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Diary of a Goth Girl--Cover

Click through to Goth Girl on the iBooks store

iBooks Store Description

Allegra Joy is possibly the most inappropriately named Goth living in the fictional town of Goolooroo, outback Australia. Still, this doesn’t dampen her spirit as she embarks upon a quest to find an androgynous Goth boyfriend with lank hair and despondent eyes. Believe it or not, she finds someone who fits the bill, though he may turn out to be no more Goth than Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

A children’s book should be written…remembering how few books children have time to read in the course of a childhood and that the impact of each one is probably equivalent to a dozen, or twenty, encountered at a later age.

Joan Aiken, English author

Short Story Study: The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

As outlined by The New Yorker, which delivers its own plot spoiler:

A little girl gets lost through the carelessness of her nurse who leaves the child with a friend of the family’s while she goes to church. The parents are frantic and have sharp feelings of guilt until at last the police find the child wandering about the streets.

SETTING

Place

This story takes place in the city but  from this part of new York you could ‘throw a stone onto Welfare Island’, it seems. Welfare Island is these days called Roosevelt Island. It was named Welfare Island between 1921 and 1971, because it was principally known for its hospitals. It is an island between Manhattan and Long Island City. It’s a part of Manhattan.

The Tennysons live in a tenth floor apartment.

Time

To a modern audience, in an America with amber alerts, it’s almost incomprehensible that a child under the age of three could wander out of an apartment, be escorted down an elevator, wander away and be given a piece of bread to eat without a single one of the adults taking her to a police station. This leaves me wondering if this may have happened in the 1940s, or if instead Cheever is using poetic licence to showcase the obliviousness and selfishness of adults.

Milieu

‘Deborah would be allowed to pass the smoked salmon’. This is yet another of Cheever’s stories depicting the lives of rich mid-century Americans.

This is a world in which women who have been married for a long time and then lose their husbands are sometimes forced out to work as nurse maids because they have no other skills, and women are thought to be good with children, even when they are clearly not. Because this gendering exists, Mrs Harley’s lie about liking children goes completely unquestioned.

CHARACTERS

Robert Tennyson — We are given more information about Katherine than about Robert, presumably because selfishness in mothers seems more terrible than selfishness in fathers, and more so at the time this story was written. Here he serves as a typical salaried New Yorker who offers reassurance to his wife when their daughter goes missing.

Katherine Tennyson — unusually for the time and class, Katherine works outside the home. Like Robert, Katherine has not modified her partying/hangover filled lifestyle after the birth of a child. When queried about how much time she is spending with her daughter, she responds that Deborah has eight thousand dollars in her own name, as if that should be the extent of her parental responsibility. Katherine Tennyson is therefore an unsympathetic character and although Robert is no better, the judgement falls more harshly upon mothers, as it always does, even though both parents work and should therefore be equally responsible for their daughter’s care. Like all the other adult characters in this story, Katherine is self-absorbed, tending to think that she is the only one to experience horrible things. When describing how her own parents lost his brother at the age of two and a half, she assumes it ‘wasn’t anything as bad as this’. She reasons that modern parents must care more for their children than previous generations did. He says this when it is clear to readers that Robert and Katherine had very little to do with their own daughter.

Deborah Tennyson — almost three-year-old toddler, daughter of Robert and Katherine, very pretty and blonde, typical for her age in everything except that she keeps things to herself. In this way, her nanny seems to interact with her as an adult. But her adult behaviour is simply ‘adult-like’ — it is explained in the first few paragraphs that she simply imitates what she sees around her, understanding words like ‘hangover’ and ‘Old Fashioned’. This seems precocious at first glance, until you realise any child absorbs anything that surrounds them. On the other hand, the narrator is somewhat complicit in painting Deborah as a much older woman, or teenage girl:

Deborah was taciturn about the way in which she spent her days. She would tell no one where she had been or what she had done. Mrs Harley found that she could count on this trait.

Mrs Harley — the day nurse for Deborah. She is going on sixty. She has come down in the world, having lived in her own house for 40 years, now looking after someone else’s child. Her thumbnail character sketch:

Mrs Harley was a widow. She had lived a hearty and comfortable life until her husband’s death, but he had left her with no money and she had been reduced to working as a nursemaid. She said that she loved children and had always wanted children herself, but this was not true. Children bored and irritated her. She was a kind and ignorant woman, and this, more than bitterness, showed in her face when she took Deborah downstairs.

