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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."
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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
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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 pretentious book filled with self-analysis and self-pity. In an outrageous example of dust-jacket hyperbole, we are told that the novel "carries to a new depth a permanent theme in American literature—the theme of innocence." I disagree. It is boredom that is carried to a new depth. There is no communication among the flat people in this novel. They address words to each other, but no one seems to listen. They are on different wave-lengths; they speak in tongues to disguise true feelings. They do not respect each other as human beings because they are nothing more than cardboard characters cut from the same pattern. My sympathies to the "poor reader" if he chooses Poor George.
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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 for miles on the back of Gino's bike to Coney Island, where he sees the ocean for the first time and is confined with three small dogs in the Fun House. That night the boys return to the empty house and he escapes at last. When he returns home and finds his mother waiting for him, James' fear and his world of pretense are ended.
It is a disturbingly realistic tale, but I wonder if this is indeed a book for children. Perhaps it is for perceptive adults instead, who will appreciate it as a superb study of a child under emotional stress, a story through which runs a strong thread of sadness.
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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, through a crack of which he can see sparkling crystals inside. Through her, indirectly, he learns how to master his young brother, the biggest thorn in his flesh, and he overcomes his irrational fear of the well.
This is a strange book that can be read at several levels. Superficially it is an entertaining and at times chuckle-making story, but the depths will probably be seen and appreciated only by the maturer, discerning few. Donald Mackay's almost dreamlike illustrations very satisfactorily complement the story….
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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 woman to New Mexico. Annie attracts drunks, homosexuals, misfits, drifters, crazy people; the affinity between the maimed and the innocent is now firmly entrenched in American letters, and Annie, who is quite bright, is aware that she encourages in others expectations that she cannot fulfill. Annie fends the others off until Walter Vogel, a Communist, unemployed actor and sometime sailor, tells Annie he doesn't like virgins. Annie thinks Walter holds the world's secrets, he can take her in hand, and so, with another boy, she makes the necessary adjustment.
Alone, hungry, purposeless, Annie settles into a dreary room and a drearier job somewhere between Hollywood and Los Angeles. She falls in with jobless film writers, apologists for Stalinism, a kindly homosexual. "Like beads from a broken string," she thinks, "rolling senselessly all over Southern California." She becomes married, abused, promiscuous, divorced, deathly ill, bored by the Communist claptrap people tell her to read. In time, she will simply throw it over, grow up a little as she cares for a dying relative, and then set out for Europe, realizing "how often she'd known people she really hadn't liked, had spent hours and days and months with them."
Most of them, indeed, are not likable—particularly the Communists. Paula Fox is very good at showing their insufferable rigidity, their boring diatribes, their internecine nit-picking, even the way they look: "In his gray little face the tiny jawbone flexed with purpose and self-love, the delicate nose pointed at heaven." Miss Fox is an excellent satirist and a superb observer who can, in a paragraph or a page, bring a character or an incident vividly alive. Here, however, because she is determined to get so much into her book, there is a side effect: after their brief parts are played, the characters are thrust aside so that others may take their place. Even toward the end of her book, with Annie for no clear reason about to go to Europe, Miss Fox brings on new people, which leads me to think there may be more novels about Annie (who is just her author's age) to come.
If so, perhaps Annie will become less of a catalyst for others and more clearly herself, whatever that self will be. One of the characters here, thinking about Annie, felt that "she was, in an essential way, without self" and he was "faintly repelled" by her. So are we.
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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 coming from," while "in her closet of terrors, Annie picked up words in the dark, hoping they would not turn out to be serpents." As Annie's friend shrewdly warned: "What one is afraid of becomes one's only real life."
Annie still thought that "there's a world of grown-ups somewhere—a place, a way of being, a message, that will reveal the nature of things." And "somewhere in the back of her mind hung pale abstractions, motionless as painted clouds, God, orderliness of meals, gravity of mien, classroom papers, one's name neatly written on the upper-right-hand corner, families grouped around the dining table, the elders teaching the young, undying love, music of the spirit, not of the kisses and deaths of movies stars." Hence it is Annie's job, just as it is everyone's, to reconcile the abstractions and real world, the grown-ups and herself, her idea of marriage and her own peculiar relationship with her husband, the notion of orderly meals and the hunger pains in her gut, and on and on. Annie's struggle is, of course, everyone's struggle—that of finding a personal equilibrium in a world of disparity between real and ideal. Paula Fox's genius, then, is her ability to present for our recognition a quality of life which hovers, unarticulated, on the edges of our minds.
Annie herself, however, has perhaps more to be afraid of than most—sickness, suicide, homelessness, poverty, Communism, war. And it is the very plethora of fearsome surroundings that demonstrates Miss Fox's only weakness as a novelist. Anxious to provide Annie with sufficient numbers of mirrors and indices with which to identify and measure her own emergent sensibility, she has over-appointed Annie's living room and thereby burdened her novelistic method with overtransparency.
But in the end, Miss Fox has achieved for Annie a perfect sense of conclusion, real in that no "answers" have been found, no "ending" defined. Annie has moved into a kind of maturity in which she looks clear-eyed at "ordinary life" with "its ordinary powerful truths," not with any particular "knowledge," but rather with a "way of knowing," a stance, a resolution—in sum, an identity. Paula Fox (unbeknownst to the author of the dreary and untantalizing jacket copy) is a wonderfully able novelist—certainly one to watch for future work but, more important, a writer who has already made a significant contribution to contemporary fiction.
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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 there's not much room for an audience. Story being of little use to her, she focuses on a situation that darkens and intensifies. Her characters play against each other, but none is a whole person; each reveals only that edge of his personality which can be wedged tight into the scene that occupies his author at the moment.
[In The Widow's Children] Desmond and Laura Clapper, about to embark on a boat to Africa, throw a tiny party the night before the sailing. Laura knows, but tells no one, that her aged mother died that afternoon in a nursing home. It is this concealed event that charges the evening with electricity. Desmond, who through Laura's intervention has inherited a business that he does not understand, drinks himself in a truculent stupor. Laura's daughter Clara, who describes herself as a boarder in the house of Atreus, succumbs to a chronic ache of self-disgust. Also present are Laura's brother Carlos, a homosexual, and Laura's friend Peter, an editor who no longer likes to read, for whom "the sight of a printed page filled him with a faint but persistent nausea."
Drinks flow, cigarettes burn. Laura, feared by everyone, forgives everyone his fear. The guests speak but no one listens; each falls into his private reveries. Such a freeze-frame approach to narrative is detrimental to an orderly story, yet Fox's purpose is not to move from here to somewhere else, but to turn each scene into a compression chamber: "Clara had trouble breathing—the air was leaking out of the room, draining color from everyone's flesh, faces, and hands and the room furnishings had gone the same ashen color, nothing left to live on but a sweated smoky heat. They were all dying to the vigorous sound of the rain outside."
Mortification, humiliation, unattended gasps for recognition—Fox spares her characters no distress. Peter, who recognizes that the terrible grip of the family must be broken, protests only in "prig's squeaks." A mother's smile at her daughter is translated into the language of pathology: "Clara could see the three plump cushions of her lips, the large somewhat dingy teeth, and behind them the quivering mucosity of her tongue." Just so, no doubt, but how is a reader to rise to this story? Fox's brilliance has a masochistic aspect: I will do this so well, she seems to say, that you will hardly be able to read it. And so she does, and so do I, who admire her work, find myself muttering in the street—"admirable, not likable."
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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.
Paula Fox's most recent novel, The Widow's Children, is about being stuck. It is spare and understated, and so intensely cool that it becomes sometimes unpleasant to read. Its first 150 pages are an experience of pure claustrophobia. But it is also the most elegant exploration I have read of the chaos of modern life, and of the inertia and deprivations on which that chaos rests.
The plot is almost non-existent: two of the characters are about to leave for a trip to Africa, and three others have come to have a farewell supper with them. There are three Maldonadas (a name which my atrocious Spanish tempts me to read as "recipient of evil"). Laura, who is extravagant and ruthless, her rejected and timid daughter, Clara, and her brother Carlos, a gentle, feline failure, full of affection and social warmth. There is also Desmond Clapper, Laura's second husband, who, like her first, lives mainly to get drunk, and Peter Rice, an old friend, who works in a publishing house.
They talk about Moroccan dancing girls and Ecuadorian profiles; Laura, who is described as "una viajera," has traveled over several continents, but insists there are only six of them. In image and in memory, the characters comprehend the world. But in fact they are in a hotel room and doomed to get little further. Far from reaching Africa, they will be lucky if they can struggle out of the room, through the passage, and to the restaurant where they expect to eat. The restaurant is called Le Canard Privé, which translates equally well into The Caged Duck or The Private Illusion.
That pun informs the novel. Illusion and the state of being caged are synonymous, so closely interwoven that it is impossible to say where cause becomes effect. What Paula Fox describes is the human animal removed from its natural habitat and placed in the artifice of contemporary life. The atmosphere of this environment leaves the hotel room without air, and causes the potted ferns in the lobby to be plastic; when she says she is dizzy from lack of oxygen, Clara is dissuaded from going outside, and told instead to imagine a pond in spring. Nature has been subverted into the fake equivalents of a zoo landscape, and the zoo animals prowl about deprived, perverted and confused by this alien, captive existence. But still, their animal nature clings to them like nostalgia; all the Maldonadas are fond of apes and monkeys, Carlos walks like a cat, Peter makes noises like a seagull, Clara pretends she is a brood of baby possums nestling in a spoon, and recalls how her father, dead drunk, barked like a dog. It is her mother, Laura, however, whose jungle needs remain paramount and obvious, despite their perversion from natural grandeur into a sort of mean anarchy. She derogates human dignity: "'Tell me about the dignity of leopards! Of cockroaches! But don't tell me about the dignity of man!'" She is a bigot. She throws tantrums and glasses. She is not entirely human: "She felt that … she was cut off forever from speech, that if she spoke, there would be no words, only a barbaric gibbering…." But even she has been trained into a gross version of civilization, and in the sequence where we see her most intimately, wild with grief, soaked with rain, she is also desperate to urinate, her jungle wildness pathetically at odds with her inability to satisfy this simple impulse.
As with other animals shut up in zoos, the outstanding danger of captivity is infertility, disruption of mating and breeding habits. The race is dying out. Carlos is homosexual; Laura, who has had four abortions, seems eager to devour the one child she allowed by accident to be born; the daughter herself is involved in a presumably unreproductive exercise in adultery, while the editor, Peter, is turning from fleshly appetites to the mineral endurance his name suggests.
The result of their captivity, then, is simple: there are unlikely to be survivors. But the causes of their bondage are manifold and reach from their own numbed wills to the crime-besieged city where they are having the farewell dinner. The five bon voyage celebrants are occluded from celebration by almost everything: by poverty-marred childhoods, and histories touched with political violence and displacement, by a death in the family, by slow elevators, by buses which may be late, and food which is not what they wanted. As they make their uncertain way from the hotel room down to the street, they are stopped in the corridor by a publisher's party for Randy Cunny, the porno-queen. Their passage past, strewn with false recognitions and specious invitations, is as fraught with dangers as Christian's road through the Slough of Despond. But Paula Fox is infinitely subtle in her definitions; it takes a moment to realize one has met with allegory.
And the book as a whole has an edge of allegory. Like all of us, the characters are most closely confined in their inescapable bondage to each other: "Families hold each other in an iron grip of definition," says Peter to Clara. And of the grandmother who brought her up, Clara says "She was like a locked room I had escaped from." But Clara has not escaped. The single real event in the novel's progress, the grandmother's death, happens before the narrative begins, and only Laura knows about it. Children and grandchildren describe the old woman in their memory of her as a joyful and beautiful innocence, decaying into tired, poor, and painful old age, and meeting the solitary death of Everyman. She is called Alma (the human soul, perhaps, or am I being too simple minded?) and the book's climax is really about nothing more than a decision whether Clara should go to her funeral, and about nothing less than modern man's chance of cutting his losses, turning away from history, the strength of his delusions, and the mad downhill race toward chaos, to remain recognizably human.
By the end of the book one understands that Paula Fox has been writing gently and uninsistently about the rule of chaos and its hold on her characters and our imagination. Peter recalls Laura recurrently as he first saw her on a spring morning, a vision of freedom and possibility, the joys of disorganization. He becomes, in the course of the novel, its protagonist, and he reaches the recognition that his spring epiphany was a sweet delusion. Her friends and relations refer often to Laura's lawlessness, and she becomes the emblem, the raw material of the city's chaos and the anarchy of modern life. She is fond of the word "nothing." "'What you've done is nothing … nothing!'" are her last words to Peter. They comprehend all there is.
But she may be right. Without the illusion of freedom inherent in lawlessness, not much seems to be left. Only a sort of modest obedience to human decency and ritual order, exemplified in the funeral itself and in an image of Hassidim on the way there. The book ends with another memory, fragile, fading, Victorian, replacing Peter's golden vision of Laura: "… another spring morning … when he'd … heard, below in the kitchen, the voices of his mother and his sisters, as they went about making breakfast, known the cat and dog had been let out … and felt that day, he only wanted to be good." It would be hard to say if that vision is closer to the truth than the other, or further away.
Fox leaves us with an ambiguous solution. She restricts herself in writing to rigors which equal those to which she restricts her characters. When we meet a squeezed lemon on page 12, we know we will encounter it again because otherwise it would not be there. She extends the limitations she describes in her fiction to include the fact of her writing it. There is something marvelously honorable in her work. Meticulous in observing the unities, she moves through a corner of New York as if she were moving through Thebes. With great economy, she extends five characters to six, then seven, and brings in an occasional messenger, voices of the city, waiters, taxi drivers; the chorus, in short. And in the last chapter, as we cross the bridge to Queens and it is tomorrow, the release from those tight and airless regions in which she has held us is so enormous it feels almost like a promise of redemption.
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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. I know your sensibilities. They're all about language, aren't they?" If at one point in that novel Fox seems to parody the ambition to have words adhere to what they designate—a group of women have badges "inscribed" with their names pinned to their gowns—in Desperate Characters Otto (Sophie's husband) tells of a man who takes apart and reassembles used typewriters so that the keyboards spell out "mystic nonsense words." The idea is an enormous commercial success, which the man justifies by saying that "the destruction of a typewriter and its reconstitution, its humanization, as a kind of oracle, was a direct blow at American Philistinism." He begins to buy things, but, in order not to be corrupted by his success, he deforms these luxurious objects enough to ruin their function. This "revolutionary" aesthetic is, interestingly enough, accompanied by a brutal authoritarianism toward his wife, whose least creative gesture he suppresses.
Such deformation is a theme of both Desperate Characters and The Widow's Children. In the former novel Sophie buys a radio for her lover, Francis Early, who then seems to replace it with a better, more powerful radio, about which he says: "I can get the world," which allows him to crowd out Sophie. Instead of smashing the new radio, which is what Sophie wants to do, she smiles: "She didn't know how to violate that mutual smile of theirs. It was miasmic. It stayed on her face while she undressed. It would not go away, and she bore it home with her, a disfiguring rictus." Smiles are always disfiguring in Fox's novels because they are masks used to disguise intent, to ward off aggression, or to play at one's own feelings: "At the thought, she felt her mouth contort into what she could only imagine as a hideous smile of malice." Sophie also notes of her relation with Francis that it has shoved her violently into herself, a turnabout that relates to both novels' theme of crookedness. In Desperate Characters, for example, Charlie Russel talks with Sophie about the breakup of his partnership with Otto. Suddenly he mutters, "Why do I feel like a crook?" One character says of Charlie that he is "a bleeding heart, dying to be loved. He has the face of a handsome baby, doesn't he?" What another character calls Charlie's "impeccable attitudes" stem from his desire, above all, for innocence, a desire that falsifies his "virtuous opinions." Charlie, however, points to the same kind of crookedness in the culture at large. Everything, he says, is a business: "the having children business, the radical business, the culture business, the collapse of old values business, the militant business … every aberration becomes a style, a business. There's even a failure business." Francis Early's personality is interesting in this respect: "He couldn't seem to help himself—even his bitterness was somehow turned to personal profit. It added to his mystery, it gave his smile an elusive sadness, and it was an element in that quality he had of always recognizing the real meaning that lay behind people's words, as though his soul attended in the wings of a theater, ready to fly out and embrace them in universal awareness." Despite her own awareness, however, Sophie is taken in by Francis, whom she sees in the same way as Charlie sees himself. In this society irony becomes a kind of cancer that makes it almost impossible to distinguish between reflecting and reacting against cultural phenomena: "Whether she was celebrating their new affluence, or making an ironic comment, I don't know." When Leon, erstwhile socialist, says to his former wife, Claire, "I'd take my shopping sack all over the city before I'd settle for sour grapes," he reveals in Aesopian fashion the anxiety with which the middle class tries to certify its experience as genuine. Charlie, talking indignantly about the problems of the poor, says, "You just wait"—as if he identifies with them and against his own class. Immediately, however, he excludes Sophie also from that warning: "I didn't mean you, Sophie. I don't know what I mean." Because he feels "murdered" by Otto's refusal to recognize his virtue, he becomes murderous by class proxy. Similarly, Charlie's letting go of Sophie's arm as she stumbles—"as though by stumbling she'd forfeited her right to his support"—shows how understanding can be a means of evasion—as if virtuous opinions exempted one a priori from the judgments they implied.
Following an exchange in which Francis Early notes that his wife is indifferent to things but wants to know the name of everything and Sophie claims, disingenuously, not to know the names of anything—as if a shell game were being played with reality, Sophie points out that she and Francis have "both been crooked." One can appreciate why problems of order (like the theme of entropy in Thomas Pynchon's works) are so crucial in contemporary fiction. Since outer, perceivable order tends to manifest an underlying order, whether physical, social, or cognitive, one must evaluate orderly form in terms of the organization it signifies: "The form may be quite orderly and yet misleading, because its structure does not correspond to the order it stands for." The statement reminds one of the opacity of rhetoric decried by Socrates in the Phaedrus. At one point in Desperate Characters, Sophie observes Otto as he sleeps: "Even in sleep he looked reasonable, although the immoderately twisted bedclothes suggested that reason—in sleep—had been attained at a cost." Late in the novel Sophie discovers a passage underlined twice by Otto: "To vindicate the law." Having learned that young boys have been hanged for the vindication, Sophie thinks: "How had Otto felt, reading those lines sometime during the night? Had the hanging of young boys appalled him? But why had he underlined the words? Did he mean that the horror of law is that it must be vindicated? Or had he thought of himself, of his own longing for order? Or was the double line an expression of irony? Or did he think law was only another form of that same brute impulse which it was directed toward restraining?" Such lucidity concerning the law is fatal in primitive societies which depend on a scapegoat mechanism to relieve them of their immanent violence. A profound deception allows them to expel their own violence and then to confound it with other natural forces. A judiciary system, on the other hand, limits violence by rationalizing it—by investing it in a judiciary authority. Sophie's concern with the legitimacy of the law is part of the concern Fox's characters express with the validity of values in general. Otto, for example, unlike Charlie, wants to be "left out" because he does not want to be "taken in." As Sophie says to him, "You're so full of cunning, catching everyone out … the American form of wisdom!" When he looks back at his brownstone house, he wants "to catch the house empty," as if to indicate that he is not duped even by his own sense of security. Otto formulates a reciprocal paradox to the one concerning the law when he says of the young, "They are dying from what they are trying to cure themselves with." Otto, however, wants the security toward which he seems ironical, which is why he expresses such respect for the legal process that Charlie sees as "an ironic joke." Accused of being a "square" and thought of as being "reductive," Otto tells Sophie that she does not "draw enough lines." His desire for rational limits is seen in the following description: "Telephone cables, electric wires, and clothes lines crossed and recrossed, giving the houses, light poles, and leafless trees the quality of a contour drawing, one continuous line." Sophie, who has lost all real interest in work and bemoans her own inertia, seeks an illusory redemption in her relationship with Francis. If Otto tries "to catch the house empty," she tries to force from her consciousness the realization that the room in which she lies with Francis is "except for her own presence … empty." When she assures herself, however, that she is "going to get away with everything" (her affair with Francis and her being bitten by a cat), she begins to cry and finds the following sentence in a book: "Illnesses do their work secretly, their ravages are often hidden." During her affair, that she is getting away with it is "harrowing" to her, that such a "violation" of her habitual intimacy with Otto should leave so little evidence. When she looks at Otto, who is unaware of her "violation," his forehead is "furrowed" as he eats some applesauce. Such imagery occurs also in The Widow's Children, where Peter has "a worrying sense that a day had passed without leaving a mark," and where problems of intimacy tend to be "harrowing." In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon uses images like these in a context that recalls lines from Oedipus the King "How, how could the father's furrows, alas, bear to keep silence for so long?" In an "infected city" Oedipa Maas (whose last name means "loophole" in Dutch) imagines an "unfurrowing of the mind's plowshare" as a "special relevance to the word" that will liberate man from relations of sterile rivalry. Fox's characters suffer from the same sense that real existence is somehow elsewhere and that their acts have no real consequences.
Otto's drawing of lines—which sometimes result in excluding Sophie also: "He had closed her out into the house"—is not in itself sufficient: "I wish someone would tell me how I can live," he says. But Charlie's sentimentality is no solution, as one parodic figure in the novel indicates: "She was staring down at a copy of Life magazine, her mouth open." In a subtle way Fox associates Charlie with the dissolution that contrasts with Otto's fastidiousness. The trigger for the novel's plot is a cat's biting Sophie as she tries to show it affection. The words "edge" and "ledge," repeated frequently throughout the book, help to convey the sense of violation committed by the cat. At first the creature is described rubbing its half-starved body with "soft insistence" against the door of a house that seems "powerfully solid" to Otto, but when it turns against Sophie's insistently friendly hand, it is a "circle of barbed wire." The cat's head, moreover, is described as "massive, a pumpkin, jowled and unprincipled and grotesque." When Charlie knocks on the door early in the morning, Sophie holds her bitten hand "stiffly against the soft folds of her nightgown," and before she recognizes Charlie, she sees a large body swaying on the other side of the door and a "large head" veering toward it. In addition, Charlie turns on Sophie later and says, "You don't know what's going on…. You are out of the world, tangled in personal life." The cat's attack brings home the same point to her. "Life had been soft for so long a time, edgeless and spongy." The association of Charlie and the cat is compounded by another "beast" in the book. Sophie's friend Claire tells her about Leon's new wife, a "dull girl who's convinced herself she's a creature of unbridled lust." Having deceived Leon with a thesis on Henry James, she now waits for him "behind the door, stark naked, liberated from intellectual concerns, his beast, she calls herself." The mention of James and "beast" suggests "The Beast in the Jungle"—his story about a man who spends his whole life waiting for something extraordinary to happen and then discovers that the extraordinary thing is that nothing has happened. When Sophie is bitten by the cat, she feels shame—as though she has been caught "in some despicable act"; she feels "vitally wounded" though she tries to tell herself that it is only her hand; and when she tells someone that she has been bitten before, she stammers slightly as if she has "tripped over her lie." Her statement, "I'd been feeding the damned beast and it turned on me," sounds like a line from The Libation Bearers, but here the "beast" is her own inertia and sloth—the good sentiments that substitute for the half-starved reality of the cat—and the bite is a "small puncture" in her "fatuity."
