Fox, Paula (Vol. 121)
Paula Fox 1923–
American novelist, essayist, and author of children's books.
The following entry presents an overview of Fox's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 8.
Fox is one of the most highly acclaimed contemporary American writers of children's and young adult fiction. Her writing for children has earned her numerous industry awards, including the Newbery Medal and the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. Additionally, Fox has been praised for her novels for adults, many of which explore the small, private moments of despair and alienation in everyday life.
Fox was born in New York City to Paul Harvey and Elsie de Sola Fox in 1923. Her parents rarely lived in one place for very long, and as a young child Fox was sent to live in New York's Hudson Valley with a minister and his invalid mother. There she developed a love for stories that later influenced her decision to become a professional writer. In 1931 Fox went to live with her maternal grandmother on a sugar plantation in Cuba, where she attended a one-room school and became fluent in Cuban Spanish. She returned to New York City three years later, when the revolution led by Batista y Zaldivar made Cuba socially and politically unstable. After high school Fox held many jobs, working as a machinist at one point and moving on to low-level positions at publishing companies and newspapers. After World War II she took a job with a leftist British news service, which sent her to cover post-war Poland. When she returned to the United States, she married and had children, but the marriage ended in divorce. Fox then attended Columbia University but never received her degree because of financial difficulties. Nonetheless, she worked as an English teacher for Spanish-speaking children. In 1962 Fox remarried and spent six months living in Greece while her husband, an English professor, held a Guggenheim fellowship. It was then that she decided to make writing a full-time career. Fox resides in Brooklyn, New York.
Fox's writing for children and young adults is highly regarded because of the way Fox deals with difficult, often tragic, situations with neither sentimentality nor condescension toward her readers. Her second major work, How Many Miles to Babylon? (1967), is considered a classic in the young adult fiction genre. Ten-year-old James Douglas, an African-American child living in the inner-city, is left with three great-aunts after his mother enters a mental institution. In order to cope, James creates a fantasy life in which his mother is really a queen returned to Africa. He is drawn into a group of young thugs with a dog-napping scheme, taken to a Coney Island funhouse where the dogs are hidden, and, using his ingenuity and intelligence, escapes and rescues the dogs. When he returns home, he finds his mother there waiting for him. The Slave Dancer (1973), Fox's most acclaimed and most controversial book for young adults, tells the story of a kidnapped white child trapped on a slave ship. Thirteen-year-old Jessie is taken from his home onto a ship bringing slaves to the United States and forced to play his fife while the slaves are forced to dance to amuse their captors. Thrown into these nightmarish circumstances, Jessie attempts to retain his sense of morality and humanity. Fox's novel is a meticulously researched tale of innocence forced to face violent experience. One-Eyed Cat (1984) depicts the guilt a boy feels after shooting a cat in the eye. The complicated story that develops deals with family secrets and ultimate attempts at reconciliation. In Monkey Island (1991) a formerly middle-class boy finds himself abandoned and homeless in the city. In The Eagle Kite (1995) a teenager must come to terms with his parents' separation because of his father's homosexuality and later death from AIDS. Similarly, in Fox's fiction for adults, complex situations lead to alienation and often despair as characters attempt to find meaning and focus in their lives. In Desperate Characters (1970) a middle-class couple in New York are complacent about the distance between them, but the story gradually reveals deeper and more violent feelings destroying their relationship. Annie, the protagonist of The Western Coast (1972) drifts among people she cares little about, all of whom leave a bigger impression on her than she leaves on anyone. Finally, her search for meaning leads her to an unknown future in Europe. A Servant's Tale (1976) features a similar protagonist whose actions are often inscrutable. The illegitimate child of a servant and the son of a wealthy plantation owner in the Caribbean, Luisa spends her entire adult life quietly insisting on working as a servant, although her decision is misunderstood by everyone around her.
While Fox is generally considered one of the most important authors of fiction for children and young adults, her work is not without detractors. The Slave Dancer, in particular, has received negative commentary from some critics who claim that Fox portrayed the captured Africans as weak and dispirited and the captors as victims of circumstance themselves. Nonetheless, the book won the prestigious Newbery Medal and is widely hailed as classic of children's literature. Fox's other works for young people, especially How Many Miles to Babylon?, are also praised for their integrity and honest presentation to children of complex social and personal issues. Fox's novels for adults have not been as well received, although many critics admit that the works are brilliant, if not likeable. Both The Western Coast and A Servant's Tale have been harshly reviewed because of the ambiguous, obscure natures of their protagonists; but other critics have found the novels appropriately weighty for their subject matter. Desperate Characters is Fox's most successful novel for adults. Pearl K. Bell observed that the book is "a small masterpiece, a revelation of contemporary New York middle-class life." Of the judgment that her works are "depressing," Fox has stated: "'Depressing,' when applied to a literary work, is so narrow, so confining, so impoverished and impoverishing. This yearning for the proverbial 'happy ending' is little more than a desire for oblivion."
Maurice's Room (juvenilia) 1966
How Many Miles to Babylon? (young adult novel) 1967
A Likely Place (juvenilia) 1967
Poor George (novel) 1967
Dear Prosper (juvenilia) 1968
Hungry Fred (juvenilia) 1969
The King's Falcon (young adult novel) 1969
Portrait of Ivan (young adult novel) 1969
Blowfish Live in the Sea (young adult novel) 1970
Desperate Characters (novel) 1970
The Western Coast (novel) 1972
The Slave Dancer (young adult novel) 1973
The Widow's Children (novel) 1976
A Servant's Tale (novel) 1976
The Little Swineherd and Other Tales (juvenilia) 1978
A Place Apart (young adult novel) 1980
One-Eyed Cat (young adult novel) 1984
Lily and the Lost Boy (young adult novel) 1986)
The Moonlight Man (young adult novel) 1986
The Village by the Sea (young adult novel) 1988
In a Place of Danger (young adult novel) 1989
Monkey Island (young adult novel) 1991
The Slave Dancer (novel) 1991
Western Wind (young adult novel) 1993
The Eagle Kite (young adult novel) 1995
Desperate Characters (novel) 1999
Widow's Children: A Novel (novel) 1999
(The entire section is 141 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Poor George, in Bestsellers, Vol. 27, No. 1, April 1, 1967, p. 5.