Renée Hall — a friend of the Tennysons. 35 years old, ‘dissipated and gentle’. She is starting to give up on ever having her own family and spectacular life, instead living on the edges of high society because she is pretty. Her prettiness is exactly why Deborah falls in love with her.

Renée Hall had met Mrs Harley and the child at the Tennysons’, where she had frequently been a guest for cocktails that winter. She had been brought there by a business friend of Katherine’s. She was pleasant and entertaining, and Katherine had been impressed with her clothes. She lived around the corner and didn’t object to late invitations and most men liked her. The Tennysons knew nothing about her other than that she was an attractive guest and did some radio acting.

Mrs Emerson — the nurse who cared for Deborah before — presumably four months ago. A bit of a crackpot mystic, Mrs Emerson fancies she can tell fortunes, and had sent a letter to Katherine Tennyson saying that she could predict Deborah’s going missing. This is what made people suspect that Mrs Emerson may have kidnapped Deborah. Mrs Emerson has taken her own prediction quite literally, but the reader might wonder about Deborah’s going missing metaphorically and psychologically as she grows up in a household where neither of her parents really parents her.

THEME

Religion is misused when it is relied upon for personal gain and false reassurance.

As explained by ‘Short Story Magic Tricks‘:

Mrs. Harley goes to church every Sunday morning, but in order to do so, she must commit the selfish and irresponsible act of passing her babysitting duties off on Renee.

Renee attends a funeral and begins to cry during the Lord’s Prayer, but only because she is worried about her own life: growing old and dying alone.

And finally, Mrs. Tennyson turns to the bible, but only when tragedy befalls her family. In a particularly Cheever-esque moment of dark comedy, she reads the story of Abraham and compares his sacrifice to the plight she and Mr. Tennyson face.

The hypocrisy of the religion employed by these characters is stark. For instance, Mrs Tennyson prays with a bible which has been stolen from a hotel. ‘They had used it once or twice as a reference.’

Even though grown up, some adults never really lose their childlike selfishness, even after having children of their own.

In other words, giving birth doesn’t cure anyone of egocentricity. As Cheever has done for other mothers earlier in this collection, Katherine resembles a child, with her dark hair parted on the side. It would seem Cheever holds mothers to very high standards, and tends to see grown women as not quite grown up.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Character Exposition

It’s important that the readers understand and judges the nature of two-year-old Deborah for ourselves before the rest of the story unfolds. We need to see how Deborah is a good mimic rather than a genuinely adult-like character with a  plan of her own. Note how much time is given over to this task — the entire first couple of pages. After that, we are given small reminders, for example when Renee witnesses Deborah playing with her little friends with no more purpose than ‘swallows’. The reader must understand Deborah’s genuine innocence in order to fully grasp the nature of neglect, from both her parents and her nanny, and also of the drunken elevator man who escorts a two-year-old down without batting an eyelid. The reader is invited to stand in judgement of these adult characters, each one of them neglectful by varying degrees.

Crime Writing Techniques

The Realini Blog points out that at times this story uses the techniques of crime writers:

For instance, a foul play is suspected at one point and the father and the police go to this woman’s place that is suspected of abducting the child: Where have you been this morning? /Here, why? /We thought you might know the whereabouts of Deborah/No, but the stars told me that something is going to happen/You wrote a letter to Mrs. Tennyson (Debra’s mother) about her disappearance/You see she was born under the sign of Pluto…

The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever

For regular readers of crime stories, this story (in which no crime actually occurs) is imbued with a sense of foreboding. We expect something terrible to happen. And I might add, this is doubly so if you’re reading the Collected Stories, in which case a terrible thing just happened to the little girl of the previous story.

Choice Of Detail

When looking closely for technique, Cheever made some interesting choices when writing this story. For instance, what’s with the woman with the round hat who is stealing pieces of privet? Why is she there? When the child goes missing, suddenly the entire environment looks like a safety hazard, from open windows in the bedroom to the nearby river to the streets filled with traffic. A woman trimming a privet hedge would ordinarily look like a reassuring figure; privet hedges are by their very nature a symbol of orderliness. But on closer inspection this woman is doing something slightly underhanded. Suddenly, on closer inspection, the city looks grimy and suspect and full of danger, and is populated by selfish adults.

