Sunday, 24 August 2008

A Graphic Novel Before Its Time

Kate Seredy's 1938 Newbery winner The White Stag tells the mythic story of the Huns and their journey from their former barren lands in Asia where they were starving to what would become their homeland and modern-day Hungary. Beginning with the Huns' leader Nimrod's appeal for direction to his god Hadur during a time of hardship, it continues with the journey of the brothers Hunor and Magyar and their people, through the leadership of Hunar's son, Bendeguz, and culminates with the battles of Bendeguz's son Attila, who led his people to the conquest of their new land. The mystical White Stag appears at key moments and shows the Huns the way.

Seredy based The White Stag on Hungarian myths related to her by her father in her childhood, and I think she made the mistake Charles J. Finger made in writing his Tales From Silver Lands; she wrote down traditional oral myths that have been passed down through countless generations without fleshing them out enough to really adapt them to their new medium.

The prose of The White Stag is spare and lyrical, if uncertainly punctuated. (I saw a number of comma splices.) The White Stag is just 94 pages long, and covers three generations' worth of action. This will tell you how sparing it is of the kind of details that make it possible for a reader to enter into the world of the story. The story itself comes across as somewhat overwrought and faintly ridiculous — it's rather like a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic with its wooden characterizations and sometimes laughable dialogue. There are certainly echoes of the Bible in The White Stag: faith moving mountains, the search for the promised land, the evolving division of one people into conflicting tribes. The quest of the Huns and Magyars is much like the Old Testament journeys of the Israelites with Attila as Charlton Heston-style Moses, and unfortunately Attila's character is no more nuanced or believable than Heston's acting. I don't know how anyone can relate to characters who aren't recognizably human. Attila, who “learned not to cry when he was but a few days old”, is seemingly a sociopath with a conviction of his own destiny. Seredy also glosses over the battles as though they were successful rugby matches — another tribe of people slaughtered or enslaved and another victorious moment for the Huns!

Perhaps the problem is that no story could be worthy of the beautiful illustrations in this book. Seredy was certainly an extremely gifted and successful illustrator. She considered herself an illustrator first and foremost, saying that she “thought in pictures”, and she illustrated Newbery Medal winner Caddie Woodlanw, and her own Newbery Honor Books The Good Master and The Singing Tree, as well as Newbery honor books Winterbound by Margery Bianco, The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes, and Young Walter Scott by Elizabeth Janet Gray. The illustrations in The White Stag are therefore very fine (you can see some of them here if you're willing to brace yourself for a high-volume recording of the Hungarian national anthem). The drawings feature idealized, muscular, hairless bodies in an Olympic-athlete state of fitness, wearing classical tunics, cloaks and robes and spike-top helmets with birds' wings adorning the sides. They look, in short, like a precursor of comic-book heroes minus the spandex. Perhaps if Seredy had been born ninety years later, The White Stag would have been a very good graphic novel.

I can accept that not all fiction needs to be character-driven and that a novel can simply be a grand epic of adventure and conquest, but it's difficult to cheer on characters who are so stylized and so ruthless. And I kept wistfully imagining what Robin McKinley would have done with this material. McKinley understands that you can make your characters the stuff of legend and send them off to have thrilling adventures, but only after you have first made them come alive.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Eager Readers!

The Newbery winner for 2008, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village came into being because its author, Laura Amy Schlitz, who is a librarian at the Park School in Baltimore, had a group of students who were studying the Middle Ages. The students were building model castles, growing herbs, and illuminating manuscripts, but to round out their educational experience Schlitz wanted to give them some material they could perform. And since she didn't think it possible to write a play for seventeen characters and give them all equal time, she wrote nineteen monologues and two dialogues, so that “for three minutes at least, every child could be a star”.

I wish Schlitz had worked at my grade school. I remember how it felt to be one of only two people in my sixth-grade play whose “roles” did not involve a single line of dialogue and whose part in the action consisted of walking onto and off of the stage twice. And, more importantly, the play, written by our sixth grade teacher, was execrable.

Schlitz may mention excrement (as well as fleas, lice and other historically accurate if unsavoury facts of daily life in medieval times) in her monologues, but other than this her work is not to be compared to that sixth-grade play. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies is an excellent piece of work. In each of Schlitz's twenty-one vignettes, a character from medieval times tells us a simple story about some facet of his or her existence, gives us the sense of what life was like in those times, and in the process lays bare the essence of his or her personality. By the end of a few pages we know what the characters love, fear and desire most, what their probable fates will be, and how they cope with the hardships of their lives. Interspersed with the monologues are footnotes, sidenotes, and occasional full-length background notes explaining aspects of life in medieval times.

The historical notes are not only informative, revealing the depth of Schlitz's historical research, but often very witty. One comments that the logic of the assignment of saints to a type of work is macabre: Saint Bartholomew, the patron saint of tanners, was skinned to death; and Saint Lawrence, the patron saint of cooks, was roasted alive. Schlitz adds, tantalizingly, that “we won't even talk about what happened to Saint Erasmus — it's too disgusting.”

The illustrations in the book are woodcut-like pen-and-ink drawings by Robert Byrd. According to the book's jacket flap, Byrd took “inspiration from an illuminated thirteenth-century manuscript”. I would have preferred something tapestry-inspired, but then sometimes in writing these Newbery reviews I really must remind myself that these books are intended for kids, not for me. Byrd's drawings are undeniably cute, expressive, and period-appropriate.

The vignettes are wonderfully varied, and yet so elemental to human experience, regardless of one's place on the timeline of our existence. The lord's nephew faces a boar, and his fear of it, while hunting. The blacksmith's daughter finds that her size, looks and social status don't determine whom she can love. A plow boy takes pride in carrying on with his father's backbreaking work and responsibilities. “Crookbacked” Constance, a pilgrim, speaks of her despair over her deformity and her hope that she will be healed on her journey. A miller's son tells us how he is hated by the other village boys because his father adulterates the flour with chalk, but in his bitterness resolves to be the same kind of miller himself. A knight's son dreams of being a knight, but knows he must be a monk because his father has been bankrupted by war. The lord's daughter knows those who slung mud at her would take and enjoy her privileges if they could get them; the one who slung the mud knows the lord's daughter will not get through life without pain and worry. Pask, the runaway, tells us of his hopes that he has escaped his peasant's life and can become a skilled tradesman (but a historical note tells us he will probably not be able to do so). Maud and Mariot, the glassblower's daughters, know that one of them must marry their father's apprentice, and in a dialogue each comes to a decision about whether she can. A tanner's apprentice knows he is despised for the stinking processes he uses to make leather, but also knows that same people who despise him would not be willing to do without their shoes and saddles. And so it goes.

Schlitz makes each character come alive by giving us points of connection. Few people who read this book will have shod a horse, but most will have known what it is like to feel the lighting bolt of sudden, strong attraction to someone we can never be with. Almost none of this book's readers will have blown glass; all will know what it's like to do something for the first time and get lacklustre results, to feel a sense of accomplishment in having made a beginning, and to be all the more ready to try again.

In a foreword, Schlitz writes of how, as a student, she found that history as it was taught in the classroom was “about dead men who had done dull things”. It was only by reading historical novels that she learned that history was about survival, and could be very dramatic and fascinating. It was this exciting, living view of history, the stories of real people and the lives that they led, that she wanted to impart to her students. So she has, marrying fact with imagination and producing characters that seem to breathe. Not to mention that the material seems wonderfully actable.

And look up the fate of Saint Erasmus if you dare.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Strange and Unusual Growth of Gardenias

I was overjoyed when I first learned that Faith Sullivan had written a sequel to The Cape Ann. It had been a long time coming. The Cape Ann was written in 1988, and Gardenias did not appear until 2005. When I bought it and brought it home I read it in a evening. But I was disgruntled when I closed the back cover on the last page and laid it down.

Gardenias starts off in such a satisfying way. It takes up just where The Cape Ann leaves off; with Lark Erhardt, Lark's mother Arlene, and Arlene's sister Betty riding a train bound to a new life San Diego. Arlene Erhardt has had all she can take of Lark's father's gambling, abusive ways, and Betty had been essentially abandoned by her husband Stan and was languishing in depression at her parents' home, so Arlene decided to pull up stakes and move the three of them from Harvester, Minnesota to San Diego, California.

The novel takes its name from the gardenia bush Arlene, Betty, and Lark plant in the poor soil outside their new home in the housing project erected for the workers in the munitions factories, and it's an apt symbol. Gardenias is on the whole a novel about being transplanted, about new beginnings and new ties to new surroundings, and about all the changing and growing entailed. San Diego during the years of the Second World War is a good setting for such a theme. All the people in the housing project where Lark lives are from somewhere else, having moved to San Diego in search of work, and usually also to get away from something undesirable. And Faith Sullivan has a few things to say about how new surroundings aren't necessarily any better on the whole than the old, and how the changes people undergo aren't always positive or welcome. All well and good. But some of the new outgrowth feels so forced and artificial.

One of the best things about The Cape Ann was the characterization of Arlene Erhardt. In The Cape Ann Lark describes Arlene as a “headlong person” with “instincts as sharp as darts”, and quotes her grandfather, who called her mother a “freethinker”. And at the beginning of Gardenias, Arlene is still the same indefatigable person, with the same admirable ingenuity and drive, and the same open-handed kindness coupled with a refusal to take garbage from anyone or let any conventions stand in her way. One can't help but root for her, and admire her. When Arlene buys furniture on credit and Lark protests, "Grandma says that charge is the road to perdition," Arlene retorts, "I don't want to hear what Grandma says. Grandma's not sleeping on the floor." When Betty comments that she's heard the WACs are "a pretty wild bunch", Arlene sweeps such a hum-drum assessment aside with, "That's what they always say when women want to do something interesting." She also invites Lou, the black man who delivers her and her furniture back to her place, in for a cup of tea. Sullivan doesn't point out how unconventional this behaviour would have been for an American white woman in 1943. But it works because of why Arlene does it. She is not doing it out a super-progressive (not to say anachronistic) sense of social justice, but because there were no black people in Harvester and she sees Lou as exotic, a part of her new world that she is so eager to experience.