[In the following review, Loprete offers a negative assessment of Poor George.]
George Mecklin, the hero (or anti-hero, if you prefer) of this slim and over-priced first novel [Poor George], is a teacher in a private school in Manhattan to which he commutes by train from his rented Westchester cottage. George is married to Emma, a part-time librarian at Columbia. Immediately the reader suspects that here is another academic novel dealing with the inner workings of the teacher's world. But the reader is wrong. George Mecklin the man engages Miss Fox's attention, not George Mecklin the teacher. When George discovers a teenage delinquent-in-the-making hiding in his home, he offers to tutor him. Ernest the adolescent is the catalyst of this book. By the time you have finished reading, you have met the hypocritical Devlins; a narcissistic actor and his alcoholic wife; George's sister Lila and her son, Claude; and an assortment of type-teachers. Nor is this all. Emma, who has resented George's interest in Ernest, deliberately allows Ernest to seduce her. At the conclusion, the Mecklins have separated; George is recovering from a bullet wound inflicted because of an incredible adventure as a Peeping-Tom; Ernest is dead—the victim of a beating by a young hoodlum.
Poor George is a...
(The entire section is 338 words.)
SOURCE: A review of How Many Miles to Babylon?, in Washington Post Book World, October 8, 1967, p. 24.
[In the following review, Goodwin praises the uncanny realism in How Many Miles to Babylon? but expresses reservations about the book's appropriateness for young readers.]
Paula Fox has demonstrated an almost uncanny insight into young boys in two earlier stories, Maurice's Room and A Likely Place. Now, with equal skill [in How Many Miles to Babylon?], she takes a highly imaginative, lonely Negro boy of "barely 10" through a nightmarish day. James knows what is real—that his father is gone and he is living in a small, shabby room in Brooklyn with three old aunts who are caring for him while his mother is in the hospital. But what James feels is very different—that his mother has gone to Africa to tell people he is a prince and to "fix everything."
One day James walks out of school and goes to the empty house where he acts out his fantasy. He paints his face, dons a feathered headband and a piece of red curtain, lays at his feet the ring he thinks is a sign from his mother, and dances by candlelight in the cold, dark basement. Suddenly three jeering boys appear. Tall, thin Stick, short, plump Blue and small, mean-looking Gino seize the terrified boy and force him to help them in their dog-stealing racket. James tries to run away but fails. He rides...
(The entire section is 355 words.)
SOURCE: "Doing Their Own Thing," in Times Literary Supplement, October 16, 1969, p. 1198.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic praises The Stone-Faced Boy but recommends it for mature readers.]
… Gus, the hero of The Stone-Faced Boy, is something of a lone wolf, although he is the middle child of a family of five. As a protection against the teasing of other children, he has learnt never to show his emotions. Now he finds he is unable to do so, even when he wants to, and this worries him. He develops a habit of feeling his face to see if he is smiling. "Pretty soon he would have to start carrying around signs—signs that read: laughter; scowling; puzzlement; curiosity; anger—which he would have to hold up over his head." If, however, the reader thinks this book is going to be the story of how he solves this problem, he is mistaken, for Gus remains stone-faced to the end.
Instead, by relating the incidents of one night as they appear to Gus, a keen insight is given into his real feelings. Those incidents are curious enough. First the children find a strange dog in the snow, and then arrive home to find an equally strange woman in the kitchen. She turns out to be their eccentric great aunt from Italy. Obliquely she seems to understand Gus's predicament and, perhaps symbolically, she gives him a geode, a stone seemingly as featureless as his own face,...
(The entire section is 327 words.)
SOURCE: "Taken in Hand," in Newsweek, Vol. LXXX, No. 13, September 25, 1972, pp. 25-26.
[In the following review, Prescott finds The Western Coast stylistically interesting but its plot and purpose unclear.]
Other fiction writers will appreciate the formidable technical hurdles that Paula Fox set for herself in this, her third and most ambitious novel [The Western Coast]. There is almost no plot, for one thing, no story line strong enough to sustain suspense or even to indicate an inexorable direction; the novel instead consists of a series of events, some quite dramatic, which involve a large but continually changing group of characters. For another, the story so scrupulously re-creates a particular place in a particular time, and kinds of people who have often been written about badly before, that the novel serves as a kind of social history, convincing us that this is the way it must have been. Most difficult of all: the heroine is an entirely neutral person, a blank upon which others leave their prints, and in this way we come to know them, but not her. This is a useful device, but I am not sure there is any way it can be brought off entirely successfully.
"Don't you know anything?" people ask Annie Gianfala. "I need to be taken in hand," Annie admits. The time, as the book starts, is 1939 and Annie is "not quite 18," living on her own because her father has taken a...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Western Coast, in Best Sellers, Vol. 32, No. 13, October 1, 1972, pp. 296-97.
[In the following review, Riley compares Fox to contemporary writers such as Joan Didion and Grace Paley but asserts that Fox is ultimately worthy of praise for her own literary achievements, notably because of her work in novels like The Western Coast.]
Reading The Western Coast, one is reminded of the sociopsychological sensibility of Joan Didion or Grace Paley and one sees in the prose the fine sure hand of Doris Lessing. But Paula Fox has that pure talent for fiction which, though it suggests other excellent writers at every turning, emerges complete in itself, endowing her fiction with its own discrete energy.