The beast in the jungle is a deception—like Le Canard Prive ("the decoy") visited by the restaurant goers in The Widow's Children. That novel also contains a significant lie. When Laura asks her daughter, Clara, whether her dress is French, Clara replies, "No … I got it on sale." Fearing Laura's judgment of her extravagance—and of the self-assertion that it represents—Clara passes her original off as a copy. The problem of personal sovereignty is accompanied in Fox's novels by various kinds of lighting and indications of weather. In Desperate Characters "brilliant wall lights" give the appearance of a sale in progress although no "copy of anything on the premises" can be found. In keeping with the theatrical imagery of both novels, the host of that house (a psychiatrist) looks like "a man preceded into a room by acrobats," and Sophie holds up a mirror to his face after reciting these line of Baudelaire: "Je suis comme le roi d'un pays pluvieux, / Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant tres vieux." In this "rainy country" light has some peculiar qualities. Although Sophie, for example, criticizes Otto for examining everything "in the light of what Charlie would have to say," she admits to having seen her lover, Francis, in the same way Charlie sees himself. In her recollection of being with Francis, "Light seemed everywhere at once" although the room seems empty of his presence. Light and seeing are deceptive. At first Sophie finds Francis "touching," but he cannot really touch anyone—Otto, with unintentional ambiguity, says that Francis does not take him in. Francis' apparent responsiveness to people is the "only provision" he carries. Similarly, when Mr. Haynes says of his family, "We're here for all the world to see," he is repudiating the city folks with an exaggerated image of "country folks" who "do love their kitchens." During the episode in the country, Haynes's truculence is described as "gleaming through his smile like a stone under water." A stone, we recall, has been thrown through the window of a house belonging to friends of the Bentwoods, and Sophie experiences her momentary but powerful detestation of Otto as she assumes a "Medusa's face," which, of course, turns people to stone. In The Widow's Children, Peter thinks of "something hopeless … embedded like a stone at the heart" of his failed marriage and shortly afterwards enters a bookstore in which a mirror is being installed to prevent thefts. The proprietor complains, "Who's supposed to watch that mirror all the time?" These images have occurred in another important scene: when Clara is taken to one of the Hansens' "borrowed apartments" to see her father and mother, she looks up to see "Laura standing in a doorway, holding a glass in which ice cubes floated, looking at her. It was as though a stone had looked at her. Suddenly Laura had hurled the glass into the room." The "glass" is also a mirror that Laura is trying to smash as she sees her reflection in Clara—excluded by Laura as Laura has been excluded by Alma, her own mother. As far as theft is concerned, Laura accuses Clara of stealing her voice (the aural counterpart to her image). Such imitation is pandemic in the novel—like the shadows of Plato's cave. At one point a "sober ventriloquist" seems to have taken charge of Desmond's voice. Laura does crude imitations of the Jewishness she repudiates in her own past, and her first husband, Ed Hansen (whose "charm," like Charlie's in Desperate Characters, is a kind of mask), is said to have imitated Laura's mother wonderfully. Alma, in turn, was also a good mimic, especially good at imitating one of her sons, Eugenio, who says of his whole family what Plato says of opinion: "We have all learned by imitation…. In my family we could never do anything but imitate. We never knew."
Desperate Characters begins with an image reminiscent of Shelley's neo-Platonic "Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity, / Until Death tramples it to fragments." If light seems "everywhere at once" with Francis, and if a painter friend can describe his life with "the calm zealotry of one who has received truths from the sun," the Bentwoods' experience of life is somewhat different. The "strong light" at the beginning is "softened by the stained glass of a Tiffany shade." In their "living" room, moreover, is a standing lamp, "always lit," with a "shade like half a white sphere." These elements of transcendent unity and immanent dispersion occur throughout the book. Over the windows of the "houses on the slum street" are rags or sheets of "transparent plastic." Later on, cream from a "plastic container" spills all over Otto, who wants to be "left out," and Sophie nurses her memories of Francis "like an old crone with a bit of rag for a baby." Francis tells Sophie how a "glass worm" can be sectioned, and the sections will survive. When someone shatters the window of the house that seems so perfect with all its original things that a sale seems in progress, Sophie and her psychiatrist friend find "a few shards of broke glass." Charlie, who wants to identify with the poor and be part of the solution, says, "Do you know that when people change slowly and irrevocably and everything goes dead, the only way to cure them is a bomb through the window. I can't live that way, as though things were just the same." When Sophie visits her friend Claire, she notes that the whole surface of the building is covered with "dollops of some substance" that looks like "solidified guano," and only a trickle of light seeps through "filthy stained-glass windows." In Claire's apartment, where the light coming through the window is so murky it seems "to have texture," Leon complains that his privacy has been violated in the "age of baby shit." The novel is so full of garbage and dreck that Fox's characters often feel as if they are drowning in a tide of refuse, which also includes debased language. Donald Barthelme has been said to construct "a single plane of truth, of relevance, of style, of value—a flatland junkyard—since anything dropped in the dreck is dreck, at once, as an uneaten porkchop mislaid in the garbage." He "has the art to make a treasure out of trash, to see out from inside it, the world as it's faceted by colored jewelglass." No one in Fox's novels is making treasures out of dreck. The closest we come to such transformation is cooking. Leon, having looked back nostalgically on the days when he and Claire had nothing but when, handing out leaflets on Sixth Avenue, he felt that he knew the answers to everything, now shares an interest with Claire in cooking: "It's all that's left…. It's what is left of civilization. You take raw material and you transform it. That is civilization." In The Widow's Children, Peter recalls his first cooking lesson, which his uncle gave him on the day of his mother's death. Their pie, we learn, "tipped over … and then simply exploded." Their sense of futility reminds us that the artist alone concocts foods "so purely spiritual and momentary they leave scarcely any stools," creates works that "insist more than most on their own reality." As Peter shambles "toward disintegration" in an elemental state of fear, he sees a model ship, a "work of skill and patience, an imitation of reality that was itself a realization." A more ironical moment of transcendence occurs in Desperate Characters when Sophie finds Otto standing at the window—the curtains of which are "gritty" in the "monochromatic dullness" of the morning—and staring at a Negro who, as he reels silently along the sidewalk, holds a "green plastic airplane" and collapses "in violent genuflection."
In The Widow's Children the "foreignness" of the Maldonadas provides an unfamiliar view of the familiar. Carlos and Laura use "comic strip words," and when Eugenio says that his family could never do anything but imitate, he could be talking of the culture at large where imitation and rivalry are what we mean by individuality. Also revealing is the contrast between Laura's "thrilling displays of temperament" and Madame de Bargeton's "ambition and poignant ineptitudes" in the novel by Balzac that Sophie is reading. Whatever the ineptitudes, the ambition of Balzac's characters implies the "conversation, work, solutions" that Sophie finds in the hospital—where an old woman, soaking her hand as Sophie has soaked hers, parodies her sense of futility and puns ironically on "solution." Laura, on the other hand, whose eyes are described as "drowned," relates stories with "a strange shallowness" which implies the irresistible fascination of certain appearances. The parasitism which this fascination engenders is suggested by the story Francis tells of a larva that insinuates itself into the brain of a songbird in order to complete its metamorphosis In The Widow's Children we learn that Peter's friendships with both Laura and Violet have really been a "mindless feeding on someone else's personality." Violet herself is "nebulous" and "indescribable" to herself, and the "increasing materiality" of her life makes her feel more and more abstract. Sophie, who is described as "abstracted" at one point, thinks of her preoccupations as "nebulous" and experiences the materiality of her life as the "shadowy, totemic menace" of the things around her. Despite the "profound spiritual indolence of the Maldonadas," which includes Laura's own "inertia," the self-doubts of Clara and Peter mean that the former believes "no one but Laura" and the latter betrays other people as "his gift to her." The vicarious nature of Peter's and Clara's experiences is conveyed when Peter marries in that he feels that he is "marrying the Hansens, too"; his wife is important only in so far as she allows him to imitate these models. As for Clara, when Peter asks her what she gets out of an affair she is having, she replies, "I feel his pleasure." Peter recalls his father, a man "unadorned by temperament," as a "shelter," a "silent place," but he and Clara cannot "see things in a plain way," Peter knows that Laura arouses men "to empty purpose," and Clara knows that the "self-betraying part of her nature" awakens "in her mother's presence, compelling her to submit to a profound intent in Laura to destroy certainty," but the only "shelter" they find at the end (as they try to break Laura's spell) is in a "family sepulcher." Laura is not "a point in a continuing line of human descent but the apex of a triangle," and an "iron triangle" is the shape of Clara's fate. The irony, however, is that Laura's difference from everyone derives from the same sense of exclusion from which the others suffer. Laura treats Clara as she feels she has been treated by Alma, her mother, and she uses her mother's death to exclude Clara further. If Alma becomes "the old child of her own daughter," Laura views her daughter as a rivalrous sibling: "But she didn't leave Clara…. She never left Clara." When Peter and Clara drive to the funeral, hoping to break the grip of the past, they see a group of Hasidim whom they take to be an omen. Earlier, Eugenio, who has been described like Atropos as he draws thread through a fabric and then bites it off, says, "When one forgets the past, there is nothing, is there?" Like Charlie in Desperate Characters, however, Eugenio can only parody true ideas since the past for him (as for Clara) is only something he continually trips over. Clara thinks to herself, "Perhaps something had really happened, at last," while Sophie thinks, as she contemplates Otto's insistence on vindicating the law, "There was no end to it." Musing over Baudelaire's notion of "spleen," Walter Benjamin says that "the man who loses his capacity for experiencing feels as though he is dropped from the calendar." If Baudelaire "holds in his hands the scattered fragments of genuine historical experience," our modern sense of duree "has the miserable endlessness of a scroll. Tradition is excluded from it." Where "degree is shaked" and "truth" is denuded of the consistency of tradition, illusions of authority flourish. For example, people fear Laura because of her basic deficiency: "She's dead cold inside, half born. She doesn't really know that anyone else is alive. The world—it's only an expanded bubble of herself—what she hates is part of herself…. She never gets outside anything." Although such imperialism is only a variation of their own sense of exclusion—of living hypothetically—it is the source of her authority over people like Peter and Clara. One recalls the loathing that Otto in Desperate Characters feels for Tanya, a woman who, with her long succession of love affairs, remains "grossly virginal." These inconsequential affairs caricature Sophie's own affair with Francis: "She had chosen him at a late moment in her life when choices were almost always hypothetical. It was a choice out of time." Tanya, when staying once with Otto and Sophie, used "every drawer in an immense bureau for the few articles she'd brought with her that weekend," as if personal resources were in an inverse relation to abstract possibilities. Tanya is also related to Sophie's mother, who used to wake Sophie each morning with "derisive applause": "Early risers are the winners." Sophie has never discovered "the prize her mother's words had once led her to believe existed." During the Depression her mother drove with her through the streets where "poor people" lived in order to vindicate their middle-class existence. When Sophie repudiates Tanya over the phone, she says, "You think because somebody's husband sticks it in you, that you've won. You poor dumb old collapsed bag! Who are you kidding!" As opposed to the "prize" the man across the way exposes to Sophie, and which eventually includes his baby, winning in these instances seems an abstract assertion of superiority. In one of many uses of cold in her novels, Fox has Tanya "recovering from a cold" when she calls Sophie, and when Desmond asserts his superiority in a restaurant, "His tone was cold with the tyranny people display in an environment shaped by their ability to pay." The irony is, however, that the environment reflects their own anonymity.
Both Desperate Characters and The Widow's Children are also replete with animal images. Laura, who has kept the news of her mother's death from everyone as her own possession and who has left the restaurant in a rage at Clara's "theft" of her voice, bemoans "the old beasts of her life"—her mysterious impulses. Longing for the "utter quietness of animal being," she remembers how she once undid a knotted string in front of a lion, whose rapt attention she maintained. If we recall that Laura has stolen Clara's inheritance when she has been deprived of her own, we can see that the knotted string resembles the more Gordian knots of R. D. Laing. And when we recall Laing's animadversions against a society that destroys experiences inconsistent with its cliches, we can see that a sense of dispossession is also a more general problem of culture:
So long as a culture maintains its vitality, whatever must be renounced disappears and is given back bettered; Freud called this process sublimation. But, as that sage among psychiatrists Harry Stack Sultan once said, "if you tell people how they can sublimate, they can't sublimate." The dynamics of culture are in "the unwitting part of it." Now our renunciations have failed us; less and less is given back bettered. For this reason, chiefly, I think, this culture, which once imagined itself inside a church, feels trapped in something like a zoo of separate cages.
And characters in Fox's novels are described as "performing bear[s]" or "sluggish beasts." To complicate matters, the bars are constantly moving so that one can never be sure whether he is inside or outside, observer or observed. The failure of Western culture is expressed in various ways in The Widow's Children. If our systems of symbols organize both moral demands and the expressive release from such demands, the two functions have fallen apart in a more remissive culture. At one point Peter and Laura "understood each other; she was ruled by impulse, he, by constraint. And each pitied the other for their subjugation to opposing tyrannies." The erotic, which, as Plato reveals in the Symposium, is supposed to reconcile love of oneself (or of one's own) with love of the other, is parodied here by the pornographic. Clara uses obscene jokes to awaken a response in her relatives, even if it is the aggressive response of laughter. She thinks, "Yet what jokes took the place of, with their abject mangling of the ways of carnal life, their special language more stumps than words, she could not fathom." These "stumps" occur earlier in Laura's description of beggars in Madrid, who shake their stumps at her and laugh. Peter, in turn, describes the characters in the book as "beggars, pinching each other." Hours are "mutilated, debauched"; all things are "pinched, poor, broken, worn ragged"; and Peter's possessions are "shadowed clumps." The obscene joke Clara tries to recall has to do with a woman and a doorknob, and later Desmond, who is "always suspecting crooks"—and whose own narrowness he experiences as a lie, checks the doorknob of the room several times. Like the porn queen, Randy Cunny, who appears in one sequence, Laura also arouses men "to empty purpose" and conveys a false promise of intimacy. If Laura, however, cannot get outside herself, Clara's problem is that she cannot get inside herself to experience her own pleasure. We are told, moreover, that Clara's "not wanting" is an "effort to fend off a huge collapse" against Laura's indifference—as if she is playing possum in order to avoid death. Later, she imitates Laura by imitating a possum, as if partial identification with her avoids a more complete one.
While in Desperate Characters the problem of exchange between inner and outer is conveyed by the theme of excretion, in The Widow's Children it is conveyed by the theme of incorporation. As Freud teaches us, the aim of incorporation is derived from the biological aim of feeding and can occur in other systems besides the digestive one. The eyes, for example, can be involved in such a derived aim. Clara has "the startling impression" that her mother's eye sockets are empty—"like mouths, opening to scream." The sexual relations in the novel reveal relations of autonomy and heteronomy. Laura, for example, swings away from intimate contact with Clara "like an accomplished old adulterer." Carlos, Laura tells us, becomes a homosexual "to avoid supporting a woman." Clara, who has hoped futilely for "rescue" by Carlos, thinks about her visits to him and her father: "They had barely acknowledged her presence, as though she'd been one of Carlos' young men whom she sometimes found there with them." As Peter and Laura talk about Peter's sisters, who excluded him as a child, Laura refers to them as "sister dykes"; and Peter, whose existence has become more and more exiguous, is described as "an old nanny." When Clara cannot find a cartoon that Alma, who uses them to communicate with all the family, has sent to Laura, she thinks: "Had Laura chewed it up and swallowed it?" Among other images suggesting cannibalism, Carlos alludes to the sow that eats its farrow, "I'm becoming an old sow." The "widow" whose children these are has been taught to betray her own experience and to exclude her own children, whom she later comes to dominate "through the tyranny of her pathos." The epigraph of the novel is from Rilke's "Widow": "Deprived of their first leaves her barren children stand, and seem, for all the world, to have been born because she pleased some terror." Alma has "pleased" the "terror" of convention that has become divorced from reality—"La Senora had warned her that she must not notice such things." Eugenio, the child who has suffered most from his family's "fall" from privilege, has a poster on his wall of a castle in Spain: "It was a twelfth-century fortress; the mist enveloping it did not conceal its brutality." The interface between the self and the world recurs throughout the book. With drunken sentimentality, a "kind of mist" settling over his mind. Desmond thinks of the "style" that separates Laura from the middle class. Clara talks of Alma as a fog that surrounds her. Laura and Desmond, like the fortress, are both referred to as "brutes," and Laura's face, when she expresses loathing for the "self-regarding sentimentality" of the Jews, looks "brutish and empty." Laura is like the person in Desperate Characters who says, "I started out with you and ended up with myself," since the "Jew" against whom she fulminates is herself. When Violet (the other woman on whom Peter depends for her temperament) tries to reassure Peter about what she assumes to be his homosexuality, her "conventional language" is "inane, brutal and mawkish."
At the end of the novel, Laura denies the effectiveness of what Peter and Clara have done to liberate themselves from her. In response to Clara's "questioning glance," Peter wants to cry out, "Wait! It's not nothing…. I've almost got hold of it!" The name "Maldonadas," however, which suggests a kind of nihilistic disease, implies that Peter has got hold of nothing. In Desperate Characters the hippie son of the Bentwoods' friends wears an army fatigue jacket "on which were pinned buttons shaped and painted like eyeballs, staring from nothing, at nothing," and in The Widow's Children Carlos, whose inertia is extreme, wears someone else's spectacles. Laura is thought to be able to "see through people," as if a diagnosis were possible among these optical distortions, but all Laura can see through are the "manners" she induces people to assume. What Laura is really good at, as she says herself, is "makeup." We learn at the very end that Peter's revelation is only a reversal of the case: his mother's manipulation of appearances into "some tangled thing" and Laura's own knotted strings hold him. One recalls the girl in Desperate Characters who says of the anklet she wears: "It hurts me to wear it…. Every time I move, it hurts." When Peter says of his mother, "No intelligence at work, and no feeling except vindictiveness toward me because I was hers," he could almost be describing Laura as well. Denied by both of them at the end. Peter is bound as victim to a kind of psychological vendetta. He recalls a morning in childhood when, hearing his mother and sisters in the kitchen and seeing the paw marks of animals "braiding the snow"—an image associated with the "thick plaited design in gilt" (or "guilt") that frames a mirror in Laura's hotel, all Peter wants is "to be good." If, as Peter notes, "Families hold each other in an iron grip of definition," that happens because families can no longer reinforce the purposes of a traditional community or resist the manipulations of its contemporary counterpart.
Fox's characters seem to suffer from a Midas touch. Violet feels "nebulous, indescribable," and the "increasing materiality" of her life seems to deprive her of any real security. Eugenio says of himself, "Beggars can't be choosers" and laughs a "grinding, metallic chuckle." Having lost his patrimony as a child and having actually been "thrown out of people's homes," Eugenio "still waits to be thrown out" as if that alone validated the worth of what is inside. What Eugenio seeks is the "blissful oblivion of wealth," which corresponds to the mindless imitation he sees as characteristic of his family. Laura's voice, similarly, is "metallic, serrated" as she contemplates the "futility" of her mother's absurd wisdom. Her own presence, however, her "elaborate killer's manners," causes only betrayal in others. Her compliment to Clara, for example, is unjust because wounding. That this Midas touch has a cultural dimension is revealed in Peter's remark: "Culture makes one bitter." When Alma comes from Spain to Cuba in order to marry an older man whom she has never met, she experiences a "strange, bitter, piercing smell everywhere—it seemed green to her, like the new bitter green leaves of spring." The bitterness suggests the betrayal implicit in the promise. La Senora has warned Alma that she must not notice certain things, and this gesture of suppression is repeated twice: when Clara visits Laura in one of the "Hansens' borrowed apartments," her father puts his fingers to his lips, "warning her to be silent as though someone were sleeping"; and in the restaurant Laura makes a similar gesture when Clara claims that she is "really full." One of the rules by which we often abide is the denial that we live by rules. Laura, for example, is thought to be lawless, but the principal rule suggested by these gestures is: "Thou shalt not implicate thy mother in matters of fullness or emptiness." The same sense of promise is conveyed in Peter's first meeting with Laura and Ed Hansen: "It had been a spring day, the room smelled of the unthawed earth and the first fresh greenness outside … the light had been so sweet, so clear!" "Sweetness" is associated with hope and rescue. Carlos, who is "sweet" but ineffectual, cannot "do much for anyone" although Clara has looked to him for rescue. The old man who bakes a cake with Peter after the death of Peter's mother is also described as "sweet." The pie Peter makes with his uncle tips over and then explodes—like the empty form of self-realization associated with Laura. In the restaurant Clara has "a bittersweet recall of the outside natural world, the coarse shifting earth upon which squatted these hotel and restaurant strongholds, so close, muffled, airless." For these city people, whose longing resembles that of Socrates' pastoral prayer, the "natural world" is the name given to their disappointment with "culture." The word "coarse" is crucial in both novels because it refers to the material dimensions of culture. In a culture which trivializes ideals by the sheer weight of its material means and which also turns ideals into fads by means of its tolerance, one can either take "visible pleasure" in one's coarseness or make capital out of one's disappointments. Although Francis "coarsens" a bit in Desperate Characters, his "limpidity of expression" derives from his ability to turn everything, even bitterness, to personal profit. In The Widow's Children Clara experiences a sense of "bitter triumph" at being deprived of her inheritance, and "being broke" conveys an "inherent promise" of "sudden dramatic reversal" although it never comes. The disappointment of success, however, is irreversible. In the "rainy days" of March, Desmond recalls, he had dreams in college which he cannot now recall. In their rainy country Paula Fox's characters feel deprived of their sovereignty—the inevitable result, perhaps, of each man having become his own king.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3867
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 up, and before long writers for young people were trooping into it, often in a worried, heavy-footed and anxious-to-be-with-it way.
Paula Fox was one of the small number of writers who brought quick sharp perceptions to the new and in many ways uneasy scene, and also an instinctive sympathy for the young who (just as much as their parents) had to deal with it. A recurrent theme in her work of the late 1960s, and again in Blowfish Live in the Sea (1970), is that of noncommunication and lack of understanding between young and old. But she is not a writer who could be content to mine a single narrow seam. She has written both adult and young people's novels; she has produced picture books and younger children's stories; and her most substantial work on the children's lists up to the time of writing, the award-winning The Slave Dancer (1973), is a historical novel of weight and intensity which stands on its own, at a distance from her other books.
Her early books for children have central characters aged from about eight to ten, but one would hesitate to say that they are 'for' readers of such an age. The audience and the author's position in relation to it seem curiously fluid. One has no sense that the writer, as an adult, is here, in charge, handing it out, while the audience of children is there, duly taking it. If there is a message in the air, it is probably for someone quite different. The first two, Maurice's Room (1966) and A Likely Place (1967), are not telling children anything except a story, but seem rather obviously to be saying something to parents: don't fuss the child, let him grow in his own way. The two books are humorous, even witty, but in a way that one would expect to appeal to readers rather older than their heroes. And the third and best of the early books, How Many Miles to Babylon? (1967), whose hero is barely ten, was one of only two books specifically recommended for teenagers by Nat Hentoff in the Atlantic for December 1967. The conventional wisdom is that children and teenagers don't want to read about children younger than themselves, and this generally appears to be true. But it could be that discussion of the question betrays a more fixed attitude than Paula Fox would adopt. Who says who is to read what? Like many other writers, she raises the question 'For whom?', and as with many other writers I can find no answer except 'For whom it may concern.'
Maurice's Room is in fact a blessedly funny book; and as for readership, one can only try it on and see if the glove fits. Maurice at eight is dedicated to his collection of junk, which spills over everything. His parents feel he needs more constructive interests, and often discuss him with their friends.
Some visitors said that collections like Maurice's showed that a child would become a great scientist. Many great scientists had collected junk when they were eight years old. Other visitors said Maurice would outgrow his collection and become interested in other things, such as money or armies. Some suggested to the Henrys that they ought to buy Maurice a dog, or send him to music school so that his time might be spent more usefully.
And his parents, with the best intentions, get everything wrong. The dog they borrow to be a companion to Maurice is in fact a dreadful nuisance to him, yet Mother is soon convinced that 'Maurice and Patsy are inseparable.' An attempt to get Maurice to learn an instrument is disastrous. The beautiful sailboat that Mr Henry buys Maurice for his birthday is forgotten while Maurice and friend grope for some old bedsprings lying on the bottom of the pond. 'If I had known you wanted bedsprings instead of a beautiful three-foot sailing ketch, I would have gotten you bedsprings,' says poor Mr Henry in despair. Finally, Maurice's parents decide to move to the country, where they hope that everything will be different. And this time at least all is well, for although Maurice isn't terribly interested in the country as such, there is an old barn that already holds the nucleus of a promising new junk collection. It's a hilarious, subversive book, full of casual joys. One can see that Maurice will survive the well-meant but uncomprehending intrusions of adults, just as will Lewis in A Likely Place. Lewis, too, is fussed by the grown-ups, but is fortunately left by his parents in the charge of eccentric Miss Fitchlow, who goes in for yogurt and yoga, calls Lewis 'pal', and lets him off the lead. Which is just what he needed. It is a short, dry, subtle book; and if there is a lesson in it, then I suspect that, as in Maurice's Room, it is really a lesson for parents.
Paula Fox's third book, How Many Miles to Babylon?, is a longer novel of much greater depth and complexity. Its hero, James, is a small black boy living in Brooklyn, whose father has disappeared and whose mother has gone into hospital, leaving him in the care of three elderly aunts. One day he walks out of school and goes to play by himself in an empty house. In his mind is a story that his mother has really gone to her own country across the seas and that he is secretly a prince. Three small boys, not much older than James but tougher, capture him and make him help them work their dog-stealing racket. James travels frightening miles with them on the back of a bicycle, goes to a deserted funhouse on Coney Island, sees the Atlantic. At night he frees the stolen dogs, runs away, gets home to the old aunts, and finds his mother there. She is back from hospital; she is no princess and he no prince. 'Hello, Jimmy,' she says.
