An illustration of Don Pedro Pepito, the lead feline character of “The Cat who Walked the Camino” by Kate Spencer.
Courtesy photo
An illustration of Don Pedro Pepito, the lead feline character of “The Cat who Walked the Camino” by Kate Spencer.

A cat’s tale

Kate Spencer, a former Brattleboro music store owner, turns her creative spark to a children’s book about the Camino de Santiago in Spain — in a story based on her family’s real-life encounter with a cat on the historic pilgrimage trail

Even a dog person who'd shoo a cat goodbye would be hard put to resist Don Pedro Pepito, the orange tabby at the center of Kate Spencer's children's book, The Cat Who Walked the Camino, released in September.

The writer, illustrator, and independent publisher, who has lived over the border in Montague, Massachusetts for decades, might best be remembered locally for traveling north daily to run her Brattleboro store, Maple Leaf Music, for 33 years before selling the now-defunct business in 2012.

A native of Montana, Spencer's life in music began when she was studying anthropology at Boston University, where she hung out among up-and-coming musicians before starting a banjo-crafting business with Mark Surgies. In time, she left that enterprise to open Maple Leaf, the last holdout of several music stores Brattleboro had once boasted.

On the other hand, her life in fine art started young. Plying art for as long as she can remember, Spencer was never schooled in it.

"My father wouldn't let me go to art school: He said I couldn't make a living at it," she said.

Though she's perennially found in art workshops and classes, art for Spencer was more an avocation than anything else.

Once she sold Maple Leaf, though, she started to paint more regularly. A member of Oxbow Gallery in Easthampton, Massachusetts, she has a show there once every 18 months, the next coming up in June 2024.

* * *

After Spencer's daughter, Susannah, graduated from college as a Spanish major, she taught English in Spain for four years. Spencer had engaged in studying Spanish, too, and had learned a great deal about the Camino de Santiago (Road of St. James), the popular pilgrimage trail that stretches from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela near the coast of Galicia in Spain.

On one of the trips to visit Susannah, Spencer and her husband, Geoffrey Branch, travelled the Camino, which, Spencer points out, "is not just one route. It's a whole web that always ends up at Santiago."

"The Camino is very personal," she adds. "It's different for everybody."

Some walk the full 500 miles at once; others do so over several years. Some mix motor transport in, too, as Spencer did. Some pilgrims are on the Camino for spiritual reasons; others, for adventure and fun. Some make the journey simply for good exercise; others, as history buffs.

"We were traveling to San Sebastian near the beginning of their route," said Spencer. "My daughter was in the back seat whining that she'd seen a kitten. We stopped the car and opened the door; out of pitch darkness, the kitty jumped right into my daughter's arms. We learned that he'd arrived with pilgrims a few days earlier having accompanied various clusters of foot-travelers along the way."

The host at their bed and breakfast said the cat would follow travelers for stretches at a time, waiting outside while they went into restaurants and rejoining them when they resumed.

"We fed him leftover steak and wrapped him in a wool scarf so he would be warm at night," Spencer writes on the book's back cover. "My husband named him Don Pedro Pepito and declared that his story needed to be told."

* * *

Spencer had not written anything more than promotional materials for her business, but this project called her: She wanted to encourage children to learn about the centuries-old pilgrims' trail and to inspire parents and even grandparents to take their kids along it.

She fulfills her intention with a charming episodic story.

"Everything in here is true to what happens on the Camino," Spencer said.

A colorful picture of the culture, history, and language of Spain, the story of The Cat follows Don Pedro Pepito from abandonment to befriending a young woman, Lucia, who's walking from France to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, where all Camino routes end.

Together - and sometimes apart - they experience the pleasures and challenges of the long trip across the north of Spain, encountering a host of characters, human and animal, as well as experiences from confronting a mean dog to sitting for Mass surrounded by a cathedral's beauty.

* * *

"There are hundreds of books written about the Camino," says Spencer, "They're either personal memoirs or guidebooks. There were no children's books, and I said, 'Well, there's a gap here.'"

So she dug in to create The Cat, crafting her story, creating a beautiful map for the first spread and rendering evocative illustrations.

One of Spencer's Camino tour guides had been an art history major, so she'd had the benefit of learning about various styles of architecture sampled en route - Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque among them. We see some of them in her book.

"Using a photo, I'd first draw in pencil, then color each in, then go over each in ink," she says.

Helen Merino of Brattleboro designed the 44-page book, which features a Spanish-English glossary.

Spencer's book is available at Everyone's Books on Elliot Street in Brattleboro. She's marketing "step by step," she says, "talking to people at papers, taking it to bookstores, and posting it on many of the Camino Facebook pages out there."

The book is available on Amazon and soon, she hopes, it will be in school libraries.

Recommended for ages 4–18, The Cat Who Walked the Camino is an apt story for anyone who's done or wants to do the Camino, for Spanish and English language learners, and - OK, for cat lovers.

On a roll, Spencer's already working on her next children's book: an illustrated history of women in medicine, starting with Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179).

Ten years have passed since she left life as a Brattleboro merchant.

"I play bridge," she says. "I walk the dog and still play a lot of music."

But, Spencer is quick to add, she's not retired.

"I'm in my Renaissance," she says.

Annie Landenberger is an arts writer and columnist for The Commons. She remains involved with the Rock River Players, the community theater that she founded and directed for years. She also is one half of the musical duo Bard Owl, with partner T. Breeze Verdant.

This The Arts column by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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