But as the novel progresses Arlene falters and begins to disintegrate. Part of this is her husband's fault. Willie Erhardt, Lark's father and Arlene's husband, doesn't change a bit in this novel about growth. He's the same self-serving bully he always was, and has the same total lack of comprehension for or interest in anything Lark or Arlene think or feel. He remains in Harvester, only visiting and writing San Diego in order to harass his wife and daughter.

Arlene could have recovered from Willie's vindictive behaviour, but she's harbouring a secret love for another man, and as Sullivan would have us believe, this turns out to be her undoing, causing her to nearly destroy her relationships with her daughter and sister, to lose her sense of purpose, and to direct her nervous energy and her hunger for love into some dead-end channels. And I don't buy it. I don't believe Arlene, who is generally a shrewd judge of character, would have fallen in love with the man she has, nor that she would allow her unrequited and hopeless love for any man to ruin her life.

There are other facets of her behaviour that don't make sense. Arlene, a woman who set up her own modestly successful business in a small, Depression-era Minnesota town, just seems to accept being stymied professionally and settle for being an administrative assistant in the personnel office at the munitions plant in San Diego. At a time when the war-time economy was booming and employers were willing to hire anyone they could get, she complains she can't get promoted and makes no effort to develop her skills. And the woman who so carefully saved for her own house in Harvester has suddenly become a spend-thrift who cares only about having a nice-looking rental apartment.

Then there's Lark's growing alienation from her mother. Certainly it was unavoidable that Arlene, Betty and Lark's relationships with each other should change, and Sullivan generally navigates these changes with considerable expertise. (The changing dynamic between Arlene and Betty is especially well-handled, as Betty gathers strength and the formerly high-handed Arlene weakens.) In San Diego, Arlene is soley financially responsible for Lark and herself instead of being a housewife and her own boss as she was in Harvester, and that means she has less time for her daughter — and is less emotionally involved with her. And she stops listening to Lark, because she is already so burdened she can't bear to hear how much Lark misses her old life in Harvester. Lark is much less coddled than many children. At nine she is considered old enough to be left alone after school until Arlene and Betty get home from work and to take care of a number of household chores. In The Cape Ann, Lark's sharp, detailed observations of her mother help us to know Arlene. In Gardenias Lark's observations come from more and more of a distance until Arlene's behaviour is no more intelligible than that of a stranger's.

It's always necessary when critiquing a novel to distinguish between those elements of the book that are ineffective and those that one doesn't happen to care for. So it's very difficult for me to determine whether Arlene's tranformation is not believable or if I just hate it. I can't decide between the two possibilities, so I'll just say it's a shame that Lark's viewpoint is the only one we have of her world, since that means we can't help but share her disgust and bewilderment with Arlene's behaviour. Lark's growing detachment from her mother means that we lost touch with Arlene too — and perhaps that Sullivan did as well.

Another Minnesotaen-goes-Californian transformation that doesn't work is that of Betty's husband, Stan, probably because we didn't get to see it unfold. When Stan makes his reappearance in Betty's life, claiming that he's sorry for the way he treated her and professing that he's learned how to think and embraced socialism and charming everyone, well, it was hard not to roll my eyes. I suspect Betty may have been tempted to the the same.

But now I can begin enumerating the things I did like about Gardenias. Betty's transformation is not only utterly believable but satisfying. She does not become the bold and brave and hard-charging person Arlene was, nor does she embrace socialist ideology, but she acquires her own quiet, gentle and irresistible force of will, and even Willie Erhardt doesn't attempt to bully her.

Shirley Olson is another achievement. Shirley is a schoolmate of Lark's, and though they aren't friends and don't even like each other she attaches herself to Lark's family. We never learn much about Shirley's homelife other than it seems to be dreadful — a morass of filth, poverty, and abuse. Shirley's a survivor who will never pass up a chance to grab whatever's in her reach, so she establishes herself as an auxiliary family member in Lark's home, eating whatever she can find, soaking up the kind treatment she gest from Arlene and Betty, playing their piano, and battling Lark for the position of alpha child. Arlene and Betty may feel sorry for Shirley and therefore show her unstinting generosity and unconditional acceptance, but it's Lark who knows, and tells us, how unpleasant Shirley can be. And it is Shirley's presence in the novel that really show us how continued proximity and shared circumstances can build bonds between just about anyone, no matter how incompatible and antagnonistic they are to one another initially. Lark develops famillial relations with her neighbours as well, though fortunately none are so hard to love as Shirley.

And finally Sullivan's biggest accomplishments over the course of both The Cape Ann and Gardenias is her rendering of the genesis of a writer. Lark is a sensitive and observant child (and a narrator similar to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird with her adult-level powers of observation and description and child's sensibilities and behaviour). Lark builds a rich, involved fantasy life out of the elements of her life. The Cape Ann's title refers to the name of the architectural plan Lark and her mother wanted to use for the house they dreamed of building in Harvester. Lark was sure that if she could live in the Cape Ann she'd become the kind of person she wants to be: happy, elegant, talented and self-disciplined, able to twirl batons and stop biting her nails. She also invents stories about a woman she meets on a train and the writer of a letter she finds.

In the first few pages of Gardenias, Lark catches sight of a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman. She becomes infatuated with this woman in the way little girls sometimes are with attractive, older females, and is sure that the woman is a movie star. The woman is indeed a movie actress named Alicia Armand, and over the next few years Lark collects clippings of her idol, sees all her movies, and daydreams of being "discovered" by her. Alicia Armand becomes the first element of her new dream life. Soon to join Alicia and populate an imaginary cabin in the snowy Minnesota woods are the ghosts of Lark's friend Hilly and her Aunt Betty's baby daughter. This dream world of Lark's is her way to escape her own reality and to comfort and amuse herself, but it evolves and takes on its own life and purpose. Lark extracts what confuses and fascinates her from the flotsam and jetsam of life, fantasizes and muses about it, and then in Gardnenias begins to fashion a fictional collage from them, and to write stories in exercise books. These stories are rather odd at times, and have the kind of charming absurdities common to a child's imagination with its limited factual knowledge and worldview, but it's clear that Lark has the vocation and perhaps the talent to become a writer.

Lark, with her writerly ambitons, and with all her mother's resourcefulness and self-reliance and spirit, is such an interesting creation in herself that I am eager to read another novel about her. I can only hope that Sullivan won't make us wait another seventeen years for it.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Caddie Woodlawn and the Dangers of Unexamined Nostalgia

I've been meaning to write a review about the Newbery award-winner for 1936, Caddie Woodlawn, but for some reason I find myself with little to say about the book. My copy of Caddie has lain on my desk for a number of months now, and occasionally I would pick it up and try to begin writing, but never was able to get started.

I read and enjoyed this book as a child without, if I remember correctly, it ever becoming a favourite. I find it still readable, but somehow not satisfying. It seems like such a generic, superficial book somehow. Tomboyish girl gets into episodic adventures with her brothers, chafes against the restrictive social expectations put upon a girl in 1864, and gradually learns to embrace her own, more palatable definition of femininity. Along the way all the sturdiest of virtues are espoused: honesty, courage, kindness, initiative, loyalty, cheerfulness, industry, generosity, and of course the inevitable American boosterism that seems to have been de rigueur for at least the early Newbery books.

That the book should seem so two-dimensional is surprising and disappointing given that the book is based upon Carol Ryrie Brink's grandmother's recollections of her Wisconsin pioneer childhood in the 1860s, with some additions and inventions. In the author's note at the beginning of the book, Ryrie Brink tells us the real Caddie was still alive at the time of its writing and provided details and verification, and further that her grandmother was pleased with the book and thought it portrayed her family members exactly as they were. I so hate to take a stance against the real Caddie's view of her childhood (what makes me think I know better than someone who was there?) but I just can't buy it. Were things ever this simple and straightforward for anyone at any time?

That's not to say this book is as irritatingly and absurdly idyllic as the 1939 Newbery medalist, Thimble Summer. The setting seems reasonably authentic. There are references to ample but monotonous food, limited reading materials, plain clothing, hard work, the dangers of prairie fires and rattlesnakes, and explanations of cultural differences, such as how birthdays weren't celebrated in the way that contemporary children would expect. But Ryrie Brink determinedly presents only a cheerful, tidy, picture of her grandmother's childhood, and seemingly has no interest in cracking the fond, nostalgic coating her grandmother's memories probably acquired over the years of her long life in order to see what lay beneath.

For instance, there's Caddie's effort to help some of her schoolmates, the Hankinson children. Mr. Hankinson, a white pioneer, had married an Indian woman due to the dearth of eligible white women in the early days of the area's settlement. Some years and three children later, Mr. Hankinson's shame of his wife grew to the point where he ordered her to depart from the area when the members of her native community did, leaving their three devastated little boys behind with him. Caddie feels she must help Sammie, Gus and Pete, and she takes them down to the general store, where she spends an entire, long-hoarded silver dollar on candy, tops, combs and handkerchiefs for the boys. It's a heartbreaking story, and a kind, generous gesture on Caddie's part, but there is simply no recognition that no amount of candy or trinkets can possibly compensate those three little boys for the loss of their loving mother. Caddie announces triumphantly that she has driven “that awful lonesome look out of their eyes”, and the Hankinson boys are simply never mentioned again, as though they are a problem neatly resolved and dismissed.

The portrayal of the native people and their relations with the settlers is an area Ryrie Brink chose to present in a flat and stereotypically racist way, relying on her grandmother's stories and the stock Indian renderings of her own day. The three Hankinson boys are described as “half-savage”. The native Americans in the book speak the pidgin English straight out of the early Westerns. Caddie's friend among the Indians (of course there's no identification of the specific tribe these native people belong to), “Indian John”, says to Caddie, “John he go 'way. John's people go 'way, John's dog no can walk. John go far, far. Him dog no can go far. You keep?”. I half-expected him to drop a “Kemo Sabe” somewhere in there. To be fair, the Irish characters in the book seem to begin most sentences by exclaiming, “Faith!” and are invariably the hired help. Ryrie Brink's characterizations may stem less from racist attitudes than from lazy, unthinking and unresearched writing.