STORY SPECS

Published in The New Yorker, June 29, 1946

New Yorker Cover June 29

 

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

This isn’t the only story Cheever wrote about yuppie parents failing to adequately care for their own children. See the previous story in this collection, The Hartleys, for a particularly heart-wrenching story about a ski-trip with a seven-year-old daughter. Having a seven-year-old daughter myself, I decided not to go into that story in any depth, as it’s too unpleasant. This is a story with a sad and abrupt ending.

Richard Wirick sees comparisons between this story and The Enormous Radio when it comes to the main characters and their sensibilities:

In “The Sutton Place Story” and “The Enormous Radio,” Cheever’s narrators notice a neurotic, mercenary bitterness behind the façade of a certain “kind of people,” ones who

strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins. They were the parents of two children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the 12th floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theater an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped some day to live in Westchester.

– from The Enormous Radio

Moving away from Cheever, the missing little girl and her (perhaps) imaginary friend Martha are reminiscent of the short story The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar. Like Cheever does here, Millar employs crime writing techniques to create suspense.

WRITE YOUR OWN

Take a time when you were worried about someone’s safety.

Using classic techniques of crime writers, paint a sense of foreboding for the reader.

The real challenge here, assuming nothing terrible does happen, is in creating a satisfying ending for the reader, who on the one hand will be glad nothing bad happened, but on the other hand, wondering what the point of the story is. A ‘let down’ story such as this must carry its story in the details leading to the non-event.

The current publication life of any given title can be very short and this can result in the fairly rapid silencing of work that challenges prevailing norms and values.

– Charles Sarland, Understanding Children’s Literature

In the judgement of children’s books…for is often the key word. Books are not just ‘good’ but ‘good for‘. Books are used for different purposes at different times — for more things than most books are. Some are ‘good’ time-fillers; others ‘good’ for acquiring literacy; others ‘good’ for expanding the imagination or ‘good’ for inculcating general (or specific) social attitudes, or ‘good’ for dealing with issues or coping with problems, or ‘good’ for reading in that ‘literary’ way which is a small part of adult culture, or ‘good’ for dealing with racism… and most books do several of these things.

– Peter Hunt

Picturebook Study: Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman

This book is less picturebook (compound word), more ‘illustrated short story’ in typical picture book binding. In other words, the story could exist in its own right. The illustrations expand the story, sure, but unlike typical picture books for younger readers the words still make sense on their own. So perhaps this is best described as an illustrated short story for older readers — the most interesting kind of story I know (and sadly, the one most likely to go out of print or never make it to soft back, from what I can gather).

Gary Crew is a writer who defies convention in other ways as well. Not only in his story telling techniques and characterisations, but also in his ability to transcend age and genre boundaries. Take for example his hugely successful 1990 horror novel, Strange Objects (William Heinemann). Among numerous other awards and nominations, this book won the highly respected Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for Older Readers in Australia. But it was also short-listed in the adult category for the Crime Writer’s of America Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award! Likewise, while Crew also writes picture books, more often than not they are written for older readers rather than the youngsters you might expect. So while Gary Crew is primarily marketed as a children’s writer, he is not constrained by marketing boundaries. Indeed, many of his books are ageless, able to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Australian Horror Writers’ Association

WHAT’S THE STORY ABOUT?

Written in first person point of view, the character as narrator, Stuart Quill, describes his university room mate Caleb van Doorn. It’s clear to the reader from inference that Caleb is the human version of an insect. Both Stuart and Caleb are studying entomology. Caleb’s behaviour grows stranger and stranger. He never seems to eat, but is one day caught eating a bowl of raw meat, with blood all around his mouth. On a field trip these two are supposed to be sharing a tent. Instead, Caleb disappears into the forest and manages to find a great collection of very rare insects. In the end, a woman is murdered and Caleb goes missing. The mystery is never solved. But enough information is given to the reader for us to know exactly what happened: Caleb metamorphoses backwards  and forward between insect and human, and in some sort of ‘reverse sexual cannibalism’ (that’s what they call it, since it’s normally the females who eat the males), Miss Emily is killed.