The Western Coast is a bildungsroman of the best sort. The novel is a chronicle of Annie Gianfala's effort (sometimes passive, sometimes wrenchingly conscious) to grow—not up, but down, "to the small patch of earth [she'd] marked out as [her] own." It is the "marking out" that is the story here, the effort to define one's place of being and the resources behind one's responses to a frightening and complex environment. In the beginning, Annie sees herself "among people who saw the world she hastened through so nervously, so uncomprehendingly, having meanings, categories, explanations that made it possible for them to know where their next thought was...
(The entire section is 621 words.)
SOURCE: "Distress Signals," in Newsweek, Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 13, September 27, 1976, pp. 100, 102.
[In the following review, Prescott praises the artistry of Fox's novels but finds them too deliberately difficult to be enjoyed by readers.]
Paula Fox is so good a novelist that one wants to go out in the street to hustle up big audience for her.
"Here. Read this novel. Please."
"Is it any good?"
"Will I like it?"
"Not a chance. It's for admiring, not liking."
"Oh. Well, I like to like a book."
There's the problem. Most readers of novels want to be entertained, not subjected to art. For them, art without entertainment is difficult. They know very well that novelists long ago agreed that families are hell and marriages something worse, that characters in novels come in varying degrees of pathos and despicability. All this they will accept if the novel is likable. Paula Fox, whose novel Desperate Characters was made into a movie, does not indulge such weakness. She makes difficulties for herself in writing fiction, approaches a novel like a spelunker; hunching slowly over real rocks, the searchlight on her forehead describing delicate arcs in the darkness; her beam makes pleasing patterns, but...
(The entire section is 624 words.)
SOURCE: "Books Considered," in New Republic, Vol. 176, No. 3, January 15, 1977, pp. 27-28.
[In the following review, Milton finds The Widow's Children to be a brilliant and accurate portrayal of the suffocating nature of contemporary life.]
Years ago, I heard Elizabeth Bowen give a lecture on the difficulties of writing a novel. Describing the Retreat from Moscow, she inferred, was nothing compared to getting people to move from one room to another: why were they moving? how much should one go into why and how? I seem to recall her saying that Virginia Woolf, having once spent three months separating her characters from their boeuf en daube, was stuck with them for another six, hanging about in the passage.
Elizabeth Bowen implied that this problem of short-distance transit was an artistic nuisance; but I think she meant one to accept it also as a cultural fact which the artistic difficulty merely reflected; as a cogent paradox for our times, when moving from country to country and from world to world has become easy, but getting to the airport is still the worst part of the trip. Being stuck seems to be as much one of our myths as being lost was for the Ancient Greeks: Ulysses' wandering translates for us into a day of circling Dublin, and hell is the locked room of Sartre's No Exit or the mindless after-dinner paralysis of Buñuel's Exterminating Angel....
(The entire section is 1647 words.)
SOURCE: "Royalty in a Rainy Country: Two Novels of Paula Fox," in Critique, Vol. XX, No. 2, 1978, pp. 33-48.
[In the following essay, Bassoff discusses issues of deformation and paralysis in Desperate Characters and The Widow's Children.]
At the end of Plato's Phaedrus, the urban man, Socrates, delivers a beautiful pastoral prayer that includes the request: "May the outward and inward man be as one." Having shown that both erotics and rhetoric are arts of acting on somebody when you have full knowledge and the other does not, Socrates asserts a new kind of erotics—of the living word of face to face dialogue—and prays for that word's adherence to what is present and what is personal. In Paula Fox's Desperate Characters (1970), Sophie Bentwood, whose last name suggests the crookedness against which Socrates is arguing, makes a statement that seems almost parodic of Socrates' prayer: "God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside." Besides sickness, "rabid" also suggests the dissociated quality of raving. In the same novel the animadversions against contemporary civilization uttered by one of the characters, a college professor and an erstwhile socialist, are described as "an old habit of words." In The Widow's Children (1976), Peter, an editor for a publishing company, takes exception to Laura's use of the word "nigger," to which she responds, "All right, my dear Peter....
(The entire section is 6789 words.)
SOURCE: "Paula Fox," in A Sounding of Storytellers: New and Revised Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children, J. B. Lippincott, 1979, pp. 55-65.
[In the following essay, Townsend provides an overview of Fox's works for children.]
Of the new writers for children who emerged in the United States in the later 1960s, Paula Fox was quickly seen to be one of the most able. Her books were unusually varied; each had a distinct individual character, but at the same time each was stamped with her own imprint. And they had an air of newness: not merely the literal contemporaneity which almost anyone can achieve but the newness that comes from looking at things with new eyes, feeling them in a new way.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, a traditional and generally reassuring view of children and their role had run through the work of the leading and well-established children's writers. Childhood was part of a continuing pattern—the orderly succession of the generations—and children were growing up to take their place in a known and understood world. As the 1960s went on, it was perceived increasingly that this pattern did not reflect reality. Families and societies were not stable; the older generation was not regarded, and did not even regard itself, as the repository of all wisdom, and it could not be assumed that young people were anxious to grow up and join it. The generation gap had opened...
(The entire section is 3867 words.)
SOURCE: "Staking Out Her Territory," in New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1980, p. 55.
[In the following review, Tyler praises Fox's realistic handling of teenage problems in A Place Apart.]
I know a teen-age girl who seems to spend most of her library time opening books, reading their end flaps and slamming them shut. "Fourteen-year-old Mary and her alcoholic mother…." Slam. "When fifteen-year-old Laura learns she's pregnant…." Slam. What she wants, she says, is a book about somebody ordinary. It could be somebody with a problem, if necessary, but does the problem have to be the most important part of the book?
The 13-year-old narrator of A Place Apart has several problems. Her father has died, she and her mother have moved to an unfamiliar town, and the boy who befriends her often confuses and troubles her. But the center of the novel is Victoria herself, not her problems; and Victoria makes a truly wonderful heroine—"ordinary" enough to win over any young reader, but also reflective, observant and articulate.