On the surface it is a straightforward story, with its strong plot about the fearful boy and the tough gang and the dogs and the juvenile racketeering. But there are strange undertones: the symbolic voyage, the 'other' story of James which is only hinted at. The action, although shadows are cast before and behind it in time, takes place within a day and a night. 'Can I get there by candlelight? Yes, and back again.' Both action and setting are almost dreamlike; the landscape an intimately-known landscape yet glimpsed as if in shifting mists. Everything is experienced through James; and James himself is wandering in a mist of illusion, though eventually compelled by what happens to grasp at rough reality. It is felt in every page, but never said in crude terms, that James is a member of a submerged race and class, and isolated even within that. He is not a sharply-drawn character, nor meant to be, for the reader will suffer with him rather than observe him from the outside; but the minor characters—the three old aunts, the three young racketeers—are clear in outline, defined by the words they speak.
In one sense the outcome of How Many Miles to Babylon? is plain. James has proved himself, has faced the actual world, found and accepted his actual mother. He has come through. But to say that is not enough. Illusion and reality, the symbolic and the actual, are not to be so neatly separated. There is much in the book that the mind cannot simply deal with and eject. The inner mystery is something to be carried about and wondered at from time to time rather than be resolved.
The same might be said of The Stone-Faced Boy (1968), whose hero Gus—the middle child of five, about ten years old, timid, vulnerable, shut-off—goes out into the snow at night to free a stray dog from a trap. Gus, too, proves himself; finds the key that will help him to overcome his problems. But again this is not quite all. The Stone-Faced Boy is a winter's tale, with the quiet, real-yet-unreal feeling of a white landscape. There is a shiver in it, too: a ghostliness. The trap in which the dog is caught belongs to an old man, who takes Gus home to his cottage, full of the debris of the past, for a cup of tea with his equally old wife. And at one point the old man tells the old lady to show Gus how spry she is.
She made a strange little jump and then, holding her skirt out with her two hands, she did a little dance in front of the stove, smiling, wobbling slightly, kicking one foot out, then the other. Then she fell back softly into the rocker, like a feather coming to rest.
On the previous page we have heard that the old lady 'had a light, free laugh, and to Gus's surprise the sound reminded him of Serena'. Serena is his younger sister, aged about eight: nice, dreamy, imaginative. Gus feels it is impossible for Serena to get so old. But of course she will; this delicate tying together of the two ends of life makes one of the book's many quiet yet admirable achievements.
Portrait of Ivan (1969) does not have the mysterious depths of How Many Miles to Babylon? or The Stone-Faced Boy, but has subtleties and satisfactions of its own. It is a brief novel about a boy of eleven who leads a dull, lonely life, walled in by well-to-do, conventional, adult-dominated surroundings. The walls about him begin to crack when he meets the painter Matt and the elderly reader-aloud Miss Manderby, and start collapsing rapidly as he potters about in a boat with a barefoot girl called Geneva. There is a key sentence to the understanding of one aspect of Paula Fox when Ivan realizes that in his life in the city
he was nearly always being taken to or from some place by an adult, in nearly every moment of his day he was holding on to a rope held at the other end by a grown-up person—a teacher or a bus driver, a housekeeper or a relative. But since he had met Matt, space had been growing all around him. It was frightening to let go of that rope, but it made him feel light and quick instead of heavy and slow.
Ivan has needed space in which to open out, yet by a near-paradox, in order to open out he needs a framework, a context for his own life, a sense of who and what he is and how he got here. He has been living in what might be called a cramped void. It is something important when his friend draws for him the imagined sledge on which his mother, whom he never knew, left Russia as a child, a little girl who 'did not know she had begun a journey that led right to this room where her son now lay, half asleep'. That is a link that Ivan needed.
Ben, in Blowfish Live in the Sea, is eighteen and although the book is largely about him, the viewpoint is that of his half-sister Carrie, aged twelve. Though Ben is older than Ivan, his emotional position is somewhat similar, in that, just as Ivan needed the link with his mother in order to orientate himself, Ben needs to find his father. But Ben's father is not dead; he is a drifter, a pathetic, unsatisfactory person. Ben's mother has divorced and remarried, and Ben has a stable, prosperous home, but he is totally alienated. He has dropped out of school, got rid of all his possessions. and Carrie sees him as
a tall thin person in a droopy coat with the collar up. The person's hands are shoved into the coat pockets; the threads that stick out from the places where buttons used to be are a different color from the cloth of the coat. When he walks, the person looks down at his feet as they move forward in cracked muddy boots.
'Blowfish live in the sea' is the message that Ben writes on brown paper bags, on unopened letters, in dust on window-panes; and the explanation is that his father once sent him a blowfish—round as a soccer ball, stiff with varnish, orange and yellow and shiny—with a letter describing it as a souvenir from the upper reaches of the Amazon. Ben's graffito is a comment on this shabby deception. But when his father turns up, a perennial failure with nothing to his name but a seedy rundown motel, Ben decides to join him: 'He needs some help to get it into shape. He doesn't have hardly any money…. The place is a wreck.' We leave Ben starting on the carpentry, keeping his father off the drink; we don't know how long it will last, but we know it is something positive for Ben at last and will be the making of him.
This is the principal strand of the book, but there are others. Running through it all is Carrie's affection for Ben. As she looks at him, dusty and sad, with the rawhide thong round the hair that he won't get cut. Carrie remarks, 'Sometimes I thought I loved him better than anyone.' And in his desultory way Ben returns the affection; in fact there are traces everywhere of a loving, more open Ben. Although Ben belongs strictly to his time, and although people of his age already look different and behave differently, he is not in the least invalidated as a character by subsequent change. The underlying human nature can be seen quite clearly within the pattern formed by its interaction with outward circumstances.
Paula Fox is obviously much concerned with relationships between children and adults. She is conscious that in a complicated and rapidly changing society it is hard for the generations to live together satisfactorily. It will not do for grown-ups to think in terms of feeding a child into the production line and in due course drawing off an adult from the other end; but neither can young people really write off the older generation, ignoring it as irrelevant or hating it as the enemy.
Her books for younger children are a mixed collection, and in my view have not always been successful. They include a curious, way-out picture book Hungry Fred (1969), about a boy who eats his way through the contents of a house, the house itself and the backyard, and is still hungry. Then he makes friends with a wild rabbit as big as himself. 'The rabbit leaned against Fred. Fred smiled. He felt full.' It is difficult to see what young children will make of this. And although one accepts that a picture book, like a poem or story, does not have to be understood in literal terms in order to make its impact, there needs to be an imaginative power and unity which I do not find in Hungry Fred, and which the artist, understandably, could not supply. Good Ethan (1973), about a small boy who ingeniously solves the problem of retrieving his new ball from the wrong side of a street he has been told not to cross, is a simpler and more satisfactory conception, and benefits from pictures by Arnold Lobel which are exactly in key with it. Paula Fox is also the author of The Little Swineherd and Other Tales (1978); a group of short, folk-type stories set in the odd framework of an attempt by a duck—yes, a duck—to succeed in show business. The duck is promoting the actual storyteller—a goose who simply likes to tell stories—and there is dry satiric humour in the account of the duck's attempts at exploitation and his uncomprehending interventions in the creative process. But the book as a whole does not quite work. Russell Hoban would have done this kind of thing better. The title story, however, about the half-starved and neglected boy who takes over a small holding when its owners disappear and has vastly improved it by the time they come back to reclaim their property, is a touching and memorable one; it would have been preferable, I believe, to present it on its own.
I have left until last the book which, so far, is Paula Fox's finest achievement. I do not think it could have been predicted from her earlier work that she would write such a book as The Slave Dancer. It is the story of Jessie Bollier, a boy who is pressed into the crew of the slave ship Moonlight in 1840 for a voyage to Africa, picking up a cargo of blacks to be sold in Cuba. This is a case where the discipline of writing for the children's list has been wholly to the benefit of the book as a work of art. The 'young eye at the centre' is no mere convention of the adventure story for children; it is the one perspective from which the witnessing of dreadful events can be fully and freshly experienced, and at the same time the moral burden be made clear. Jessie is horrified by the treatment of the slaves, but he is powerless to prevent it; moreover he is young, white, and one of the crew, and the oppressors are his fellow-countrymen.
Jessie plays the fife, and his job is to make music to which, for brief periods daily, the slaves can exercise. This is called dancing the slaves. The aim is to keep them (relatively) healthy and therefore marketable, in spite of the crowded and filthy conditions in which they live. A slave has no human value but has a financial one: a dead slave is a lost profit. As the voyage goes on, the slaves, crammed together in the reeking hold, become sick, half-starved and hopeless, most of them suffering from 'the bloody flux', an affliction that makes the latrine buckets inadequate. And Jesse finds that 'a dreadful thing' is happening in his mind:
I hated the slaves! I hated their shuffling, their howling, their very suffering! I hated the way they spat out their food upon the deck, the overflowing buckets, the emptying of which tried all my strength. I hated the foul stench that came from the holds no matter which way the wind blew, as though the ship itself were soaked with human excrement. I would have snatched the rope from Spark's [the mate's] hand and beaten them myself! Oh, God! I wished them all dead! Not to hear them! Not to smell them! Not to know of their existence!
The Slave Dancer is not a story solely of horror. It is also a novel of action, violence and suspense, culminating in shipwreck (which was indeed the fate of a slaver called Moonlight in the Gulf of Mexico in 1840; the actual names of her crew are used). Jessie and a black boy named Ras with whom he has made a precarious friendship are the only survivors; they reach land and there is a limited happy ending. Ras is set on the road to freedom; Jessie gets home to his mother and sister, is apprenticed, lives an ordinary, modestly-successful life, and fights in the Civil War on the Union side.
After the war my life went on much like my neighbors' lives. I no longer spoke of my journey on a slave ship back in 1840, I did not often think of it myself. Time softened my memory as though it was kneading wax. But there was one thing that did not yield to time.
I was unable to listen to music. I could not bear to hear a woman sing, and at the sound of any instrument, a fiddle, a flute, a drum, a comb with paper wrapped around it played by my own child, I would leave instantly and shut myself away. For at the first note of a tune or of a song, I would see once again, as though they'd never ceased their dancing in my mind, black men and women and children lifting their tormented limbs in time to a reedy martial air, the dust rising from their joyless thumping, the sound of the fife finally drowned beneath the clanging of their chains.
Those are the closing sentences of The Slave Dancer. Ultimately the book is not depressing; the human spirit is not defeated. But it is permeated through and through by the horror it describes. The casual brutality of the ordinary seamen towards the slaves is as fearful in its way as the more positive and corrupt cruelty of the captain and mate and the revolting, hypocritical crew member Ben Stout. For the seamen are 'not especially cruel save in their shared and unshakable conviction that the least of them was better than any black alive'. They are merely ignorant. Villainy is exceptional by definition, but dreadful things done by decent men, to people whom they manage to look on as not really human, are a reminder of our own self-deceit and lack of imagination, of the capacity we all have for evil. There, but for the grace of God, go all of us.
Is such knowledge fit for children? Yes, it is; they ought not to grow up without it. This book looks at a terrifying side of human nature, and one which—in the specific manifestation of the slave trade—has left deeply-planted obstacles in the way of human brotherhood. The implication was made plain by Paula Fox in her Newbery acceptance speech in 1974. We must face this history of evil, and our capacity for evil, if the barriers are ever to come down.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522
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.
In a sense, that's Victoria's biggest problem, and one that most adolescents will understand—locating her territory, naming it, making sense of what's happening around her. She used to believe, she tells us, that "If I could describe one entire day of my life to someone, that person would be able to tell me what on earth life was all about." But that was before her father died, and the year that's covered by A Place Apart is the period of time it takes her to regain, however shakily, some sense of order and security.
The issue of her confusing friend—a boy who enjoys manipulating people—is a major part of the plot, but it doesn't seem essential. Far more important is Victoria's grief for her father, which is palpable—fading, reviving unexpectedly and fading again. There's a moment, very shortly after his death, when Victoria's mother wakes her in the middle of the night and the two of them sit staring at each other. There's another, just before a vacation trip, when Victoria is stricken by the sight of two suitcases where once there were three.
Victoria's mother is beautifully drawn—a woman floundering but doing her best. When she thinks of remarrying, later in the story, Victoria doesn't approve; but the man is sympathetic and he tries hard, and Victoria realizes that. It's a relief—no black-and-white characters here, but the stuff of real life.
Her readers are complimented, you might say. Paula Fox trusts them to appreciate a story—without gimmicks or exaggerations. She writes a honed prose, avoiding all traces of a gee-whillikers tone, and her language is simple and direct. A Place Apart is a book apart—quiet-voiced, believable and often very moving.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2936
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 servant to a provincial family. Here is how he describes it in Childhood, the first volume of his autobiographical trilogy:
Those winter evenings in that little cramped room with my master and mistress were quite unbearable. Outside there was nothing but deathly night. Sometimes I could hear the frost crackling. People sat at the table, as silent as frozen fish. Sometimes a blizzard would buffet the window and the walls, roar down the chimneys and make a banging noise in the dampers. The babies would start crying in the nursery and one felt like sitting down in some dark corner, hunching oneself up and howling like a wolf.
But Gorki didn't howl like a wolf. Instead, he learned to read. And although there were very few books in that woebegone village, he managed to get hold of most of them. But he was punished for reading, and so he read secretly at night. The books, he writes,
… made the world a larger place, beautifying it with fabulous towns, showing the high mountains and wonderful seashores. Life blossomed miraculously, the earth became more attractive, richer in people and towns and many different things. And now as I looked at those distant fields beyond the Volga, I knew very well they were not just a desert…. The earth had seemed empty and lonely. And as a result my heart became empty…. All desire would disappear and there would be simply nothing to think about…. As I read. I began to feel healthier and stronger, and I worked rapidly and skilfully, as I now had a purpose, the sooner I finished my chores, the more time would be left over for reading. When they took books away from me, I became listless and lazy, and a morbid forgetfulness which I had not known before would take hold of me.
Gorki soon tired of stories in which there was a simple-minded, shadowless confrontation between pure good and pure evil, with evil inevitably routed and good inevitably triumphant. At ten, he knew better. He knew that good and evil were often inextricably tangled in the same person, the same event. But what had originally excited his imagination in those early fables he read was a sense of a world utterly unlike Nizhni.
Although those fantasies had begun by leading him away, out of his own life, they also had the extraordinary effect of helping him to discover his own life, as though up until then it, too, had been an unknown country beyond the Volga.
Books awakened Gorki's imagination, not only about different people and places, but about himself. And instead of "morbid forgetfulness," instead of brutish resignation, Gorki began to perceive with imaginative vision that there was more to his grandfather than his cruelty, more to his grandmother than her lunacy, and that the people of his village were not merely fools, or dangerous beasts, or drunken sots, but were, as he was, baffled and fearful and struggling to endure.
Gorki discovered another marvel about stories—their power to bring comfort to people, to divert them and make them merry, to enchant them. He found that he, himself, could invent such stories, and he told them even to those people who had jeered at him for reading. He saw that he could make them laugh, make them forget, for a little while, the meagerness of their daily lives and bring them into the realm that William Wordsworth described as: "That twilight when we first begin to see this dawning earth …"
The first intimations of "this dawning earth"! I do not have to make an effort to recollect how the beginning of certain books affected me when I first read them, because they still do. Such beginnings as: "Call me Ishmael." Or, "An angry man—there is my story: the bitter rancour of Achilles, Prince of the House of Peleus, which brought a thousand troubles upon the Achaian host." Or, "Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do…." Or, "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years with very little to distress or vex her." Or, "Happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion." Or, "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood."
But along with the literature of imagination, there has always been tract literature. Stories that once strained to instruct young readers in how to attain virtue and the happiness of virtue have been replaced now by stories that strain to teach children how to manage life by merely naming such "problems" as disease, physical anomalies, and even death, and assuring them there is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to suffer about, nothing complex.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge attacked the old didactic literature for its debasement of human pity and passion 190 years ago when he heard from a friend a description of a children's book typical of that period. He writes: "A child is to come home and tell its mother, 'The sixpence you gave me I gave to a beggar. Did I do right, Mamma?'—'O! yes my dear,' cries the mother, kissing him, 'you did,'—thus blending one of the first virtues, charity, with one of the basest passions of the human heart, the love of hearing oneself praised."
And Coleridge goes on to say, "[I] sought no praise for giving to beggars, and I trust that my heart is not the worse, or the less inclined to feel sympathy for all men, because I first learnt the powers of my nature, and to reverence that nature—for who can feel and reverence the nature of man and not feel deeply for the afflictions of others possessing like powers and like nature?"
Recently, I saw a letter an acquaintance received from a television producer of programs for children that suggests the fashion of the new didacticism. In turning down my acquaintance's book for television adaptation, the producer wrote that it was a "superior" work, but that it did not "fall into the rigid guidelines set forth by our network personnel," who, said the producer, are now "tending toward crisis stories … concerning diabetics, suicides, teenage pregnancies, etc."
The "etc." speaks powerfully of the way in which the most profound and painful difficulties of living have become trivialized.
A choice of subject matter has never made writing. And it has not been the function of literature to show people of any age how to deal with problems or how to solve social and sexual dilemmas. The implicit instructions of contemporary "realistic" books may vary from those of 1810, but they have the same sequel: they smother speculation, they stifle uncertainty, they strangle imagination.
It is difficult to believe the authors of such books, of any era, believe that children possess "like powers and like nature," to be reverenced, to be respected. They are rather like W. H. Auden's social worker: "Writers can be guilty of every kind of human conceit but one, the conceit of the social worker," he writes, then goes on to characterize his social worker's view of life: "We are all here on earth to help others: what on earth the others are here for, I don't know."
I suggest that if, in literature, we are given nothing to think about, to imagine, outside the external trappings of our own lives, we are likely to remain motionless and ignorant. And the earth will, indeed, seem empty and lonely as it was to Gorki when he was deprived of books.
We are all born provincials, but there is in us that push against the constraint of circumstances, of the given, that we show in our first efforts to stand up on legs that are not quite ready to support us, in that struggle toward a larger life we make in our first attempts at human speech.
If we make the effort, the imaginative effort, we can sometimes see the inherent imaginative energy in a child's astonishment at fire, at thunder, at birds and cats and wheels, at colors and shapes and the texture and taste of things—at all, in fact, which is always in peril of becoming commonplace to us because we are "grown-ups" and because we have ceased to venerate life, and have "solved" its puzzles.
Any passing observations of infancy and growth can tell us about the discomfort and joy of being alive, sorrow and joy, bound together from the beginning.
But often we want to forget, to swathe our seminal awareness in comfort. And we present children with cozy books about divorce and desertion and death and sex, promising them that, in the end, everything can be made all right. Thus we drown eternal human questions with contemporary bromides, all mechanics and sanctimony, filled with a ruinous complacency.
Just as junk food can dull pangs of hunger, so can junk books dull the hunger of a child's mind, stuff it with unearned certainties, those straws, Henry James wrote, that "we chew to cheat our appetites."
A characteristic of such literature is that it tends to promote and vindicate adult predispositions toward children and childhood. Another is that these books deliver us from the responsibility, the effort of self-knowledge without which we cannot really think about and understand children, who are not a race apart but ourselves when new.
But the truths we sense in great imaginative literature send us back to the earliest, most essential memories of our own lives, and, at the same time, direct our vision outward toward other lives, toward life itself.
I was taught to read when I was five. The old house where I lived in those days was filled with books and not much else. The roof leaked, the well was always going dry, the wallpaper peeled, the furniture was patched and mended, the driveway up the long hill to the house was impassable in heavy rain or snow, and there was never enough money for repairs.
But the books! They lined the walls of the rooms; they stood in columns on the floor; they were piled up in the attic on top of a river of National Geographics that cascaded down the crowded attic stairs.
In bad weather, when I couldn't go outside, I used to sit on those stairs and extract a Geographic as carefully as if I were playing pick-up-sticks, so I wouldn't bring the whole attic down on myself. Among the glossy pages of the magazines, I met up with pygmies and Balinese dancers, cities built on water, mountain peaks yet unscaled, desert people and people who lived amid eternal snow, dragonflies and anacondas. On those attic stairs in an old house that seemed always on the verge of collapse, I began to sense huge possibilities.
Some years later, I went to live on a sugar plantation in the middle of Cuba—a far distance from an old Victorian wreck on the Hudson River! I had no books there except for one or two ragged textbooks passed among the students, of which I was one, whose school was one room attached to the rear of a small church. Still, there was a man who came to our village once a month from the city of Cienfuegos. He came on one of the dusty roads that led to the plantation, pushing a handcart in front of him. In it were piles of two-sheet "books" that reproduced songs that were current and popular in Havana. The paper, I recall, was a harsh and acid pink. The sheets were so poorly printed that sometimes whole lines were blotted out. A child would buy a few pages for a centavo or two and I, along with the other children of the plantation, would memorize all the words and sing them to each other. Some of the songs told real stories with beginnings and middles and ends, stories that were often sad, but comic now and then, too. One, I remember, was about a garbage man whose sweetheart deserted him, and he grew so melancholy, he lost all interest in his work! That particular song had the lyrical title El Cantino Arabal. Such was our longing for stories that we made up still others of our own, inventing for ourselves a kind of mythology of which those coarse pink sheets of paper were the text.
When I returned to the United States, I went to live in a small community on Long Island. A few other little girls and I found an abandoned shed in the neighborhood and decided to start our own library. We pooled our books, and somewhere we dug up a few sticks of furniture. Until the cold drove us out, along with the awful depredations of a neighborhood gang of small boys who regarded us as enemies, we spent many charmed hours after school in our library. By the time we had to abandon it, I had a real library card.
When I was in the seventh grade, we had to memorize a good deal of poetry, especially William Wordsworth's poetry. No one I knew then, except a born actor or two, really liked to memorize poems. It was hard work. But we did it. And the poems stayed in my mind, within reach for many years. As I got older, I began to read poetry for my own pleasure, and among the poets who seemed to me to be magician-saints, Wordsworth towered, difficult, dense, as remote and unimaginable a human being as Pericles.
A few years ago, I spent some weeks in the Lake Country in England. I went to visit Dove Cottage where Wordsworth and his family lived from 1800 to 1808. It was a clenched little house full of dark passages and tiny rooms. In the kitchen, there was a black, rusted coffee grinder the Wordsworths had used. I could hardly tear my glance from it. It had never occurred to me that Wordsworth had been real!
Later, I went on to Rydal Hall, a few miles away from Grasmere. It was a lovely Georgian house Wordsworth had rented when he became a little prosperous. It stood on a hill, and all around it were his gardens, just as he had planted them. The house had only recently returned to the Wordsworth descendants. Two elderly women from Grasmere kept guard over it and look the few pence it cost to explore it.
As I passed by one of them, she whispered something to me. I leaned forward. More loudly, she said, "Miss Wordsworth! She's in there!" And she pointed to a narrow door next to her chair.
I thought she was speaking of a ghost. I nodded. She smiled. "His great-great-granddaughter," she explained.
At that moment, the narrow door crashed open into the little hall where I stood, and out came a large, handsome middle-aged woman in a fierce tweed suit. A cigarette drooped from her lips, and she was smiling with immense good humor. I was introduced. She shook my hand vigorously and asked, "Are you enjoying the house?"
I don't remember what I replied. I do remember that I remained rooted to the spot as she swept out the front door, hurled herself into a dilapidated station wagon, reversed violently, knocked into a fence, laughed, waved to me out the car window, cigarette ashes flying, and disappeared down the driveway.
It is not memory alone, but imagination that brings back to me the palpable presence of that car-banging, tweedy woman, her amiable face afloat in the smoke of her cigarette, and hovering behind her, spectrally, the lineaments of her ancestor.
William Wordsworth wrote in Book XIII of The Prelude (which he titled Imagination): "… each man's mind is to herself witness and judge; and I remember well that in life's every-day appearances I seemed about this time to gain clear sight of a new world."
Imagination is the great witness. Without it, there is no past, only, as Gorki wrote, morbid forgetfulness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2824
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 past, present, and future. The reader of literature about such traumas can no longer comfortably apply us/them dichotomies, for this literature universalizes moral problems, choices, and consequences. The image of the child in such literature, as recalled by a survivor-witness, is often a devastating ethical challenge, for children have often been singled out to suffer special brutalities.