Continue reading

Short Story Study: O City Of Broken Dreams by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

Stupidly optimistic, Evarts Molloy writes the first act of a play then uproots his family and takes them to New York on thirty-five dollars, which to him seems like a huge sum. Everything in New York seems to glitter. The reader — more worldly than Evarts and Alice — can see before the hapless protagonists do that these two are being taken for a ride, filled with false promises and dreams by unscrupulous New York agents.

SETTING

Location and Time

Wentworth Indiana seems to be a fictionalised town of the sort found scattered around rural Indiana in the 1940s: poor, with hard-working country folk and the odd local eccentric. This is the unseen setting of the story, though contrasted constantly with its urban inverse, New York. Continue reading

Picturebook Study: Mog The Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr

Mog The Forgetful Cat Cover

This is the story that introduced Mog to young readers at the beginning of the 1970s. You’ll see from the illustrations that this is a book of its time, with 1970s fashion and a traditional nuclear family set-up, including a population that, compared to modern day London, is overwhelmingly white. If there is a spectrum of personification when it comes to animals in picturebooks, Mog is still very much cat rather than person, but Judith Kerr manages to convey the idea that she indeed knows exactly what goes on in cat’s world — what cats worry about, what they dream about and what their main concerns must be.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

This story is mostly a character sketch of a mischievous cat called Mog. Mog’s mischievousness is reframed as forgetfulness. She doesn’t ‘steal’ an egg at breakfast time; she ‘forgets’ she only has eggs as treats. This lends a gentleness to the character, and allows young readers to empathise. The plot of the story takes off after Mog is shut outside for being a nuisance. It just so happens that a burglar arrives that night. Mog frightens the burglar, who makes a noise by dropping something, thus awakening the family who are able to call the police to apprehend the baddie. Mog is now a hero.

WONDERFULNESS

The burglar in this story is an archetypical comic character dressed in a raccoon mask and striped prison uniform. He is smaller in stature than the policeman who comes to apprehend him. Rather than being locked up in handcuffs, the burglar even holds the policeman’s cup of tea while the policeman makes notes on a pad. This comic representation of intruders makes this story a perfectly safe going-to-bed book.

Burglar Holds Tea

Continue reading

Short Story Study: The Enormous Radio by John Cheever

1940s radio

Hear The Enormous Radio read by Nathan Englander here.

When I was growing up my father knew a man whose hobby was to listen in to other people’s conversations on a radio you could get, but which I believe was illegal. Using this radio, it was possible to listen in on police conversations. He’d know before anyone else about accidents and domestic incidents, deaths and other awfulness. In this short story, likewise, a family thinks they are buying an ordinary radio, but what they get instead is a faulty appliance which — almost supernaturally — plays for them whatever is going on in their neighbours’ houses. This story was written in 1947, in an era where nobody could predict the advent of the Internet in the new century, but because the themes revolve around knowing other people’s business and how this knowledge affects you, The Enormous Radio reads as surprisingly modern.

This story has been described as an example of ‘Domestic Gothic’ literature:

Domestic Gothic fiction may be identified by its uneasy representation of the historical and socioeconomic developments known as the “domestic ideal.” The concept of “domesticity” goes beyond the mere occupation of the physical domestic space and encompasses more than household servicing as women’s work. Rather, it is a wholly ideological construct relating to the interpretation, as well as the use, of the domestic space. Domesticity emerged as a concept in the mid-eighteenth century, alongside the modernizing forces of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. As cottage industry gave way to larger-scale factory production, the nature of the home itself changed. For many, there was a separation of home from commercial premises and many women were removed from the world of remunerative employment altogether. As the domestic ideal became more influential, claustration within the domestic sphere and the possession of appropriate “domestic” qualities became requirements for female respectability. Meanwhile, traditional family relationships underwent radical change. Romantic ideas of companionate marriage and sentimentalized parent–child relationships, and also the development of the nuclear family, helped to create a concept of the home as a place presided over by a “domestic” woman, in which these newly defined relationships might be enjoyed.

Blackwell Reference Online

In ‘Domestic Gothic’ stories, the house becomes the place of trauma rather than the castle. Continue reading

Picturebook Study: The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

A tiger comes to tea. Or, a mother and daughter are at home waiting for father to get home from work. An unexpected visitor arrives. It’s a tiger. Mother invites him inside to drink tea and eat buns, but the tiger eats every morsel of food in the house, and ‘all the water from the tap’. Continue reading

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