Why are trains so useful to storytellers? Well, first of all they get your characters from one place to another. But there’s more to it than that. Trains are found in literature more than trains are ridden in real life.
A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which one can go from one point to another, and then it is also something that goes by.
When it comes to writers and picking things to function as symbolic, that which is multi-layered is ripe for the picking. Take any word which means two different things at once; or a tree, which can be covered in leaves or bare; or a sea, which has a surface and also great depth; blackberries, which are delicious but also a pest; the colour yellow, which means happiness but also decay… You get the picture. As Foucault mentions above, trains are great, symbolically, because the audience has not only two but THREE different relationships with trains.
TRAINS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.
Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopian fantasies; in these journeys, the railway functions as a protean, paradoxical space, not merely instrumental but instead active. Long after it vanished from the landscapes of the real world as a functional means of transport, the steam train in particular continues to feature in works of fantasy aimed at children, operating by laws often unlike those of the realms through which it passes, and providing a space for the dramatization of spriritual and emotional adventure. […] Railway journeys serve an important role within the metaphoriacal as well as the narrative economy of utopian texts; this role is sometimes a subversive one, and ultimately calls into question the relationship of reader to text.
Railway trains in utopian fantasy literature operate like alternative worlds, allowing space and time within the narrative for establishment, subversion, and clashing of the logics and values of the other realms of the text. In this way they can be described in terms of Foucault’s well-known formulation of “heterotopia“. […]
— Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz, Elaine Ostry
The train station as a place of beginnings and endings is seen in many stories. One especially memorable train station for me is that depicted in Anne of Green Gables.
For a younger generation of readers, it is of course the train of Harry Potter which resonates.
The train station platform functions identically to the bus station platform.
You can probably think of many resonant scenes set in train and bus stations.
Another, for an adult audience (inaccessible to young viewers because of its uniquely adult emotion — regret), is the train station scene in Remains of the Day.
Other memorable bus station scenes for me happen in Mr Holland’s Opus and in Hud, where there is also the strong feeling of regret at what could have been in another parallel life.
That sense of the ‘parallel’, imagined life that could have been is perhaps why trains (and express service buses, which travel along their own invisible, pre-laid tracks) lend themselves to well to stories in which we’re encouraged to consider fate, and our own hand in it.
TRAINS AND JAPAN
Trains are a huge part of Japanese life and are also a huge part of Japanese storytelling, perhaps especially in manga culture. Trains afford Japanese children a freedom Western children rarely have — the train network is so reliable, so crowded and easily navigated that children are often trusted to ride trains without adult caregivers in a way I wouldn’t see here in Australia.
In Japanese towns and suburbs, trains travel regularly across your path, and you must stop at the gate and the lights. The threat of death is near. All you’d need to do is disobey the signs.
This low-level fear is utilised in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The way a train hurtles unstoppably forward is at symbolic odds with the fact that, should you stand in front of it, your life comes to an immediate halt. Symbolically, you’ve now got this juxtaposition between how an individual’s life ends suddenly but the world continues on.
Even Miyazaki’s fantasy world of Spirited Away includes a train.
The trailer of 5 Centimeters Per Second shows us that almost the entire film (comprising 5 interconnected short stories) takes place in trains and train stations.
TRAINS IN KATHERINE MANSFIELD
In her paper on Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Escape”, Masami Sato has this to say about train symbolism, in which every aspect of the train is ripe for close-reading, including the doors (open or closed?), the rails on the balcony, and the carriage shared with others:
Using trains symbolically is a technique found frequently in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidently meet, separate, take time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. We can see some of this symbolism in the last paragraph of “The Escape”.
The door of the carriage seems to refer to the threshold, or border, between the wife’s world and the husband’s heavenly (maybe, by implication, his ideal) world. The door is open, which denotes that he is still connected with his wife’s world, even though he does not want to be completely submerged in it. However, since he is holding on tightly to the brass rail with both hands, this could possibly signify his effort in trying to cling to his sense of happiness, having escaped, if only momentarily, the space which is dominated by his turbulent relationship with his wife.
The train carriage, for the wife, could be seen as a place to relax: as mentioned before, the wife is talking contentedly with the other passengers, while the husband is absorbed in his solitary emotions of happiness, apart from her, in the corridor. Their juxtaposition refers to two different worlds, and suggests that from a gender point of view, the worlds of men and women do not cohere seamlessly.
