Amazing events can occur in ordinary places in The Boxes. The most important events take place in a not particularly unusual basement and in a bedroom closet. Other important events take place in a typical downtown office building. Henry's old house has its interesting aspects, especially the old, unused room and its sticking door, but Sleator shows off his skill at making something extraordinary out of routine settings:
A tall structure now rose up around the box, a three-dimensional grid made from strands of some dark fiber that reflected bright flashes from the ceiling light bulb. There were little ladders and platforms all over it, and dozens of creatures were scurrying up and down them. The structure shuddered precariously with their movement. It went all the way up to the ceiling and back to the wall.
This is part of the transformation a basement undergoes—a basement whose scariest feature had been an old furnace. Upstairs, in Annie's bedroom closet is a box with a ticking device in it—maybe it is a clock, but its symbols are indecipherable. Further, it has a vine growing in or around it, a vine that can slap people. Part of the fun of The Boxes is seeing how mystery can be found right where one lives.
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Sleator's ability to create amazing scenes is itself amazing. With words alone, he can transport his audience into wondrous situations:
The grid of yesterday must have merely been scaffolding. The building now revealed was far more complex. It was entirely glittering black—the creatures could not perceive color, after all. But clearly their sonar made them aware of the shape of things. Sharp conical spires spiked around the steeply sloped roof, and beneath these were colonnaded hallways, small and simple at the top—for the lower classes, I imagined—and growing more spacious and ornate as rampways, first narrow, then wider, descended toward the bottom. The two lower stories were elaborately carved with statues of monstrous creatures, not like anything on earth—many-limbed, with fangs and claws. The statues looked nothing like the creatures who had built this palace in my basement. In the middle of the structure a large arched opening rose from the floor to the third level, which seemed to go all the way through the wall behind it.
Note how this description speaks not only of the beauty of the structure but of the beings who made it. At first, the crab-like, blind creatures seem menacing and ugly, but their palace speaks of a genius for construction and of a powerful sense of beauty.
This passage also suggests at the end of the novel that the building provides a gateway to something that is...
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Sleator has a history of including environmental themes in his works. For instance, in The Night the Heads Came (see separate entry), the villains are alien beings who love pollution and environmental degradation. Dirty air and filthy water are beautiful to them. In The Beasties (see separate entry), the environmental theme focuses on the destruction of an ancient American forest by rapacious logging companies. The Boxes represents a slight departure in how the environmental theme is handled, because it focuses not on a natural environment but on an old, historical neighborhood. As is often the case in fiction about the destruction of homes, developers are cast in the role of villain. Annie's beautiful, somewhat rundown neighborhood is slated to be demolished and replaced by a mall. The traditional sticking point in such a fictional situation is that someone will not sell his or her home to the developers, and the developers then put unethical kinds of pressure on the homeowner to sell. This can sometimes happen in real life, but nevertheless it seems to be old stuff, and the developers are too easy villains. On the other hand, The Boxes is primarily about how a teen-aged girl learns to stand up for herself and make good choices for not only herself but for those who trust her. The social issues involved in the loss of charming, historical neighborhoods to rich, exploitive developers are mostly a source of conflict to keep the plot moving....
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Topics for Discussion
1. Annie seems to have a great deal of trouble figuring out why Uncle Marco would want her to stage a very deep slowdown for Crutchley Development. Why would she be so slow to understand what Uncle Marco plans?
2. Are you satisfied with the ending of The Boxes?
3. Why does Annie do as the creatures tell her to do? What does it reveal about her personality?
4. How does Annie grow during the novel? How is she significantly different at the end from the beginning of The Boxes?
5. What are the similarities between Annie's relationship with Linda and Jeff and her relationship with the creatures and the Lord?
6. Annie finds the sacrifice of lower-class creatures to be repellent, yet she goes along with it twice. Has she forsaken her moral values for the sake of expediency?
7. Is Uncle Marco actually living more by sometimes slowing down his life, or is he just living the same amount as he would have if he never slowed himself? What does he think? Is he right?
8. Knowing how miserable Annie's life is without him, why does Uncle Marco wander off to have a slowdown most of the time, leaving Annie in the care of her vicious, cruel aunt? Does he really deserve all the affection Annie gives him if he is unwilling to be part of her life all the time or even most of the time?
9. Is Aunt Ruth a well-developed figure?
10. Why does Annie open The Boxes? She...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What is parthenogenesis? What animals reproduce by parthenogenesis? Do any share traits in common with Annie's creatures?
2. What is Chapter 11 bankruptcy? How could it foil Annie's plans to destroy Crutchley Development?
3. The Boxes does not finish the adventure begun by Annie's opening The Boxes. Write a story about what happens to Annie, Henry, Uncle Marco, and the creatures after they slide behind the Lord. For clues about what they may find, review the descriptions of the palace the creatures have built.
4. Compare The Boxes to the story "Sandkings" (1979) by George R. R. Martin. What do the two have in common? Where does The Boxes diverge from "Sandkings"? What does this suggest about Sleator's objectives in The Boxes?
5. The Beasties is another novel by Sleator about non-human beings controlling young people. What are the significant differences between the novels in portraying the relationships between the youngsters and the creatures?
6. Describe the process behind a development of a mall. What are the steps a developer must take?
7. British author Wilkie Collins said that it was the novelist's job to find the romance in everyday life. To what extent does The Boxes manage to do this?
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Much of Sleator's work has focused on remarkable events occurring in mundane places. For instance, in The Spirit House (see separate entry), a Thai spirit invades a suburban American home. Part of the appeal of the book is the premise that strange and mysterious adventures may occur right at home, right in the middle of a familiar world. Annie's big house is a bit unusual, but the amazing events she experiences occur mostly in her bedroom closet and the basement, ordinary places. Sometimes, Sleator takes his characters out of the mundane world and places them in isolation, making them outsiders in a world they do not understand. The bizarre early novel, House of Stairs (see separate entry) takes this to extremes by placing the characters in a house that would be unfamiliar to anyone. More recently, Sleator has placed his characters in places unfamiliar to them but still realistic; Dangerous Wishes (see separate entry) is an outstanding example of this. In it, a young man from America ventures on a perilous journey into Thailand, a place whose customs are mostly unknown to him. Much of the pleasure in reading the novel comes from learning about Thai people and their traditions.
The Beasties places its main character in a real place that is strange to him. Doug is very much the product of urban America— the forest is another world for him, and he needs to learn some of its ways in order to survive. By placing characters in places...
(The entire section is 484 words.)
For Further Reference
Daggett, Margaret L. "Recommended: William Sleator." English Journal 76 (March 1987): 93-94. Explains Sleator's appeal for high school students.
Davis, James, and Hazel Davis. Presenting William Sleator. New York: Macmillan, 1992. A critical study that discusses Sleator's life and how it relates to his fiction.
Sleator, William. "Chaos, Strange Attractors, and Other Peculiarities in the English Classroom." In Authors' Insights: Turning Teenagers into Readers and Writers. Edited by Donald R. Gallo. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992, pp. 43-52. Sleator explains how science fiction can encourage young readers to think and to read. This essay indicates that Sleator puts much thought into the...
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