The Struggle to Survive

Russell H. Plante
Russell H. Plante Author Interview

A Sense of Purpose follows a kitten who’s abandoned on the streets and finds a sense of purpose among the various people and obstacles he encounters. What were some sources that formed this novel’s development?

“A Sense of Purpose” is a story about Chester who was an important character in my earlier novel, “Journey Home – A Cat’s Tale”. He was that down to earth, honest and helpful character that we all wish existed in our lives, always there to help, to be a friend, to be a positive influence. Because of those traits, I thought he deserved a story of his own. While I thought about writing a story based upon the character I had created, a lost and lonely cat exited the forest near our home, looking for food and shelter. For over six New England seasons this abandoned cat approached our home ever so cautiously as my wife called him from the forest and placed food outside on a daily basis. The character I had created actually became real; hence, we named our homeless friend, Chester.

While we fed Chester over several New England seasons and attempted to give him a permanent home, my wife also discovered a feral mother cat with her four kittens on another portion of our property. It was Chester who eventually brought her to our front door for us to feed. This feral mother cat with her four kittens and the dramatic incidents that revolved around Chester provided me with the consequential inspiration and resolve to create this story; a story that has relevance to everyone of us.

The struggle to survive, the determination to complete something meaningful, and the intertwining of Chester’s life with the lives of others make this story what it is. Chester’s life has relevance to tragedies and joys for all of us, and I hope this story will make people think about their own lives and how each life can be important to others in so many ways. Each of us affects one another at some point in our lives—to create a purposeful meaning. No matter what we do in our lives, we all have a sense of purpose—a message, I’m sure, Chester would want me to share.

Just so you know—on one early, cold October morning, Chester finally decided to step through our front door on his own volition. He now has a permanent home.

Chester is a stirring character that I enjoyed following. What were some ideas that guided his character development?

When Chester appeared at the edge of the forest near our home, my wife and I wondered where he came from and what his travels might have been like to get here. So I started his story as an orphaned kitten surviving in New York City and then traveling to a coastal town in the State of Maine. After finding a new home in a small town surrounded by forests, I introduced him to an abandoned kitten by the name of Patches, the main character in my previous novel “Journey Home – A Cat’s Tale. When Chester’s new friend disappears in a blizzard, I wondered about what lengths he would go through in order to find him. What might any of us do under unforeseen circumstances? It is during his search and his relationship with other characters involved with the obstacles he encounters that affect his character development throughout the story. The homeless people, the perils of a forest, a blizzard, the friendships, and the resolve to never give up on hope all add to an understanding of himself and what he must do to complete his quest to find his friend.

There were a lot of great scenes in the book. What scene was your favorite to write?

There were actually several descriptive scenes that were a favorite. It’s difficult to pick just one. Please bear with me. Here are six examples:

1) On the first day of being on his own in the city, Chester wandered into a bodega owned by a shopkeeper by the name of Mr. Pettigrew, searching for something to eat. That’s where a nine- year-old girl by the name of Helena first met Chester. The following excerpts are portions from that beginning:

—As I neared an aisle of baking goods, I noticed a young girl shopping with her mother. It didn’t take much time for the little girl to notice me. Perhaps it was the combined appearance of my white feet in addition to the reflection of the florescent light that intensified a bluish color to my eyes that caused me to be the object of her immediate attention. The little girl had curly brown hair, dark brown eyes, and a smile that seemed to make the world take notice, much like my distinctively white feet.
She stared at me for what seemed a very long time, beamed a big smile, then looked up at her mother, tugged on her mother’s coat sleeve, and said, “Mom, we don’t have any pets. You told me that when I got to be nine years old I could have a kitten. I’m nine. Can I have that one?”
“Helena, we’ve shopped in Mr. Pettigrew’s bodega now for many years. Today, we are just picking up some cut flowers and a few items for dinner, not a cat.”
“But Mom, you promised, and I like that one.”
“Well, I don’t think Mr. Pettigrew would like us absconding with one of his cats,” replied her mother as she bent over slightly to take a closer look—

—Pettigrew had overheard the conversation. Distracted from his task of shelving canned goods, he paused and turned to face Helena and her mother. While thoughtlessly snapping one of the red suspenders that stretched across his robust stomach with his one free hand, he quickly responded, “He’s not my cat. He just wandered in here a few minutes ago. Like all the others in the past, he’s looking for a hand out. I doubt if he even has a home. This morning is the first time I’ve ever seen that one,” he said as he lowered his head, peered over the top rim of his spectacles once again, and pointed at me.
Helena’s understanding mother took another look at what she considered to be a somewhat bedraggled kitten, then glanced back at her daughter and remarked, “Well, he looks like he could use a home, doesn’t he?” —