The story began with the couple missing their train and ends with a scene on a train. I would suggest that Mansfield intentionally uses the symbol of the train journey at the beginning of the narrative to demonstrate the emotional gulf between the husband and wife, a state which is shown to be highlighted if they spend time in too close proximity to each other. In the story’s ending, Mansfield suggests, by their positions in the separate (yet adjoining spaces) of the train compartment and the corridor, that perhaps, in a marriage, a certain amount of distance between individuals is more comfortable for both of them.
I have previously written about utopias, apparent utopias, idylls and dystopias. I thought I had -topias covered. Then I came across the word heterotopia. What’s that now?
Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.
That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.
After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In the real world you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something. But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork. This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm ande helpful rather than show your human side.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA
Heterotopia is based on the concept of utopia.
The Greek ‘u’ bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’.
The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’.
So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. Whereas the word ‘utopia’ has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More, heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.
The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. Maybe he confused his own self. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Others have picked up the word and ran with it.
Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into — children’s literature.
Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)
Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.
Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.
This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:
“How did the guys find out anyway?”
“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”
Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an apparent utopia. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:
“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”
The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.
The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here. Continue reading “Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips”
Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.
“Wolf Hollow” is a romantic, intriguing name reminiscent of something Anne Shirley would dream up. (Raccoon Creek and the Turtle Stone are other fetching names used in the book.) But unlike the world of (the original) Green Gables, this is no utopia. Instead, Wolf Hollow is an ‘apparent utopia’, where people grow ‘victory gardens‘ and residents are surrounded by nature. There is plenty of hygge — the peeling of apples, the large family table in their big, warm farm house.
By the time we got to the schoolhouse, it was raining in earnest. We three had worn oilcloth ponchos, hoods up, and boots, so we were plenty dry and warm, but many of the other children came in soaked and shivering.
Like many stories with girl main characters, this story is closely connected to the seasons. Notice how the hygge is moderated by details that show this setting is not in fact utopian:
Each season meant a world refashioned inside its stalls and storerooms.
Pockets of warmth in winter, the milk cows and draft horses like furnaces, their heat banked by straw bedding and new manure.
In spring, swallows fledged from muddy nests wedged in crannies overhead, and kittens fresh and soft staggered between hooves and attacked the tails of tackle hanging from stable pegs.
Come summer, yellow jackets nested in the straw, old oats sprouted through the floorboards, Houdine hens laid eggs in odd places where they might yield chicks, and dusty sunlight striped the air like bridges to somewhere else.
This family has had electricity for a few years, introduced under President Roosevelt. Electricity had already become common in American homes during the 1930s but took longer to reach rural areas. This is one of the things which would’ve set a divide between ‘country kids’ and ‘city kids’(Betty).
Annabelle’s class would have looked something like as depicted above, but because of lack of resources the classroom is overcrowded, so that when everyone turns up most students have to share a seat.
Today, I would learn some arithmetic, no doubt, and a few state capitals, why we fought the wars we fought, what Anne of Green Gables would get up to next, and why I shouldn’t mix bleach with ammonia.
The futility, or the insignificance of war to these country children, is shown in the sentence above. War is listed in the same sentence as far more mundane things, including cosy fiction. The children don’t see the point of war.
Annabelle realises she must do well at school. With two brothers she won’t have the opportunity to run the family farm. She has been told to study hard and get a career. Other girls of that era would have been told to marry well, but expectations were changing rapidly for women both during and after the war.
STORY STRUCTURE OF WOLF HOLLOW
Annabelle is a likeable, ordinary girl. Her weakness is that so far she has lead a happy, sheltered life with no real calamity. At the magical (critical) age of 12 this is about to change.
Her happy, sheltered life exposes her weakness — she doesn’t yet know how to cope with adversity. Over the course of this story she must learn.
Overall, Annabelle wants to be left in peace to go to school and get a career.
In this particular story, Annabelle wants to stop Betty from bullying her and to keep her brothers safe. Later, this morphs into the intense desire for justice — to protect Toby.
Betty is introduced on page 5. As newcomer, she is immediately interesting to both Annabelle and to the reader. We expect things of newcomers. She is a big, tough 14 year old girl from ‘the city’. She’ll be living with her grandparents, the Glengarrys.
Betty is a bit of a stock bully. But when she kills the bird (the inverse of Save The Cat) it becomes clear that she is more sociopathic than your typical middle grade bully. This girl has real issues. Partly to avoid problematic stereotypes, perhaps, Betty is blonde. (In the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature you rarely met a blonde baddie.)
