Sylvia Ashton-Warner Eleanor Dienstag - Essay

Eleanor Dienstag

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Greenstone"] is a fable for adults by an author who, since her extraordinary first work of fiction, "Spinster," has treated the novel as fresh territory rather than exhausted terrain….

[Ashton-Warner] has passionately held convictions about the education of the young, and the channeling of destructive energies into creative ones. It is not too surprising, then, that this former instructor of 5- and 6-year-olds, has chosen the vessel of the fairy tale of This Side and That Side, where "reality … is unacceptable and seldom used as a workable fact," to contain her vision of a loving, eccentric "ideal" family, and her dream of two different but complementary cultures, the Maori and the Western….

A good deal of credit for the tone of the family belongs to Puppa's brilliant bedtime allegories. They are the highlights of the novel, with just the proper amounts of fantasy, morality and irony. Story time is a Lilliputian Socratic scene, with the children constantly interrupting, innocently asking profound questions like, "D'you have to think to be pretty?" to which Puppa replies, "You do to be beautiful." Starring roles are often assigned to Truth and Beauty, who have snappy conversations with one another, and everyone, including the reader, is heartbroken when Mumma cries lights out….

That her unconventional approach to home life is a practical impossibility, the author acknowledges by her choice of fable form, I doubt, however, that any reader of "Greenstone" will be able to carry on his own family life without reappraising his theories on the subject. For it is impossible not to respond to the romantic heart, robust spirit and compelling insight of this unique writer.

Eleanor Dienstag, "Mumma and Puppa Were Perfect," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 27, 1966, p. 5.