There is a "massacre scare" in Caddie Woodlawn and any tensions between the white settlers and native people are explained away as being entirely the fault of some ignorant and fearful settlers. Of course there's no mention of the governmental mistreatment of the native people or the westward wave of settlers who commandeered the land and left the natives with no place to live. In Caddie's world, good, tolerant white people and gentle, peace-loving Indians can work the matter out between them. The situation is resolved by Caddie's courage, a handshake between Indian John and Mr. Woodlawn... and the native people's convenient decampment for an unspecified destination.

I'm in no way knowledgeable about native American culture or historical perspectives and so cannot really provide a proper analysis of the ways Caddie Woodlawn. Debbie Reese, of the web site American Indians in Children's Literature, has some interesting comments about the portrayal of the native Americans in the book. It seems she has been unable to substantiate the existence of any actual "scalp belts" among the American Indians, so the passages involving "Indian John's" giving his scalp belt into Caddie's keeping and the Woodlawn children's showing of it to the neighbourhood children would all have been invented by Ryrie Brink.

Then there's the handling of Mr. Woodlawn's account of his deprived English childhood. Caddie's father tells the children, "Whatever happens I want you to think of yourselves as young Americans, and I want you to be proud of that. It is difficult to tell you about England, because there all men are not free to pursue their own lives in their own ways. Some men live like princes, while other men must beg for the very crusts that keep them alive." I'm at a loss to understand how Mr. Woodlawn could possibly have thought men were any freer in America than in England, or how he could consider there were no comparable extremes in the standard of living among U.S. citizens, but its accepted as fact by the young Woodlawns and, apparently, by Ryrie Brink.

When I first found out that there was a sequel to Caddie Woodlawn entitled Magical Melons, I promptly borrowed it from the Toronto Public Library. But it was not what I would have considered a "sequel" — a book that followed Caddie through adolescence and possibly to young adulthood — but rather further episodes from the same period of Caddie's life. In a way, Ryrie Brink may never have got beyond being the credulous child listening to stories at her grandmother's knee. My guess is that she has not researched or explored her subject matter in any substantial or meaningful way, but instead accepted her grandmother's anecdotes at face value and contented herself with shaping the stories into fiction by adding material pulled from the prevailing beliefs and attitudes of the early twentieth century. And if this were the case, she could not allow Caddie to grow beyond the age of eleven either, because her work would never have the substance to satisfy older readers.

The (Indiana, U.S.) Allen County Public Library site has a listing of Newbery winners, which they have very sensibly ranked in order of how enjoyable they are to read. They ranked Caddie Woodlawn in fifty-ninth place (out of 87) and added the comment, "The 'adventures' of a pioneer girl that leaves modern-day readers wondering 'so?'"

Had I not felt compelled to expand my opinion of Caddie until it reached a word count that would qualify it to be considered a review, I might have said something similar and left it at that.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Sarah, Plain and Tall, and a Novel, Short and Sweet

Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, the Newbery Medal winner for 1986, is set on a nineteenth-century prairie farm. Anna (who narrates the novel), her little brother Caleb, and their widowed father have advertised in the Eastern newspapers for a mail order stepmother and bride. They receive a letter of inquiry from a Sarah Wheatman, of Maine. Sarah has formerly kept house for her bachelor brother, who is a fisherman, but now that he is getting married Sarah feels she must make new living arrangements. The next spring Sarah arrives on Anna’s father’s farm to look over the situation and decide if she is willing to make her home with them. Anna, Caleb and their father are very taken with Sarah and hope that she will stay.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is a little story – just 58 pages long - about the delicate business of building a family. It reminded me of nothing so much as a courtship, and really that is what courtship is – the forging a new family out of strangers. And the process will be familiar to anyone who has ever courted either a new family member or a romantic partner: the sensitive explorations of each other, the wondering and guessing as to what the other party is thinking and feeling, and as security and confidence in each other grows, the beginnings of an independence within the context of the new bonds.

So Anna’s little family pores over Sarah’s letters, awaits her coming eagerly, and examines her every expression and action for signs that she is happy with them and will agree to marry Anna’s and Caleb’s father and stay on their farm. The tension caused by Sarah's insistence on driving into town by herself for a day is palpable.

I found it more than a little odd that although Sarah is quite explicit about her own need for a new home and her capacity for hard work, there is no corresponding recognition of the sheer practical necessity of a housekeeper for Anna’s family, nor any mention of how they have been managing without one. Anna’s age is not mentioned, but in the cover illustration she appears to be only twelve or so. Caleb’s age isn’t mentioned either, but he is old enough to read Sarah’s letters without help. Their mother died the day after Caleb was born, and it would have been impossible for nineteenth-century farmer to manage the housekeeping and care of a newborn and a little girl plus his farmwork. In those days, doing the week's laundry alone was a full day’s backbreaking work. And even though Anna might be old enough during the timeframe of the novel to bake bread and make stew and wash the dishes, I doubt that she and her little brother and father could manage all the housework between them and still be able to attend school as she and Caleb do. MacLachlan makes no provision for any of these matters. There’s no mention of the housekeepers Anna’s father surely must have had to hire, or of any help from neighbours. Instead Anna’s family’s only concern is whether Sarah sings, and whether she will like them enough to stay. When Sarah does come she seems to spend most of her days picking flowers, sliding down the haystack, singing, and teaching the children to swim in the cow pond. What work she does do is outdoor work such as fixing the roof or helping in the barn, and when a neighbour tells her she must have a garden, she only mentions growing flowers. It’s all very idyllic, but I kept thinking the family was in for a shock when the honeymoon was over, or even when fall arrived and they have no preserving or sewing done for the winter.

MacLachlan does do very well at conveying to us the sheer novelty Sarah has for Anna's family. Anna and Caleb – and probably their father - have lived lives more limited than any present-day North American can really understand. They would know little of the larger world. The only people they would ever meet would be their neighbours who, culturally and economically speaking, were just like them. They probably had very few books and newspapers, and were educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Caleb’s only knowledge of what having a mother would be like comes from Anna’s often-told stories of their mother. Any woman who travelled even a few hundred miles to live with them would seem exotic. And so Sarah, a plain and plainspoken woman from Maine, is something strange and wonderful, with her yellow sunbonnet, her ability to draw and swim, her new songs, her habit of drying flowers, and her regional idiom. But at the same time, that's love for you, as anyone who has ever watched a friend fall madly in love with someone completely unremarkable will recognize.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is really a novel about the beginnings of love, and love’s ability to glorify the ordinary and make one content with the losses a new life entails. Sarah misses the sea, and her brother, and the three aunts she left behind in Maine. A neighbour and fellow mail-order bride tells Sarah, “There are always things to miss. No matter where you are.” And, recognizing this, Sarah makes her decision of whether to stay or to go on the basis of what she loves, and will miss, the most.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Johnny Tremain and the Irresistible Drumbeat of War

The Newbery medallist for 1944, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, is a historical novel about a young apprentice silversmith and is set in a Boston on the eve of the American Revolution. Forbes’ biography Paul Revere and the World He Lived In had won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for history, and well, way to make the most of your obviously thorough research, Ms. Forbes.

At 14, the orphaned Johnny Tremain is a self-assured and driven boy. Before his mother died, she managed to teach him to read and write, arrange for his apprenticeship with a Mr. Lapham, silversmith, and also give him a silver cup with the Lyte family crest, telling him that if he were ever in dire straits to go to the Lytes for help.

Mr. Lapham was once a fine craftsman, but is becoming too feeble and too interested in preparing to meet his Maker to really be in effective charge of his workshop. The other two apprentices besides Johnny don’t really have the ability for, or interest in, their work. Johnny, therefore, has all the insufferable cockiness of a kid who is economically invaluable and more able than everyone around him and knows it. Mr. Lapham’s widowed daughter-in-law has proposed that Johnny will eventually marry one of her four daughters in order to keep the shop in the family, and Johnny has no objection to marrying the third daughter, Cilla, who is clever, companionable, and his own age. Thus provided with insurance, skills, the opportunity to do work he loves, and the prospect of a bride and the ownership of an established business, Johnny is in a fair way to do well in life.

Then comes a tragic accident, and Johnny, who can no longer hope to be a silversmith, has nothing left but his pride and drive, and little food for either them or himself. The Laphams consider him a useless burden, and when he appeals to the Lytes, they accuse him of being a thief. After a long period of near despair and casting about for some worthwhile work that he can do, he does find some work as messenger and delivery boy for a newspaper. He learns to ride on a very difficult horse. He finds a friend in the newspaper’s typesetter Rab Silsbee, whom he looks up to and loves like a brother in a way only possible for those who don’t have any actual brothers, but more importantly, he finds a cause – the American Revolution.

This book – and the fact that I just previously reread L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside - got me thinking about the depiction of war in fiction. Doris Lessing, in her CBC Massey lecture “When in the Future They Look Back on Us” (as printed in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside), wrote:

In my time I have sat through many many hours listening to people talking about the war, the prevention of war, the awfulness of war, with it never once being mentioned that for large numbers of people the idea of war is exciting, and that when a war is over they may say it was the best time in their lives…. People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating… an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.

Neither Forbes nor Montgomery shut their eyes to the excitement war generates. The stirring drumbeat of war is strong in both books. In Rilla of Ingleside, the little Glen community is energized and mobilized by the war. The characters in Rilla would have described themselves as primarily motivated by patriotism and duty, but they repeatedly marvel at their transformation from a people only interested in the gossip of their village to armchair military strategists. They work tirelessly and enthusiastically to “save and serve” by knitting socks, cutting back on sugar, and fundraising, and as Germany and Austria sue for peace near the end of the novel, one character wonders “if things won’t seem a little flat and insipid when peace really comes”.