That said, Betty’s pretty blondness is partly what leads to her getting away with baldfaced lies. Her grandparents don’t believe she is violent and the adults don’t think to question if she really could see Toby on the hill from the belfry. The way adults discriminate based on complexion and pigmentation is brought to the fore when Annabelle asks her father who Hitler does like:
My father thought about his answer. “People with blonde hair and blue eyes,” he said.
“I would assign every lie a color: yellow when they were innocent, pale blue when they sailed over you like the sky, red because I knew they drew blood. And then there was the black lie. That’s the worst of all. A black lie was when I told you the truth. ”
In this way, Betty is the local little Hitler. Like Swallows and Amazons, also set across war time, here we have a novel where the community battles fought by the children in some ways mirror what’s going on in the wider world. Similarly, Betty has targeted Annabelle because she perceives she is rich. One part of the reason for anti-semitism — irrational as it is — has historically been due to the perception that Jewish people accumulate an unfair amount of wealth owing to their sticking together and supporting each others’ businesses.
One sure sign that someone is an anti-Semite is if he agrees with the statement that “Jews have too much power in our country today.
Wolk makes clear exactly where Annabelle’s family sit in the economic hierarchy: as farmers they are neither poor nor rich, but exist outside the urban definition of ‘rich’ or ‘poor’. There is little to spare and the house is Spartan but being an old family with a large farm, they have been able to donate land for the school and church and are therefore rich by many standards.
However, the idea that you can look at someone from the outside and assume things about them is the critical idea here; Annabelle is not rich.
As Betty’s love interest, Andy is the romantic opponent. Andy, like Betty, is often compared to a dog. When he turns up late for school one rainy day he ‘tipped off his hood and shook all over like a dog as he looked around the schoolhouse.’
Annabelle’s parents are excellent parents, in danger of being Mary Sue characters, actually, so to disrupt the harmony at home we have Aunt Lily, another stock character who reminds me of two other fictional characters: Aunt Beryl from Katherine Mansfield’s most famous short stories, and from children’s literature, of Kate DiCamillo’s Eugenia from the Mercy the Pig series.
Aunt Lily is severe like Eugenia but also has a dreamy, romantic, thwarted-desire side to her, depicted with the small but telling detail that Aunt Lily goes to her room for Bible study, but can also be found listening to music and dancing at the end of her bed.
(Interestingly, Aunt Lily is a postmistress, which is the job L.M. Montgomery had, author of Anne of Green Gables. I wonder how closely L.M. Montgomery herself conformed to the severe postmistress trope.)
John and Sarah
Annabelle’s parents are loving and warm. Their response to the bullying situation is quite modern, in fact. An attitude fairly common in earlier eras was that children need to look after themselves, fighting back against bullies. Not so in this situation — when Annabelle tells her parents what’s been going on with Betty they tell her they’ll take care of it and that she should have told them sooner.
But the parents — owing to their goodness — are also opponents, in a way, because in any healthy parent-child relationship, the parents will never be completely on your side. Annabelle doesn’t want to worry them with her Betty issues so she hides the problems she is having. And here’s a storytelling problem — perhaps a problem for the modern child — “Why doesn’t Annabelle simply tell an adult immediately?” “Tattle-tales and ‘dirty dobbing’ weren’t part of my own school culture, but in the last 10-20 years schools have largely instituted zero tolerance for physical violence and I’m fairly confident that most children would tell an adult if they were left with a black welt. Wolk explains in several different places why Annabelle won’t tell her parents. First it’s because she’d like to deal with her own problems on her own — which is actually a rule for protagonists in children’s literature:
I wanted to see if she was a barker or a biter.
At the beginning of chapter four:
My mother gave me a funny look as I stood at the back door the next morning, readying myself, before setting off for school. When she said, “Something wrong, Annabelle?” I nearly told her about Betty. It wold have been a relief to put the whole thing in her hands.
But although there were only apples and potatoes, beets and a few winter squash left to bring in, and although she, of all women on earth, was capable and strong, I had it in mind to spare her this particular battle. I’d thought it through: If i told her, she’d have to go to her friends, the Glengarrys, and tell them that their granddaughter was a hooligan, something they surely already knew but would not want to hear from a neighbour.