—Helena’s mother glanced at her daughter and paused as she deliberated on what to do. “He certainly is a pocket-sized bundle of fur,” said her mother. “I wonder if that tan and gray fur is color or just plain dirt,” she added. Then she nodded her head approvingly, and said, “Okay Helena. But you’re responsible for taking care of him.”
“I promise. I’ll take really good care of him.”
“We’ll have to take him to a veterinarian and get him checked for fleas, get him a rabies shot, and get him fixed,” said her mother.
“Is he broken, Mom?”
“No honey. I just mean that we should make sure he’s okay,” her mother added with a slight smirk on her face as she turned her attention to Mr. Pettigrew.
Surprisingly to Mr. Pettigrew and Helena’s mother, Helena needed no further affirmation and didn’t hesitate to act. She looked down at me, scooped me up with both hands, cradled me into the sleeves of her warm coat, and said, “I’m going to call you Chester.” —

2) When Chester stayed with Abram, a homeless man in New York City, during below zero degree, pitch-black winter nights, there were a few scenes when they huddled together to keep warm from the cold. Here is an excerpt from a portion of one scene:

—When a gust of wind invaded our space, he quietly looked down at me, while shivering, and apologized for not being able to do better. “We need to stay out of this wind,” he whispered repeatedly. “We could get hypothermia if we’re not careful.” I looked up at him, not understanding at the time what he meant. Then he continued to provide an explanation and tried to remain lucid in our frigid surroundings. “It’s a gradual type of trauma,” he said. “We don’t want to get soaked by this cold wet snow. If we’re not careful, we could get disoriented, tired, not realizing we’re freezing. You huddle in my coat. I’ll keep you warm.” He then removed one of the tattered mittens from his hand and stroked the top of my head with his chilblained fingers, even though they throbbed from the cold.

I stayed with Abram for almost one entire winter, until one early below-freezing morning I awoke to his breath hardly but a whisper. I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live. He stroked the side of my head with a gentle hand, looked down at me with pale blue eyes, half shut, and in a barely discernible voice said, “Storms will come. I’m sorry I can’t be there for you.” I sat there nestled in his arms as he held me close—

3) When Chester was trapped in the back of a moving van and transported to a small town in Maine, he was adopted by the family who moved there. This is an excerpt of his arrival:

—It was the screech of the metal door latch that woke me early the next morning. Both doors to the back of the truck opened wide, simultaneously. Sunlight streamed through the darkness, and the sight of Helena surprised and exhilarated me as she poked her head into the wide opening and peered into the van. But when I emerged from my sleepy stupor, I looked closely at the welcome intruder and realized that it was a girl who only resembled Helena. It wasn’t her. It was the dark brown curly hair both had in common that confused me for one brief, exciting moment. It’s difficult to explain how disappointed I was.
The girl immediately spotted me at the back of the moving van. “Daddy, look what came with our furniture,” she yelled excitedly.
After that excited response to my presence, another face peered through the opening, and an older man’s voice boomed, “How did a cat get in there?”
Quite simply, that’s how I got my second chance at finding a new home. A family of seven, moving from New York City to a small New England town on the coast of Maine, quickly and unanimously decided to adopt me as they carried both me and the couch into their new home. They figured if I had been a feral cat, I would have quickly cowered to the rear of the van or would have been aggressively defensive. Although fearful of what might happen, I decided to remain on the couch, and accepted the ride into the house. I never once thought about fleeing. I figured things couldn’t get much worse; only better. I guess the family figured that if the stray cat came with the furniture, he stayed with the furniture; that’s the way it was supposed to be. Fate had determined a new destiny for one homeless cat. Me. —

4) During the development of the story, there was a point in time when Chester visited a nearby forest, sensing he wasn’t alone. The following is an excerpt as he was leaving the forest late one afternoon:

—Even though it was getting dark, a bright moon lit my way as light glistened from the frosty snow-covered ground. Clouds swirled around a full moon and provided an eerie, otherworldly reflection over the landscape. Just before I exited the edge of the forest, however, I sensed a shadow in the distance, a rustling among the saplings—heard but not seen. The silhouette wasn’t caused by the moon’s reflection or by the stiff breeze that swayed branches through the snow-covered trees. Rather, the shapeless shadow lurked as something sinister, beyond comprehension. Something dark, moving through the snow-ridden undergrowth—quietly. I sensed a danger never before known, an instinct to run, but instead I turned to look in the direction of movement, yet found nothing there. The shadow lurched within the deep recesses of the forest, a silent movement, perhaps a ghost I thought. Fear engulfed my soul. The unknowing made me cower. The wind chattered through the trees and in the distance the cawing of crows diminished until I could only sense the beating of my heart and the freezing whiskers against my face. Snowflakes hushed over the forest till there was no sound except for my own rapid breathing, my chest pounding as if a hand had choked my very breath. I plunged headlong into the coastal driven wind that had changed direction, no longer at my back. Swirling snow from fierce winds punished the air and made it difficult to see any distance ahead. —

5) When Chester started to search for his friend after several days of blanketing snowstorms, he hurriedly headed for home as a new storm strengthened. This is a scene from that experience:

—The walk home was laborious. I sloshed my way along the empty streets while the freezing wind sought to steal my every breath. By the time I arrived home, darkness had swallowed the afternoon. The Anderson’s had been watching for my return and had left the outside lights on. I was glad they had because by the time I arrived I could barely see the house. I made my way up the snow-covered walkway and was happy to see the front door creak open just enough to let me inside. I heard Beth Anderson’s voice before I even got to the front stairs.
“It’s about time you got home. If we had known this storm was gonna turn into a blizzard, I never would have let you out this morning,” she said, talking to me as she would chastising a child. As I entered the house she added, “You look like a walking snowball.” —

6) At a later point in the story, Chester met Tate, a solitary man who kept mostly to himself and spent much of his time quietly walking about the neighborhood, as if he were in his own world. Unlike Abram, Tate didn’t talk to anyone he could find. He was usually quiet and only spoke to a select few. When he did speak, his voice was a low, barely audible mumble about his forecast of the weather. The following is an important excerpt from the story:

—When I proceeded down the granite steps onto the sidewalk, Tate was sitting on the bottom step mumbling one of his not so unusual incoherent rants; to no one. As I casually passed beside him on the last step, however, his left hand gently washed over the top of my head and onto my shoulders. He had never done that before; never had touched me, never had patted me, but this time he did. I stood there for a moment, feeling a calming connection between us; his hand gently rested on my shoulders. I looked up as he continued to mumble something about the cloud cover and saw him staring out across the street, as if he was looking at something. Then he suddenly stopped talking and slightly lifted his hand from me. He removed his baseball cap with his right hand and placed it on the stair beside him while he continued to stare directly ahead. Then, as if he had received some sort of message, he turned his gaze downward, catching my upward glance with his. In a low methodical, distinctively firm voice he warned, “A storm is coming.” It was the same announcement he had made just days before the blizzard in January. I had heard him utter those same four words several times before. This warning was vocalized as it had been previously, but this time it had a sympathetic sound to it. His words seemed apprehensive, yet the tone of his voice was soft and strangely empathetic.
It wasn’t just the tone of his voice, however, that was different. Tate never had much of any kind of facial expression when he spoke. I had never seen him smile, but he did on that day. Perhaps it wasn’t his intention, but there was a slight, asymmetric smile that expressed a deep sadness, as if what he said was somehow painful for him; a smile that turned up ever so slightly at the corners of his mouth and exhibited a kindness I had never witnessed before. He placed his left hand ever so gently on my shoulders once again and paused as if doubting what he knew and didn’t dare say. Then he stood and slowly pulled his hand away. I looked up at him and his eyes drifted downward once again, looking at me. He stared intently into my eyes in a way that made me think he could see into my very soul. That’s when I realized there was a real sadness in his look. Then he stepped down onto the sidewalk, leaving me on the last step, and walked away. He never looked back or spoke another word as the distance between us grew. I watched, sad to see him go from the moment; a simple exchange of emotion, an experience so intense, yet seldom shared. I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time I would ever see Tate. It was as if he had waited all those months I had known him in order to deliver a message that could no longer wait. I returned to the forest that day and thought about Tate’s implicit words. I wondered what he had meant. Winter was over. Even I knew that. —

What is the next book that you are working on and when will it be available?

My fourth novel, “The Path Before Me”, is a Middle Grade Young Reader version of my philosophical adult novel, “Journey Home – A Cat’s Tale”. It should be available in July 2021. I wrote it in hopes that such a story would provide a better understanding of compassion, empathy, and hope for a young reader; a good social aspect addition for schools systems and the in-home library. I am currently working on my fifth novel, a science fiction story about our Earth, our possible connection with other worlds, and the reason why other civilizations have not contacted us. I still have a bit of research yet to do while writing the manuscript. I would expect completion and publication sometime in 2022.

Author Links: GoodReads | Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Website

Orphaned as a kitten on the streets of Manhattan, Chester recounts his first home with Helena, a nine-year-old girl, then losing his home two years later. Living on the city streets, he befriends Abram, a homeless man, who warns him about an impending storm, then dies early the following morning after a bitter, cold night. Friendless once again, Chester becomes trapped inside a moving van and finds himself taken to a small town on the coast of Maine. There he meets an abandoned cat named Patches, a compassionate cat named Buster, and Tate, a peculiar homeless man who also warns Chester of an impending storm. Remembering his own past struggles, Chester helps Patches find food and shelter. Becoming friends, they explore an ancient graveyard one day in a nearby wetland forest where Patches tells Chester about his father entering the dark forest but never returning. When winter arrives, the worst blizzard in over a decade strikes the small coastal town and Patches disappears like his father had. Hoping Patches might have sought shelter from the storm in the nearby forest, Chester begins an arduous search into the forest for his friend. There he encounters a young woman in the old graveyard, drawing in her sketchbook, and ultimately learns the truth about the disappearance of Patches’ father. He also discovers a feral mother cat with her four kittens, struggling to survive, not knowing they would change his life forever. When terrifying events happen under the halo of a moonlit night, Chester realizes the warnings from Abram and Tate were about significant events that would occur in his life. His search not at an end, he comes to understand that every life affects another, and that no matter what we do in our lives, every living being has a sense of purpose.

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Posted on July 3, 2021, in Interviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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