In Johnny Tremain we find descriptions like “[a]ll over Boston was a feeling of excitement”, of men looking radiant and elated at the prospect of a fight, and of cheering crowds at the Boston Tea Party. But Forbes’ concept of war is far more nuanced and complex than L.M. Montgomery’s.

L.M. Montgomery, despite being an intelligent and well-read woman, was no less susceptible to propaganda than many people much less so and was sincerely convinced that World War I was a holy war. Again and again her characters describe themselves as fighting for an “idea” and against evil, to keep Canada safe and free from invaders, for a new world. They honestly believed that the Germans bayoneted babies and that Kitchener was some sort of military genius. The one man in their village who is anti-war and pacifist is also generally ignorant and a comic valentine, and is much persecuted. So many of these beliefs were so ridiculous, and even laughable, and it’s very telling that Montgomery never tells us what this “idea” is. We now know that WWI, far from being a righteous war, was simply a case of one imperialistic country picking a fight with another imperialistic country, and then a number of other countries jumping quite heedlessly into the fray. The Germans never had any notion of invading Canada, and never bayoneted babies. The pig-headed and inept Kitchener, who sent out many regiments of cavalry against tanks and was probably answerable for more Allied deaths than any single German officer, should have been court-martialled, not revered. And as for the new world, well, if it were ever in the offing it’s been very slow to arrive.

Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain isn’t anti-war. I doubt Forbes could have even got away with such a strain in her novel given that she wrote and published it during World War II. But being the historian she was, and writing from a distance of over 150 years (Rilla of Ingleside was published in 1920), and probably being of a less romantic, idealistic cast of mind, Forbes achieved a least some of the balance and perspective Montgomery totally lacked.

Johnny is fired up by the speechmaking of revolutionary groups and believes, rightly or wrongly, that he is fighting for freedom, so that “a man can stand up”. It’s a seemingly inevitable part of the American creed to believe this in every struggle, to the point where in a movie such as Independence Day there’s a lot of rhetoric about American freedom and independence and the characters seem to be idiotically blind and deaf to the fact that real issue seems to be one of mere survival for the entire human race. Johnny believes that he must join in the Revolution so that a man may stand up. Of course the issue of freedom for the slaves in the United States is not addressed – it would have thrown a significant curve into the fine sounding talk of freedom. And in fairness to Forbes, it’s only realistic that she should depict the American Revolutionaries this way. I do question whether it was really necessary for the Americans to battle the British for independence given that Canada and Australia have become autonomous without bloodshed, but never mind. Not every novel needs to address every moral question. And then too, sometimes, as Doris Lessing points out, we do need to acknowledge the attraction and benefits of war has for us if we’re ever to learn how to avoid it more often.

So perhaps it’s enough that Johnny may find his redemption in and be a believer in the Revolution, but is not a true believer. He gets to know some of the British officers and can’t help admiring and respecting some of them, and he’s all too miserably aware of the fact that though he himself is only a generation removed from England, that most Revolutionary-era Americans and the British are one people ethnically, and that though individually the British soldiers will be kind and decent to him, collectively they are his sworn enemies. He hears a street fight outside the door of the print shop where he works, and though he doesn’t lift a finger to help, he is sickened by the sounds of a number of Whigs beating a Tory who bravely tried to prevent them from attaching a placard to his shop. He is heartsick at the sight of both British and American wounded. Forbes does point out that the American newspapers were allowed to print whatever they wanted until the outbreak of war and that the tea tax amounted to very little, and she is honest about the twisted morality and human costs of war.

Johnny Tremain is excellent both in terms of being an adventure novel and one which traces the development and coming of age of a young boy, and it acknowledges both the bad and good things that can come of war and crippling injuries and a best friend’s attentions to a girlfriend formerly taken for granted. And I have to concede that’s probably enough ground for one book to cover.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky and of Deplorable Words

Lucky Trimble, the main character of the 2007 Newbery Medal Winner, Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky, is ten years old and one of the 43 occupants of Hard Pan, California. Lucky’s mother, Lucille, died when Lucky was eight. Lucky’s father, who never wanted a child and was never a part of Lucky’s life, calls upon his first wife, Brigitte Trimble, to come to the U.S. to take care of Lucky until she can be placed in foster care. Brigitte leaves France for what she initially assumed would be a short stay in California, and two years later is still living with Lucky in their trailer in Hard Pan. Lucky, with her passion for natural science, her dog HMS Beagle, her part-time job as cleaner-up of Hard Pan’s Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center, and her friends Lincoln and Miles, is doing quite well in the custody of the loving and resourceful Brigitte. But Lucky has one great fear – that Brigitte will put her in an orphanage or foster care and return to France.

Self-sufficient Lucky, who carries a survival kit/backpack around with her at all times, can open a can of beans without a can opener, scare a snake out of a dryer, and remove a bug from her ear, and she sets out to solve this problem too. She eavesdrops on the 12-step meetings that take place in the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and puzzles over the concept of a Higher Power. All the people who testify in these meetings say they hit rock bottom, found their Higher Power and then got their lives all straightened out, so Lucky thinks if she could only figure out what her Higher Power is she could get control of her life too. Lucky never does figure out what her Higher Power is, but she devises a plan to make Brigitte realize that staying with Lucky is more important than going back to France, except that, with the added complications of a windstorm and the company of five-year-old Miles, her plan doesn’t work out quite as she expected.

The Higher Power of Lucky is, at 135 pages, a short book, but not a slight one. It’s definitely for younger readers without being exclusively so. It did leave me contemplating the likelihood of a first wife’s agreeing to drop everything, cross the Atlantic and take care of the motherless child of her ex-husband’s second marriage, but Patron has created characters that live their lives as they see fit without regard for any reviewer’s silly concepts of convention or reasonable behaviour. Brigitte is obviously an open, generous, and spontaneous sort of person. She no longer loves her ex-husband, but when she made an emergency trip to the U.S. (probably for the sake of a tragically bereaved little girl, possibly also in the spirit of adventure) and discovered she loved Lucky (and maybe California), her short visit became a new phase in her life. It does seem a sheer statistical improbability that there would be anonymous 12-step groups for alcoholics, overeaters, smokers AND gamblers in a community with a population of 43, but never mind – it’s possible if not likely that the members commute from other towns.

There’s hardly a false note in the characterization of the children – Lucky, Lincoln, and Miles. I especially loved the depiction of their various interests and obsessions. Lincoln is ambivalent about his mother’s conviction of his presidential destiny and is much more interested in being a contributing member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers and the knots he ties incessantly. He’s also concerned with adding some necessary punctuation to a “SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY” road sign (and as an editor, I can only applaud this particular intellectual pursuit). Miles, who lives with his grandmother and is not clear on the whereabouts or regard of his mother, hugs a filthy copy of Are You My Mother and goes from house to house asking for cookies and readings of his book. Lucky collects bugs and, having been taught something of natural selection in science class, theorizes that she’s been dowered with sand-coloured hair, skin and eyes because they’re adapted to her environment. She’s plainly possessed of a full share of scientific curiosity and, besides her search for a Higher Power, speculates on the difference between her and Brigitte’s feet, the uses of parsley, and the meaning of the word scrotum.

Which leads me to the controversy concerning this book.

In the early months of this year, when I had just begun work on my Newbery review project and was on the alert for the announcement of the 2007 Newbery winner, the very first thing I heard about The Higher Power of Lucky was that there was a uproar over the book’s use of the word “scrotum”. This New York Times article on the controversy reports that a handful of states have banned the book and a number of school librarians are refusing to order it because of this issue. Andrea Koch, the librarian at French Road Elementary School in Brighton, New York, said in an interview, “I don’t think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson”. Frederick Muller, a librarian at Halsted Middle School in Newton, New Jersey, said, “If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn’t want to have to explain that.”

I can understand a teacher or librarian not wanting to have to explain to a class of nine-year-olds what a “scrotum” is. And perhaps teachers and librarians can understand why I didn’t want to have to manually input over 500 apostrophes into a file that had been accidentally stripped of the same by a data processing program at the publishing house where I work. But in both cases, not wanting to undertake a task is not a justification for refusing to do it. Surely children should know the correct names for the various portions of the human anatomy, and if teachers and librarians – and parents – will go to such lengths to avoid doing so, this begs the question of who is doing so.

I suppose there is an argument to be made that the presence of the word in this book will cause a certain derailment of a class reading. And yes, there’s no real need to read this particular excellent book out loud to a class of nine-year-olds, because there are many other excellent books available for that purpose. But there’s no excuse for refusing to add this book to a school or public library. Libarians and teachers who cannot deal with the prospect of children approaching them singly to ask the meaning of the word scrotum might do well to reconsider their career paths (and incidentally, Lucky does finally get an adult’s matter-of-fact explanation at the end of the book, so a child who read this book would not have to approach a squeamish teacher or librarian). Parents who would try to have this book banned from the school might remind themselves that the word scrotum is also in the dictionary and that we’ve no plans to remove those from schools. We don't need to be so afraid of words in books as this.

Patron is also criticized in the article for “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far [she] could push the envelope, but [she] didn’t have the children in mind” by Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian in Durango, Colorado. I disagree that Patron is being deliberately provocative or that she didn’t consider her audience.

Here’s the context for the deplorable word. Lucky first hears the word scrotum when Short Sammy, one of the people in the AA meeting, designates his rock bottom experience as the time his dog Roy got bitten in the scrotum by a rattlesnake and Short Sammy was too drunk to go to the dog’s aid. Throughout the story Lucky ponders the possible meaning of the word:

Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green the comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important, and Lucky was glad she was a girl and would never have such an aspect as a scrotum to her own body. Deep inside she thought she would be interested in seeing an actual scrotum. But at the same time – and this is where Lucky’s brain was very complicated – she definitely did not want to see one.

Patron claims to have put the word in partly for sheer love of word play, and partly because it’s simply a part of growing up, and both motives are good ones.