"I had a dream last night," she tells her uncle. "I dreamed I was a queen, and my crown was a circlet of those little brown pears you can buy in the market in the fall. And I was floating over land that was covered in mist."
"Your dream means that what you must do is find your own country," her uncle tells her....
(The entire section is 522 words.)
SOURCE: "Some Thoughts on Imagination in Children's Literature," in Celebrating Children's Books: Essay on Children's Literature in Honor of Zena Sutherland, edited by Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye, Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, 1981, pp. 24-34.
[In the following essay, Fox reflects on the ability of books to fuel the imagination, especially of children.]
Literature is the province of imagination, and stories, in whatever guise, are meditations on life.
Goethe wrote that supreme imagining is the effort to grasp truth through imagination. It does not consist in making things different but in trying to discover them as they are.
Imagination is random and elusive. We deduce its presence by its effects, just as we deduce that a breeze has sprung up, a breeze we can't see, because we hear and see the rustling of leaves in a tree. It is the guardian spirit that we sense in great stories; we feel its rustling.
Imagination can be stillborn; it can be stifled. But it can be awakened. When you read to a child, when you put a book in a child's hands, you are bringing that child news of the infinitely varied nature of life. You are an awakener.
Few have attested so passionately to the power of books as the Russian writer Maxim Gorki. As a child, he lived in a remote nineteenth-century village, Nizhni. When he was ten, he was farmed out as a...
(The entire section is 2936 words.)
SOURCE: "Nightmares of History—The Outer Limits of Children's Literature," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter 1983, pp. 20-22.
[In the following essay, Bosmajian discusses the "historical nightmares" of slavery, the Holocaust, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as depicted in children's books, including Fox's The Slave Dancer.]
In the last two decades the ironic mode—the depiction of the human condition as limited by realistic historical time and space—has made definite encroachments on children's literature, particularly in stories about familial or social trauma. Though reviewers often question if works about child abuse, family disintegration, sex, violence, drug addiction, and prejudice can still be called children's fiction, perceptive adults would agree that such works can both have therapeutic value for young victims and raise the consciousness of youngsters whose environment is stable. There is, however, another category of the ironic mode in young people's literature: literature about historical trauma.
The nightmare of history is de-creation by adults, a nightmare that always includes children, be they enslaved Africans, Nazi holocaust victims, or survivors of Hiroshima. Historical trauma is a collective inundation of a culture; it affects the life, not just of the individual or the small group, but of the entire social order, its...
(The entire section is 2824 words.)
SOURCE: "The Fresh-Air Kids, or Some Contemporary Versions of Pastoral," in Children's Literature, Vol. 11, Yale University Press, 1983, pp. 156-68.
[In the following essay, Kuznets examines the use of the pastoral fantasy in children's literature—particularly Fox's How Many Miles to Babylon?—as a rite of passage for young protagonists.]
Pastoral literature traditionally demonstrates the human need for the healing powers of the simple, rural, or rustic life, by contrasting that life with the complex, urban, or urbane one. Such traditional pastoral needs and contrasts can be seen not only in adult literature but also in children's literature, including contemporary books such as Jean George's Julie of the Wolves and Betsy Byars's The Midnight Fox and classics such as At the Back of the North Wind, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Heidi, and of course Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, seen by Empson as prototypically pastoral, with Alice as "swain."
Even the contemporary children's books that I examine here—Felice Holman's Slake's Limbo set in modern Manhattan and Paula Fox's How Many Miles to Babylon? set in modern Brooklyn—evoke pastoral contrasts within urban settings. The two books manage to arouse and satisfy our need for pastoral reconciliations in different ways: the first through a...
(The entire section is 4622 words.)
SOURCE: "Novel Conditions," in The Nation, Vol. 239, No. 14, November 3, 1984, pp. 459-60.
[In the following review, Birmelin praises Fox's ability in A Servant's Tale to render the perspective of social powerlessness but finds her choice of narrative style too opaque.]
Nadine Gordimer has described black South African playwrights as being concerned not with the development of actions but with the representation of conditions. In her latest novel, A Servant's Tale, Paula Fox, who is one of our most intelligent (and least appreciated) contemporary novelists, clearly has represented conditions. Fox's earlier novel The Widow's Children, about several generations of Cuban-born Spaniards in America, reverberates with much more than family history, though it is also marvelously specific as to time, place and character. In A Servant's Tale, the conditions represented are those in the life of a Hispanic woman named Luisa. Born and raised on a small island in the Caribbean, she emigrates with her parents to New York City in 1936 and grows up to spend the rest of her life cleaning other people's rooms.
Luisa tells her own story, which begins with her increasing awareness of the scandal of her illegitimate birth in Malagita, a tiny village employed down to the last soul on the coffee plantation of the de la Cueva family. Her mother, a kitchen maid in the de la Cuevas'...
(The entire section is 1041 words.)
SOURCE: "Trying to Be Perfect," in New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1984, p. 48.
[In the following review, Tyler calls One-Eyed Cat a "book of real value" because of its honest portrayal of the parent-child dynamic.]
In Paula Fox's 20-odd years of writing for children, she has distinguished herself as a teller of mingled tales. Let other authors underestimate their young readers' intelligence however they will, creating entirely villainous villains and entirely heroic heroes—but Miss Fox trusts that even children know life is a complex, inconclusive, intriguingly gray-toned affair.
One-Eyed Cat is a story about an introspective 11-year-old boy, the only child of a minister and his wife, who is immobilized by arthritis. The year is 1935, the place is a small town in New York State, and Ned Wallis is the boy attempting to be the perfect person his parents believe him to be. Or perhaps we should say the person he imagines they believe him to be, for his mother confesses straight out that she's not your standard saintly invalid, and his father is a fine enough minister to be unsurprised by ordinary human error.