We are loathe to shape our collective sin and guilt through the genre of children's literature. Perhaps we fear that to depict the children within the nightmare of history will both taint our own image of innocence and deny young readers trust in the future we shape; for is not children's literature a seduction of children into our symbolic structures and values? Yet children have lived and do live in historical time and voice their concerns today about the next possible nightmare—global nuclear war.
Three works that confront the themes and horizons of historical trauma in children's literature are Paula Fox's The Slave Dancer, Hans Peter Richter's Friedrich, and Toshi Maruki's Hiroshima No Pika. In my discussion I will point out how the three cardinal sins of Western civilization—the enslavement of Africans, anti-Semitism and the holocaust, and the atom bomb as apocalypse—affect the child characters in these stories, and how they might influence the young reader's reaction to our civilization's discontents, crimes, and guilts. I contend that if such literary works are shared within a context where youngsters can voice their concerns and where adults are ready to engage in dialogue rather than diatribe, rationalization, and assuagement, they cannot but be therapeutic. They define and thereby set limits to the anxieties of young readers.
In each narrative the main character is a victim-survivor. In The Slave Dancer and Friedrich the narrator writes a confession because he witnessed and participated in historical crimes. Seven-year-old Mii in Hiroshima No Pika is a portrait ostensibly intended for the pre-analytical reader. The impact of her story, told in the third person, comes through the great simplicity of the text and its powerful illustrations.
The Slave Dancer seems removed in time for some young readers, who have read it as an adventure story comparable to Treasure Island, but others are moved by the suffering depicted and find in this fiction an historical understanding of the oppression of black people. They can identify with the ethical problems of thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier, who is kidnapped in New Orleans in 1840 and commanded to play his fife for the dancing of the slaves on board The Moonlight. Even though this book won the Newbery Award, Fox received negative criticisms, especially for her portrayal of blacks and Jessie's reactions to them. Yet when we compare The Slave Dancer with autobiographical accounts of concentration camp survivors, we find that Fox is accurate in depicting the psychology of human beings in extreme situations. Her fictional autobiography springs from Jessie's need to confess, for he finds no relief when he confesses to a runaway slave, and when Jessie tries to share his feelings with his mother, she cries, "I can't hear it! I can't bear it!" Jessie then decides that he will "do nothing that was connected ever so faintly with the importing and sale and use of slaves." He soon discovers, however, that everything he "considered bore, somewhere along the way, the imprint of black hands." Even after writing his confession, he finds no relief from his memory of the nightmare of history.
Jessie's trauma is especially focused in the central chapter "Nicholas Spark Walks on Water." Here we see the chaos and rigidity of the life of victims and victimizers in the concentrated space of The Moonlight. The crew is unable to tolerate any human impulse toward the captive blacks. In Jessie's memory the captives are, with one exception, an undifferentiated mass, and the crew members are fixed into specific stereotypes. Mass and stereotype prevent Jessie from identifying himself with either. When the slaves are pulled from the hold after a few days at sea, their trauma has deprived them of will: "The adults ate mournfully, the food dribbling from their lips as though their spirits were too low to keep their jaws firm." Nevertheless, their very helplessness is a threat to Jessie, who reacts with self-defensive aggression: "I hated the slaves! I hated their shuffling, their howling, their very suffering …! I hated the foul stench that came from the holds …, as though the ship were soaked with human excrement. I would have snatched the rope from Spark's hand and beaten them myself! Oh, God! I wished them all dead!"
Jessie's feelings are very much comparable to those of Tadeusz Borowski in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. He, too, is outraged at the victims: "I am simply furious with these people—furious because I must be there because of them. I feel no pity. I am not sorry that they are going to the gas chamber. Damn them all … I could throw myself at them and beat them with my fists." The Moonlight and the camp are images of the anus mundi, a world of sin and waste whose stench will stay with Jessie or Tadeusz for the rest of their lives. Jessie is so frightened by his hate for the blacks that he refuses to play his fife. A severe beating is to be his punishment, and as he steps to the railing to receive his blows, he notes, "The sea was blue today." Borowski observes: "The sky grows translucent and opens high above our heads." From slave ship and camp human cries rise high into the indifferent universe.
Jessie tries "to get used to it" and develops the inmate's characteristic split consciousness. He co-operates, sees, pretends not to see, and develops a contrasting vision: "I found a kind of freedom in my mind. I found how to be in another place." Reality, however, bears down on him when a black, whom Spark gratuitously tortured, attacks the sailor and is flogged to unconsciousness. Jessie escapes into the kitchen only to find the cook picking "worms out of a piece of crusted beef," a microcosm of ship and crew. The enraged Spark shoots the black and is himself bound and thrown overboard for having deprived the captain of profit. Before he drowns, he seems to take three steps on water, a grotesque parody of Christ. In keeping with the ironic mode, Fox often inverts the religious value of images. Jessie's name reminds us of the child as savior, now lost in a totally fallen world. The shape of the slave ship is like that of a cathedral nave (navis) and the harmony of the cosmic spheres becomes in Jessie's memory and last words "a joyless thumping, the sound of the fife finally drowned beneath the clanging of their chains."
Both the point of view of the novel and the circumstances of history make it impossible to name the slaves. Only after the shipwreck can Jessie exchange names with Ras, the sole black survivor. In Hans Peter Richter's Friedrich, however, it is the narrator and his family who remain nameless, for this narrator cannot even experience the memory of guilt—he has implicated himself too much. There is safety in remaining nameless, and the anonymity adds a universality of guilt to the story, which could be the story of many a German family. The victims here are named, as if to rescue them from the vast anonymity of the millions who were murdered.
Friedrich is the story of the friendship between two boys during the time of the Third Reich, but Richter does not show a child being led to the gas chamber. There has been no depiction of the final solution in a book written for children, though there are many accounts, poems, and drawings by children who were in the camps. As of now the ultimate extremity is censored by adult writers as too horrible to depict. Because writing is as therapeutic for the writer as reading can be for the reader, the writer, especially of children's literature, may even be afraid of subliminally expressing aggression against children.
Friedrich Schneider and his parents, who live in isolation in their urban apartment, believe that they are accepted as Germans, and are thus caught in the "illusion of reprieve." When the narrator's father, a Nazi for expediency's sake, advises Herr Schneider to flee Germany, Schneider cannot imagine slavery and injustice, much less pitiless murder in twentieth century Germany: "Perhaps we will put an end to our wandering by not seeking flight any more, by learning to suffer, by staying where we are." Bettelheim's criticism in Surviving of Anne Frank's family for wanting to maintain the status quo is corroborated in Richter's book. The author's emphasis is always on individual human suffering resulting from human choices. He reveals graphically the ransacking of the Schneiders' apartment, the death of Frau Schneider, and the arrest of Herr Schneider by the Gestapo.
Present or not, the Schneiders will always be the focus in the narrator's world, even as his consciousness splits, objectifies conflicting worlds, and finally allows itself no reflection. Caught in the historical moment he becomes a member of the Jungvolk, yet still maintains his friendship with Friedrich. Awareness of otherness begins harmlessly enough when the narrator's mother notes while bathing both boys: "Well, Fritzchen! You look like a little Jew." The word Jew will be repeated with increasing vehemence on placards, on park benches, and in speeches and songs of the Nazis. Still, the narrator tries to get an eager Friedrich into a Jungvolk meeting, where Friedrich is made to say, "The Jews are our Affliction." Occasionally there is a humane teacher or righteous judge, but anti-Semitic myths turn more and more into gruesome reality. During the famous night of broken glass, the narrator finds it "strangely exhilarating" to be drawn into the crowd. Almost accidentally he picks up a hammer, almost casually he breaks a glass pane; then he immerses himself in an orgy of vandalism, until spent, tired, and disgusted, he walks home to find that the Schneiders' apartment, too, has been demolished. His tears come too late.
While Friedrich grows in moral courage and self-awareness, the narrator is infantilized by the totalitarian system, in which ego and superego identify with the state. At the end he can no longer express his feelings for Friedrich. After Friedrich is refused entry into the shelter and dies during the air raid, the narrator can only clutch "the thorny rosebush" in front of the apartment house to let physical pain somehow replace the anguish he dare not express. The Nazi landlord notes, "His luck that he died this way," implying the other end that would have been likely for Friedrich. The book ends with this "lucky" death and only Richter's chronology at the end shows that the Third Reich collapsed on May 8, 1945. Richter wants to show the young reader that we do make choices and even have the choice to give up our freedom to choose until there is no choice left.
While choice is severely curtailed in Hiroshima No Pika, the book's last sentence, spoken by Mii's mother, presents the ultimate choice: "It can't happen again … if no one drops the bomb." Maruki decided to create the picture book after she listened to the spontaneous testimony about Hiroshima by a woman who came to see her picture exhibition about the atomic bomb. Her story is about a mother and daughter whose emotions and reflections are indirectly expressed through textual and pictorial images that are appropriate for a pre-school book. Japanese readers are likely to respond quite differently from American readers, the latter's heritage being that of perpetrator of this historical nightmare. Furthermore, the last sentence is more likely to be interpreted positively by Japanese, who view human beings as basically good whereas our tradition defines us as fallen and out of tune with nature and, therefore, more likely to drop the bomb.
Maruki's evocation of the sudden intrusion of "Little Boy," on August 6, 1945, into the life of ordinary people creates neither the apocalyptic myths nor the survival fantasies Ira Cherms discusses in "Mythologies of Nuclear War." The bomb drops while the family breakfasts. Mii's mother resolutely leaps into the flames to rescue her husband, bandages him with her obi, and carries him on her back out of the house and toward the river. At the same time she is always concerned about Mii, as fire and water constantly threaten to engulf the family. Mii sees heaps of dead and wounded, but the image that remains most in her consciousness is that of "a swallow. Its wings were burned, and it couldn't fly. Hop … hop…." The harbinger of spring has been denied and will forever become part of Mii's sorrow.
After reaching the relative safety of an island, Mii and her parents fall asleep for four days. When mother and daughter return to Hiroshima, they find "A burnt out wasteland stretched before them as far as the eye could see." In contrast to the firestorm, distinct pieces of rubble fill the field of vision where mother and daughter stand in an aura of relatedness. But the book does not end with a consolation: Mii's father dies of radiation sickness, and radiation keeps Mii from further growth, a fierce parody of the small child's secret wish. Mii will always be her mother's little girl since that fateful August day. "Sometimes Mii complains that her head itches, and her mother parts her hair, sees something shiny, and pulls it out of her scalp with a pair of tweezers. It's a sliver of glass, imbedded when the bomb went off years ago, that has worked its way to the surface." Mother and daughter do not dwell on their trauma, but those splinters are a shockingly novel image of memories that cannot be repressed.
Annually, mother and daughter express their emotions and memories through a communal ritual as Mii, along with others, mourns the dead by setting lanterns adrift in the seven rivers of Hiroshima to float to the sea. She marks one lantern "father" and the other "swallow" as her mother watches sadly. Maruki's final picture expresses serenity as brightly clad mourners set afloat warm-colored lanterns with their flames contained, spiritual symbols without the threat of conflagration. This picture also complements the last sentence, in that fire must be contained, and that can only happen if no one drops the bomb.
These three books do not project survival fantasies onto the nightmare of history, for each survivor-victim receives lasting physical, moral, or psychological damage. Each of the three child characters is denied wholeness through the process of individuation. We, who live in the fearful symmetry of the world of experience, would like our children to sing songs of innocence, but it is difficult to delude children who have intimations of nuclear war. By breaking with the convictions of children's literature, these stories open spaces or blanks for the young readers' thoughts. Young readers will fill the blanks and appropriate the text in ways not necessarily acceptable to adults. Yet, the damage will not come from books, for these books impress order on historical chaos. Stories that we hear or read are stories that can be told. While on the outer limits of children's literature, these books, too, share the subversiveness of children's literature written by adults. Through them we communicate to the child our suffering, sins, and guilts. A child character is central in each, and bears much of the burden, as a young scapegoat whose consciousness and conscience is to awaken to what our civilization lacked. Do we still expect children to redeem us even after we dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima?
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4622
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 story of primitive survival that reaches back to seasonal myths promising pastoral rebirth, and the second through a story of a dangerous journey that echoes pastoral romance. Both books treat Manhattan and Brooklyn realistically yet avoid the bitter irony that usually pervades adult books in which protagonists seek pastoral healing in an urbanized world.
These urban novels—whose protagonists perhaps will never have the opportunity to visit the country except as fresh-air kids, temporarily breathing, as Holman says of her hero, "someone else's fresh air"—initially seem to vary in important ways from those children's books that are set primarily in wilderness or country. The two books considered here have buried the pastoral imagery deep within the psyches of the protagonists and similarly buried the pastoral plot of retreat and renewal deep within the structures of the novels themselves. When the pastoral imagery emerges from the individual psyche in dream and fantasy, it often does so in exaggerated and distorted forms. And it is the problem of the novel as a whole to bare the essential aspects of the pastoral plot itself, giving the protagonist an opportunity to turn pastoral dreams into an urban reality devoid of ironic overtones.
This process is clearest in Slake's Limbo, the strange and wonderful story of thirteen-year-old Aremis Slake, virtual orphan, who made his home for one hundred and twenty days of winter in a cave off the subway tracks under the Commodore Hotel, and who was there transformed from a "worthless lump" into a "vendor of papers, a custodian of a small thriving coffee shop and a discriminating scavenger. And he was also a hobbyist."
Slake's potentiality for transformation is first expressed in his propensity to dream, usually of "somewhere else. Anywhere else." But these dreams seem impotent and essentially debilitating in the context of tenement, street, and school: "Dreaming thus led him into lampposts, up to the ankles in puddles, up to the elbows in spilled things, sprawling down stairways while teachers scolded and classmates scoffed, pushing him down again as soon as he gained his feet." His fantasies are also distortions of pastoral images, turning natural, cyclical gardens into desperate illusions of eternal Gardens of Eden. So, though we may applaud, we also grimace at Slake's attempt to climb a tree in Central Park, to tie back on to it the last of the autumn leaves in order to fulfill "an old fantasy that this year the leaves would stay on the trees."
The ways in which well-meaning people have hoped to give him a brief taste of pastoral life are satirized in Slake's nightmare during his first night in his subway cave. He dreams that he is back as a terrified fresh-air child being chased by his "family's" pet pig. Later, noticing a man helplessly caught in a subway rush, he is reminded of a trip to the beach, during which he first got sick in the bus and then was knocked over and nearly drowned by the surf. A day at the shore, a fortnight in the country—neither was a healing experience.
Paralleling Slake's distorted pastoral fantasies and indicating their pervasive nature among urban dwellers are the distorted pastoral dreams of a subway driver, Willis Joe Whinny, who once saw a movie about Australian sheepherders and longed to become one, until he traded in his dream for the promise of a motorman's pension—in spite of the fact that Willis, unlike Slake, had country connections, a grandmother whom he used to visit in Iowa. She actually once had known a Montana sheepherder. By the time we met Willis, his dream has resumed but has been distorted into an image of his subway passengers as soulless sheep whom he herds from station to station.
Throughout the book, the middle-aged Willis and the young Slake are moving toward each other as inevitably as Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Dublin, but we are most immediately aware of the contrast between the two. The first becomes more and more alienated from humanity in the distortion of his pastoral dream, becoming, as Holman says, not really the herder but simply the "lead sheep"; the second becomes more human, more connected, more farsighted in establishing his underground home, changing from an "outlander in the city of his birth (and in the world)" to one who is "oddly in touch with the flow of the world."
The motif of renewal pervades the novel, but it is so realistically implemented, and renewal is so rarely elsewhere exclusively associated with the underground, that we may not initially recognize this motif as outlining a pastoral story of retreat and regrowth. It is not usual for us to accept a freshly cleaned public bathroom as an omen of a new life, nor are we accustomed to thinking of the recycling of urban waste as a basically pastoral image. Yet Slake's first business is the reselling of secondhand newspapers, and his first meal is the restaurant leftovers of a hurried businessman. By the time a cleaning woman to whom he talks daily gives him her son's old jacket, mended, and he makes for himself a pair of adequate glasses from among the many dropped lenses he has scavenged, we know that recycling applies to wasted human possibilities as well as to trash and garbage: we are witnessing an example of true urban renewal.
Holman continually pushes in the direction of the pastoral discovery and settlement theme by her similes: "He began to know the signs of the subway as a woodsman knows the wilderness," and "surely as any explorer who had first set foot anywhere—the Arctic, the Moon—Slake was certainly at least one of the few and only settlers in this piece of dark continent." Slake thus takes his pastoral place among frontiersmen.
Holman also pushes underground imagery back to its origins in nature myths. We have tended recently to associate the underground with death, hell, or insanity from which modern heroes are rarely able to emerge. Holman disassociates the underground from its hellish finality and reassociates it with the cyclical wintering place of Persephone from which she is annually reborn, albeit with struggle, into the arms of her earth mother. In these terms, the one hundred and twenty days that Slake spends underground clearly constitute a period of germination. He experiences anxiety that makes him actually sick when he discovers that his cave will probably be covered over in much-needed subway repairs, but his being pushed out of his underground home in the spring is as cyclically inevitable as his going down into it in the fall. When Slake lies ill upon the tracks, holding a sign that says "Stop," it is also inevitable that Willis will be driving the train that screeches to a halt a few feet from the fallen Slake. Willis himself reconnects with humanity, holding Slake "as he once held his new son and daughter." Mothered by the cleaning woman, Slake, the orphan, is in his rebirth fathered by the motorman.
If we now think of Slake's Limbo in terms of its relationship to children's literature in general, we see that, although the urban reality depicted in the book in some ways serves to mask the pastoral allusions, the very detailed and circumstantial nature of that reality also links it with certain emphases characteristic of children's novels, particularly those with rural settings.
The emphasis on practical means of survival in a new environment is particularly evident in this context. We are fascinated by Slake's strategems for survival, his transformation from ineffectual dreamer to effective actor. The practical survivalist aspect of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, strong elements in their fascination for young and old alike, generally have been carried over into books more specifically directed toward the child reader. There seems to be an understanding on the part of writers and publishers of children's books, both classic and modern, that the more urban becomes the experience of the child-reader, the more fascinating become the details of feeding, clothing, and sheltering oneself. The relative simplicity, directness, and recent novelty of doing these things in a rural environment account for some part of the enormous popularity of Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, with its detailed description of processes of meeting basic needs, processes in which even the very young can participate in some capacity.
For older children, the idea of being able to survive alone becomes more attractive and tenable, although frighteningly formidable in modern times. Erik Erikson describes the seven-to-twelve-year stage of development as a period in which "industry" attempts to overcome "inferiority" and "the child becomes ready to handle the utensils, tools, and weapons used by the big people." How attractively reassuring it is to read about Karana in The Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie-Miyax in Julie of the Wolves who, forced to put into practice the ancient lore and skill of their peoples, are able to survive through the use of relatively simple tools (in contrast to the complex machinery of modern industrial society). Slake makes it look relatively simple, too—recycling the waste of this society in a way not unlike Mary Norton's Borrowers!
Over and over in children's books, we find practical details of living in a simpler society emphasized and fulsomely described, whether this society exists in rural fields, desert islands, or big woods. Sometimes in this existence, direct experience and experimentation are specifically contrasted to booklearning. This is certainly true in Slake's case since the newly alert Slake is, of course, playing hooky from school, in which he had wandered in a daze: he is Wordsworth's "growing boy" on whom "Shades of the prison house begin to close." Such a contrast also is surely part of the pastoral element in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice, one recalls, tries frantically to bring to mind some imperfectly mastered booklearning that would serve her underground, but only reasoning from experience and experimentation will get her into the garden she first glimpses. In A Wild Thing, a modern young-adult book that resembles Slake's Limbo in many interesting ways, Morag, a runaway who has been deemed retarded by the school system, is capable of learning to survive, at least temporarily, alone in the Highlands.
The simple order that Slake imposes on his daily life signifies an understanding and control of diurnal rhythm that is also characteristically emphasized in other children's books that partake of the pastoral. Eating, sleeping, and working begin to become meaningful activities—no longer imposed from above—once Mary Lennox gets into the secret garden. Morag, too, in A Wild Thing, experiences the need for meaningful orderly activity in her life, even if it is no longer dominated by the clock (or perhaps because it is not).
Moreover, we are not at all surprised in Slake's Limbo to discover, in keeping with a pastoral convention well honored in children's books, that Slake's growth underground includes the nurturing of an animal (that the creature should be a rat seems both inevitable and weirdly pastoral in the identification of child keepers with their animal charges). In adult traditional pastoral, of course, shepherds and shepherdesses do not engage in much practical care of sheep. Shepherding simply seems to provide a leisure for the composition of poetry. But animals and birds do have symbolic functions there, especially in pastoral romance, where they serve as guides into the gardens and forest groves where the hero will experience whatever epiphanies he is meant to experience. The robin for whom Mary Lennox feels the first glimmerings of positive emotion functions not only initially to stimulate her nurturing instincts, but also as the traditional pastoral guide into the garden. In children's pastoral, animals require nurturing and provide companionship, serving in both roles as guides into the essential pastoral experience. The use of animals is even more true of How Many Miles to Babylon?, which will be discussed below, than of Slake's Limbo. It is certainly true of Tom's midnight fox in Byars's novel, the wolves and bird in Julie of the Wolves, the wild dogs, birds, and others of The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and the nanny goat and kid of A Wild Thing.
Linked still further with developmental ideas of children's literature is the rite of passage suggestion in Slake's age, thirteen. Slake can be seen as having won his entrance into adulthood by the trial of his underground independence. The pastoral experience in children's books can often be seen as such a testing-ground for life in the wider world, presaging a reentry into society and into a larger maturity. As in Tom's return to the city after his experience with the midnight fox in the country, the protagonist often emerges not only wiser but often sadder. Some of this sadness clearly is related to a loss of innocence that marks the return from a pastoral world.
Be that as it may, Slake (who is not necessarily sadder, but certainly wiser) has won his independence as well as his right to society through his experience underground. After being briefly cosseted in the hospital and having his existence in the minds of others confirmed by the receipt of a card from Willis, Slake slips away at the suggestion that the "juvenile authorities" will step in to help him. We are once again reminded that, in literature if not in life, when orphans finally find their parents they usually no longer need them as parents, having found an identity that first incorporates and then transcends them. Indeed, the parents themselves are often in need of the help of their children: Slake rescues Willis as surely as Willis rescues Slake; James of How Many Miles to Babylon? calls his mother back to real life from a mental institution—facts that certainly contribute to the theme of pastoral healing in these two books.
The experience of James, the ten-year-old black protagonist in How Many Miles to Babylon?, shares these urban pastoral characteristics in a less pervasive and concentrated way, but the pattern of distortion and transformation of the pastoral through urban experience is similar. Although the three aunts who take care of virtually orphaned James are clearly more attentive and concerned than Slake's vaguely present aunt, James's life prior to the main experience of the book is just as fragmented, dream-dominated, and haunted by failure.
He has Willis's nostalgia for a pastoral life known by his ancestors and solicits stories from his aunt of country days gone by:
But James wanted to hear all about that—about the country store where you could buy everything from a pork chop to a hoe, about the long dirt roads where the soft dust slipped around your bare toes, about the black stove in the kitchen where pine wood burned all winter long.
His longing takes the form here of creation of imaginary "felicitous space," such as Slake finally creates for himself in the subway cave. The pastoral fantasy that he conjures up to make his tenement, street, and school existence tolerable is one in which we find fragments of traditional pastoral romances of the sort that Shakespeare used in The Winter's Tale: royal babies left to be brought up by rustics, their identity to be revealed only in the crisis of adolescence:
He was being guarded by those three old women so that no harm would come to him. His mother had gone across the ocean to their real country, and until she came back, no one was supposed to know who he really was. She had to fix everything…. He knew he was not the only prince. He knew there were others. When everything was all right, all the princes would come together in a great clearing, dressed in their long bright robes and their feathers, and after that everything would be different.
James's version of the pastoral romance is obviously derived from stories of African ancestry that James's mother had told him before his father left them and before she herself disappeared one night into a mental hospital. It is not much different from Geeder's fantasy about Zeely in Virginia Hamilton's Zeely. But James has started to act out his fantasies—when he finds a dime-store ring in the dirt, he is sure it is a sign from his mother that she will send for him soon. By the time we meet James, we can see that the fantasy has taken over even those parts of his life that are not particularly unpleasant. His teacher, though pastorally named Miss Meadowsweet and demonstrably concerned about him, is unable to reach him through his fog of daydreaming. He, like Slake, plays hooky, slipping away from the school to the basement of an old condemned brownstone, where he has worked out an elaborate ritual designed to bring home again his queenly mother. Urban reality breaks into his dance in front of a cardboard figure of Santa Claus left behind in the household debris; three young dognappers find him, make fun of his ring and ritual, and put his innocence to work for them in conning the dogowners.