The very way the word is presented perfectly captures several important aspects of childhood experience. One such dimension to the childhood experience is the polarized force of sexual matters have for children – the simultaneous attraction and repulsion. Lucky intuits that a scrotum is something taboo, and both wants to know and doesn’t want to know more about it. Then too, Patron’s portrayal of this interest of Lucky’s, like Lucky’s other hobbies and intellectual pursuits, as well as those of Lincoln and Miles, is a terrific rendering of the way children pick up on things and become fascinated with them regardless of their intrinsic importance or whether those items are those adults would have chosen for them. Children, like adults, have to have room to create their own internal world and to follow their own interests, even if that means the adults around them don’t entirely approve of the child’s preoccupations.

And we adults also have to be adult enough to realize that children’s fiction – like any other fiction – is not written for the express purpose of making the reader’s friends, parents, or teachers comfortable.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

A Thimble Summer and the Winter of a Reviewer’s Discontent

Elizabeth Enright’s Newbery medal-winning Thimble Summer is very much a book of its time — but please don’t take this to mean that I think it any sort of literal or reliable picture of farm life in the thirties, or indeed of life anywhere, at any time. This book isn’t so much a reflection of its time as a reaction to it. It’s a simple, sunny book. A ten-year-old Wisconsin farm girl named Garnet Linden cavorts through a summer and some mild adventures on her family farm. Garnet finds a silver thimble while playing by the river. A short drought is broken by rainfall. Garnet visits her friend Citronella’s grandmother and hears her stories of olden times. A migrant orphan boy, Eric, appears on her farm and finds work and a home with the Lindens. Garnet and Citronella get locked in the town library overnight. The Lindens get a government loan or grant to build the new barn they need. Garnet runs away from the farm to go to a nearby town for the day. Garnet’s family attend the local fall fair, where Garnet exhibits her pet pig and eats a lot of ice cream. And Garnet sees the finding of the thimble as the catalyst of all this and claims that it’s magical.

I was going to complain about the utter lack of depth in this book, but then when I began to think about the era in which this book was published, read and lauded, the very simplicity and the facility of the plot, theme, and characterizations began to take on a new meaning. After all, Thimble Summer won the Newbery Medal in 1939, the same year as the premiere of The Wizard of Oz, a movie in which another ten-year-old farm girl (or as Hollywood would have it, a sixteen-year-old actress in a chest-flattening corset) has magical adventures. The thirties, as everyone knows, were a time of widespread unemployment, bankruptcies, drought, poverty, hunger, war, and escalating international tensions. The American film industry did very well in the thirties because everyone wanted to escape from their problems for a few hours. And then too, although grim social realism had become a considerable force in contemporary literature, it had not yet breached children’s books. Adults of the thirties may have been reading Of Mice and Men (published in 1937), or The Grapes of Wrath (published in 1940), but they were giving their children Thimble Summer, or at most Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (published in the thirties and forties and five times named Newbery Honor books).

Thimble Summer, accordingly, might have seemed a very pleasant bit of escapism to a city child who never got enough to eat nor had any place to swim. To a child on an actual, drought-ridden farm the book might seem like something best dropped in the path of the nearest combine. All right, perhaps I am exaggerating. A farm child aware of the schism between this book and his or her own reality would not have dared risk damage to the family combine.

Elizabeth Enright’s “authenticity” was praised in reviews. The New York Times Book Review claimed the book had “the flavor of real life… expressed with charm and humor.” I will go so far as to say that the setting does have a certain naturalness and realism. The Linden family’s standard of living is somewhat true to what a successful farm family’s would have been in the thirties. Garnet more or less lives in a single pair of overalls chopped off above the knee, and her pleasures are very elemental ones. Enright includes descriptive details of weathered mailboxes that lean upon each other, and of 20–year-old Ford trucks that go 15 miles an hour, and sensual descriptions of rain and heat. The larger, grimmer reality is acknowledged only fleetingly. Eric, who has lived a knockabout life travelling in boxcars and supporting himself by whatever work he can find, tells the Lindens they don’t know what real drought is and that he wants to stay in fertile Wisconsin and someday buy his own farm there.

Everything works out for the best in Garnet’s little world. When the crops on her farm are badly in need of rain, they get it just in time to avoid failure. When her brother chastises her for causing an (easily correctable) mishap during threshing, she runs away for the afternoon to have fun by herself. When she accidentally spends her bus fare, she hitchhikes. When she hitchhikes she is picked up by kindly strangers. It’s not surprising that Enright should have had this idyllic, superficially realistic concept of farm life. She did spend her summers on a farm in Wisconsin, but the farm was owned by her uncle, Frank Lloyd Wright. Farming may have been a financially viable proposition for Lloyd Wright, but it certainly didn’t need to be.

Enright’s idealized notion of farm life is even evident in the illustrations, which Enright also drew. They are simple (and dismayingly amateurish for a professional illustrator who studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design) line drawings, and the coloured illustrations are in pastel and bright colours without shading or perspective. Garnet’s body is impossibly streamlined, and her little friend Citronella, who is described as fat, is only slightly more realistically curvy. In one picture which shows Garnet and her brother Jay running through a cabbage patch, their feet don’t appear to be touching the ground, and the cabbages look more like very large roses.

I’m certainly not saying that every novel should be grimly realistic, because that is one bleak prospect, especially for children’s books. Good books in the romantic tradition, and books that are just fun, are something to cherish. But this book is somehow not enjoyable enough to be really fun. It’s just… blandly pleasant and conventional in a way that is no longer admired in literature. There’s really nothing remarkable about it, and in trying to figure out how it could have been upgraded to stellar, I’ve settled on picking at its lack of depth and realism. L.M. Montgomery defended her romantic style of fiction by saying that rose gardens are just as real as pigsties, and she was perfectly right, but a novel that is too sweet and light is just as flawed as one that is too monotonously dreary. Enright could have learned a few things from Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter — and unacknowledged co-writer — Rose Wilder Lane. The Wilders fictionalized Laura’s childhood, and they had to take out some details that would have made the book too dark, but one of the best things about the Little House books is their sure balance between realistic portrayal of some extremely harsh situations and the positive aspects of Laura’s life. The books never gloss over the horrendous dangers and privations of frontier life, but the realism doesn’t weigh too heavily on the book. A child reading these books can enjoy Laura’s tilts with Nellie Oleson, and feel her pleasure in a new calico dress or ripe plums, and also her feel her fear of wolves or worry about Pa being missing during a blizzard. An adult reading the series can enjoy these things as well, but also has a deeper awareness of narrowness of the margin of survival for the Ingalls family. When you’re a child it sounds like fun to wake up with a foot of snow on your bed. When you’re over 30, not so much. An adult has a much better appreciation of what it would have meant for Charles Ingalls to leave his wife and children with little money and food and walk several hundred miles in worn-out boots to search for work, and of the courage Caroline Ingalls showed when she spent a three-day blizzard playing games with her little daughters knowing full well that her husband (and sole economic support) could be lying dead out in the storm.

I still enjoy the Little House books almost as much (if in a different way) as I did as a child. I probably would have enjoyed Thimble Summer if I’d read it when I was seven or eight and hadn’t grown up on a farm. But this kind of limited appeal is the hallmark of a limited book, not of a good one.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

For the Love of Knitting and the Dislike of Reading About It

When I was at Winners last week I happened to spy a book on knitting in the bargain bin. I ran over to look at it, moth to flame-style, and it turned out not to be a book of patterns, as I had hoped, but a glossy, hardcover, quasi-coffeetable book (does that make it an endtable book?) called For the Love of Knitting: A Celebration of the Knitter’s Art, which featured articles on knitting written by the “names” of the knitting world, and a lot of pictures. Disappointed, I turned it over to look at the price, and found the sticker said $2. If the book had been $20 or even $10, I would have left it in the bin, but I felt it was worth $2 to get possession of all those lovely pictures of vintage knitting patterns and contemporary knitted art and I hoped there might be interesting bits of trivia buried somewhere in the articles. But I didn’t expect much from the articles themselves.

I’m an avid knitter and rarely leave the house without a knitting project tucked into my handbag. I’ve been knitting since I was eight. If I’d had my way, I’d have begun knitting at the age of six, but I had to waste two long years begging my mother to show me how to knit. (I was basically pure id as a child. Mum, knowing my high-strung, easily frustrated temperament, postponed the dreaded ordeal of teaching me for as long as she could stand my pestering her about it.) I’m an even more avid reader. But I don’t like reading about knitting.

As I read and perused For the Love of Knitting I wondered why. It’s probably at least partly for the same reason I don’t have the patience to watch cooking or decorating shows or have much interest in porn. Some things are meant to be done rather than passively watched or read about. So, though I am usually all about text, and I have a three-foot shelf full of knitting books and magazines, I don’t often read the articles therein.

I have realized lately that this is at least partly a mistake. For years I considered myself an expert knitter because I could make an item from a pattern rated at the expert level of difficulty without any trouble, write a pattern for a pictured sweater, and design my own items, usually by just making them up as I go along. But it’s since dawned on me that I’m not an expert knitter. I have much the same attitude towards the technical aspects of knitting as I do about computers – meaning I learn the bare minimum of how-to stuff that will enable to me to do what I specifically want to do. I only know one way to cast on and one way to cast off. Many knitting techniques are as Greek to me. I also have bad form (meaning I hold the needles and the yarn wrong), which slows me down considerably. And meanwhile, in both fields, there could be much faster and better ways of doing the things I already do, and so much more that I would like to do if I only knew it were possible. So I’ve resolved to correct this, though the prospect of having to overcome a 25-year-old muscle memory is less than welcome.

But my attitude towards the human interest sort of knit lit remains the same. Most of it is so boring and inane. For all the articles rhapsodizing about the joy of knitting or waxing philosophical about knitting or reminiscing about their childhood memories of knitting, and the jokey accounts of yarn stashes grown to mammoth proportions, I can summon no interest whatsoever. I even dislike patterns written in a chatty style. I suppose this is because I primarily read to learn, and there is nothing new anyone can tell me about the addictive rhythm of knitting or the tactile and visual pleasures of beautiful wool. I might like intelligent articles about the Zen or Dao of knitting if they were written by someone who actually knew something about Zen or Dao philosophies, but those sorts of articles are always written by someone who knows lots about knitting and only the merest scrapings of philosophy.

