The River Between Us by Richard Peck

THE RIVER BETWEEN US STORYWORLD

The River Between Us cover
This cover gives no indication of the intended audience. Nor does it show that this is the story of a family. Anyone would think Noah were the star, and the faceless woman in the background the stereotypical love interest. This is one of my least favourite children’s book covers.

There are historical notes in the back of The River Between Us but unless you’ve been through the American education system and already know quite a bit about the Civil War and the history of New Orleans, I’d recommend flipping to that first.

  • July 1916 is the wrapper time
  • Summer
  • North America
  • Starts in St Louis, South Illinois. The family lives on Maryland Avenue in the West End. See: Maryland Avenue today. (Peck tends to center his stories in Illinois, and most often in Southern Illinois.)
  • Cars are a big deal to a young boy because unlike today you don’t see them any old where. “It was a big thing to drive a car out of town.” They’re not yet very reliable so preparation for a long trip is important. For example, cracking a raw egg into the radiator so it would hard-boil and seal any leaks. Fuel is to be strapped onto the car itself because there aren’t many fuel stations around yet. Only the upper middle class can afford them (hence the narrator is the son of a doctor). You have to crank it up and the windshield isn’t up for city driving. There are a lot of flat tyres — four in one day is not unusual.
  • This is the story of a journey. Stories with rivers are generally about journeys. See: The Symbolism Of The River In Storytelling.
  • Baseball is important. The local team is called The Browns (and was only later the Baltimore Orioles).
  • World War I is raging across Europe. Americans know it’s just a matter of time before they get caught up in it. They anticipate restrictions on travel once that happens.
  • ‘The War’ just as often refers to the Civil War
  • Grand Tower is a ghost town. There never was much to it but showed some progress after the Civil War, with a saddle factor, cigar plant, gun shops, brick works. There’s a hill called Devil’s Backbone. (These days it’s a park.)
  • The grandparents’ house is like going back in time, with the metonym of a black iron range standing for the earlier era.

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Fabulism In Children’s Literature

FABULISM: WHAT IS IT?

In fabulism, fantastical elements are placed in an everyday setting.

It’s called ‘fabulism’ because authors are playing with realism by making use of elements of fable.

For the definition of a fable, see here.

COMMON FEATURES OF FABULIST FICTION

  • ornate
  • Gothic
  • subjective
  • dream-like
  • surreal
  • emphasis on idea or theme
  • settings in other times, places, but not necessarily “historical”
  • exoticism: the extraordinary over the ordinary, the unusual over the usual.
  • doesn’t care about walls, and it doesn’t have constraints, whereas reality has rules, norms and codes of conduct.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter is a collection of fabulist stories.

COMMON FEATURES OF CHILDREN’S FABULIST FICTION

Looking at the marketing copy and reader descriptions of these books a few tropes are common to this category of books often called ‘magical realism’ or ‘fabulist’:

  • The protagonist often has a super power, which as often as not is the flipside of a weakness. Sometimes it’s an original kind of superpower which hasn’t been used by Marvel and you haven’t seen it in fairytales. For example the ability to see words shining above people’s heads.
  • It’s often the sort of magic that lives next door. Or in the kitchen. Or in the shed at the bottom of the garden (Skellig).
  • Moving house is a common introduction to this kind of story. The child used to live in the ordinary world but now the parents have moved them to this island, this rickety house, this dilapidated mansion. In Skellig, Michael’s journey from the security of his early life on Random Road to the precarious and confusing removal to Falconer Road is essentially a maturation from a state of childhood innocence to pre-adolescent experience of self and other, bound together in the greater world of humankind. Random Road was a place of physical security for Michael. He was born there and took its existence for granted. He was the only child and so was the focus of his parents’ love. They provided for his needs, and he had no reason to discover that life could ever be different. It is a kind of Garden of Eden prior to the knowledge of good and evil. In the newly discovered Falconer Road Michael must increase his knowledge of the world. Significantly, this new house has to be remodelled before it becomes comfortable, mirroring Michael’s interior relationship with his environs.
  • Witches/trolls/mermaids etc. exist alongside humans, perhaps living secretly. Their secret lives can be an allegory for some kind of exclusion which happens to groups of people in the real world.
  • Fortune-telling is often a thing.
  • Luck can be a reliable, real thing, influenced by charms and whatnot.
  • Fate is also a thing, but can be thrown off-course by a savvy young protagonist. Related to fate, the moon features large in many fabulist stories.
  • Some stories have an atavistic fable/folklore/legend quality to them, taking modern people back to a time when humans really did believe the world was made of magic. There might be some direct link to the ancient past emphasised in the story e.g. finding something ancient or learning something about history in school or perhaps it’s simply working out some family history. In Skellig we have Archaeopteryx and evoltuion as a way to make Skellig credible. We don’t know what he is or where he came from. But we are reminded that there once was a dinosaur that flew, and evolution can produce many different forms of strange beings. It just may be that Skellig is the last of an ancient species, something akin to an angel. It is also a way to connect his story to the much older story of the evolution of humans and the personal evolution of understanding the ephemeral nature of being.
  • Wish fulfilment in these stories is often about getting a bully back using magical powers. Hence, the school or neighbourhood bully is often the villain of the story (rather than say, dragons, in a work of high fantasy). This is also the wish-fulfilment of a typical superhero story.
  • There is sometimes time travel which affects individuals at the personal (friendship/family) level. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an example of that. These kids aren’t out to save the world — they’re trying to subvert personal tragedies and relationship breakups.
  • Serious issues such as drug-use and bullying can be made heartwarming by an injection of fabulism.
  • Hence, there’s quite a bit of sickness. Recently dead parents, cancer, rashes, and other horrible life journeys which is made a little easier with magic.
  • They’re quite often set in a real-world big city such as L.A., London or New York City, but can also be set in a realistic little town which mimics a real place. Or they might be set in a deliberately magical sounding place with a poetic name.
  • A character may need to keep their magical powers secret, or magic might be a widely accepted part of the natural storyworld. Sometimes only the children know about the magic because the adults are too busy to notice it, or wouldn’t believe it even if they were told. Sometimes this can feel contrived. David Almond avoids any sense of contrivance by having Michael engage adults when he recognises his own ignorance. For example, he asks a doctor about arthritis and quizzes a teacher about evolution and shoulder blades, though significantly, he doesn’t talk to them about Skellig. He has Mina — another child — for that.
  • The fabulism in children’s books often creates an atmosphere which feels cosy and snug and whimsical.
  • There is often a ‘wise woman’ or a ‘wise man’ or sometimes a child character is wise beyond their years (e.g. Mina in Skellig, who might also be interpreted as simply mimicking her mother). Other fairytale archetypes can be mapped onto contemporary characters.
  • Fabulism can be a part of any genre — sometimes it’s a mystery, sometimes it’s used to solve a crime, sometimes it’s a story about human relationships.
  • Flying is pretty common.
  • Fog is popular, too. You never know what lies inside the fog. Could  be anything.
  • Orphans are common too, though orphans are common right throughout children’s literature.
  • In a small-town setting, fabulist stories are probably full of eccentric characters with strange powers, habits and hobbies. In a children’s book, these adults are probably quite childlike themselves, whereas ‘regular’ adults have forgotten how to be playful and observant.
  • Perhaps the storyworld used to be far more magical than it is now, but something happened and now it’s up to the child character to break the curse or to bring full magic back.
  • See this 2006 issue of Through The Looking Glass journal for an entire issue on magical realism.

 

fabulism shaun tan

A SHORT LIST OF FABULIST CHILDREN’S BOOKS

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What Is Magical Realism? Is It Fabulism?

This is the most succinct explanation of magical realism that I have seen lately:

magical realism definition

If you’re looking for a literary agent on Twitter you will find many agents and editors asking for magical realism in children’s books at the moment. They are also complaining that they’re not getting enough of it. When an author says, “Hey I’ve got some for you!” it’s not magical realism at all.

Agent Michelle Witte has a much more detailed series of blog posts defining exactly what magical realism is and is not.

Here is part one.

Essentially, magical realism is:

Real-world setting + fantastical elements = magical realism

In visual terms, think of it as a photo that’s blurred around the edges to give it an ethereal, almost otherworldly quality. It has the feel of magic—that anything is possible.

Magical realism focuses on ordinary people going about the humdrum activities of daily life. Everything is normal—except for one or two elements that go beyond the realm of possibility, whether it be magic or fate or a physical connection with the earth and the creatures that inhabit it, but always in a way that celebrates the mundane.

FABULISM OR MAGICAL REALISM?

Bear in mind that the definition of magical realism varies, depending on who you ask. Here is another point of view:

fabulism does not equal magical realism

Michelle Witte argues that in fact magical realism did not originate in South America:

Despite the common misconception, magical realism didn’t originate in South America. Instead, German art critic Franz Roch coined the term “magical realism” in 1925 to describe the New Objectivity style of painting. A few years later, the concept of magical realism crossed the ocean to South America, where it was adopted and popularized by Latin American authors throughout the twentieth century as lo real maravilloso, the marvelous real. Notable writers include Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende, among numerous others.

While Hispanic writers were—and still are—a major influence in modern magical realistic literature, the style is not limited to a specific time or place. In fact, writers from across the world have adopted and adapted magical realism to fit their own cultures and within their own frame of reference.

new objectivity painting magical realism
Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove 1929 Christian Schad 1894-1982. An example of New Objectivity in painting

SEE ALSO

Fifty years on, One Hundred Years of Solitude is still providing profound insights into our evolving human tale where horrors co-exist with wonders, where absurdities don’t provoke a blink.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is 50. Its magic realism is immortal, from Scroll.in.

Here’s a list of magical realist children’s books, which I am calling ‘fabulism’ to be safe: Fabulism In Children’s Literature

And here’s a discussion which begins with the question: The genre magical realism came to be in the German language. Yet, Latin American has had a home for the genre. Why is this?