Time Cat is Lloyd Alexander's tribute to the cat. Throughout the book, which covers many different places and periods of time, cats are worshiped, desired, and, in one case, feared. Cats teach people many different lessons, or they inspire them to do greater things, or they are simply admired for their beauty, grace, and playful nature. This is a book aimed at a young adult audience, combining the cuteness and desirability of the cat with a little bit of history. Alexander is keenly observant about the behavior of the cat, and the effect this behavior has on people, and his goal seems to get youths interested in history by showing them the universal appeal of the cat, no matter the time period.
Jason one day wishes he could speak to his cat, Gareth, and Gareth one-ups him: he tells the boy that he can visit. Visit? Essentially Gareth can travel through time. Jason, naturally, wants to see this, so Gareth promises to take him with him to a few places, with a warning that he will be unable to protect him from what might happen. The first place they go to isn't the time of dinosaurs, which I imagine would be the first place most kids Jason's age would want to go. No, first is Egypt, where cats are regarded as godly. Jason and Gareth are captured, as they will be many times throughout their adventures, and they learn that the pharaoh, Neter-Khet, has long wanted a cat companion. What he wants this cat to do is worship him. Jason (who through magic can understand and speak his language) informs Neter-Khet that cats do not worship. Cats do as they please. Neter-Khet gradually understands and learns to enjoy the small things about cat companionship - that there are few things so joyful as a cat purring on your lap, for example.
Gareth also takes Jason to Rome (55 B.C.), Britain, Ireland (411 A.D.), Japan (998 A.D.), along with Italy, Peru, and America, among some others, during important historical times. These stories don't focus on the political side of history, but rather on the human aspects: people merely trying to find joy or trying to escape hardship. Many of the plots focus on a leader who has been seeking the companionship of a cat. The Japanese emperor, a boy, has long wanted a cat. The captain of a Spanish army in Peru has ordered a cat from Spain and believes Gareth is it. Even Leonardo da Vinci shows up, and it is Gareth who inspires an early painting. Alexander makes these historical figures human by demonstrating their awe of cats. He also paints a small picture of the sort of habitats the people live in, describing the homes and even some of the hobbies of the people. The history may be skimpy, but at least young readers can connect with the people in these historical times as people and not as statistics.
Jason is a very important character, not just because he is the main character, but because he is both curious and intelligent. He never once compares the time or place he is in to the one that he has lived his entire life. He views it, rather, as a sort of vacation. Time Cat was written in 1963, so I can only imagine a modern equivalent, with a boy hooked to his smart phone and video games being sent on this journey. Would that boy react the same way as Jason, or would he be more like the boy in Willy Wonka, missing his technology? I imagine most people today would be reaching for their smart phones to capture pictures if they were in Jason's place, finding something to post to Instagram or Facebook. Jason, on the other hand, seems content to simply be a part of the experience. This in itself is a great lesson.