The jokey articles about knitting are some of the most painful, because they’re plainly intended to be funny and practically never are. I’ve read Yarn Harlot Stephanie Pearl McPhee’s two books Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter, and At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much, and the cutesy “OMG I am so obsessed with knitting that I have yarn stuffed into my piano and will spend two hours searching for a lost needle” shtick wears pretty thin after the first page or so. Yes, I recognize this is just my opinion. McPhee’s blog does seem to be very popular, and she’s so well-known to knitters that the staff at Toronto’s yarn store Romni Wool freely quote her at me. And I will say that it was McPhee’s books that brought me to my epiphany about not being the great knitter I thought I was, that it was pretty funny when a neurosurgeon told McPhee that she could never learn to knit because it was too hard, and that I find McPhee’s practice of knitting during the down times of her midwifery patients’ deliveries and then presenting mother and baby with the finished items unqualifiedly charming.

For the Love of Knitting’s editor Kari Cornell has shown a certain amount of taste in gathering materials for the book, because the essays and stories in For the Love of Knitting are among the less tiresome examples of the genre. The book does have a number of the ubiquitous nostalgic, rhapsodic, saccharine, and pseudo-comic material about learning to knit, the amibience at favourite yarn shops, the impossibly complex knitting projects that take over one’s life, and places to keep one’s hoard of yarn, but there were also some more interesting and original articles.

I liked the article about a woman who, during a scarf-knitting marathon for Christmas, devised a way of knitting while standing up on a crowded subway (feet wide apart and parallel, knees slightly bent, body facing 45 degree angle to the direction of the train). I tried it myself this past week, and it does work. I also liked Naomi Dagen Bloom’s account of how her husband took up spinning because I got learn something about a craft I know next to nothing about (and I did my best to crush any spinning temptations that arose in me). Perri Klass’s article about the sweaters she did and did not knit for her father was fairly well-written. I’ve read some of her articles in Vogue Knitting before and somehow they always stay with me. Also readable was knitting artists Teva Durham's and Pam Allen’s articles about knitting’s stepchild status in the art world, and Sigrid Arnott’s article about knitting as an anti-capitalist act, and Clinton W. Trowbridge’s piece about the history of male knitters, and the tribute to Elizabeth Zimmerman. And of course, the pictures in this book are the visual feast my quick flip through at Winners promised: the vintage postcards, magazine covers, knitting patterns, and Red Cross posters; the photos of knitted art (which include teacups and the coracle that actually floats); the still lifes of yarn and needles, and the paintings that depict knitting through the ages. (Though Cornell neglected to include one of my sentimental favourite knitting paintings, "Les Sabot" by François Boucher. When I fist saw "Les Sabot" at the Art Gallery of Ontario seven or eight years ago, I informed the man I was seeing at the time that it was “our painting”.)

But though I managed to get through this knitting book with a modicum of enjoyment, I am still not convinced to join the readership of this softer side of knitting writing. I’m sure it’s only a personal preference. Knitting is an art, and I am the sort of person who wants only to enjoy making and looking at art, and to know how to create it, and to know something about its history, while the esoteric words, words, words criticism of it and the amateurish, gushing, navel-gazing prose the artistic community churns out interests me not at all.

I do have a passion for books of patterns, and I like to look at patterns and pictures online (especially those with a sense of humour, such as those at but the only kinds of knitting blogs I visit are those which mock the bad patterns turned out by professional designers who presumably should know better. Every issue of Knit.1 and Vogue Knitting gives them fresh fodder. Knit.1 seems to be targeted at people who don't know how to knit and presumably are so carried away by the prospect of making anything that they'll actually use a cellphone cosy pattern. But dear Vogue Knitting, you are trying far too hard to reinvent the wheel and you are resorting to patterns that aren't attractive or even wearable. Moreover, knitted pants soon stretch out to the point of being unwearable. Relentless mocking shall be your portion until you understand these things.

You Knit What?? seems to have been the original of these pattern debunking sites, and I enjoyed it so much I created a Metafilter front page post about it. Then, after the people who created You Knit What?? stopped updating it, worthy imitators took up the cause. If you like this sort of thing, try visiting:

You Knit What, Part 2
The Needle and the Damage Done
What the Fugly

There’s also What Not To Crochet.

I confine my knitting reading to pictures and patterns, to technical information, to interesting historical trivia, and to the fun of those point-and-laugh websites featuring awful knitting patterns. And then I have more time to actually knit. Or to read some really satisfying novels and non-fiction. Which is the way it should be. Knitting and reading don't mix that well.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

A Bridge Between Children and Adults

At one point after the movie My Girl came out, I heard a radio announcer quip that for him the movie was just so much more enjoyable after Macaulay Culkin’s character died. I don’t think anyone who reads Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terebithia, which won the Newbery Medal in 1978, will be inclined to say that of the death of a child character in the book. I’ve read Bridge to Terebithia twice, and the second reading was almost harder to bear because even pre-tragedy I felt such a sick dread of the passages that lay ahead. Paterson wrote the book after her son David's eight-year-old friend Lisa was struck and killed by lighting. David Paterson is now an adult and married with children of his own, but still finds Bridge to Terebithia difficult to read. I am not surprised. Bridge to Terebithia will never become one of the books I read and reread because it tears me up — and all my childhood friends are alive and kicking and posting to

The main character, Jess Aarons, is a ten-year-old farm boy who feels, and indeed really is, something of a thwarted misfit in his own life. He has a passion for drawing and painting and dislikes sports, which doesn’t exactly win him a lot of respect among the other boys at his rural school. There seems to be no art instruction whatsoever at his school (was this really ever the case in public schools during the seventies?) and the only teacher who doesn’t discourage him by telling him not to waste time or paper is the music teacher, with whom Jess is secretly in love.

At home Jess is the only boy of five children. One of best things about Bridge to Terebithia is the Aarons family dynamic. Jess’s four sisters are especially well drawn. We can completely understand and sympathize with Jess’s irritation with his sisters, and with how they make him feel marginalized in his own family, but at the same time see that they seem like perfectly ordinary girls with both good and bad qualities. Jess’s older sisters, the high-school-aged Ellie and Rhonda, fuss a lot about wanting clothes and makeup, shirk their share of the chores, and complain about Jess being smelly. Four-year-old Joyce Ann throws a lot of tantrums as a way of holding her own with her much older siblings. Jess likes six-year-old May Belle, who adores him and shows promise of developing into a good companion for him a few years down the road, but in the meantime he doesn’t always want her tagging around after him.

Jess’s mother and father are trying to raise too many children on too little money. Under the stress of this his mother becomes sharp and quick-tempered, and his father’s long work hours mean he is absent much of the time, and absent-minded when physically present. They’re too overworked to have much time or energy to cater to Jess’s non-physical needs, and on many days their efforts to communicate with him consist of their asking if he’s done the milking yet. Jess must draw in spare moments, and in his room, with the door shut, because his mother considers it a waste of time and his father doesn’t think it a suitably masculine activity for his only son.

In an effort to carve out a better place for himself in his world, Jess spends all the early morning hours of the summer between fourth and fifth grade in the cow pasture, training himself to run. He dreams of winning the lunchtime races at school and thinks if he can become the fastest runner he can win the liking and respect of the other kids and of his family. And then on the first day of school his new neighbour, Leslie Burke, shows up and wins all the races easily. But Jess soon gets over this disappointment because something better arrives on its heels.

Leslie Burke is another especially well-done element in this novel. Paterson has managed to create a little girl who is intelligent and imaginative without being precious. I don’t think Paterson did quite as well with Leslie’s parents. Judy and Bill Burke are successful and well-to-do writers who have moved to a ramshackle farmhouse in the country to “reassess their value structure”. Yes, they use those words. Their daughter calls them by their first names, and they have “a lot of hair”, stacks of records and books but no television set, speak French and talk a lot about world issues and drive a small, dusty yet expensive car. In thinking over Paterson’s characterization of the Burkes I thought the only thing missing was the yogurt, and then while paging through the book I came across the fact that Leslie had yogurt in her lunchbox for her first day at school. But then I’m reminded of someone I knew who used to criticize her sister for “being cliché” because her sister wore her hair long and parted in the middle, scorned makeup, sported tie-dyed clothing, ate health food, and visited a naturopath, as though owning a house in the suburbs, wearing sweaters with cats on them, and doing counted cross stitch projects were any more original, or as though anyone’s life is. By the same token Jess’ family, with their double negatives, double names and beaten-up pick up truck are just as cliché as the Burkes in superficial terms, but we see more of them and get to observe the inner workings of their family in a much more intimate way, and so they transcend the material features of their lives and seem much more real. We don’t see enough of the Burkes, and they seem too idealized, to come across as convincing.

But the same cannot be said of Leslie, though we don’t get to know her nearly as well as Jess. Leslie’s parents treat her more as a companion than as a child, and this combined with her own considerable natural aptitude has made her very advanced intellectually. She does brilliant schoolwork, and is a gifted athlete, and in general is the kind of child adults cherish. But we get to see how these very qualities make her an outcast at school, where the other children show the intolerance of difference that is usual in homogenous kid culture. The boys at school might have come to accept that a girl wants to run in their recess races, but they can’t adjust to the fact that she wins every race so easily that it takes all the suspense out of it. The girls don’t care for the fact that Leslie wears tank tops and cut-offs and looks like a boy. And the Burkes’ lack of a TV demolishes whatever social prospects Leslie might have had left.