James's experience is much more like the pastoral journey-return plot than is Slake's four-month sojourn in the underground. (Comparing their titles—Slake's Limbo and How Many Miles to Babylon?—confirms their respectively different emphases on stasis and movement.) After acquiring Gladys, a small white poodle with a red bow, Stick, Gino, and Blue force James to accompany them on their bicycles out to Coney Island, where they are already hiding another expensive dog in the funhouse. James's growing feeling of responsibility for Gladys, although he has hitherto been afraid of dogs (just as Slake had hither to been afraid of rats) is a central part of his maturing experience, and, of course, a pastoral convention of animal companionship. When they first pick her up, he is annoyed by this responsibility—"With what he had on his mind why should he fuss about a dog?"—but by the time they arrive at Coney Island his concern about her overshadows his own anxiety:
James felt terrible about Gladys at the moment. She must be frightened and homesick. He felt he cared more about Gladys than anything in the world except his mother. The thought of his mother surprised him. He hadn't had a picture of her in his mind for awhile. Well, she couldn't help him now. He was completely alone.
The projection of his own fear onto Gladys, his immediate association of Gladys with his own mother, his ensuing feeling of responsibility for his own fate are all neatly tied together in this paragraph. Reality is overtaking fantasy.
Still another true pastoral image acts as a corrective to the old one. Arriving at Coney Island in the evening, James experiences the ocean for the first time; it is appropriately invigorating: "James felt almost hopeful, smelling the water, listening to the sound of the waves breaking." But he also learns something about the distorted nature of his fantasy: "No matter what he pretended, he knew she couldn't have gotten across the Atlantic Ocean."
Like Slake, James moves from dreaming incompetence to alert competence, and does it in a similarly incongruous place, not a subway cave but the Coney Island funhouse. Once upon a time, back in the classroom, James had been admonished by Miss Meadowsweet, who claimed that he was such a dreamer that he couldn't "find his way out of a paperbag." Yet, after they are locked in the funhouse by a passing security guard, it is James who, as a result of a previously aborted escape attempt, knows a possible way out behind the merry-go-round. When they crawl among the painted horses, Blue shouts, "Get those horses in the corral," reminding us of still another type of pastoral fantasy.
James's ultimate escape, after spending part of a tense night in the brownstone (during which we acquire some sympathy for his young exploiters as well) seems sure. We also expect him to fulfill his responsibility to Gladys by taking her home first—which he does at the expense of a long and frightening walk. James has earned the name "Prince," which the boys have begun to call him, in earnest before the long journey is over.
His return to his own tenement is also celebrated by his aunts and neighbors in the traditional heroic way: "We thought you was dead." "He's back. Look! He came back." And, of course, his mother is there waiting for him, brought back from her "funhouse" by his ordeal. Again, the Persephone myth of the return from a trip to hell and back into the arms of a parent is invoked, at a number of different levels. And again, by the time he finds his parent, he is as ready to help his parent as his parent is to help him. James enters the room and walks toward his bed:
A small woman was sitting on it…. She was hardly bigger than Gino.
James stood still. But where were her long white robes? Her
long black hair? Where were her servants, her crown?…
Why, she was hardly any bigger than he was!…
How could she be his mother?
The process of role reversal can begin even at the age of ten, but his mother still has the power and responsibility, in this case, of granting him the birthright of his own identity:
He thought, who am I? I'm not a prince. How can I be a prince? Who am I?
As though she had read his mind and heard his question, his mother held out her hand.
"Hello, Jimmy," she said.
Slake and James are both heroes, not anti-heroes. The city is not the end of them. Take away their fresh air, lock them in the funhouse, and yet they have the internal strength to make it anyway. If there is an irony in these endings, it is not a bitter one but a gentle irony—and the joke is on the cosmos, not the protagonists.
And what is this strength inside? It's the same strength of which pastoral dreams are made, albeit at first distorted. It is no mere chance that our heroes are at first incompetent, bumbling dreamers. James has a moment early in his captivity by the boys when he realizes the power of his own mind:
They hadn't known what he had been laughing about, James realized. They couldn't tell what he was really thinking. They could make him go where they wanted and they could search him. But they couldn't get inside his head where his thoughts were. Maybe he'd have a great thought that would show him how he could get home.
James gets home. Again, Slake's Limbo carries out this theme in a more encompassing way. Holman shows us that she is concerned with the concept of the human soul when Willis's country grandmother tells him an anecdote about the Montana sheepherder who, when she complained that he smelled like his sheep, replied: "'The only difference between me and a sheep, ma'am, is that I've got a soul.'" Willis is about to lose his soul in distorted fantasies. Slake has a soul that is developing, it appears, as it does in much traditional literature, in the metaphor of a bird. The bird first gnaws our hero from within and then, being freed, becomes a talisman and a leader. From the beginning of the story, and even after his rebirth, Slake felt hunger combined with anxiety, and then anxiety alone, as if a bird had settled in his gut and was pecking him from within. In the hospital, he feels a release from this bird, as if he has finally coughed it up. And then, when he leaves the hospital, he envisions it soaring above him toward the rooftops and wants to follow where it leads him. The last words of the novel, as upbeat as James's mother's greeting, are, "Slake did not know exactly where he was going, but the general direction was up."
I should reemphasize that the concern here with baring both the pastoral skeleton and the soul has largely ignored the very interesting urban flesh with which both are clothed. This depiction of the city is not only interesting but extremely realistic. These are urban novels written by urban writers who know New York, in all its terror, its shabbiness, and its wit, very well indeed. They are also writers who clearly, consciously play with specific types of settings—the underground subway, the Coney Island funhouse—that, in adult literature, have served as metaphors for the disturbed minds of anti-heroes, beginning with Dostoevski's narrator in Notes from Underground. Such settings are, in adult literature, permeated with bitter irony.
This bitter irony, which neither Holman nor Fox evokes, is not particularly suitable for a child audience, but it has certainly not been avoided entirely in pastoral books for children or young adults such as Julie of the Wolves and A Wild Thing, where the female protagonists learn pastoral skills to no seeming, lasting avail in the modern world. Holman and Fox, however, seem determined to confirm the value of the pastoral dream in an urban reality and to assert the possibility of realizing it, even when growing up poor and/or black in a polluted city that has already obviously defeated many adults. It is a message that is conveyed not just by the relative triumph of the protagonists, but by the assertion that the young protagonist can redeem some of these defeated (or corrupted) adults, as Slake, in some way, saves Willis, and James, in some way, saves his mother. In classic children's pastoral, as in pastoral romance, the old can be redeemed by the young, as is Colin's father by Colin and Mary, and Heidi's grandfather by Heidi. Part of the irony of Julie of the Wolves and A Wild Thing comes from the fact that neither Julie nor Morag can influence the old, who may, or do, respectively destroy them.
Both Slake and James move from distortions of their pastoral needs into living out, within an urban context, true pastoral adventures of primitive survival or dangerous journeys—seemingly to redeem some adults along with themselves. Holman and Fox know that both children and adults are haunted by such frightening questions as "Where has all the fresh air gone?" Yet these authors also seem to say that we still must breathe and can even be inspired.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1041
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' vivienda, is in time-honored fashion seduced by the son of the house, Orlando. Oddly, their liaison lasts: Orlando refuses to marry the heiress of a neighboring plantation, and his mother cuts him out of the family fortune. Eventually Luisa's parents marry, but their union is a bitter one. He is violently contemptuous of his wife, who humbly continues to work at the big house in order to support him and their child.
Despite this domestic hell, Luisa's memories are precious to her. Small and poor and decaying, Malagita yet contains all the aspirations as well as the fears of its inhabitants. Their imaginations do not stray. It is Luisa's father who threatens this world, not because he is brutal and a wastrel but because he is educated and knows something of a world beyond. When revolution is imminent, Luisa and her family emigrate, exchanging their cabin for a damp basement in the barrio of upper Broadway. And so Luisa comes of age in isolation, her community shrunk to her poor parents and a series of even poorer boarders, all seeking refuge from hard times and the confusion of the city.
From this point on, Luisa's tale is a lament:
My work, done and every day undone—was the dull, mechanical movement of a treadle. I dreamed of another life. I wondered if I had become the ghost of the plantation, if the people of the village, walking along the dirt roads at twilight, gazing up at the slowly darkening sky, would, sensing my presence, shiver and retreat indoors. Yet it was the very monotony of my servant's life that freed me to return in my thoughts to Malagita.
After a brief marriage and divorce, she goes back to work in order to support herself and her son. Though she gains the good will of her employers, she has only one real friend, a black girl who becomes a lawyer and later goes south to work in the civil rights movement. But Luisa is not touched by her friend's ambition or her idealism, and a servant she remains. Fox refuses to allow her heroine a resolution to this struggle; nor does she permit the reader the luxury of empathy and catharsis. Luisa's voice, objective as it seems, also makes her opaque. Regarding her relationship with her first employer, Luisa writes (and in tone and judgment, the title notwithstanding, this book is written, not spoken), "I sensed I must relinquish nothing of my secret life." Fox, having established this need for her character, respects it. We know Luisa only indirectly—her oval face through someone's compliment, her stubbornness and Cinderella-like decency through her role as maid and mother. And if Fox is careful to diagram the historical conditions of her protagonist's world, she is also careful to communicate the peculiar quality of Luisa's social and political unawareness—less simple ignorance than a refusal to understand the complexities of an alien society.
With this novel as with an earlier one, The Western Coast, Fox demonstrates an interesting attitude toward what fiction can and cannot impart about a particular life and its relation to history. Admittedly we can never know the full extent to which a person affects or is affected by public events. But the author implies that our perception of a given period can be altered by the respectful study of an individual. It is in this way that her work is didactic. One is reminded of Flaubert's use of history in L'Education Sentimentale as something to be reseen, rewoven through individual perspectives, and of such American writers as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and William Carlos Williams, who struggled to reinterpret the orthodoxies of American history through their tales of individual people.
In The Western Coast, Fox represents the Depression years through the eyes of the ignorant young loner, Annie Gianfala, who moves through the end of the 1930s and the war years like a female Virgil winding through the circles of hell. Annie and Luisa perform something of the same function, which is to create a historical context that allows the reader to see events from below, as it were—with an objectivity that derives from powerlessness. And yet the earlier character, Annie, is finally the more effective catalyst, perhaps because Fox tells her story in the third person rather than the first. Luisa's perceptions can render psychologically detailed portraits of her parents and her employers—charming, lying Mrs. Burgess, or the Millers, whose two demanding children "had their secret lives [too], refuges from the weight of that love that seemed to measure and record every breath they drew." But what we get to know of Luisa herself is more conventionalized and finally less interesting. "I sensed … a shapeless lump of obduracy in myself," she writes. "But I could not lift it up into light." That diffident monotone, which Fox has purposefully chosen, insures that her servant will remain in shadow.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
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 presents—archeological treasures of various sorts—provided material for the imagination, all that one can imagine with a rifle is "something dead." The rifle goes to the attic. But in the dark of night, Ned sneaks it outdoors for just one shot, and that's what sets the plot in motion. He shoots at a sort of shadow, although semiconsciously he knows it may be more than a shadow. His target is a cat, which loses an eye to Ned's bullet.
For Ned, the knowledge of his guilt marks the beginning of a new distance from his parents. "It was with the gun that his trouble had started. Yet the gun hardly seemed to matter now. It was as if he'd moved away, not to the parsonage next to the church, or to Waterville, but a thousand miles away from home. What did matter was that he had a strange new life his parents knew nothing about and one that he must continue to keep hidden from them. Each lie he told them made the secret bigger, and that meant even more lies. He didn't know how to stop."
Luckily, he has a chance to redeem himself. While he's helping an elderly neighbor with his chores, he sees the cat again and takes steps to feed and shelter it, all the while continuing to keep his guilt a secret. How he finally confesses—and to whom—makes for a genuinely affecting scene.
The story moves slowly at times, perhaps too slowly for younger readers, and it suffers on occasion from a sense of indirection. The uncle who brought the rifle, for instance, invites Ned to take a trip with him. With some reluctance, Ned accepts the invitation, but eventually he changes his mind and stays home. One feels that the author herself may have changed her mind; what was introduced as an important element of the plot peters out without having served much purpose.
Generally, though, One-Eyed Cat succeeds. It's full of well-drawn, complicated characters—Mrs. Scallop, the insensitive housekeeper who means well nonetheless; the lonely old man who waits for his grown daughter's postcards, even though she just sends him the same one over and over; and two very appealing parents. There's integrity in the plot, as you'll realize when the housekeeper tells Ned that his mother's disease was caused by Ned's birth. In a slicker story, Ned would have brooded over her words throughout the rest of the book and never let his mother know why. In One-Eyed Cat, he tells his mother at once, and she dismisses the notion conclusively—and anyhow, he never really believed it from the start.
Most important, though, is what the story can teach young readers about grown-ups' expectations of them. If I had a child right now in his middle years—old enough to land himself in some sort of mess, young enough not to know yet that his parents themselves are imperfect—I would offer him this book. It says clearly, but never too baldly, that parents are not so easily scandalized as all that, that what disturbs them more than their children's mistakes is the sense that their children are concealing serious worries: This is what makes One-Eyed Cat a book of real value.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1239
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 spirits—murderous bones and flesh turning back to earth. Against this backdrop, using the impressionistic perception of the young Luisa, Miss Fox creates a host of vivid characters. We meet the sycophantic town priest, who has a cloven foot "like a goat's hoof," and a woman, thought to be a witch, whose face is "splotched with raw pink patches as though parts of it had been peeled like a fruit." These and others make the array of players Miss Fox introduces reminiscent of the archetypal characters found in the works of many contemporary Latin American writers.
One of Miss Fox's narrative strengths is the ability to deftly portray her main characters through a single action or incident. We gain much insight into Luisa's mother, for example, when she smuggles home some flan from the kitchen of the de la Cuevas, for whom she works. Stumbling back to her cabin, she is close to apoplexy for fear of dropping the expensive platter that holds the dessert. Why didn't she just remove the flan and place it on one of her own dishes? Because of the beauty of the dessert's original form. "I couldn't bear to empty it into the bowl," she says. For her, bringing home the flan was an act of unaccustomed daring, its terror made worthwhile by her effort to preserve the integrity of the only art form she knew.
Early in the novel, however, it is Luisa's maternal grandmother, Nana, who dominates the story. She is the child's nurturer, a delightfully wise old woman who has managed to extract wisdom from the tragedies of peasant life. She passes the emotional remnants of her past to Luisa—the abandonment and suicide of a husband who could not bear being a sharecropper on land once his; her bowing to others' wishes and allowing her own daughter to work in the de la Cueva kitchens. But what makes Nana's recounting more than the bitter complaints of a old woman is her consummate skill as a storyteller, her words given weight by the pathos of her own experience. When Luisa's mother cautions that stories and lies are the same thing, Nana tells Luisa that there is indeed a difference. "A lie hides the truth," Nana tells Luisa, "a story tries to find it."
An impending revolution abruptly changes the path of Luisa's life. Her father must take the family away from the island, but first there are poignant exchanges with Luisa's two grandmothers: Nana tries, unsuccessfully, to "kidnap" Luisa so that she won't lose her. La Senora, on her deathbed, will hardly acknowledge Luisa's existence. Then, suddenly, Luisa finds herself on the hardened streets of New York's Spanish Harlem.
There are no storytellers or devil's disciples in the city. The pavements hold no traces of the old traditions, and Miss Fox does not exploit the barrio's inherent drama. Consequently, the characters must stand on their own. While the prose style does not falter, the novel is less successful in this urban setting.
As in the earlier sections of the novel, there are vivid minor characters, such as the menagerie of boarders that Luisa's family takes on as they move from tenement to tenement and the varied employers Luisa works for. Luisa's development, however, seems to stop at this point in the tale. Even though she marries, bears a son and is divorced, there is no evidence of her growth or change. The absence of knowledge about the inner drives of the adult Luisa becomes evident when she makes the decision for which the novel is titled. She quits school and resigns to become a servant—"a maid," she announces with "sour triumph."
Luisa's decision defies the entreaties of her parents and her closest friends—a black, racially conscious brother and sister who are determined to rise above the station of their own mother, who was a maid. And the reader, of course, wonders why Luisa has chosen to become a servant on the eve of World War II, a time when better jobs are opening up for women. She speaks of wanting to leave the barrio, of a kind of freedom in maid's work, and talks about the inevitability of her station. But there is no adequate explanation of her motives, of why she feels that being a maid is the only path to her goals. Is it something in her blood?
Later, Luisa finds that servitude does not provide freedom from betrayal. She discovers that her teen-age son has been seduced by an otherwise endearing middle-aged divorcée for whom she works. This revelation prompts her to return to Malagita. The return to the island seems to promise that Luisa is searching for answers to her own life by coming to terms with her past, and the reader hopes that this voyage may clarify Luisa's motives for insisting on becoming a servant.
When Luisa arrives on the island, she encounters an old friend of her deceased Nana. Their uneasy meeting leads to a bitter exchange, and Luisa is told that Malagita was never hers, and "now it is ours." It is then that Luisa finally reveals a smoldering, subliminal thought. Ever since that day she last saw La Senora, her dying paternal grandmother, she had been "awaiting an inheritance … promised only in dreams." Is this then the deeper motive or the hidden psychological impulse that sustained her even as she dedicated herself to the role of servant? But again there is no indication that this "dream" has been a conscious or unconscious influence in her life.
A Servant's Tale, which begins with provocative characters and sharp narrative perceptions seen through the keen eye of the young Luisa, becomes listless under the weight of a protagonist who, as an adult, is less interesting and less clear than many of the novel's other characters. Despite Paula Fox's excellent prose, which is sustained throughout the book, the character Luisa does not evolve. She fails to transcend the stereotype of a woman—and one of color at that—who submits to a station in life preordained by others.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1039
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 by the outside world—until there begin rumors of political unrest, of an uprising. "A revolution was a pitiful thing," Luisa reflects. "It made people think something different was going to happen."
When the revolution threatens to depose the de la Cuevas from their lofty state, Luisa's father (who in a moment of passion married his plump, passive Fefita) decides that the three must emigrate to the United States. Fefita is horrified. She cannot conceive of existing anywhere but in tiny Malagita; she cannot conceive of any existence for herself except that of servant.
It is 1936. In New York, the family moves from tenement to tenement, taking in boarders so that they can manage to pay their rent. Fefita can hardly venture out without her daughter. She cannot learn English. She cannot assert herself into a world she sees as threatening and alien. Orlando cannot find a job, then finally—shamefully for him—becomes a street-sweeper. Luisa goes to school.
She is forced to memorize Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson, while she longs for Malagita, the simpler life, her beloved grandmother. Her friend Ellen Dove, a black girl with enormous drive and high aspirations, tries to instill in Luisa a sense of possibility. She must stay in school, she tells her; she must go to college, must free herself from the world of her parents. But Luisa wants to work, to save her money, and to go home.
Her barrio, she decides, is just another village, only dirtier and noisier than Malagita. She is no less isolated from the outside world, no more effective. When America enters the Second World War, Luisa sees soldiers and admits, "I couldn't imagine where they were going, what might happen to them." She reads Hollywood gossip, stops reading war news. She quits school and becomes a live-in maid.
To Orlando it appears that Luisa is following in her mother's timid, ineffectual footsteps. "I had no reason to hope for more," he tells Luisa. "But I did hope." Even her first employers, the ideologically liberal Millers, think Luisa should do something "better": "You could go to night school, you know," Mr. Miller offers. She could make something of herself. But Luisa replies coolly, "I'm glad to be working for you." At last she feels she has control over her life. Her choice is a deliberate act.
For Luisa, work—and she sees a life as a servant as decent, honest work—is liberating. She is treated with respect and maintains her dignity and independence. After her marriage ends (her husband, a magazine editor, tries to make her over according to his own expectations), she patches together several jobs and manages to support herself and her son, Charlie.
And being a servant has another attraction for Luisa: she believes it may enable her to penetrate the mystery of a society that seems unfathomable, a society populated by men and women oppressed by forces within themselves and without, suffering, complicating their lives, and rarely connecting on anything but a superficial level.
Fox portrays Luisa's many employers as sympathetically as she does Luisa herself. The flighty, hard-drinking Phoebe Burgess and her cranky son Brian; the eccentric Mrs. Justen, tireless rescuer of stray animals ("As long as people are cruel to animals, they'll be cruel to each other," she righteously tells Luisa), whose capacity for love excludes her own mother; Gerda Mortimer, an aging hippie, and her seductive husband; a homosexual antique dealer, whose gentleness wins Luisa's affection—all are deftly etched, palpable characters with desires, dreams, agonies, and fears. Yet their essential mystery baffles Luisa and convinces her that she is an outsider. She tries to understand, reading "signs" in unmade beds and messy bureau drawers. But the world remains elusive.
When Mrs. Burgess seduces Charlie, Luisa is shattered and uncomphehending. "What are you doing with my son," she implores Mrs. Burgess. Phoebe Burgess's simple "I don't know," and Mrs. Justen's "She can't help herself," don't satisfy Luisa. She decides she must leave New York, and returns to San Pedro with the "intention that everything in my life would become clear when I set foot in Malagita." But Malagita has changed, with a huge plastics factory replacing the sugar mill, and a community that shuts her out. The child whose intrepid wanderings earned her the nickname "Luisa, la viajera loca"—the mad traveler—has become a woman without a home, a woman forever on the outside looking in.
Luisa's history coincides with large changes in the modern world—one great war and several smaller ones, the depression of the thirties, the civil rights movement, the disaffected sixties—but these are peripheral to Fox's interest: the eternal, pervasive needs of human existence. As in her previous novels, The Western Coast, Desperate Characters, A Widow' Children, Fox is concerned with the cataclysmic moments of private lives, and the quiet desperation of ordinary people.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3913
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 accomplished, tightly constructed, sometimes hard to the point of cold. One feels they come from a precise intention that prevents any relaxation in the prose. Setting and character are firmly in place but their clean surfaces are deceptive, and put one in mind of children who have, under their fine Easter clothes, clenched fists. The sense of the suppressed gives a biting quality to Fox's dialogue, and what may begin as an examination of familiar American themes ends as something a little different because her characters have been merely passing for normal.
Fox's work is in many ways a portrait of New York, where she was born in 1923 of half-Cuban parentage. Her novels have the native's savvy for which detail to choose from the metropolis of potential data overload. Even The Western Coast, with its Party members and writers exiled from the East, is Manhattan not Hollywood in tone. Hers is the New York of neither the highest nor the lowest. Husbands and single women report to work and get by in the spirit of treading water. Divorcées look upon alimony checks as booby-trapped tokens of remembrance. Family trees are likely to hold tales of alcoholism, of capital unwisely spent, of inheritances that do not help matters much. No one has roots in the immediate society or is much at home in the present, and yet there is little nostalgia typical of those who have come down in the world.
Fox's city dwellers worry about money not in the newfangled sense of it as a means of expression or liberation, but in the old-fashioned way, as a measure of security, as so many sandbags against the unknown. Middle-aged couples wake up to find that the neighborhood has gone downhill, that the summer house has been burgled, and that the loud-mouthed hippies, the blacks with blaring radios on the corner, are up to no good. Disaster comes from outside the home, out of the urban night, out of another class, and is presented as a temptation to test their received assumptions of ordinary life. Perhaps this wariness of the accidents lurking in a more open society is what denies Fox's novels a contemporary atmosphere. Her work belongs to a tradition in which realism is a more than inadvertent method of social inquiry.
A Servant's Tale seems at first a shift from Fox's previous novels. If the characters in her other books come to suspect that their promises to themselves or their contracts with others have something of the swindle about them, then Luisa Sanchez, a cleaning woman, has taken on in her life heavy obligations which she struggles to keep, but she is cheated anyway. The third-person speculative interior of the earlier novels, complete with instructions to the jury, has here been replaced by a controlled, first-person laying out of evidence. Unlike the New York of Fox's earlier work, the city in A Servant's Tale is seen from the underside, while the displaced, troubled characters to whom Fox is drawn are looked at from a distance, from Luisa's point of view. Although Fox's dual background has always been present—all her characters are foreign in some way, fear isolation, take little about America for granted—this novel makes direct use of it.