In Ned's case, the error is thoughtless cruelty. It so happens that a maternal uncle has brought him a loaded Daisy air rifle for his birthday. His father confiscates it, explaining that while the uncle's earlier...
(The entire section is 766 words.)
SOURCE: A review of A Servant's Tale, in New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1984, p. 9.
[In the following review, Giddings asserts that while A Servant's Tale begins with a well-developed sense of purpose and character, the novel loses focus when Fox moves her characters to an urban setting.]
Luisa, the heroine in Paula Fox's fifth novel. A Servant's Tale, is born, out of wedlock, to a father who comes from a wealthy, plantation-owning family, the de la Cuevas. Her mother, whose family was reduced to peonage by the de la Cuevas, works as a kitchen servant in their vivienda, or "big house." Luisa, however, escapes the fate common to children of such unions when her father spurns a bride-to-be of his own station to marry Luisa's mother. For his impetuousness, he is disinherited. For her untimely birth and working-class bloodline, Luisa will never be more than "a bedbug" in the eyes of La Senora, her paternal grandmother.
Malagita, the island town where the de la Cueva sugar plantation lies, is a worthy setting for such passions. Even its flora—gleaming palm fronds, "blossoms of climbing vines and tangled creepers twined around the branches of mango trees"—becomes a metaphor for the ironies and betrayals of its history. Through Miss Fox's skillful evocation of the island's lore and superstitions, Malagita emerges as a place vibrant with restless...
(The entire section is 1239 words.)
SOURCE: "Valet Girl," in Commonweal, Vol. XCII, No. 1, January 11, 1985, pp. 22, 24.
[In the following review, Simon finds in A Servant's Tale a deftly handled examination of the individual power and purpose of the marginalized under-classes.]
Servants know their masters' secrets. From their posts upstairs, downstairs, backstairs, they have a privileged view of the privileged classes. Anonymous, invisible, flies on the wall and the pitcher's ears, they are able to observe a reality closed to the rest of us: private vanities and foibles, hidden trials and unspoken troubles. As a literary device, the perceptive servant is a useful character in the hands of a skilled novelist. In Paula Fox's hands [in A Servant's Tale], the Hispanic maid Luisa de la Cueva emerges as one of the most memorable characters in contemporary fiction; her tale is a delicately wrought study of the sources of oppression and liberation in our own time.
Luisa de la Cueva, illegitimate daughter of the kitchen maid Fefita Sanchez and Orlando de la Cueva, her employer's son and heir, grows up on the tiny Caribbean island of San Pedro, in a village dominated physically by the de la Cuevas' sugar mill, and psychologically by poverty, ignorance, and superstition. Malagita seems frozen in time, with traditions held not so much to affirm a sense of community, as out of fear of change. It seems a place forgotten...
(The entire section is 1039 words.)
SOURCE: "A Not-So-Simple Heart," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXII, No. 11, June 27, 1985, pp. 27-29.
[In the following review, Pinckney finds A Servant's Tale to be an examination of the subversion of expected values and actions by an outsider to the dominant culture.]
The freakishness of innocence gives the pessimism of Paula Fox's domestic plots an unexpected ambiguity. Poor George (1967) is the story of a schoolteacher who brings about the collapse of his marriage by taking a sullen youth under his wing. Desperate Characters (1970) depicts a childless, middle-aged couple fending off the destabilization strategies of friends and strangers. The Western Coast (1972) chronicles an unprotected girl's forced march toward experience during World War II. The Widow's Children (1976) relates the efforts of a spinsterish daughter to shake loose from her oppressive family. Fox's main characters are odd-balls, restless without being rebellious, and appear somewhat culpable in their unhappy discoveries of what makes others tick. They miss crucial pieces of the puzzle and yet are not altogether blameless for the shabby luck that awaits them behind every wrong door.
Though Desperate Characters was something of a success, the others seem to have fallen like the philosophical tree with no human ear around in the forest. These novels are very...
(The entire section is 3913 words.)
SOURCE: "Varieties of Children's Metafiction," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Fall 1985, pp. 79-92.
[In the following essay, Moss includes How Many Miles to Babylon? in a discussion of the effectiveness of self-referential qualities in children's fiction.]
"It's because she wants it told," he thought, "so that people whom she will never see and whose names she will never hear and who have never heard her name nor seen her face will read it and know at last why God let us lose the War: that only through the blood of our men and the tears of our women could He stay this demon and efface his name and lineage from the earth."
So ruminates Faulkner's brooding Quentin Compson as he listens to the aged and tiny Miss Rosa Coldfield tell him of the demonic Thomas Sutpen's violent struggles to establish a dynasty and to beget an heir no matter how. Quentin does not quite have it right. The point for Miss Rosa, as it is later for Quentin and Shreve as they piece together the fragments of Sutpen's saga, is not just to "get it told" but in the telling itself. Quentin and Miss Rosa struggle to tell their stories in an effort to make sense of their lives and the histories of their families. Quentin serves as both teller and intense listener in Faulkner's powerful novel which is more about the process of making story than it is...
(The entire section is 6190 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Moonlight Man, in VOYA, August-October 1986, p. 142.
[In the following review, Sheriff praises Fox's handling of her characters' ambiguous feelings for each other in The Moonlight Man.]
[In The Moonlight Man], twelve years after her parents' divorce, 15-year-old Catherine Ames has the opportunity for a seven-week visit with her father, with whom she has had only brief visits since the divorce. Her 50-year-old father, however, is three weeks late picking her up at her Montreal boarding school. Finally, just as both Catherine and the headmistress agree that Catherine's mother must be contacted, her father calls, full of apologies, and arranges for Catherine to meet him in Nova Scotia. Catherine, so very eager to be close to her father, immediately forgives and travels to join him. Within two days Mr. Ames and friends are drunk and Catherine takes care of them. Soon she discovers that the vacation was instigated by her stepmother: "She said—if you never got a close look at me, you'd be wondering about me all your life." And Catherine does wonder. Why does her father, a writer with two novels to his credit, earn his living by writing travel guides? Why does he live so much in a literary and alcoholic fog rather than in touch with the real world and his own daughter? Why his abrupt mood changes, his chauvinism, his lies and broken promises? But despite all the...