Jess and Leslie become friends partly through proximity and self-preservation, but their friendship soon becomes more about their natural affinity. Leslie and Jess create a magical imaginary kingdom called Terebithia, and build a “castle stronghold” (which to adult eyes is a lean-to) in the woods, and stock it with water, nails and elastics, and crackers and dried fruit in case of siege. Together they are king and queen, rulers of Terebithia, and Jess discovers both the transforming and sustaining powers of friendship and imagination. Leslie, being quite a well-balanced girl, has no inclination to stay in Terebithia all the time, and draws Jess out by talking to him about current events, concocting and enacting a diabolically elegant plan of revenge for a mean seventh grade girl who steals May Belle’s Twinkies – and by later showing compassion for the seventh grader. Jess’s friendship with Leslie does so much for him he doesn’t care what anyone at school or home says about him hanging around with a girl. I find it more than a bit of a stretch that a 10-year-old farm boy would say that he can’t capture “the poetry of the trees” in his drawings, but at the same time it was just the kind of thing he could say to Leslie knowing that she would understand. And when tragedy strikes, Jess, with all his grief, finds his friendship with Leslie has given him what he needs to go on. The adults of his world prove that they are perfectly capable of being sensitive to his needs when roused from their own concerns, and Jess is able to respond to them, and to begin to see that May Belle needs his friendship as much as he ever needed Leslie’s.

I’ve read two of Katherine Paterson’s other novels: The Great Gilly Hopkins (which was a Newbery Honor Book in 1979), and Jacob Have I Loved (for which I have very mixed feelings, but which I’ll be reviewing sooner or later because it won the Newbery in 1981). Although all involve significant character growth, I wouldn’t call any of them coming-of-age novels. In all these three books Paterson’s characters grapple with very grim and rather grown-up issues. The problems they deal with and the emotions they feel are not those which they will laugh at in 20 years’ time. When Jess’s father says to his grieving son, “Hell, ain’t it?” he is relating to him not as father to child but as one human being to another, and his few words contain the recognition that such things keep happening to you and tearing you up all your life, and that they cannot be fixed, only endured. Paterson has made her books about universal human experience rather than about definitively childhood experience, and has laced her work with the kind of rock-bottom honesty that is the best ground on which to meet grief. And it is exactly these qualities that makes her novels both so difficult and so powerful to read.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

A Minstrel of the Thirteenth Century and an Author for All Time

Of all the Newbery-winning writers, I am definitely most knowledgeable about the author of 1943’s Adam of the Road, Elizabeth Janet Gray, or Elizabeth Gray Vining as she would later be known. I can’t claim to have read everything she wrote, as with some other authors, and despite my having taken it upon myself to enlarge the partial bibliography for Vining’s Wikipedia page substantially, I am not even sure I know about all her books.

I own just a dozen of Vining's books, all bought in thrift shops or from eBay (and still remember the shock of utter joy that hit me when I came across a copy of her 1972 novel The Taken Girl in the former Goodwill at Toronto’s Adelaide and Jarvis when I didn’t even know the book existed, or that Vining ever had changed her professional name). Besides the books that I own, I have borrowed a number of others from the library, among them The Quiet Pilgrimage, Vining’s characteristically unassuming autobiography. She fascinates me on a number of levels, not only for what she accomplished, but also for the remarkable person she was. And let me just say that there may be more talented writers on the Newbery list, but I’ll hazard a guess that there aren’t any other former tutors to the Crown Prince, now Emperor Akihito, of Japan.

Vining is an almost forgotten author these days, which seems a shame. Of all her (known to me) 24 books of fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children, only Adam of the Road is listed on, and even it is described as “temporarily unavailable”.

I’m not going to campaign to have all Vining's books reprinted, because as much as I’ve loved her work over the past 20 years since I first discovered it, some of them truly are dated and a few are not very good. But surely at least some of her children’s novels could find readers and buyers today. Besides Adam of the Road, I’d suggest as the best candidates for reprinting Meggy MacIntosh, set in the 1770s, in which a plain, witty orphaned Scottish girl runs away from her Edinburgh home and indifferent aunt and uncle and beautiful cousin to go to America in an effort to meet her heroine Flora MacDonald only to find the country on the eve of revolution; and also The Taken Girl, set in the 1830s, in which another orphaned girl finds a home with a Quaker family in Philadelphia, falls in love with the young and dashing John Greenleaf Whittier (though being a Quaker he is dashing in the quiestest and most restrained of ways), and begins to do her bit in the movement to end slavery.

Vining’s books would be named as Newbery Honor Books three times before she won the medal for Adam of the Road in 1943 — for the novels Meggy MacIntosh, in 1931 and Young Walter Scott, in 1936, and for the biography of William Penn Penn in 1939. With the possible exception of Meggy MacIntosh, the Newbery committee chose well in determining the medallist among those four books.

Adam of the Road is a historical novel, set in thirteenth-century England, and concerns 11-year-old Adam Quartermayne, son of Roger the Minstrel. It’s very much an adventure novel in which Adam, in his travels along the roads of England from Oxford to London and Winchester and then back again, becomes separated from his beloved spaniel Nick and his adored father Roger, and must make his way alone until he can find his father and his dog again.

One of the best currents in Adam of the Road is Adam’s strong sense of vocation. In those days people generally had to do whatever line of work their parents did. Adam naturally is being taught the craft of minstrelsy by his father, and is expected to perform along side Roger and help earn their food, clothing and shelter, but he also has both the talent and the ambition to become a good minstrel himself. Even in his hardest moments, even when he is alone, penniless, hungry, and walking along wintry English roads barefoot, the knowledge that he is a minstrel, that he has skills to develop and work to do, is the one thing that never deserts him. He composes songs to sustain himself when most discouraged, and so long as there are people around him, he will set about entertaining them.

Vining wrote a number of historical novels—of her fifteen novels (twelve for children, three for adults), at least nine are set in the long past—and so obviously did her homework in terms of meticulous research into whatever period she used. The settings in her historical novels are always wonderfully well done. Adam of the Road is fabulously evocative and packed with details. The characters in it quote the proverbs of Alfred, tie a bit of red worsted around their cows’ tails to keep the witches away, and enjoy their meals of fat partridge or pottage according to their means. The reader can smell and hear and taste thirteenth-century England. The dialogue is probably not so authentic, but I can definitely cut Vining some slack for that, as truly historical accurate dialogue would probably be almost incomprehensible to contemporary readers. She does infuse the dialogue with as much thirteenth-century idiom and as many figures of speech as she can. I’m no historian, but it seems to me her characterizations are very definitely twentieth century. Adam thinks and acts much like an 11-year-old boy of these days would if plopped down on a thirteenth century English road (barring the panic and culture shock engendered by the sudden time travel, of course). And this is true of all Vining’s historical children’s novels. Eighteenth century Meggy MacIntosh’s psychological makeup is very much akin to The Fair Adventure’s Page MacNeil or Sandy’s Sandy Callam, who were girls of the 1940’s.

I’m not sure this “modern-style” characterization is a flaw. I don’t think we can ever really enter into the psychology of another time, and even if Vining had been able to do so through exhaustive research and strenuous imaginative effort it doesn’t seem likely that she would be able to make a thirteenth-century facsimile mindset comprehensible to her readers. It’s also possible that Vining, in her children’s books, deliberately decided to forego creating historically accurate characterizations. Her John Donne, the main protaganist in Take Heed of Loving Me (which is, due to availability, the only one of her adult novels that I have read), seems much less contemporary. Either way, Vining, intentionally or not, settled for concentrating on making her juvenile characters true to human nature as she understood it, and as her insight into human nature was excellent, this was a happy compromise because it makes her books so readable for twentieth and twenty-first century children.

I said above that some of Vining’s work is too dated to reprint, but I do not mean by this that her thinking or values are dated. On the contrary, Vining had the true historian’s long view of human behaviour and events. Born in 1902, she wrote in her 1970 autobiography that she had no objection to the long hair of the young, because there was nothing sacred about short hair. Men, she commented, had only been wearing their hair short for a few hundred years. The Puritans had cut theirs short as an act of defiance and been sneered at by the establishment. By way of comparison with a more typical contemporary of Vining’s, my grandmother was born in 1905 and, though she had many excellent qualities, this kind of tolerance (and especially tolerance born of erudition) was not among them. I distinctly recall Grandma, circa 1988, tartly asking one of my brothers if we had lost the scissors at our house.

If I have a favourite among Vining’s books, it is The Fair Adventure, the story of an almost seventeen-year-old girl’s summer following her high school graduation. It may not be the best of Vining's books, but it’s the funniest and Page’s efforts to find her own equilibrium in the midst of a large, talkative, active family all too absorbed in their own concerns to pay much attention to their youngest member makes for a good light read. But, stripped of its 1940 cover (which features Page in a polka-dotted swiss dress with puffed sleeves and a large hairbow) and put into a cover with a more contemporary design, I think it would merely bemuse today’s readers as it’s neither fish nor fowl, neither historical novel nor a passably contemporary one. They’d wonder why Page has to ask her father for permission to get her hair permed and why, when she does not get the scholarship to the college she dreams of attending and her parents tell her they cannot afford to send her, Page does not get a summer job and apply for student loans.

It is only Vining’s contemporary novels that have dated in this way, while her historical novels are almost without exception ripe for reprint. And while her characterizations and dialogue might make a historical purist wince, anyone else who read her books would be too busy enjoying them to care.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

A Good Song Among Many

The 1983 Newbery Medal Winner Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, like Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, is one of the Newbery award winners I have read and re-read it until my copy of the book is much the worse for the wear. I’ve loved and collected Voigt’s work for nearly twenty years, and she is not only one of my favourite young adult writers but also the one who most inspires me. As I work on the manuscript of my own young adult novel I often think of her, and aspire to her level of excellence, measuring my work against the standard set by hers. That the very fruitlessness of this aspiration leaves me ready to pound my head repeatedly against my keyboard is neither here nor there.

It speaks volumes about the quality of Voigt’s work that Dicey’s Song, though it is certainly very good, is not even what I would call the best of Voigt’s 30 books. Voigt is a consistently excellent writer and a number of her other books are comparable achievements: Homecoming, The Runner, A Solitary Blue, Tell Me if the Lovers Are Losers, and especially David and Jonathan are all at least as good if not better. A Solitary Blue in particular is one of Voigt’s books I love most. A Solitary Blue was a Newbery Honor Book in 1984, but lost the medal to Beverley Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. I haven’t read Dear Mr. Henshaw yet, but it had better be damn good.