Luisa is a daughter of the plantation economy, articulate about the migration from her island, San Pedro, to the railroad flats of the big city where she will work for years as a maid. But her story is different from other books about immigrant life, of fighting to make it, or of becoming American. Luisa's is a history of refusal and this premise serves as a device to set up a tale about a wholly unprotected soul. Fox's portrait of San Pedro, Luisa's lost idyll, is schematic, dour, laid on rather thick, piece by lacquered piece. Luisa's childhood there is remembered through the sifting intelligence of the stoical adult. It is an imagined place, presented as a real country, but it emerges as a fantasy, a picturesque invention. San Pedro is where Luisa is from, and coming from someplace else is the condition that defines her working life. That Luisa has such unexplained romantic longings for a gloomy paradise adds to the sense one has of her as a deeply peculiar creation. Nothing she does conforms to our expectations.
Life on the plantation, Malagita, where Luisa was born in 1926, is filled with lore, not incident. Everything has already happened in this depressed, insular place—the conquest of the Indians, the importation of slaves, the Spanish-American War, the rise of the sugar latifundio. The last act was the ruin of the small farmers, and at a young age Luisa knows, like catechism, the story of how her maternal grandfather left a note, abandoned his family, and while searching for new land, died in a swamp.
Luisa's status as a bastard is also fixed, though her father, Orlando, younger son of the plantation owner, jilted his official financée to live with Fefita Sanchez when Luisa was four months old. Luisa's maternal grandmother, Nana, does not speak to Fefita because Fefita "gave them the only thing she had a right to withhold." Luisa finds Nana's cabin on her own, and hears the gossip, the oral history of the village. Nana is her only companion. Luisa's paternal grandmother, the widowed "La Señora," has no more connection with her grandchild than "a hen with the egg it drops in the straw." Luisa gazes with hate on her privileged cousins. "'What's mine?' I asked. 'Nothing!' cried Nana fiercely."
The men drink, fight, play pelota or the lottery when the fields and cane mill are "dead." "There were many old men in our village who had little to do except find people to listen to them. But the women, even the oldest ones, tended the chickens and pigs and goats and their gardens." Often the men are seen as idlers, almost irrelevant. Luisa's father may be a de la Cueva but he is, like a woman, fallen, disinherited, marked by the misalliance. He cannot lift his woman and child out of their bohío. Fefita continues to work in the kitchen of La Señora's vivienda, as if no union with a son of the house had taken place.
"Who should I love better? God or you?" I once asked Papá.
"I am the one who feeds you," he had answered. "I am the one who is here."
It was a lie. My mother fed me. I knew that from the beginning. But his lie pleased me, and I often repeated it to myself as though it had been a kindness, a kind touch on my hair.
On Luisa's birthdays her mother recalls her labor, during which she thought the screams of a pig as its throat was cut were her own. Malagita has a graveyard full of babies; Luisa finds a worm in the belly of a rag doll.
Though La Señora owns the land, Malagita is not a matriarchy. Machismo asserts itself through the violence of powerlessness. Fefita sits on a stool near the cabin door in order to get out quickly when her husband goes into one of his "white-faced rages." Prayer, witchcraft, and fetishistic post cards of the Sacred Heart are for women. Political matters belong to men, and take the form of following rumors from the capital. The revolution that forces Orlando to move his family north is, for Luisa, bewildering, like a Victrola or a moving picture, something brought in from the outside. "The United States was a great hole to the north which would swallow me."
The New York barrio is also depressed, insular, but the vividness of Fox's rendering of its claustrophobia and anxiety contrasts with her painstaking, worked-up portrait of San Pedro. When Luisa and her parents arrive in 1936 they have two boxes and at the time of their last move as a family in 1943 they have fourteen. This slow accumulation of sad belongings, "each a relic of struggle," is as close as they will get to the American dream. They have, through Orlando's father, citizenship, but it makes no difference. This, like Orlando's refusal to desert Fefita, is another quirky adjustment Fox makes in a familiar outline.
Fefita is unable to learn English; they are treated with contempt by relatives who have scraped toward a measure of material comfort and cultural assimilation. Even the food from the bodega, the smell of which was once consoling, is reduced to what the Irish children call "spic grub." Luisa remembers meals when there was scarcely enough.
The flat was a place I never wanted to be. Walking home from school, always hungry, always angry because I was hungry, I imagined the dark hallway, the blue painted walls, the swollen lumps of plaster, the narrow, stale, silent rooms.
The correlation between menial work and survival is not lost on Luisa when her father, after years of not working, finds a job as a street cleaner and they begin to eat meat. The division of labor within the family is unchanged until then: Fefita works for a time in a perfume factory, but Orlando, still the landowner's son, takes in boarders whose defeat and terror are like an incurable viral strain. Luisa resents her father's weaknesses and feels "an irritable pity" for her mother, who eventually wastes away from cancer.
When I watched Mamá ironing a shirt of Papá's as she bent over the sheet-covered plank balance on two straight-backed chairs that she used for an ironing board, her own dress unpressed, her lips moving as she talked to herself, I wanted to kick away the plank, its clumsiness and inadequacy proof that I would never be able to enter the world which I had begun to suspect lay beyond our barrio.
The news of La Señora's death and that Orlando has inherited nothing is a turning point in Luisa's inner life. "The death of a hope I'd not known I'd had, so nebulous, I couldn't put a word to it, but knew it had been hope by the desolation which followed its loss, made me feel faint and ill." Luisa takes an afternoon job at a variety store. "A tide was carrying me away from the life my parents had made…. I felt a joy that was nearly vengeful." It is not a surge toward improvement, but an escape, a refusal to participate. This refusal takes the form of a life of drudgery.
Fox would have us believe that Luisa has made the choice to become a servant only out of temperament or as an act of mourning or revenge for the loss of Malagita, an abstraction, an idea, that one feels Fox has imposed on the observed life of work. She does not adequately convince us of Luisa's chaste but perverse decision to be a maid, though it is central to the moral problem Fox seems to be working out in the novel. Though Luisa is articulate with herself, she is, like the serving girl Felicité in Flaubert's A Simple Heart, mute with the world. To make Luisa speak without violating the recessiveness necessary to her character is Fox's challenge and the boldness of her creation. It may be also why the book seems at the same time so deliberately withholding, and so literary. Luisa's choice is asserted, and part of the strategy of the book is to set her up for this choice.
Fox is careful to show that Luisa is aware of the other means by which people get out of poverty. Ellen Dove, an ambitious black girl, is a shrewd insertion as Luisa's lifelong friend because it takes into account the lives of women busting suds and sweating in the big house to give their children a better future. Ellen's mother also works as a maid, and she is the only one who never asks why Luisa wants to be a servant. The Dove children have the determination to seize the opportunities available during World War II. Ellen applies herself at school because she does not want to be "some woman's girl." Ellen's brother, who is later killed in the war, tries unsuccessfully to infect Luisa with the romance of possibility.
"I'm going to be a servant. I'm not good in school the way Ellen is, I'm going to have to get real work soon…. And—oh, I have to get away!"
… What I had said so loudly, so boldly, had taken me by surprise…. But something had come together in my mind the minute I'd spoken, fragments of a picture of myself in a black uniform with a white apron. I felt a sour triumph.
Luisa is unmoved by arguments that the uniform is demeaning, is forbearing when Ellen treats her jobs as if they were "a sickness about which it would be indelicate to speak." Independence, a quick way out of the barrio—beyond these partial explanations Luisa's choice has the force of renunciation. "They wanted to drag me across the line into a life that required an effort I was unable, or unwilling to make." Luisa moves neither upward nor downward. She is immobile. The oddity of Luisa's contract with the world accounts for the hold she has as a character on the imagination. A Servant's Tale may be about immigration, marriages between unequals, or class relations, but it is most effective as a meditation on the pride in humility, and on the astonishing will of the masochist.
Perhaps Luisa's escape is from herself. Newsreels of bombings make Luisa long for a situation in which she is "released from doubt, set only on survival." It is as if she suffers the kind of breakdown that expresses itself as an unwillingness to contend, as a paralyzing blend of being superior while also being fearful. Perhaps it is also an unconscious attempt to take up her mother's burden. Fefita warns Luisa to watch out for the sons. Luisa points out that her employers' son is eight years old. "Watch out for the father, then," Fefita replies. If Luisa is spitefully embracing the state she was born to or conforming to the image America has of her, then her first employers urge her to go to night school and, being Jewish, are sympathetic to her as a "foreigner." But Luisa cannot respond. She is on hold, ruled by a fixed idea. "The very monotony of my servant's life … freed me to return in my thoughts to Malagita."
Where Luisa's employers are open, lacking in caution, she is secretive, closed. "I was a pair of hands, a household nurse." From austere furnished rooms Luisa travels to her growing list of clients—a businesswoman, a middle-aged couple, an anarchic proofreader, an actress who wants Luisa to call her by her first name: "I called her Miss Grant." Or: "I didn't care what they called me." Luisa's aloofness appears, at times, aristocratic, and she takes pride in the discarded clothes, in the serenity of anonymity.
I shopped for my employers, occasionally served meals, changed their linen, got to know dry cleaners … took telephone messages, played their radios, poured Lysol into their toilet bowls, and from their soiled sheets and plates, their wastebaskets and garbage cans, found traces of their human passage through the nights and days from which I was able to deduce their habits, their pleasures and aversions, even their pretensions. Rising to their apartments in the service elevators to which I was ordered by doormen. I felt the kind of repose that comes, I imagined, during the recovery from a long illness.
Exotic to some, a comfort to others, Luisa learns bitter lessons about being a servant. The power she finds in efficiency, in being depended on, in knowing more about them than they do about her has its price.
A servant can disrupt the order of her employer's life only in dire emergencies, but it is her connivance in bringing them about that is the accusation made against her. A servant's face must be blank. I shouldn't have shouted at her and let her hear my private voice.
Luisa has no delusions about equality and accepts the unfairness of life.
Jaded, clammy with fatigue, I washed the slats of Miss Mathes' venetian blinds. The grime I rinsed from them settled beneath my fingernails. It didn't matter. It was a token of my intention.
Behind it all is the longing to return to San Pedro, but when Luisa realizes how long it will take to save the fare she experiences a "commotion" of spirit that coincides with a glimpse of another way of life.
Ellen introduces her to City College students whose "anger could speak." Luisa meets Tom Greer, a tall, blond radical in tweed who is writing a book about cocoa plantations. Here Fox has recourse to the Jane Austen Maneuver: across a crowded room a dashing, eligible man sets aside more suitable matches to fall for the beleaguered but somehow superior girl whose moral sense and perfect manners inspire him to declare himself in a courtship no longer than a stroll around the garden. Yet Fox's description of this marriage is memorable, since it comes from something truly observed in life—the husband ashamed of his wife. "Who wants to be a domestic if they can be something else?" Luisa leaves the room when company is present because she had been taught that men "were supposed to be left alone together."
"Stop cleaning up," he demanded. He took a glass from my hand. "You're not the maid," he said patiently.
When they divorce, Tom marries a colleague of his own class. But Luisa is left with a child, an object of sacrifice outside of herself. Luisa's marriage illustrates the depths of her inability to express herself and her refusal to become an American. Tom's reluctance to support the child restores her to the labors that distract from or conceal her vulnerability. "I knew what I knew. Work was a hook I had to swallow to be saved." Luisa goes back to work in the way a streetwalker does what has to be done. She lavishes attention on her son Charlie that is almost erotic in its intensity. Luisa's life now has two components: her work and her son. The boy is as reserved and elusive as his mother and through the years they come to seem like siblings.
Though much time passes in the book, Luisa's single-mindedness makes her seem ageless. She has an affair with one of her employers, but it is mostly a painful example of the mortifications, the degradation inherent in being a servant. Luisa has no friends among her own class, doesn't even seem to know any of the other maids in the buildings where she spends her days. It is impossible to imagine her going to bingo games or devoting her free time to a church choir. Other than Charlie, the only person she seems to trust is an antique dealer for whom she works, a homosexual who understands the damage and dispossession of the alienated. Much of the book involves "the small comedies of behavior" of Luisa's employers, but it is not merely an outsider's picture of middle-class life because the drift of Luisa's concerns is in the foreground. "I realized that I hadn't believed in the possibility of justice, only in fits of mercy."
The climax of the book comes as a crack in Luisa's rigidly held routine. Luisa has been caught up in the tangled life of Mrs. Burgess. Divorced, with a spoiled, dishonest son, Mrs. Burgess is capricious, destructive, selfish, but the messiness of her life tempts Luisa to let down her guard. Mrs. Burgess, however, oversteps the formality of the employer-servant relationship: she has an affair with Charlie.
What I remembered were the faces of Señora de la Cueva's servants. They had belonged to her, too, and to her son. They flocked to my mind, my mother's face among them, and they seemed to look at me with contempt…. They had known better than to trust La Señora, to imagine the bond between them was more than that of mistress and servant.
The betrayal of Luisa's intimacy brings her working life to an abrupt end, as if a contract had been canceled. The period of torpor and disorder that follows is meant as a kind of collapse, although in fact the years of silence and discipline may seem in many respects more like a breakdown. The realization that Charlie is not entirely hers causes Luisa to return to Malagita, the memory of which has sustained her like a painkiller.
Malagita has changed, but it is the desolation of revolutionary change. The vivienda has become a state-owned hotel and a maid there angrily tells Luisa that Malagita belongs not to her but to the people. "'I never thought that,' I whispered, even as I knew I had thought only that all through the years of my servitude. I had been waiting." She is spoken to as a de la Cueva, not a Sanchez. Perhaps Fox intends Luisa's solitary, childlike dream of Malagita to explain her lack of desire for anything in America. Her somewhat mysterious servitude now seems to have been a kind of exile and penance, and an act of revenge, which she can endure because her sense of being superior has kept her from being devalued by others in the way, in a Victorian novel, the bastard in the stable lives out a humble position in the hope of one day assuming his proper place.
The scenes of Luisa's life as a servant are intense, thoroughly convincing, but the motives for her choice remain abstract and they somewhat overwhelm the book. One wonders why Fox did not make Luisa a servant from necessity, but the nagging presence of the question may be part of Fox's point. There is a deep eccentricity in trying to imagine what it must be like to be someone like Luisa, and in this sense A Servant's Tale is an extension of Fox's examination of peripheral lives, of those who have few resources and little right of appeal. The conception is original, daring, and unnerving.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6190
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 about Sutpen's tragedy, more about the telling and the listening and finally getting it told. As critic Barbara Hardy writes in Tellers and Listeners: "Humankind cannot bear very much abstraction or discursive reasoning. The stories of our days and the stories in our days are joined in that autobiography we are all engaged in making and remaking, as long as we live, which we never complete, though we all know how it is going to end." Miss Rosa knows the end all too well; that's one compelling reason why she has to tell it to a sensitive listener.
Many novelists have been acutely concerned with the process of creating narrative and with the narrative forms of ordinary life which are embedded throughout fiction. The nature of narrative itself often becomes the real concern in novels and stories. So too, many children's writers have created stories about the making of stories. Why characters tell stories and how they tell them, as well as to whom, become major themes in Paula Fox's How Many Miles to Babylon? (1967). Natalie Babbitt's Knee-Knock Rise (1971), Charles Dickens' A Holiday Romance (1868), and E. Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899). To a greater or lesser extent all of these books may be considered as "metafictions," works in which the imagined process by which the story is created becomes a central focus of the book. This metafictional quality is implicit in the first two works and explicit in the last two, as both A Holiday Romance and The Story of the Treasure Seekers actually feature fictional child authors as narrators.
How stories within stories interlace to form an overarching structure; how characters function as both tellers and listeners; how children's writers choose to end their stories; and how they conceive of the process of storytelling itself through their fictional child authors are literary issues which recent narrative theory has addressed in significant ways. Paula Fox is deeply interested in how her protagonist, James, uses story to endure emotional trauma, learns to tell stories to an audience other than himself, and thus somehow comes to terms with the unremittingly grim realities of his life. Natalie Babbitt reveals her fascination with the abuses of narrative and with the nature of endings in Knee-Knock Rise. Finally Charles Dickens and E. Nesbit have created rare examples of children's metafiction, in which fictional child authors must struggle with difficult narrative and rhetorical choices as they create their stories. In the case of both the Dickens and Nesbit books, the investigation into the nature of narrative raises important questions about the specific nature of children's writers—adults who must somehow address child readers. Both Dickens and Nesbit are concerned with creating a new kind of children's story, different in mode and manner from pious Victorian children's literature.
Fox calls attention to the nature of narrative and examines its effect upon ten-year-old James, the hero of How Many Miles to Babylon? A ten-year-old black child who lives in one room with three aged aunts in a tough New York ghetto, James is happiest when either telling a story or listening to one. His engagement with story in fact becomes the only way that he can endure the rather harshly realistic story of poverty, abandonment, and kidnapping which his author creates for him. The stories within stories in the novel become a significant way whereby Fox shapes her fiction and achieves a satisfying sense of closure at the end. When James returns from his ordeal with the dog-napping street kids, Stick, Blue, and Gino, he is able at last to connect inner and outer story when he tells his neighbors his adventure.
In James' neighborhood most of the stories are sad; even the beginnings are sad, probably the reason why these stories are seldom finished. As Mr. Hedge remarks to James, "I've gotta story that'd wring your heart…. They broke my wheel. The man backed up his big ugly car right into my wheel. Smashed it…." James does not hear the end of Mr. Hedge's story, nor does he expect to: "Stories were always beginning in his building, loud stories that filled up the halls with shouting and then fizzled out like damp firecrackers."
In the shabby and cramped room, rendered ghostly and strange by the flickering television set, James lives with three great aunts. Aunt Grace tells him "awful warning" stories about the dire actions of truant officers if he does not go to school. But James likes Aunt Paul's tales about the three aunts' childhood in the rural South—long ago, faraway stories about the regular and dependable rhythms of farm life that connect James to his family's past and to nature as well. He can repeat the story himself like a comforting litany: "On Mondays we washed … On Tuesday we ironed. On Wednesdays we scrubbed the floor with potash…." Aunt Althea, however, discourages stories about the past. She is far more interested in the story of James's future. From the surging details of ghetto life and the serene scenes from his family's past, James gathers narrative materials. Going downstairs, he hears fragments of conversation "like pieces of string he could tie together."
James's ability to piece together stories helps him to endure both emotional pain and boredom: "He was a good walker. He had discovered that if he told himself stories, he could cover a lot of ground without noticing how much time it took." Listening to his inner stories also intensifies and clarifies James's experience. Each time he tells himself a story, he can "remember more clearly what things had felt like and tasted like, how they had looked … whether they had really happened or not."
Standing squarely in the midst of unrelenting gray pavement and surrounded by images of waste—the skeleton of a car, heaps of junk, and wasted people, James knows the sad story of his father's abandonment. Haunted by the vision of his mother standing by the window and sadly whispering, "Gone, gone, gone …," James realizes that his mother had to go into the hospital. But this is one sad story which James cannot bear. Because his author has created a story too harsh for him to endure, he counters it with an inner story of wish-fulfillment. Like Scheherazade, James's very survival depends upon the story he can tell, one which he can also listen to, one that he desperately needs to believe: "James had discovered another story hidden just beneath it. It was different from the first, but if he felt it, wasn't it true?"
James imagines that he is a prince in disguise, left by his regal mother with three old aunts. His mother had gone to Africa to prepare a place for him, "to fix everything." And she would return and take him there, dressed in feathers and robes.
Situated in an unendurable present, James must imagine stories from the past and from the future. Although the story he imagines is not literally true, it is nevertheless a fantasy which ultimately contributes to his identity and security. When the right time comes, James will be able to let go of the fantasy and to tell another that integrates the actual conditions of his life with his wishes and dreams. This dreamlike fantasy, inspired by a magical ruby ring and enacted in the basement of an abandoned building, allows James to come to terms with the history of his race and to right the wrongs of the people who "had been made to march for days and weeks through the wild forests, with their hands chained and their necks in ropes, until they came to a river where they were put in boats that carried them across the water."
The sad story of the captured Africans is significantly the only story his mother had ever told James. Aunt Paul's story, then, connects him with the past of his family, while his mother's story puts him in touch with the social history of his race. Both of these tales exert a moral, social, and psychological force upon James and help him to shape an identity for himself, a life story he can bear to tell himself and to tell others. His central problem is to connect his fantasy identity which restores him both to his true mother and to his true homeland with the setting and situation of his actual existence. The narrative materials he needs to revise his story come to him when his ritual in the deserted house is interrupted by Stick, Blue, and Gino.
Stick and Blue inject their own vivid elements into James's story. They call him a "dwarf" and refer to the mysterious figure on the wall as a "cardboard Sandy Claus." Inventive abusers of narrative, Stick and Blue tell imaginative lies in the interest of perpetuating their dog-napping scam. To protect his inner story from these tough boys, James experiments with new forms of narrative: he must make secret plans; he must learn to lie inventively; and he learns to select details for withholding from his listener. James also learns that he cannot escape from all problems by telling himself stories: "He wished he could make a story out of what was happening to him right now—pretend he was just walking home to his Aunts, to his bed in the corner…." James's fake ruby ring becomes an evocative emblem of James's failed attempts at narrative: "The ring! In his pocket, it was magic, but lying in the dusty corner, it was just what Stick had called it, a candy-box ring, good for nothing." Likewise James's fantasy about his mother's preparing an African kingdom for her son James, the Prince, loses its rich and resonant luster outside the dark shelter of the damp basement. James's terrifying adventure with Stick, Blue, and Gino forces James to revise his visionary "song of himself." At the same time, the dangerous encounter provides him with enlarged narrative possibilities. First these new characters inspire him to perceive reality through arresting figurative language: "Gino's eyes looked like holes burnt in oilcloth." And "Everytime Gino spoke it was as if a door with a rusty hinge was swinging in the wind."
More significantly, James encounters a new and exciting setting. On his adventure to Coney Island, he sees the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. The ocean's vastness overwhelms him and causes James to question his cherished story: "How could she have taken enough food to last her? As for her getting her own boat, no little rowboat could get all the way to the other beach on the other side." As a storyteller, James must thus come to grips with the necessity for narrative plausibility.
As James revises the story of his mother's African journey, he apprehends a truer sense of her emotional situation. She is not a regal African queen preparing a home for her son. Her actual story is closer to her own tale about the captured Africans. Weighed down by poverty and responsibilities she cannot handle and abandoned by her husband, James's mother had collapsed in a corner, succumbed to a nervous breakdown, and entered a hospital. When James looks out over the Atlantic Ocean, he thinks "of it rolling all the way to Africa and breaking into waves on another beach." As he contemplates her journey, he thinks, "It was terrible to think of his mother out there in the black night bobbing around on top of that water, by herself." The revised story which James imagines provides him with a vivid symbol of his mother's lost emotional state; she is indeed temporarily at sea in the black abyss of a nervous collapse.
Exploring these new possibilities for story enlarges James's sympathies not only for his lost mother but also for the kidnapped dogs. Lost in the darkness of a "crazy funhouse in the middle of the night, he felt he cared more about Gladys than anything in the world—except his mother."
When James rescues the dogs and runs away from Stick, Blue, and Gino, he heads home, trying to invent a story convincing enough to tell his aunts, recognizing at last, "No story was good enough. He would have to tell them what had really happened." When he arrives at home amid the joyous reception of the entire tenement, James narrates the story of his adventure:
"They wouldn't let me go," said James as loud as he could. He looked up the stairwell where all the people were, dressed in their nightclothes, leaning over the railing, looking down, "They made me ride for miles. I went to Coney. I saw the Atlantic Ocean. They stole dogs. Listen, all of you. They kept watch on me. But I got away even though there were three of them."
In the new story of his life, James does not function as both teller and listener. James, the teller, addresses an audience deeply interested in his story. Moreover, he does not function as a passive character waiting for his mother to solve the problems. He has used his powers of invention to solve his own problems. In his new story he conceives of himself as the resourceful and successful hero of a dangerous adventure, one who saves both himself and the helpless homesick dogs.
In the final scene of the novel James must revise his story still further. He had pictured his mother as a tall and regal queen with long black hair in white robes. In reality she is a tiny woman with short hair in a dark dress. Looking at her, he thinks, "Why she was hardly any bigger than he was! How could she be his mother?" He also thinks, "Who am I? I'm not a prince. How can I be a prince? Who am I?" As if she had heard his thoughts, his mother speaks to him, "'Hello, Jimmy,' she said."