(The entire section is 401 words.)
SOURCE: "Breaking the Rules," in Times Literary Supplement, November 28, 1986, p. 1344.
[In the following review, Hayes applauds Fox's break with conventional teen-novel themes in The Moonlight Man, noting the complexity of emotion and mild didacticism of the novel.]
Catherine's father is late picking her up from boarding school—three weeks late. And instead of spending the summer in Rockport, as she had expected, he takes her to an odd little house in Nova Scotia at the back end of nowhere. Catherine knew her father would turn up eventually. She knew he would charm and entertain her in unexpected ways. She knew she would be disarmed. She did not know that her father was an alcoholic.
The word alcoholic is never used. Mr Ames is a drunk, a lush, a moonshine man; not a "problem". This is not a novel about learning to live with alcoholism, but a portrait of a wonderful, charming, doomed man who happens to drink. He drinks in a wild, blind, obsessional way. Catherine is only fifteen, but she is forced to turn out in the middle of the night and drive her father and his drinking cronies home. On one occasion, after a tour (for research purposes) round various local illicit stills, Catherine thinks he is dying. In his sober periods he goes on fawning and grovelling and charming and "drowning his daughter with language".
By the end of the summer Catherine can take no...
(The entire section is 544 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Little Swineherd and Other Tales, in New York Times Book Review, December 10, 1986, p. 86.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic finds The Little Swineherd and Other Tales "luminous" and comic but also appropriately sober.]
To open a children's book by Paula Fox is to be in the hands of a master storyteller. Rarely do writers bring such luminous prose to the old-fashioned "tale," and Miss Fox's characters, whether they be animal or human, are affecting. Best of all, she has the kind of humor that plays over words as sunlight plays on water. She is funny, witty and urbane, and a joy to read.
The teller of these particular tales [The Little Swineherd and Other Tales] is a Canadian goose, and the listeners are a duck and a random number of frogs. The duck, who is a failed theatrical manager, has been looking for a new client since his last one (a cat) disgraced him by devouring an audience of mice. The duck hopes to hire the goose and revive his career. The goose is only interested in weaving stories.
As her stories unfold we meet a small, ill-treated swineherd who grows into a compassionate youth; a rooster who falls madly in love with his own image; a raccoon who finds happiness in life by learning to play the flute; and many more. Interspersed with the tales is a running dialogue between the duck, who would like to...
(The entire section is 328 words.)
SOURCE: "Adventures to Remember," in Christian Science Monitor, October 2, 1987, p. B4.
[In the following review, Manuel writes that Lily and the Lost Boy is "a coming-of-age story that will be remembered both for its emotional impact and for the sensory impressions that linger long after the last page is turned."]
Quick now—what was your favorite book as a child, and why? Did you love Winnie the Pooh for the sharing it taught—or because you never tired of visualizing Pooh Bear pretending to be a small black rain cloud, with all those bothersome bees buzzing about?
Did you read The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew under the covers at night because it was about family togetherness—or because you wanted to savor the smells and sounds of an old-fashioned Christmas?
Very often it's the details we remember best—the vivid evocations of time and place and character—that made our favorite books so real and believable, that gave them staying power.
A preview of this fall's new titles for children indicates there will be writing rich in detail. They come from both well-known and first-time authors, representing a number of popular genres: high fantasy and science fiction, historical fiction and humor, mystery and survival tales, as well as picture books.
One bold newcomer to children's publishing features a...
(The entire section is 559 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Lily and the Lost Boy, in VOYA, Vol. 10, No. 6, February 1988, pp. 279-80.
[In the following review, Blubaugh admires Fox's portrayal of village life and of complicated emotional themes in Lily and the Lost Boy.]
[In Lily and the Lost Boy], Lily, 12, and her 14 year old brother Paul are living on the small Greek island of Thasos where their father has taken the family with him while he's on sabbatical from his teaching job in Massachusetts. He's picked Thasos as a temporary home because not many English-speaking tourists visit and he's determined to learn as much about Greece and the Greeks as he can first hand.
Both children seem to love the island, are progressing well in Greek and are happy with each other's company for the first time in several years. As the day to day frustrations begin to die down and the Coreys become more attuned to the pace of the island, it begins to be almost a paradise except, as Lily says, for the vipers.
Then one morning as the children are visiting the Acropolis, they see a strange boy about Paul's age. Excited and curious Paul goes over to meet him, but Lily feels herself drawing away. Once met, Jack Hemmings, an American living with his father further up the island, begins to draw Paul in and Lily watches their new-found closeness drift away. At first she's angry with Jack, but as she watches and...
(The entire section is 438 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Monkey Island, in Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LXVII, No. 5, September-October 1991, pp. 596-97.
[In the following review, Fader praises Fox's deft handling of serious social issues in Monkey Island.]
[In Monkey Island], eleven-year-old Clay Garrity awakens in the welfare hotel where he and his pregnant mother have lived for the last month to find his mother gone. His search for her leads him to a nearby park, where he becomes part of an encampment of homeless people, but a bout with pneumonia brings Clay's situation to the attention of the social service agencies, which place him with a foster family while they continue the quest for his absent mother. Although he is well cared for in the foster home, Clay especially misses the two homeless men who had become his surrogate family and who had helped him survive. He repeatedly visits the park until he meets up with one of the men, who has taken significant steps to better his life. In a poignant and promising ending, Clay, his new baby sister, and his mother, who now has a job, move into their own apartment. They have hope that Clay's father, who had deserted them after becoming depressed and defeated about his inability to find a job, will eventually reappear. Fox's story is neither an indictment of society nor a vehicle to proffer solutions for a growing national problem. It is instead an emotionally powerful story of one...