Dicey’s Song is the second of what became the Tillerman Cycle novels, a series of six novels about a family named the Tillermans. There are four books that involve Dicey and her three siblings James, Maybeth, and Sammy, one book about Dicey’s uncle, and two more focusing on the lives of two of Dicey’s friends. In Homecoming, 13-year-old Dicey and her three younger siblings are abandoned by their mother, Liza Tillerman. The four children spend a summer making their way (mostly on foot and without adult assistance or money) from Provincetown, Massachusetts to the grandmother they have never met in Maryland. Of course this is plot enough for two novels and so Dicey’s Song is much less eventful. The four children gradually settle into life at their grandmother’s farm and try to cope with their grief for their mother, who lies in a catatonic state in a Massachusetts hospital mental ward. They also deal with the usual strains and pains of growing up and their own individual problems: James’s suppression of his superior academic abilities so that he will be liked by his classmates, Maybeth’s difficulties in learning to read, and Sammy’s pitched battles with other boys at school.

Cynthia Voigt has said that Dicey is the child she wishes she had been and that Dicey’s grandmother, Abigail Tillerman, is the old lady she hopes to become. And indeed the two characters really do seem like older and younger versions of each other, with their fierce independence and intelligence. It’s to Voigt’s credit that these idealized versions of herself became their own selves and are so realistically and unsentimentally drawn. Dicey especially is an accomplishment. Growing up is an inherently a sporadic and uneven process, and although Dicey may have a more than adult level of determination and self-reliance, she is also very much just a kid, and even a backward one, in some other ways.

I’m trying to decide what I think about the fact that although Dicey, who is bored with school, is an excellent student in every class but home economics, where she refuses to make a more than minimal effort. Dicey thinks Miss Eversleigh isn’t “teaching anything Dicey needed to know, or wanted to know. Who wanted to memorize food groups or talk about seasonal buying or how to store food while conserving energy? Not Dicey.” Are we to believe that Dicey, who is (and has to be) very practical, does a fair share of the housework required for a family of five people and seems to love to work with her hands, truly would not see the value in knowing how to make nutritious meals or sew on buttons? This seems like a contrived conflict. Surely if Voigt wanted to have Dicey learn that there is value in a field of knowledge she’d scorned, another less practical subject would have been a better choice.

I did really like the way Voigt portrays the dynamics of the classroom and the hurly burly of the school hallways and playground (these are always unmistakably authentic in Voigt’s books, perhaps unsurprisingly, as she is a former teacher). Voigt also does quite well with her rendering of the Tillermans’ poverty. Abigail Tillerman had only made a subsistence living from her farm and in order to be able to keep the four children, she must apply for welfare benefits, and even then be careful with every penny. Between the Tillermans’ love for one another and their financial straits, this is a family that could have come perilously close to resembling the Waltons’. My rereading of the book for this review reminded me of both George H.W. Bush’s declaration that “America needs more family like the Waltons”, and Jay Leno’s surprisingly sharp rejoinder that “America already has too many families like the Waltons. They live in shacks and have no jobs and no health care.”

No, the Tillermans don’t scratch and hustle around and show a steel-spined independence and ingenuity and manage to stay off welfare. If anything, Dicey and Abigail learn that self-reliance and pride can be carried too far, and that reaching out to other people can involve having to learn to accept kindness in the form of material assistance. They take the government benefits as well as some tactful gifts from their friends, and though this outrages Abigail’s pride the children only care that it upsets her. Then they all scratch and hustle around to make and save a few dollars here and there to put food on the table and the fewest possible items of clothing on their backs, as well as those few luxuries that are really necessities: piano lessons for musically talented, shy Maybeth who is humiliated by her slowness in school, and a quietly beautiful dress for Dicey who hates that is she is physically maturing into a woman. Their poverty may circumscribe what they can do and how they must live, but only in the same way bad weather would. It doesn’t inform who they are or how they relate to one another. It’s simply an incidental fact of life to be dealt with so they can get on with doing the things they need and want to do, and there are definitely no ridiculously systematic good nights called along the hallways of their Chesapeake Bay farmhouse.

Voigt’s depiction of the eventual tragic fate of Liza Tillerman and of Dicey and her family’s resulting grief is one of the most heartbreaking passages I can think of in children’s or young adult’s fiction. The Tillermans, as always, get on with the business of life, but Voigt skilfully weaves their emotions into everything they do – into Dicey’s Christmas shopping, into Dicey and Abigail’s train ride home from the hospital in Massachusett’s, into Maybeth’s choice of music, into Sammy’s unintentionally and poignantly funny comments, into Abigail’s showing the children old family photographs for the first time - until we know just how deep and far reaching their loss is.

And much the same thing can be said of Voigt’s entire body of work. Her characters are always too proud and active and intellectually curious to merely emote or wallow. They keep moving through their lives, doing mostly ordinary things, but always learning a little more, doing a little more, becoming something slightly more. And because Voigt’s sensitive, moving work always feels so real, her readers get to feel they have done the same.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Tales as Beautiful As They Are Good, Though They Are Neither One

The 1925 Newbery winner, Charles J. Finger’s Tales From Silver Lands, is a collection of nineteen folktales, gathered by Finger during his travels in South America. And, I might as well say this up front – I found these stories so uninteresting that I’m having difficulty finding anything to say about them.

I adored fairy and folk tales as a child and read all I could find. I loved finding stories from different countries, and comparing, say, the French Cinderella to her sisters of the hearth elsewhere in the world. Witches in especial fascinated me and I could never get enough of the Russian Baba Yaga. Now that I’m nominally a grownup, my tastes favour the grown-up version of the fairy tale. I love the fleshed-out retellings which feature actual character development instead of lines such as “she was as beautiful as she was good”, plots which have been beefed up to something far beyond the usual skeletal heroic quests and courtings, and the kind of sensory detail that makes fiction truly come to life. Some of my favourites are those written by Robin McKinley, who has done novel-length versions of "Sleeping Beauty", "Donkeyskin", and "Beauty and the Beast" (twice) as well as several short-story versions of a number of other well-known fairy tales; or Gregory Maguire’s sophisticated (and, for a pre9/11 novel, amazingly prescient) allegory of political terrorism Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Incidentally, if you like this kind of grownup fairy tale, you might like to check out this Ask Metafilter thread for titles to check out and add to your reading list.

When I read Tales from Silver Lands I wondered if the stories were really as dull and wooden as they seemed to me or if I were simply too old and blasé to enjoy them. Discovering “The Hungry Old Witch” in the collection helped settle the question, because I did read that story as a child and never cared for it. I distinctly remember rooting for the witch rather than “Stout Heart” and his “maiden full of winning grace”. To my considerable irritation Stout Heart won the day, and his fair maiden became his wife, who was supposedly loved by all the people of his land “as the fairest woman among them”. (Riiiiight.)

There’s something annoyingly didactic about these stories. Liars are always punished, the lazy meet with some disastrous consequences, the brave always win the day, those who eat too much are destroyed in some spectacular way by their sheer consequences of their own gluttony. The Hungry Old Witch drowns because of the weight of the turtles she has eaten. El-Enano, a sort of monstrous wild child who demands an unending supply of food from a village, dies because he mistakes hot coals for hot baked potatoes. In the “Bad Wishers” a childless woman is punished for wishing to have a strong boy and a girl with keen eyes when she gives birth to a blind, strong boy and a crippled, far-sighted girl. In “The Tale of the Lazy People” a tribe is overrun by magical carved wooden figures with long tails who do their work for them, and who eventually become monkeys who spend the rest of their existence laughing at mankind. In “A Tale of Three Tails”, the rat, the deer and the rabbit lose the beautiful long plumed tails they originally had for acts of treachery. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the creation myths humankind has invented over the past millenniums physical characteristics and laws of nature are so often set as they are for punishment? Not only do we humans need reasons for why things are the way they are, we also seem to be wired with the need to believe the reasons are just.

I suppose the Tales from Silver Lands are the kind of stories that a group of well-meaning librarians thought would teach children the value of love and loyalty, bravery, hard work, and kindness, but instead they impress me more as a pill of questionable medicinal value in some very inferior jam. I’m sceptical that such overtly moralistic fiction has ever improved anyone’s character – at least, I question if it does more for the development of character and virtue than non-preachy fiction. And certainly there is little that is character-building about equating beauty with virtue and worth and making ugliness synonymous with evil, which these stories, like most folk and fairy tales, also continually do.

Perhaps Charles Finger simply didn’t manage to carry off the transposition of these stories from oral tellings to the written form. Stories that would probably be quite entertaining when told by one of Finger’s picturesquely described cigar-smoking old ladies at a communal fireside won’t play as well when dutifully typed word for word on paper. Folktales that have been told verbally for a century or more have a certain economy of language; they employ broad sweeping descriptions rather than fine detail, and rely on crowd-pleasing action and fast moving plots to give interest. There are limits to the human memory, and also to the time allowed before one’s audience wants the storyteller to wrap it up so they can go to bed. Literature, on the other hand, is for a different kind of audience, one that is putting a more concerted effort and time into the story and therefore expects more from it, such as the more contemplative pleasures of character development, inner conflict, and complexity of theme.

I wondered too if there might be some sort of cultural divide, and if Charles Finger should have also provided more societal context for his stories in order to make them more intelligible to North American readers, but I think not, despite Finger's cringeworthy references to the "worthy and simple people" he met in his travels (people are never simple to anyone but a condescending ass). After all, I have a Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in one of my bookcases and have never read more than a third of its 727 pages for much the same reasons. These are elemental stories of the human experience and can be understood by anyone from any culture. And that’s a good thing. But they are also too elemental and simplistic to be interesting or to capture and engage the imagination, and this is not a good thing.