palace. In the great palace lives a mouse.
Every evening the mouse creeps up the stairs to the palace tower. Every evening the cat climbs to the roof of the house.
In the end, the mouse once again confronts his question, this time from the other side of privilege. The answer offered in the final page is perhaps the only real answer that existential question has.
Complement the quietly delightful Friend or Foe? with this visual taxonomy of platonic relationships, then revisit the Tolstikova-illustrated The Jacket — a lovely meta-book about how we fall in love with books.
Illustrations © Dasha Tolstikova courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs by Maria Popova
Published February 28, 2017