(The entire section is 336 words.)
SOURCE: "No Place to Call Home," in New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1991, p. 52.
[In the following review, Smith assesses Monkey Island as an honest portrayal of homelessness, particularly the rarely dealt with issue of homelessness as it affects members of the middle class.]
One autumn morning 13-year-old Clay Garrity wakes up in a welfare hotel in Manhattan and discovers that his mother has left him. Clay's father, who has also disappeared, is an unemployed magazine art director. His mother, until recently, had a job working with computers. Clay is white, he has been to good schools (he can read Robinson Crusoe)—an atypical homeless child. He is the hero of Monkey Island, Paula Fox's delicate and moving novel, one of the first describing middle-class homelessness for young readers.
The sight of homeless people pushing shopping carts down the street or sleeping on benches in local parks has become a fact of life, and for children they are the ultimate representation of a terrifying fantasy—of parents leaving, of loss and displacement. How does a writer make the unbearable bearable without violating the basic truth of the situation?
Ms Fox, who has won an American Book Award for children's fiction for her novel A Place Apart, the Hans Christian Anderson Medal for her collected children's work and a Newbery Medal for the young...
(The entire section is 567 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Amzat and His Brothers: Three Italian Tales Remembered by Floriano Vecchi by Paula Fox, in School Library Journal, Vol. 39, No. 7, July 1993, pp. 90-91.
[In the following review, Rockman finds Amzat and His Brothers: Three Italian Tales Remembered by Floriano Vecchi too realistic and disturbing for children.]
Fox retells three Italian folk-tales that were told to her by a friend who heard them from his grandfather when he was a child growing up in a pre-World War II Italian village. The tales are variations of familiar stories: "Mezgalten," for example, contains elements of "The Brementown Musicians" and "The Wolf and the Kids." Acts of violence may disturb some adults, as in the title story when Amzat and his wife trick his brothers into murdering their wives and then cause the drowning of the brothers. The third story shows the prejudice of villagers toward a woman and her son because of their habit of never bathing and the dull wits of the son. While the woman and son end their days living in a palace (and eventually learning the art of bathing), and the worst of their tormentors end up poorly, the depiction of the heckling is harsh. The people in these stories seem to be more rooted in real life than the usual archetypal folktale characters. A good welcome, but this isn't the one. McCully's pen-and-ink sketches add little.
(The entire section is 232 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Amzat and His Brothers: Three Italian Tales Remembered by Floriano Vecchi by Paula Fox, in Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LXIX, No. 4, July-August 1993, pp. 468-69.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic admires the traditional fairy tale tone and themes of Amzat and His Brothers: Three Italian Tales Remembered by Floriano Vecchi.]
Explaining in her preface how these stories have come down to her "as a kind of unwritten library that is passed from generation to generation," Paula Fox has added her own distinctive voice before sending them on their evolutionary way. In the first tale, clever Amzat and his wife foil his greedy brothers' schemes to cheat him out of his property. The second story is a variation of "The Bremen Town Musicians," in which a rooster, ewe, donkey, cat, and dog band together to kill a wolf who has tormented them. And in the final story, this one in the noodlehead tradition, the author introduces Olimpia and her simpleton son Cucol, for whom a thought was a "beautiful cloud of meaning that he liked to study for a long time." Hounded out of their home by their neighbors, they go off into the woods, where through a series of slapstick misadventures they end up with an enormous bag of gold. Mother and son live out the rest of their days in wealth and luxury, while those villagers who had been the cause of their exile are reduced to living in the hovel that...
(The entire section is 323 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Western Wind, in The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1993, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 9-10.
[In the following review, the critic admires Fox's spare but evocative prose in Western Wind.]
[In Western Wind], eleven-year-old Elizabeth Benedict believes the reason she's being sent to spend August with her grandmother in a primitive Maine island cottage is the newly born brother on whom her parents lavish attention. Paula Fox uses an isolated situation, as she has done before, to delve into a child's deepening awareness—here, of her grandmother's value as a person, a painter, and an elder facing death with dignity. Through interactions stripped bare by a simplified life devoid of electronic distractions or electric conveniences, the two characters replace their formal connection with an affectionate respect that contrasts ironically with the one other family on the island, who comprise an odd mix of overprotection and underestimation of each other. Elizabeth, her grandmother, and the vulnerable young island boy whom Elizabeth rescues in more ways than one, are fine portrayals of individualistic independence at different stages of a life spectrum. Always spare, Fox's style especially suits this taut narrative, into which she slips similes that are frequent but consciously plain to suit the setting: a bay is "like a tray holding bits of land on its metal-blue...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Western Wind, in New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1994, p. 35.
[In the following review, Jaffee finds Western Wind slightly melodramatic but admires the book's probing of human relationships without offering simplistic solutions.]
[In Western Wind], to her dismay, 11-year-old Elizabeth Benedict has been sent to stay with Gran for a month by her parents, who have just brought home a new baby. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth is resentful and sullen, and the prospect of spending August with her "unpredictable and ungrandmotherly" Gran only adds to her unhappiness.
Gran—Cora Ruth Benedict—a painter whose attitudes and words are often as sharp and pointed as the rocky landscape she loves, has left the picturesque but tourist-ridden charm of Camden, Maine, to settle off the coast on rustic Pring Island. Unsentimental, proud and opinionated, Gran is a stickler for proper English usage, honesty and clean living.
So Elizabeth must grapple not only with the lack of electricity and indoor plumbing and with Gran's silences, but also with loneliness and boredom, fueled by the anger she feels about being abandoned by her parents. Meeting the only other family on the Island—John and Helen Herkimer and their children, Deirdre and Aaron—doesn't seem to offer any solace, either.
