Brian Hall’s The Saskiad falls into the broad category known as Bildungsroman (novel of education). Like all such works, it has a young protagonist who embarks on an adventure of self-discovery. Authors as diverse as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, and J. D. Salinger have written in this genre, so one might think its possibilities for further development limited. Even so, Hall’s ability to interweave archaism and contemporary elements makes The Saskiad a very different kind of novel.
To begin with what is familiar, twelve-year-old Saskia White, the novel’s protagonist, strongly and by her creator’s clear intention resembles Telemachus, son of Odysseus, as portrayed in Homer’s Odyssey. She lives with her mother, Lauren White, in a town near Ithaca, New York (recalling the Ithaca of Odysseus), on a neglected farm that had once been a commune. The general disarray and neglect parallel that of Odysseus’ home during his absence.
Saskia has primary responsibility for raising the five children of Jo Flynn, a former communard who has remained on the property. Jo has, in effect, defaulted on her responsibilities as a mother, and except for meals, almost always remains locked in her trailer. Bill, whom Saskia privately identifies as “Blufferoo,” has his own trailer, and he stays similarly secluded, presumably writing great works of literature that no one ever sees. Bill occasionally shares Lauren’s bed (making him seem like a more successful version of one of Penelope’s suitors), but he does this only according to Lauren’s own terms and by her own schedule. Lauren’s work, which considerably restricts her love life, is organic vegetable gardening. This and her evening job in Ithaca delay the need for her to make any commitment to her lover as efficiently as had Penelope’s weaving and unweaving of Laertes’ shroud.
Like Telemachus, Saskia has nominal authority in mundane matters during her father’s absence; also like Telemachus, she lacks the moral authority that adulthood confers to meaningfully change the conditions under which she and her mother live. She lives amid chaos like many children in contemporary families, yet like Telemachus, her daily existence is an odd mixture of silent resentment and forbearance.
Athena, the goddess of intellect, ultimately becomes the agent of Telemachus’ deliverance. It is she, masquerading as Mentor the wise traveler, who initiates Telemachus’ search for Odysseus. In Saskia’s case, books of varying degrees of acknowledged greatness open an inquiry into her father’s imagined past and her evolving conception of her own identity. Homer’s Odyssey is one of the works Saskia reads, and Saskia’s identification of the people and places which surround her acquire an epic flavor, derived partly from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Homer’s poem. Thomas, the father she knows only through hazy memory and an occasional postcard, dwells among the Phaiakians (the mythic island people who rescue the shipwrecked Odysseus and return him at last to Ithaca). Perceptive readers will ultimately discover that Saskia’s Phaiakians are in reality Danes.
One of the postcards Thomas sends is a photograph of himself in sailor’s clothing. He stands at the ship’s railing, a large dog at his side (perhaps like Odysseus’ faithful dog Argus), and has an expression of tense control. Because Saskia has read the Horatio Hornblower novels of C. S. Forester, and since she knows that the damaged sailboat she discovered in the garage had belonged to her father, Thomas becomes “The Captain” and she his faithful lieutenant. Her mixed analogy grows more complex once she has read the journals of Marco Polo and has learned of her father’s residence on an ashram in India. Thomas becomes the Venetian explorer and acquires a series of adventures in the Mongolian Empire of Kublai Khan. Cornell University, whose towered buildings Saskia can see daily, becomes an impregnable fortress of great wealth similar to Kublai’s own, and Saskia vows to take this “castle of Huge Red” by force.
In this rich imaginative mix, readers can see that Saskia not only has a rich imaginative life but also has deep needs and great ambition. Just as she idolizes her absent father, she also idealizes her present but diffident mother. Lauren is, for Saskia, like Apollo’s laurel tree: statuesque, with lovely long hair and perhaps like the mythic Daphne herself, who assumed the form of a tree rather than submit to...
(The entire section is 1867 words.)