In pronouncing James's true name, his mother helps him to find the best of all possible endings for a children's story—reunion with one's mother, a safe return home, and a sure sense of identity. James's story, however, does not merely end. The novel achieves what narrative theorists refer to as "closure"; as one critic expresses the notion, "the sense that nothing necessary has been omitted from a work." In How Many Miles to Babylon? this sense of closure is achieved through a process described by Marianna Torgovnick as "circularity." That is, the ending of the novel clearly resembles the beginning: James is at home with Aunt Grace, Aunt Paul, and Aunt Althea. Once again the family gathers around a boy who tells a story. In the beginning, however, one significant character was missing. The mother's presence at the end achieves the effect of circularity, but it also suggests an "open" ending. The reader has a sense that James has acquired the skill to revise his story in the future.
Perhaps an even more pronounced version of a children's metafiction is Natalie Babbitt's Knee-Knock Rise, which announces its concern with the nature of narrative in its prologue:
Facts are the barren branches on which we hang the dear, obscuring foliage of our dreams.
In a "countryside that neither rolled nor dipped but lay as flat as if it had been knocked unconscious," the people of the village of Instep have invented a monster, a Megrimum, around which they can create deliciously terrifying stories. Narrative in many varieties appears in Babbitt's spare little fable: gossip, superstition, fantasy, dream, narrative poems. The book also examines the intricate collaboration between tellers and listeners necessary for stories.
When the central character, Egan, arrives in Knee-Knock Rise to attend the autumn fair, he meets his haughty cousin, Ada, who delights in befuddling him with terrifying tales: "'Uncle Ott ran off up there and the Megrimum ate him!' She smiled rapturously and pointed again."
For the first half of the narrative, then, Egan functions as attentive listener. He hears Ada's inventive tales about the Megrimum. When Ada's father, Uncle Anson the clockmaker, brings home a cunningly-made clock with feathered knee-knock birds on it, Sweetheart the cat pounces on it and destroys it. The incident is puzzling. What has it to do with Egan's quest for the Megrimum or Ada's scary tales? Apparently Babbitt wants her readers to see that Uncle Anson is an excellent clockmaker, but he is no storyteller. His wife and daughter do not give him the chance. The fact that he cannot tell stories accounts for his inability to predict outcome. As Ada importantly explains, "I guess he forgot about Sweetheart.'" When Aunt Gertrude asks Anson to "tell" Egan why the incident had happened, the poor clockmaker can only utter a "strangled noise." While her father struggles with his inarticulateness, Ada quickly fills the silence with her tale about knee-knock birds, cats, and, as always, the Megrimum.
Babbitt suggests that Ada misuses her narrative powers: she establishes her superiority over others and imposes her will through her stories. She warns Egan, for example, "'The Megrimum likes cats…. And if people are mean to a cat, the Megrimum comes down and eats them up.'" In the end Ada uses her inventive powers to deceive herself and others and to undermine the only story Egan tells. Like Uncle Anson, Egan is rendered silent. His attempts to attain heroic identity through story fail. Even his account of climbing the Rise and finding no Megrimum fades in the radiance of Ada's colorful imagined explanation.
Like her young daughter, Aunt Gertrude possesses powerful storytelling abilities. While Ada concentrates her narrative energies on the Megrimum, Aunt Gertrude's specialities are gossip and superstition. When Aunt Gertrude sees the Megrimum at the window, she cannot wait to hold "court to a stream of eager visitors." Like Ada, Aunt Gertrude also knows how to capture her audience by including terrifying details. Listeners, Babbitt implies, delight in mysteries and terrors.
Before his climactic (or rather anticlimactic) journey up the Rise in search of the Megrimum, Egan encounters two other important sources of story: he reads Uncle Ott's verses, and he experiences a prophetic dream. Uncle Ott's verses mostly recount stories of disillusionment. In one poem the speaker climbs a hill to find the secret at the top only to discover "Another hill."
Egan's dream represents a microcosm of the entire story. In most literary works, Barbara Hardy observes, "Dreams … are images which express the waking lives of the dreamers more lucidly and rationally than the real dreams of our sleeping lives outside fiction." In Egan's case the dream foreshadows the story he eventually enacts.
Egan's next experience with story appears in the form of an inner fantasy. Egan imagines himself at the center of a traditional hero tale: "'What would it be like,' he wondered, 'if he himself were to climb to the top and slay the thing that dreamed there?' He would come down again with its head on a stick and they would be so proud of him. He would be famous."
However, when Egan reaches the top of the Rise, he finds no Megrimum—only Uncle Ott, who explains that the moaning is nothing more than a hot spring whistling through the narrow hole in a cave. Egan does not immediately realize the significance of his discovery. If there is no Megrimum, the tiny town of Instep has no story, no identity, no way to relieve the tedium of its existence. Egan still cherishes the fantasy that he is a hero. As he makes his way back down the Rise, he whispers, "'I'll be famous.'"
Egan's inner story, however, never coalesces with reality. One of his difficulties is that he fails to engage his audience. When Ada, Aunt Gertrude, and Uncle Anson finally hear him out, Ada counters at once with a far livelier tale: "'He didn't want you to see him…. He hid in the cave in the mist!'" Egan, like Uncle Anson, lapses into bewildered silence, his attempts at narrating having failed. Babbitt thus underscores the necessary collaboration between tellers and listeners. Listeners like secrets more than revelations and embrace tantalizing questions more than flat bland answers.
As Egan's attempts to kill the Megrimum end in disillusionment, so too do his efforts at storytelling. At the end of the book the reader finds Egan once more in the cart with the chandler. Although the situation contains elements of a circular ending, the pattern is incomplete. In the beginning Egan had hoped to climb the Rise and to make discoveries. At the end, however, he knows no more than he had at the beginning. The force of Ada's telling has not only silenced him; he also doubts his own experience. Poet Robert Frost admonishes us to "Provide, provide …" or someone else will do it for us. So it is with stories; Egan lacks the power to tell his own story and must accept Ada's instead. He is dissatisfied because the adventure has not ended as he had hoped and expected. Closure appears to be incomplete. Indeed this sense of incompleteness invites readers to question their own assumptions about narratives and their endings. Babbitt has aroused her readers' expectations only to deflate them. In so doing she appears to assert her independent powers as a storyteller, her rebellion against the constraints of convention.
If Babbitt fails to deliver the promised story, however, she has provided clues which point to the novel's ending; that is, she presents narratives within the narrative whose endings are structurally parallel. An alert reader, Babbitt thus implies, would have predicted the outcome correctly. Finally, Babbitt suggests, the most powerful story will prevail even if it isn't true. Though Ada and Gertrude abuse their narrative skills, they do tell more interesting stories than Egan.
Babbitt also seems to call into question the usual assumption that children's stories exhibit happy endings. She has herself argued that "the happy ending" is perhaps the most universal identifying characteristic of a children's story. In distinguishing a story for children from stories written for adults, she explains:
And yet it seems to me that there is a tangible difference when you apply one rather simple sieve to the mass. It does not work for every children's story, but perhaps it does apply to all that we remember longest and love best and will keep reading aloud to our children and to our children's children as a last remaining kind of oral history, a history of the essence of our own childhood. I am referring, of course, to The Happy Ending.
It would almost seem that Babbitt's ending contradicts her opinions on the importance of a happy ending in a children's story. At the same time, perhaps she implies that the saddest stories are those in which a dream dies. Egan after all almost has his belief in the dream restored. Babbitt implies, then, that we need the inventive liars like Ada to keep the dream alive and to titillate us with tantalizing terrors.
Perhaps the most extreme examples of narratives concerned with the nature of story are those works in which the process of creating the story becomes a central theme. How Many Miles to Babylon? and Knee-Knock Rise deal with the making of story, with the relationships between tellers and listeners, and with the uses and abuses of narrative. In the following examples of metafiction, however, the "primary concern is to express the novelist's vision of experience by exploring the process of its own making."
Metafiction appeared early in the history of the novel. One finds evidence of it in Cervantes' Don Quixote and in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. In Sterne's novel, the fictional author struggles, sometimes comically, with essential narrative problems: the narrator's role and function in relation to the story and the reader, matters of literary conventions, and rhetorical choices. In works of metafiction the function of what critics have called "implied authors," narrators, narrative, and "implied readers" are self-consciously explored. According to Christensen, this concern in metafiction assumes a larger significance: in the author's investigation of the essential narrative situation—the complex and intricate collaboration of narrator, story, and reader (or listener), the work of metafiction explores the nature of human communication in general.
Although many children's books have explored the development of a child author—Alcott's Little Women, Mollie Hunter's The Sound of Chariots, Eleanor Cameron's Julia books, among many others, relatively few can actually be said to concentrate upon the process of their own making. In the two examples discussed here, both Dickens and Nesbit seem anxious to explore the nature and function of children's literature generally as they reveal their child authors in the process of creating children's stories.
A nineteenth-century example of children's metafiction is Charles Dickens' A Holiday Romance (1868). In this work Dickens portrays the conversations of four young children—Alice Rainbird, William Tinkling, Robin Redforth, and Nettie Ashford. Alice Rainbird, the most sensible, intelligent, and inventive of the group, suggests that each child tell a story to educate adults who write stories making children ridiculous. According to Alice, educating the grownups will be presented under a "mask of romance," while "pretending in a new manner" means that children will no longer pretend to be grownups:
"We will pretend," said Alice, "that we are children…. We will wait ever constant and true till the times have got so changed as that everything helps us out, and nothing makes us ridiculous, and the fairies have come back."
Dickens reveals the children in the process of creating stories not for their own amusement but for didactic purposes; he thus slyly reverses the more usual procedure of adults writing for the moral education of children. At the same time, Dickens fails to convey a genuine and spontaneous sense of the child's voice. Ironically, he succeeds in making his child characters ridiculous (except for Alice Rainbird). William Tinkling, Robin Redforth, and Nettie Ashford tell silly and uninteresting stories. Tinkling coyly recounts the details of his marriage to Alice, vainly insisting that his story is the best and the most important. Redforth narrates the adventures of Captain Boldheart, dwelling on the pleasures of pursuing and punishing the Latin Grammar Master. Nettie Ashford describes a country where the children are in control. The children spend their time eating sweets and punishing their foolish "children," adults who make silly speeches in parliament and who refuse to smile as they dance. Tinkling, Robin, and Nettie, Dickens suggests, abuse storytelling just as much as adult writers for children. Once they possess the power to create their own stories, they make them just as silly and contrived as the stories they wish to reprehend and to correct. Only Alice Rainbird succeeds in creating a coherent and interesting story. In this way Alice, the fictional child author, resembles in some respects the historical author, Dickens. Just as Dickens had advocated the fairy tale as the best kind of children's story and had written essays in Household Words defending the value of the form, so Alice chooses the fairy tale for her tale, "The Magic Fishbone." At the same time, Alice treats some fairy tale conventions with humorous irony. Both Dickens and his child narrator are aware that the usual "fairy business" may sometimes be silly: the magical talisman in Alice's story is not a golden apple, a cap of darkness, a ruby ring, or an enchanted purse, but a lowly fish bone. Prince Certainpersonio is not a dashing handsome hero, but a shy, passive young man who sits by himself, "eating barley sugar, and waiting to be ninety." Dickens and his child author modify romance with a little realism. Alice, a sensible narrator, understands her conventions and manipulates them for the desired effect upon her audience. Dickens, then, reveals both Alice and her story as superior to the other children in A Holiday Romance and the tales they tell.
By underscoring the processes by which stories are created and by emphasizing the character of the teller, Dickens invites his reader to examine the nature of children's stories in order to conclude with him and his child author that fairy tales are the best of all possible stories for children. When Alice promises to "pretend in a new way" and "to bring back the fairies," she echoes her historical author's words written fifteen years earlier:
We may assume that we are not singular in entertaining a very great tenderness for the fairy literature of our childhood. What enchanted us then, and is captivating a million young fancies now, has, at the same blessed time of life, enchanted vast hosts of men and women who have done their long day's work, and laid their grey heads down to rest. It would be hard to estimate the amount of gentleness and mercy that has made its way among us through these slight channels.
The best and most famous instance of children's metafiction is E. Nesbit's Bastable series, including The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), The Wouldbegoods (1901), and The New Treasure Seekers (1904). Nesbit had undoubtedly read Dickens's A Holiday Romance, and she adopts his rhetorical device of a child narrator who is also the child author. Her narrator also pretends to conceal his identity and then proceeds to give it away almost at once.
Nesbit's child author-narrator addresses his reader directly and explains his narrative choices. Throughout the three books Nesbit reveals her child author in the process of discovering his technique as a writer. Oswald Bastable, who learns much of his craft from a mentor, Albert's Uncle, affirms the principle of careful selection of incident, noting that he will omit dreary prefaces and description. He experiments with tone and diction, at times deliberately imitating "goody books" often given as school prizes, only to give up such elevated language for his own casual colloquial idiom, which includes such expressions as "It was Al …" or "It was no-go."
In revealing Oswald's struggles to become an author, Nesbit perhaps shows herself in the process of finding her own role as children's writer and in developing an appropriate tone and voice to address her child reader. Oswald's narrative choices may also reflect Nesbit's attempt (a successful one) to create a new and modern kind of children's story.
One of the choices Oswald defends is his method of ending The Story of the Treasure Seekers. After the Bastable children have explored several unsuccessful ways to restore their fallen fortunes, they find that the financial problems of their family are finally solved by a wealthy maternal uncle. The novel ends with a bounteous and cheerful Christmas scene at the uncle's comfortable mansion. Oswald admits that his ending resembles that of a fairy tale or a Dickens novel but argues that it is nevertheless what happened, noting that life is after all sometimes "rather like books."
Oswald's assertion that life is "rather like books" suggests some important characteristics shared by these four examples of children's metafiction. By its nature metafiction underscores the distance between actuality and fiction, between nature and art. To one degree or another each of these works explores perennial critical issues of narrative theory. Is literature an imitation of nature? Is the literary imagination a mirror or a lamp?
Indirectly Paula Fox comments upon this controversy in How Many Miles to Babylon? The story James narrates at the end undoubtedly reflects the actual conditions of his life more accurately than his imaginative romance about ruby rings and African Queens. The new story, however, somehow lacks the imaginative energy of James's earlier story. Fox thus adroitly dramatizes the tensions between psychologically realistic fiction and romance. She manages to show, however, that as both kinds of story enable James to resolve his emotional conflicts, so human beings need both the mirror and the lamp. Babbit, on the other hand, apparently rejects the mimetic function of narrative. Ada's imagined version of reality becomes more "real" than Egan's actual experience. In the end even Egan starts to believe her vivid and dramatic story rather than his disillusioning experience.
While Fox and Babbitt embed their critical concerns about the nature of narrative in the dramatic and emotional conflicts of their characters, Dickens and Nesbit self-consciously explore these matters through their fictional authors. Dickens' child narrators do not imitate nature; they imitate other stories. Only Alice Rainbird, however, is wise enough to choose the right literary model. In imitating silly stories, Robin Redforth. William Tinkling, and Nettie Ashford fail to reach their child audience.
Nesbit's child narrator and fictional author relies upon many literary models as he makes narrative decisions. Oswald's example of blending the structure of the fairy tale with the texture of realistic children's stories was to become one of Nesbit's major contributions to the history of children's fiction. Nesbit's metafiction reveals both herself and her child author in the process of discovering their identities as children's writers and of discovering conventions and techniques which would influence many children's writers in the twentieth century. Oswald's exploration of literary convention, his awareness of his relationship to the implied reader, his use of diction, tone, and his process of selection and arrangement become ways by which Nesbit herself explores the nature of children's stories. Nesbit's self-conscious use of metafiction, however, produced a classic of children's literature, a work which was to usher in modern children's literature. Most critics of Dickens' fiction, however, emphasize how slight A Holiday Romance is in comparison with his great novels. Most readers detect a condescending tone in Dickens' treatment of the childish cuteness of his narrators; his attempts to render the child's voice strike many readers as affected and strained. Critics praise Nesbit's authentic presentation of the child's voice through Oswald as narrator.
Both Dickens and Nesbit clearly use these children's metafictions to explore the nature of children's fiction. Writing much earlier in the nineteenth century than Nesbit, Dickens composed A Holiday Romance at a time when the moral tale still dominated British children's literature. Also by this period British novelists were creating few metafictions. Part of Laurence Sterne's task in creating Tristram Shandy was to convince the reading public of the novel's validity as a literary form. Similarly Dickens clearly felt that he must justify the kind of children's story he was writing. Apparently A Holiday Romance fails as literature because of Dickens' confused sense of audience. The book clearly does not address the child reader; rather Dickens admonishes the adult critic of children's literature to embrace fairy tale, romance, and the imagination and to avoid moral and matter-of-fact tales. Perhaps his needs as a critic divide and thwart his creative purposes.
Nesbit was writing at the very end of the century when the influence of pious Victorian literature had already diminished considerably. While she wished to explore the nature of children's fiction through her child author, she did not need to make her case so vehemently as Dickens since the battle for imagination and the fairy tale had been won. Oswald explains that he is simply trying to write the kind of story he would like to read. He knows his literary models thoroughly. He understands the tensions between romance and realistic fiction. Chaotically comic realistic episodes which imitate "life" and which strive for mimesis, do not easily come to an end. Human beings must blunder through such episodes until nature provides its own efficient and definitive ending. But literature, specifically the fairy tale, provides Oswald with a way to end the Bastables' ineffectual attempts to restore their fallen fortunes. Oswald explains his reason for choosing a fairy tale ending: "'… I think it was much jollier to happen like a book, and it shows what a nice man the Uncle is, the way he did it all.'"
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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 questions, the answers to which she only partly understands, it is a good visit in that Catherine really does come to know this stranger. Two days before their vacation is over, Mr. Ames again gets very drunk, precipitating a very honest and very painful quarrel.
As in Fox's Newbery Honor book, One-Eyed Cat, the story is not so much about what happens as it is about what the characters perceive about the events and their own actions. Fox's characters have great depth, and Catherine especially is notable for her realistic, yet ambiguous, feelings for her father. Her father's alcoholism is not treated in clinical detail but with great emotional sensitivity. When Catherine returns to her mother's home in New York, she realizes how glad she is to be there—and how glad she will also be to return to school: they all, indeed, do have lives elsewhere. In short, this is another artistic beauty, and surely another award winner from the talented Ms. Fox.
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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 more. She is glad to return to her ordinary, tidy mother and her careful, caring stepfather. But she has changed. She sees the world differently: not as a place in which people are hopelessly flawed, and not even as a place in which weakness requires understanding and forgiveness. Paula Fox is not concerned with homilies. By the end of the summer Catherine has seen through her father's sickness to the person underneath, and he has opened her eyes and ears. Mr Ames bombards his daughter with books and words and ideas. He bullies her: "Don't be victim. It rots the brain." "Find a better word." "Be dignified." "Don't be a prig." "Don't condescend." Gradually Catherine learns to be true to herself, to trust her reactions and throw off the shackles of convention and fashion. She even learns to respect the humble sandwich.
The novel is painful; there is the suffering and self-hatred of the drunk, and the pain of living with him—with the broken promises, the lying and the charades of renunciation. But it is not an unhappy or depressing novel. Good times as well as bad lodge in Catherine's memory. Mr Ames is an exciting man to do very ordinary things with. And the landscape of Nova Scotia steals up imperceptibly to anaesthetise the hurt.
The Moonlight Man breaks all the rules for teenage novels. It has a cast of two, both of whom are bookish; there is no romance, no sex, no action: and the author dares to preach (though her sermon has a strange theme). Paula Fox challenges the reader to take another look at her or his assumptions, using the tragedy of the adult to break through the complacency of youth. Despite its sombre story and serious intent, her book remains quirky, humorous, intimate and readable—a triumph against the odds.
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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 doctor the goose's act and get it on the road, and the goose, whose, ambitions are nonexistent. Anyone who has ever been involved in theater will find these discussions hilarious, but in the midst of the comedy sadness stands like a somber guest at a party. As with all good fables, the human condition becomes more poignant when we can see it in a different form.
Leonard Lubin's black-and-white illustrations for The Little Swineherd are graphic, elegant and show a deep understanding of the stories.
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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 list that's strong on all counts. In its remarkable debut, Orchard Books, a division of Franklin Watts, Inc., of New York, is a microcosm of the best that's to come this season. Three intriguing titles prove the point.
Newbery Medalist Paula Fox, author of The Slave Dancer, Blowfish Live in the Sea, and The Stone-Faced Boy, is known for her sensitive portrayals of youngsters' often conflicting emotions.
In her first book for Orchard, Lily and the Lost Boy, Fox explores the jealousies that can crop up between an older brother and adoring younger sister, and also the idealistic tenderness that can rise above sibling rivalries. In the process she comes up with a strong story of tested friendship and compassion.
The setting is the Greek island of Thasos, where wild thyme blooms in the hills and fresh-caught octopus is hung to dry on clotheslines. Eleven-year-old Lily Corey and her 13-year-old brother, Paul, become fellow explorers for three months one spring while their professor father is on sabbatical. They dig for shards and coins at the local acropolis, and Paul even allows Lily to read aloud to him from her book of Greek myths.
Enter Jack Hemmings, a troubled American teen-ager who reminds Lily of "an engine racing, with no place to go." As Paul gradually turns his back on his family to spend more time with Jack, the tension builds. It culminates in a tragic evening that ends with the accidental death of a young Greek child.
It's grim ground in many ways, but author Fox balances the anxious moments with overflowing images of place and time—of weathered fishermen in sturdy caiques, of mandolin-like bouzouki music floating up from the village wharf, of ancient amphitheaters filled with today's applause.
Like another recent teen novel set in Greece, The Morning of the Gods, by Edward Fenton, 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.
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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 listens, as she sees Paul closing his family out and turning to Jack, she begins to wonder. Why is Jack never with his father? Why does his mother pay money to keep him away? Why do the islanders dislike Mr. Hemmings in spite of their admiration for his dancing?
Jack begins to spend more and more time with the Coreys and in spite of his ideas, things that drag Paul into delinquent situations, Lily starts to feel how much pain Jack carries. Finally Jack's recklessness takes the life of another child and after he runs away Lily feels that she must be the one to find him. Their return to Thasos makes her even more aware of his loneliness, but there's little she can do to help him. And finally, as the Coreys leave the island, Jack and Mr. Hemmings stand at the quay and watch, more separated together than they ever were apart.
This is a warm, poignant story that shows life in both its simplicity and its complexity. It paints a beautiful picture of village life in Greece, shows the goodness of life itself, but offers no easy solutions to the difficulties of living.
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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 family's travail, one child's anxiety and fear, and the people who help that child until he and his mother are reunited. These are characters readers will understand and care about; Clay's universal struggle with the issue of what constitutes a home, his bewilderment over his abandonment by both his parents, and his ambivalence at his reunion with his mother are expertly and honestly played out. The novel individualizes the problems of homeless people and puts faces on those whom society has made faceless; readers' perceptions will be changed after reading the masterfully crafted Monkey Island.
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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 adult novel The Slave Dancer, has written a relentless story that succeeds in conveying the bitter facts.
She depicts life in a welfare hotel precisely the way Clay's pregnant mother needs the sound of a portable radio all the time to drawn out her increasing despair, the way the woman next door cares—alone and lovingly—for her retarded son who sits all day watching television, "his feet turned out like a duck's feet." The elevator is a "a poison box," the halls are littered with trails of coffee grounds from leaking garbage bags. A trip to the bathroom can be a dangerous journey.
Eventually, Clay makes his way to a city park—called Monkey Island by thugs who prey on homeless people there. Like most of the newly homeless, Clay has trouble sleeping. The recent arrivals "were in a panic for days," one character observes. "They were also the angriest if someone or something woke them up in the middle of the night." Life is a constant, primal search. A portable toilet at a construction site is a gift, a broken water fountain means no way to wash that day. For an old woman, counting her few possessions over and over again is "a kind of housekeeping."
Although the focus of Ms. Fox's story is a middle-class family, she never lets us forget the way race and class affect destiny. When Clay catches pneumonia, his black friend, Buddy, wants to take him to a hospital but knows a taxi probably will not stop for him "Nigger is the longest word I know," says Buddy.
Eventually, Clay is placed in a foster home where people are kind. But, one wonders, how will Ms. Fox ever resolve Clay's abandonment? Will she stage a scene of false forgiveness? When Clay and his mother are finally reunited, his mother doesn't ask Clay to forgive her. "Sorry can't erase all that," his mother says. She can only hope that one day she and Clay will find a way "to go on caring for each other that's … beyond sorry."
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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.