Deirdre is sarcastic and unfriendly, and...
(The entire section is 432 words.)
SOURCE: "About Language," in Ohio Review, 1994, pp. 7-19.
[In the following essay, Fox explores the ability of language and stories, at their best, to concretize the ephemeral and ambiguous nature of universal experience and what Fox considers the unfortunate bastardizing of language in contemporary parlance.]
Great stories give us metaphors that flash upon the mind the way lightning flashes upon the earth, illuminating for a instant an entire landscape that had been hidden in the dark.
In some sense all stories are metaphors. There is mystery in the way they make recognizable what we think we have not experienced. Four hundred years ago, Edmund Spenser, the English poet, wrote: "The story of any man's real experience finds its startling parallel in that of everyone of us." It is as though at the core of humanness, at least in young humans, there is a readiness for news not only from the world apprehended by the senses but from those other worlds reached through imagination.
In an essay on story, a contemporary writer, Carol Bly, has written: "The human mind recognizes a feeling only when it has words for it—which means someone else has conversed in it. When Conrad Aiken in his story Silent Snow, Secret Snow tells the reader how much the boy loves his beautiful imagined inner life—the snow—we recognize the same love in our own inner life. If we hadn't had...
(The entire section is 4974 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Eagle Kite, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Vol. 48, No. 7, March 1995, pp. 234-35.
[In the following review, Sutton finds The Eagle Kite too ambiguous in its handling of the subject matter.]
When Liam's mother Katherine tells him that his father Philip contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, Liam knows she's lying. He knows from his school sex ed classes that such a risk has become near-impossible, but he also suddenly remembers, "clearer every moment like a photograph negative in a developing tank," the time three years ago when he saw his father secretly embrace a young man on the beach near the family's summer cottage. Now Philip has moved back to that cottage, leaving Liam and Katherine in New York with many secrets between them. This is a tough portrait of a family in crisis, each member struggling between love and the betrayals of that love, lying to themselves and each other about what is really going on. But while Fox must be commended for avoiding didacticism or sentimentality, she seems reluctant to tackle either her subject or story head on, substituting metaphor for emotional engagement. Too much is outlined or offstage, with past events and memories rendered in a pluperfect tense that has a distancing effect ("During the year he'd been away, Liam had had no desire to see him at all"). The best scenes are those where Liam visits Philip...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Eagle Kite, in School Library Journal, Vol. 41, No. 4, April 1995, pp. 150, 153.
[In the following review, Morrow praises The Eagle Kite for its honest portrayal of both deeply personal and socially charged contemporary family issues.]
[In The Eagle Kite], Liam, a high school freshman, learns that his father is dying of AIDS. Suddenly, his comfortable family is in pieces, and his father has gone to live in a seashore cottage two hours from the family's city apartment. Distanced from both parents by secrets each of them seems compelled to keep, Liam remembers having seen his father embrace a young man years before—a friend, his father had said. In the remainder of the book, Liam and his parents wrestle with truths that encompass not just disappointment and betrayal, but intense love. This is far more than a problem novel. AIDS is integral to the plot, the issue is handled well, and the character who has AIDS is portrayed sympathetically, but the book's scope is broader than that. It is a subtly textured exploration of the emotions of grief that will appeal to the same young people drawn to Mollie Hunter's A Sound of Chariots (1972) and Cynthia Rylant's Missing May (1992). Dramatic tension is palpable, sustained in part by a dazed, timeless quality in Liam's slow reckoning with loss. The characters are neither idealized nor demonized, and Fox's...
(The entire section is 273 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Eagle Kite, in Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LXXI, No. 4, September-October 1995, pp. 608-9.
[In the following review, Vasilakis asserts that, although the themes in The Eagle Kite may be difficult for teenagers to absorb, the book is ultimately worth the effort.]
Liam Cormac was ten years old when he saw his father on the beach embracing another man. He has never spoken of the incident and has repressed the memory of it—until now, in his first year of high school, when he learns that his father is dying of AIDS. The family, unable to confront the truth of Philip Cormac's homosexuality, enters a period of denial and individual withdrawal. Philip leaves their apartment and moves into a small cabin on the New Jersey shore. Liam and his mother speak little to each other and visit Philip once a month. The time spent with him is awkward, silent, and ultimately unfruitful. Liam makes frequent treks to the public library where he furtively hunts up information about the disease. He suppresses his questions and fears and knowledge from everyone, and his resentment grows until he feels compelled to hurl at his father the full force of his anger. He travels alone to his father's cabin on the day before Thanksgiving, and the two finally begin to talk. To his surprise, Liam learns that his father feels as powerless as he, and that he is in the midst of his own search for...
(The entire section is 329 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Eagle Kite, in English Journal, Vol. 85, No. 7, November 1996, p. 88.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic finds The Eagle Kite a "haunting exploration of guilt."]
Although The Eagle Kite is probably the shortest and easiest of the Honor Books to read, its haunting exploration of guilt may make it one of the most complex. First, is the guilt that thirteen-year-old Liam feels for hating his parents. He hates his mother for lying to him about how his father got AIDS. She said it was from a blood transfusion his father had during an appendicitis operation, but Liam knows from sex education class that blood transfusions have "been safe for years." Liam hates his father for loving a young man named Geoff and getting AIDS from him, and Liam hates himself for joining in the web of lies by pretending that he believes his mother and by telling his friends that his father has cancer.
Liam is shocked to realize that he and his father and mother aren't a family anymore; they are like strangers mouthing words that someone else has written for them. One night after supper when "there had been no conversation at all," Liam's dad announces that he's "going away for a bit. Not far," just to a cottage on a beach that's about two hours away. "It's better for all of us," says Liam's mother, and Liam suddenly realizes "They're enemies."
(The entire section is 578 words.)