The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs is a grounded historical adventure novel told from the perspective of a ship’s cat in the 1800s. The writing is smooth and the author adds many nuances to the ship’s sailors – raising them above simple good or evil stereotypes. Tibbs can alternately like and dislike his sailor comrades as they behave in bafflingly human ways. But the plot always moves and there are some beautiful illustrations to accompany chapter heads.
Story: Born on board a ship at port, Jacob Tibbs is the runt of the litter of the proud ship cat, Mrs. Tibbs. Due to superstitions about white paws, he is believed to grow to be a poor ratter. Subsequently, he is overlooked when his brothers and sisters are taken to new ship homes. But he has inherited his mother’s skills and weather sense – and will do his best to learn how to rat, help predict storms, and otherwise rise and fall with the fortunes of his ship.
The story is uniquely grounded – people die or are injured in storms/harsh conditions and mercurial sailors make life difficult. Jacob Tibbs’ life depends on quickly learning skills to be useful (or it would be overboard for the kitten). The story is from his perspective and he quickly learns that the choices he make will determine if he lives or dies on the merchant ship.
The story really shines in the characterizations: from sailors who will pet him one day and then threaten to throw him overboard the next – to a captain trying to do the right thing but also feeling the pressure of turning a profit with each voyage. There were no evil or good characters in this book; some are greedier, some selfish, others melancholic – but each provides a very distinct challenge for the kitten.
Jacob Tibbs is inexorably tied to the ship. As such, mutiny, storms, shipwreck, and the sailors themselves all present distinct dangers. The theme of the story is Tibbs coming into his own from kitten to juvenile, while proving his worth and loyalty to the ship and crew. Although lacking the fantastical elements of books like Warrior Cats, I can’t help but feel fans of that series will also revel in Tibbs as he overcomes challenges and proves his worth to the captain and crew. I was also greatly reminded of the movie The Three Lives of Thomasina, especially a poignant and heartwarming ending in Jacob Tibbs.
In all, a book worthy of every children’s library – a true classic. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.