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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 two had abandoned. Paula Fox has retained the darker elements that are as much a part of folktales in their original forms as the humor. Justice is imposed with harsh and obliterating finality. Amzat's revenge on his brothers results not only in their deaths but in the death of an innocent shepherd as well. Emily McCully's drawings, with their heavy deep brown lines and animated characters, pick up both aspects of these intriguing tales.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412
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 surface"; "the family is really like a small country"; "birds swooped and rose like torn strips of paper"; Elizabeth sees "a yellow bar of sunshine like the light at the bottom of a closed door" or stifles "a laugh that was rising in her throat like a bubble in a bottle" or watches interest fading from someone's face "like light dimming in a room." These are primarily visual images—almost cubist like some of Gran's paintings—but they become less decorative than inherent to plot and pace, as when Elizabeth realizes that the cottage room seems "beautiful, almost like a person she had begun to love" or when the supporting posts in the same room, which "had suggested trees or columns to Elizabeth, now looked like the stout wooden bars of a cage" around the island family fearful of having lost their little boy. It's seductive to start quoting a good writer, but perhaps Fox summarizes her own book best: "Make it up," orders the boy in soliciting Elizabeth to play his imaginative game. "You just need a little bit of a thing to start a story. Pretty soon, there's everything!"
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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 Aaron is a precocious, hyperactive child whose antics earn him a lot of attention. (It's no coincidence that the dynamics of the Herkimer family echo those of Elizabeth's.)
It is Aaron who animates the story. Like Elizabeth, he knows that his behavior alienates other people. "Sometimes when someone hugs me," he tells her, "I feel like an eagle has got me in its claws" It is the boy's disappearance one foggy night that reveals and tests the intricate ties—and love—that have bound these people together.
Despite the weakness of its minor characters and its somewhat melodramatic plot, Western Wind, in the tradition of the best young-adult fiction, manages to capture the essence of Elizabeth's transformation from a self-absorbed adolescent to a more tolerant, loving person. The lessons she learns are about making connections, which, as the skillful Paula Fox eloquently demonstrates, is what life, and art too, are all about. "We cannot forswear our integral connections with other people," Ms. Fox said in 1974 when she accepted the Newbery Medal for her novel The Slave Dancer. "I write to discover, over and over again, my connections with myself, with others. Each book deepens the question. It does not answer it." Within its familiar framework, Western Wind will gently lead the reader along the unsteady path toward discovery.
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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 his story, and others like it, we might never recognize how dear we hold our private perception of the universe."
A writer gathers up all the seemingly random elements of life, stares into the roiling mass of feeling and thought that is at once the affliction and peculiar blessing of being human, and finds a design—that is, a story. If it is a good story, if it is after truth, it intimates what is beyond words. If it is a poor story, no matter how skilled its use of language, it is only words, and a reader senses in it an intrusive self-congratulation like that suggested by a Buddhist homily that tells of a man who pointed at the moon but wanted the onlooker to notice only his pointing finger.
Everyone's story matters. Each story is, one might say, a word in a larger story, the intimations of which can reach us in myriad ways, through religion and philosophy, or in a sudden tremor of sensibility that, for an instant, can penetrate the fog of our ignorance not only of why we are here, but where here is.
"Maybe we're here," wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, "only to say: house, / bridge, well, gate, jug, olive-tree, window—/ at most, pillar, tower—but to say them, remember,/ oh! to say them in a way that the things themselves / never dreamed of existing so intensely." Rilke's words make me think of the immense silence into which we hold up our small bundle of words. It is like the blue light of our small planet glimmering in the darkness all around.
The language of great poets and writers alludes to what we cannot speak. It enables us to question the surface of life. Robert Louis Stevenson said there aren't enough words in Shakespeare to express the merest fraction of human experience in one hour. But, he wrote, "a particular thing once said in words is so definite and memorable that it makes us forget the absence of many which remain unexpressed, like a bright window in a distant view."
The urgency with which we describe our passages through life appears involuntary, as though the impulse to record the journey is as powerful as the impulse to speak—a thing embedded in the genetic make-up of our species. "To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday at 12 o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike and I began to cry simultaneously," so David Copperfield announces his birth. When I first read that opening passage—after all, the simple statement of arrival anyone who has lived and anyone alive at this moment could make—I was 10, and I was electrified. I've since then read it to students, some very young, some old, and I've seen on most of their faces that startled attention that gripped me when I was a child. It is downright and plain, but the stroke of art in it, I think, lies in the word believe. It is exactly the light word to convey David Copperfield's nature, and to suggest his destiny, which is to unfold in the hundreds of pages that follow. It is a humorous word in its context, faintly, in fact, disbelieving.
Record-keeping began millennia before Charles Dickens was born, in cave paintings, in the lists on shards of the pottery of vanished civilizations, in the accounts, journals, logs, and diaries discovered in those first written languages of which we have any knowledge. There is the unwritten library too, what used to be called the oral tradition, tales passed from generation to generation; generations that lived before the blind poet we call Homer told of wily Odysseus, of Hector, the great warrior, of the mischief of Paris and Helen's beauty—a library that we must hope will endure long after our own time, long after the life and death of another blind poet, Jorge Luis Borges, who died in 1986, 2700 years after Homer spoke his poem.
Poetry and imaginative literature are record-keeping of all that animates what we name, variously, the soul, the psyche, spirit, mind, and heart. But words are not the things they name. They are things themselves, potent and galvanizing, that can arouse and disturb, provoke laughter or murder, and even instruct us as to their limitations when, after we think we have explained everything, we are confronted by existence itself.
Language can only point at reality, like a mute gesturing frantically at the unnameable. Still, we are driven to speak, to try to understand, to try to penetrate mysteries, to interpret the not altogether reliable news we receive from our senses, to "get it." And in some fashion, if insufficiently, we can get it, such is the power of language.
But it is fragile, too, and always at risk. It is so much easier to resort to the day's catch-words, its jargon, when one is in the grip of fear and confusion, startled by the intimation of the chaos that can turn life upside down on any sunny morning.
There is a great affair now in this country about dialects, about their right to claim equal standing with the English that has dominated written and spoken discourse for centuries. Yet English itself is a dialect. It belongs to a Germanic sub-family of Indo-European, whose vast range includes such disparate sub-families as Arcadian Greek, Old Norse, Celtic, and, far far back, hieroglyphic Hittite. All languages are dialects, constantly in flux, shrinking or swelling, subject to the migrations and settlements and conflicts of human history.
Years ago, among the many jobs I had in my youth was one that involved reading South American and Mexican novels for a movie studio. I was paid $6 to $9 for each book, depending on its length, and I was obliged to summarize plots to present to producers who would judge whether or not they were movie material. I was hired because I could speak Spanish. Or so I thought. What I discovered, after my first attempts at reading these works, was that what I spoke was Cuban, itself composed of dialects, with words absorbed from Africa and China, from native Carib, as well as the varied Latin-rooted Spanish, colored by idioms from all the provinces of Spain from which colonizers came to Cuba. For the novels of Chile and Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru, I needed Quechua, or at least some familiarity with a few of its 28 sub-groups. The job didn't last long, and I was careful after it to qualify what I meant when I said I could speak and read Spanish.
What interests me as a working writer are the ways in which we use language to elucidate reality or to falsify it in whatever dialect we claim as ours, and another way in which we don't use it for anything except as vocal padding around nothing at all, as in a brief exchange I overheard as I walked on the street behind two men.
"It's going to rain. You know what I'm saying?" asked one.
"I hear you," replied the other.
Then there are those dry-as-dust phrases that seduce speaker and listeners into thinking something important is actually being said, as in an interview of a sociologist on a radio program I listened to. The sociologist became so unhinged by his use of the phrase "in terms of" that it seemed to take on physical properties, like a maze, from which he was unable to escape. At last he actually said, "in terms of … in terms of…." There was a broken giggle, silence, then a burst of vapid music during which, I imagined, the sociologist was led away to rest for a while.
It is not hard to find words that have been so mauled that their original meanings have leaked out of them like air from punctured balloons, words, for example, like creative and concept, that are applied recklessly to all manner of human endeavor, and are used to characterize not only the effort involved in the deployment of armed rockets in space, but also the latest design in running shoes for the middle-aged jogger.
The French poet Paul Verlaine said one hundred years ago, "When you hear the word concept, get up at once and leave the room."
It is the lingo of psychology and sociology, initially devoted to the exploration and explication of human community and behavior, that has made singular contributions to the disintegration of meaning in language. I think of a middle-aged woman I knew, who, when she learned her father was close to death, said at once that death could be a "very enriching experience." Before her emotions could be engaged by this momentous event in her life, she had sped away from it, staking out a claim for the enrichment of her own soul before the anguish of a death could get the drop on her.
Even in minor matters we are too impatient to permit ourselves to be as puzzled as, in truth, we are. We rush to define events before we begin to sense what we feel about them. We are astonished, then chagrined and frightened at the fluid, shifting nature of our own feelings. We refuse to put up with uncertainty. So we write off continents of human mysteries with feeble clichés; we reduce the living person standing right in front of us to a heap of sociological or psychological platitudes.
Of course we put names to things to help ourselves begin to understand them, and, in the social sciences, to establish reference points from which to construct theories about human behavior. But there is a counter-tendency. We also name them so as to dismiss them and rid ourselves of the hard work of reflection. It appears to be the tendency of these disciplines to grow rigid in time if an opposing impulse does not come into play to break up the frozen mass of certainties.
The most cursory glance at changes in thinking about psychology over the last 50 years suggests we can only hypothesize about the nature of human personality. New information is always arriving. It may be partly that because we do not have the steadying forms of older cultures to fall back upon, we are, as a nation, more open to the new. And it is a great thing not to be sealed into the tombs of the past, a great thing to resist the impulse to ransom openness in order to preserve dead tradition. But the danger is to hail what is new as absolute truth—until the next new comes along to displace it.
Nietzsche observed that everything absolute leads to pathology. A contemporary physicist, Dr. David Bohm, writes that "most categories are so familiar to us that they are used almost unconsciously … it is possible for categories to become so fixed a part of the intellect that the mind finally becomes engaged in playing false to support them."
What I am thinking about is the deadening of language, an extreme alienation from living experience which manifests itself in words that have no resonance, a language of labels that numbs our power to feel, our sensibilities, and stifles our innate capacity to question, to turn things over in our minds and reflect upon them. During the Vietnam war, the phrase body count entered the American vocabulary. It is an ambiguous phrase, inorganic, even faintly sporting. It distances us from the terrible reality of the dead and mutilated.
The language of labels is like money issued with nothing of intrinsic value behind it. And it is dangerous. George Orwell wrote that if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A while ago I saw an appalling instance of language gone berserk in the words of a woman interviewed in the parking lot of a small office building in which a man had just shot 7 people to death. Yes, she had seen it all, she told the television reporter, just as she was about to get into her car. For a moment she ducked out of camera range, then reappeared clasping in her arms her son, a boy of 5 or 6. "He saw it all, too, and it was a real learning experience," she said.
Last fall, as schools were opening, a series of interviews brought another child and his mother before the camera. The mother smiled dotingly and ruefully as she confessed she had paid nearly $100 for the running shoes her 8-year old was wearing to his first day in school. No, she replied to the reporter's question, she really couldn't afford them but felt she had to buy them. Whereupon the 8-year-old piped up, "You have to do what your peer group does," a non-thought he may have picked up from television, that great forum of shiftlessness and banality.
Why has the word indicate taken the place of said, as in "The journalist indicated the building had been bombed"? What is the gain? And consider "like," which has broken loose from hip talk, once its main province, and taken root in the daily language of observation and emotion, so involuntary as to seem a neurologicaltic. "I feel like sad," said a youth after the shooting murder of a classmate in a gun- and gang-beleaguered Brooklyn high school.
There is to me a significant shade of difference between sad and like sad. Perhaps "like," meaningless and automatic, served to postpone, if only for a split-second, the realization of a real death. To say I feel sad is concrete. But as Orwell observed in 1949, the whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. I think of loving, caring, sharing, healing, the four new horsemen—or horsepeople—of a limp apocalypse. I think of the vast range of human emotion and need which is to be packaged by them, its paradoxes and contrarieties smoothed flat. I think of the way their deep meaning has been made meager by mindless use. They have become formulas. In a publisher's ad I saw in the New York Times, a plug for a murder mystery began, "lovingly written…."
Picture, if you will, Macbeth and Othello, the Karamazov brothers, David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Lady Chatterley, and even Scarlett O'Hara, in the waiting room of a contemporary therapist, desperate to discuss their problems of low self-esteem. "Self-esteem," its presence or absence, is to guarantee success or abysmal failure, as it seeks to explicate all human behavior, as though human beings have not waked in the mornings to do the daily drudgery of the world, made art and science, built up civilizations, and given charity and hope and love to each other in famine and war and pestilence, when they were half-mad with suffering and bewilderment.
Should we not honor and esteem the life in the self as well as the self in life?
In a book whose title I have forgotten, I recall reading that American English as it is routinely spoken—and apart from the often impenetrable jargon of specialists—consists of about 142 words, and that this number is shrinking rapidly. The world may end as T. S. Eliot intimated, not with a bang but with a whimper, at least the world of mind.
The rock-bottom significance of language, its organic nature, can be exemplified in the difference between the German of Goethe and Heine, and the German spoken in the concentration camps of World War II. The latter speech was totally barbarized to fit the circumstance. While he was a prisoner in Auschwitz, the Italian-Jewish writer, Primo Levi, noted that the German infinitive, to eat, when applied to the feeding of prisoners, was rendered as fressen, which in good German is applied only to the feeding of animals. When violence is done to people, it is preceded by violence done to and in language.
A few months ago, a representative of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam asserted during a speech he made at Kean College in New Jersey, that Jews have stolen rubies, pearls, and diamonds from every country in the world, which, he said, explained the word, jewelry. He used his own gross ignorance to invent an etymology that incites to murder.
As we grow up, we learn to make distinctions between what we call real and what we call imagined, almost always at the expense of the latter. Yet it is imagination that brings us intimations of the elusive truth of being, and of what Carl Jung called "the terrible ambiguity of the moment." Imagination is as stifled by obscure and ornate language as it is by psychological and sociological cant. And there are too many experts in those fields who believe there are answers to anything, and anything is defined by them as that for which they have answers.
I read the following statement in a newspaper column: "The youngest sibling in a family unit, encouraged by her role models, has begun to communicate interpersonally." Is this illuminating about the onset of speech? Is there a way to communicate other than interpersonally? What is a role model? A person? A call to Central Casting? Is life a performance? Recently I reread E. M. Forster's novel A Room with a View, and this passage struck me: "She gave up trying to understand herself and joined the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catchwords. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters—the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their striving after virtue."
A sculptor acquaintance, who teaches art at the Pratt Institute, told me about a student in her class who announced, "I can't relate to him," when the sculptor began the semester with a lecture on Leonardo da Vinci. The student, adept at ideological bullying, went on to say, "Da Vinci has no relevance for today's artists." Used in such a manner, relevance can only be capricious, a thing that can change from month to month as fashion does, a powerful constraint on the effort to see beyond the immediate and opportune.
An implication underlying this phrase relate to is that what one doesn't recognize as directly pertaining to one's own life is, at best, of no interest and, at worst, menacing. How are people to learn with an attitude that is so inimical to spiritual growth, to the spirit of inquiry that has wrung from our species its best thought and art? "I can't identify … I can't relate to…." What is the consequence of these notions, if not their intent, but to consign to oblivion all that is unlike us, all that we are not habituated to?
The literature of imagination cannot survive such strictures as these. It is a paradox that in this most "now" atmosphere, where only the "new" is supposed to engage us, the opposite occurs. Novels must substantiate what we think we already know. How like the affliction borne by contemporary composers: If it isn't Mozart, if I can't whistle it, burn it! The ungenerous, narrow ideas of relevance, of self-identification must be reinvented. They perpetuate the provincialism of self. They banish the interesting from life.
When I was young, I, and the people I knew, read novels for news. News is the very meaning of the word novel. We read for the transforming experience of losing ourselves in a great story, and when it ended, turning our still dazzled eyes and attention to daily life, of finding our lost selves returned to us, consoled and deepened.
It was the tail-end of the Depression. War was imminent. A person who had been to college was an oddity. We were poor. The circumstances of most of the people I knew were like mine: grim. Yet we read and exchanged books. I still have a worn copy of Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald that may have been given to me, or else which I pinched. And I remember with what inexpressible delight I found in "Ode to a Nightingale," by Keats, the very words of that title. I read the novel while I looked for miserable jobs and cheap places to live. I read The Idiot, too, and A Passage to India, and novels by D. H. Lawrence and Faulkner and Hemingway and O'Hara and Tolstoy, and Chekhov's stories. And I and the people I knew, as we scrounged to live, talked and talked about them.
For some of us, it was the way we began to learn about the world. The novel, unlike other art forms, contains things that are, in a sense, alien to it—science and history, religion, music, art, and above all, psychology.
"People in a novel need not be like real ones," Ortega y Gasset wrote. "It is enough they are possible."
What great novelists and poets try to imagine is truth. And truth is like the light that falls, without prejudice or judgment, on the French Riviera of the '20s, 19th-century Russia, a mining town in England, the snows of Kilimanjaro, and the narrow dusty roads of a southern hamlet. The light fell, too, on me, on the people I knew, who were like beads from a broken string, rolling about the country, trying to find places where we could exist. Literature and poetry gathered us up.
Reading was healing. It went with love and caring. Books were shared.
Now we have arrived in a time where the summoning of imagination to put the self in another's place, that most fundamental function of writing, perhaps of human community itself, is under siege. I heard an interview on the National Public Radio in which the interviewer, a woman, asked a male novelist, in a disbelieving voice, "You're writing about a woman? From the inside? How fascinating!"
She may have been simply ignorant of all that literature has aspired to. I suspect not. I suspect her posture was disingenuous, dictated by the new truth squads among us who command writers to write only about their own genders and ethnicities and circumstances. She had lost, or never attained, that ordinary sense, that it requires an imaginative leap over the fence of one's gender to understand the opposite sex, and that that leap is propelled by the same kind of imagination needed to understand anything.
The ideology of these truth squads sanctifies the differences between people, attributes only virtue to one group, only villainy to another. The squads have been always a part of the human community, ordering people about, telling them how to think, and in extreme instances, cutting out their tongues when they were displeased.
That fence I spoke about is turned into a metaphysical wall, impossible to scale. Even to try is an offense, or, as was suggested in the interview, peculiar. People who claim that no one has the authority to write about them except themselves are really asserting that they are unimaginable.
I cannot conceive of a more devastating isolation than that suggested by the idea that I am unimaginable except to someone of the same sex and background, the same age and experience of life. That is—a clone of myself. What unutterable boredom!
There is no such clone. We are as individual as our thumb prints, a perception that ought not be confined to police stations. Writers have always known it. They have been obliged by the nature of their work to break through the arbitrary barriers erected by that tribalism which may be yet another original sin. Or so it would seem from its consequences today and throughout human history. Writers have been obliged to go against the sulk of passing ideologies, to reveal, as great clowns do, the underside of our nervous certainties, our crippling and murderous follies.
Hard and unremitting labor is what writing is. Yet it is in that labor that I feel the weight and force of life. That is its nettlesome reward. It is not usually easy to convince people in writing courses just how much unremitting labor is required of a writer. Gene Tunney, a writer of the '40s, said: "Writing is easy. You just sit there staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."
Sentimentality, as opposed to sentiment, is another enemy of writing. Sentimentality says: only feelings matter, thought doesn't matter; words don't matter. That's like telling a pianist that it is of small consequence if you play B-flat instead of the C-sharp that is written on the score. It's the feeling that counts. Tell that to a musician. Tell a writer language doesn't matter. Words, like notes, have tempo and color and innate sequence, and they are as elusive as will-o-the-wisps—the right words, that is, the ones we must struggle to find.
None of us, or very few, I think, are partial to slow, ruthless wearying effort. Yet there comes a time when you know that ruthless effort is what you must exert. There is no other way, and along that way you will find such limitations in yourself as to make you gasp with the knowledge of them. Yet, still, you work on. If you have done that for a long time, something will happen to you. You will succeed in becoming dogged. You will have become resolute about one thing—you go to your desk day after day, and you try to work. You give up the hope you can come to a conclusion about yourself as a writer. You give up conclusion.
A critic of the '20s, John Middleton Murry, wrote a definition of the writer's work: "A writer does not really come to conclusions about life, he discovers a quality in it. His emotions, reinforcing one another gradually form in him a habit of emotion; certain kinds of objects and incidents impress him with a peculiar significance. This emotional bias or predilection is what I have ventured to call the writer's mode of experience; it is by virtue of this mysterious accumulation of past emotions that the writer … is able to accomplish the miracle of giving to the particular the weight and force of the universal."
My Spanish grandmother told me stories of her life in Spain before and after she was sent at the age of 16 to marry a man she had never seen. Some stories were comical, some were filled with dread. My grandfather, a man from Asturia, owned a plantation far from Havana. His very young bride was plunged into a 19th-century colonial world that is now gone forever. He died just after the Spanish-American War. Her life was changed violently again when she left the plantation, most of which had been burned to the ground during the war, and came to the United States.
What I recall about her stories, told to me in fragments over the years I lived with her in a rather mean little suburb on Long Island, was an underlying elegiac note, a puzzled mourning for the past. Every story, as substantial, as palpable, as the kitchen table where we often sat, or in the tiny living room where sunlight fell upon a worn carpet through the rusted bars of a fire escape, had a subtext, and it was its melancholy note I can still hear.
Concrete stories, transcendental meanings; surface and depth. Writing is a struggle to understand the mystery of human life. Writers—real writers—do not claim the discovery of truth. What they attempt to arrest is that reality we embody so that we can bring it closer to the light of consciousness. Stories re-invent the world so that we can look at it. Stories are those bright windows of Robert Louis Stevenson's, shining in the darkness that ever threatens to shroud them.
"It sometimes seems to me," Franz Kafka begins a letter to his friend, Max Brod, "that the nature of art in general, the existence of art, is explicable solely in terms of making possible the exchange of truthful words from person to person." Such a claim for language, for story, for writing that holds both writer and reader accountable to each other, reminds us that reading is the great answering art to the art of fiction.
The Greek word for reading means: recognition.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396
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 at the cottage and confronts him ("You killed our family") only to be answered in equable manner ("Nobody is killed except me"). Even here, though, the conversations often turn fuzzy and ponderous about time and light-years, and readers are likely to get lost in the ambiguities. When Liam asks, in a conversation that had, we think, been about Philip's now-dead lover Geoff, "Can you say how it was? What it was?," we're not sure what he's asking; when Philip answers, "It breaks over you like a huge wave. You go under. Some people swim out of the wave. I couldn't," we don't know what to think. What is "it"? Love? Betrayal? Homosexuality? The book gets better and clearer in its last third. Philip's death scene is written with compassion and a restraint that never turns into remove; here Fox reveals her gift for showing, in brief and simple language, the ways people discover each other and themselves.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 273
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 take on Liam as a confused, seethingly angry, tight-lipped, surreptitiously tender teenager has the ring of authenticity. Some in the target audience may find the action too slow or the mood too dark, but those who persevere will be rewarded by the novel's truthfulness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329
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 understanding. Philip's dying becomes a time of dignity and reaffirmation for all three members of the family. Paula Fox has taken on a difficult subject and suffused it with a beauty of form and style that is distinctively her own. The evolution of Liam's emotions from voiceless anger and an abiding sense of loss to acceptance and love, a journey paralleled by his mother's, is described with painstaking honesty. This will be a hard novel for teens to absorb, but well worth the effort.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
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."
Liam and his mother pay monthly courtesy visits to his father, but during the second Thanksgiving weekend that the father is at the cottage, Liam decides to go by himself for a visit. His aunt who has come for the holiday is horrified at the idea, but Liam's mother defends his decision, and Liam "was suddenly happy! He'd forgotten what it was like—to be with his mother in this way, united, defended."
The visit itself isn't so happy. Terrible words are exchanged in which he tells his father what he knows, but instead of feeling better, he feels worse and decides that "The best thing was to know nothing. And he'd given up the second best, to know and not tell." This was the darkness before the dawn, and by the end of the story Liam is able to confess to his mother that the reason he never told her that he knew how his father had gotten sick was that "If I had told you, then it would have been really true." However, at this point, it's a truth that Liam can face even if he can't fully understand it.
From a literary standpoint, it is interesting that Fox's title of The Eagle Kite is so much like M. E. Kerr's Night Kites (1986). In both stories, young boys are given a special kite to fly at the beach, one by a big brother who is gay and one by a father who is gay. The kites come to symbolize the loneliness and the bravery of the individual men as they combat both societal prejudices and the devastating effects of their illness.
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