Sailing to Cythera and Other Anatole Stories by Nancy Willard

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Sailing to Cythera and Other Anatole Stories Analysis

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Grandma’s wallpaper in “Sailing to Cythera” is no doubt patterned after The Embarkation for Cythera (1717), a famous painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau that depicts the elegant antics of players from the commedia dell’arte. In any event, actual or imagined voyages to mystical Cythera—geographically, the southernmost of the Greek Ionian Islands—have abounded for centuries in Western (especially French) art, literature, and mythology. For that reason, it is fitting that the island’s name is incorporated into the title of Nancy Willard’s fanciful collection of stories about Anatole’s quests for adventure and mythic transformation.

Indeed, familiar mythic archetypes and paradigms show up conspicuously in these pages: wise old men, nurturing earth mothers, dark woods of adventure, frightening obstacles, talking beasts, hard-won treasures, and the eternal return of the questing hero. While Willard’s intended juvenile audience may not recognize these literary models as the conscious and premeditated products of Willard’s craft, her young readers will already be acquainted with her essential themes, character types, and plots from the folktales and fairy tales that they have known since earliest childhood. In “Gospel Train,” for example, Anatole nearly misses the “midnight special” train departing from the afterworld, a potentially fatal misstep redolent of the familiar Cinderella story. All this is well-plowed ground for Willard: In her graduate studies at Stanford University, the author studied medieval folk songs, and she routinely taught fairy tales in her own creative writing classes at Vassar College. Clearly, fantasy for Willard is no vehicle for mere escapism and sentiment. On the contrary, the mythically rich fantasies of dream and story are promoted here as metaphorically powerful tools for the expression of abiding human truths; they provide a new perspective from which readers can evaluate the “real” world that they actually inhabit.

In fact, Willard—in this book and in her other works, both poetry and prose—places emphatic value on the actual, the tangible, even the mundane. Sailing to Cythera and Other Anatole Stories is littered with hard-edged, everyday objects: cocoa boxes, pocket watches, sneakers, dusty French dictionaries. Although surrounded by talking, personified animals, Plumpet has no...

(The entire section is 550 words.)