And despite the fact that she’d been able to fix nearly every broken thing in our lives, my mother could not promise me that Betty would not come at me again, even angrier — or worse, go after my brothers — if I tattled on her.
I had learned what incorrigible meant. A scolding was not going to change anything, and so far Betty hadn’t done anything to deserve more.
Finally, however, Annabelle does tell her parents. This occurs after the third Betty incident, in fact, making use of the Rule of Three In Storytelling.
We are not immediately sure whether Toby has a dark side to him. He doesn’t want any food, but what does he want?
I’m reminded of the Galloway character in the Jennifer Lawrence film Serena, in which a weird dude walks around in an almost supernatural way. In the adult film the character didn’t work. Partly because of the Galloway character in my opinion, who is two-dimensional and not that interesting. He is two-dimensional precisely because we don’t know what he wants.
Lauren Wolk avoids this pitfall. Toby is introduced with a backstory in chapter three, after Annabelle’s first encounter with Betty. He soon proves his goodness to us, however, when he quietly intervenes in a bullying incident. (A true Save The Cat moment.)
Wolk sets up a mystery. Although this is not a mystery novel per se, there are mystery detective elements as Annabelle sets about on her own fact-finding missions, determining of her own accord whether Toby could be seen from the belfry, and if Betty was even up there at the time of the rock incident.
The climactic incident, after the wire trap, after the lost eye, is when Betty and Toby both go missing. This happens Chapter 12, about p120 out of 290pp. A little less than halfway through.
Because this is a story retold by a storyteller narrator, after a distance of many years, the self-revelation is given to us at the very beginning, and even used on the yellow version of the book cover:
(The first chapter is actually bookended by these two sentences.)
When it is clear that Aunt Lily believes Betty’s story that Toby pushed her into the hole in the ground, Annabelle realises that some people will believe anything so long as it suits their own preconceived view. She realises that there are good lies and bad lies — that the world is not black and white.
By the end of the story Aunt Lily has realised that she was quick to judge Toby. Of course, Aunt Lily’s self-revelation is a lesson to the reader not to judge hastily.
This story has a classic fugitive arc. In children’s literature it’s often another child or an animal that the child rescues and nurtures. Courage The Cowardly Dog takes in the Hunchback of Notre Dame in The Hunchback Of Nowhere. In the case of Wolf Hollow, Annabelle is also harbouring a grown man in the hayloft. (Since this is literary and not horrorcomedy, the author did well not to make this sound creepy. I’m not sure it would work so well if it were set in 2017.) Haylofts are thought to be nurturing, comfortable places to sleep. At least, it’s always the case in stories.
“The loft will be fine,” he said. “It smells good up there. And I like the doves.”
I’m not sure about reality, though. I imagine it would feel scratchy and probably full of ticks. Here in Australia — snakes. However, a bed of hay is a common feature of utopian (or apparent-utopian) stories.
An a fugitive arc the goodie eventually proves their goodness to the public. In this case Toby had to get into the hole and rescue the girl he supposedly harmed.
The problem with grotesques, though, is that in stories they don’t get happy endings. Experienced readers will have expected this as soon as we learned about Toby’s hand. It was inevitable from the set up that Toby would be shot.
However, it was not so inevitable that Betty died. The author avoided melodrama and achieved mimesis by having Betty die undramatically of systemic infection.
We can extrapolate that life will go on as before, but Annabelle is now an adult, or closer to it. That makes Wolf Hollow a coming-of-age story. Annabelle has been drawn into an adult world and there’s no going back. Aunt Lily may or may not be a tad kinder.
In America, lying can never be an act of caring. We find it hard to accept that lying would be protective, this is an unexamined idea. In some countries, not telling, or a certain opaqueness, is an act of respect.
Annabelle’s best friend Ruth is a dark-haired, red-lipped, pale girl with a quiet voice. We know immediately that she is not the star of the story. Such girls do not star in middle grade fiction. (They may find themselves viewpoint characters.) Instead, this girl loses an eye. I’m reminded of Mary and Laura from the Little House On The Prairie series. Laura is the spirited girl with gumption and attitude; Mary is expendable (plot wise) and sure enough, Mary too becomes blind. (The fact that Mary Ingalls became blind in real life is beside my point. It’s possible Mary’s subdued ‘personality’ was emphasised to fit how she became, by necessity, after losing her sight, and her freedom.)
Annabelle’s younger brothers, age 9 and 7, are repeatedly portrayed as existing in the world of childhood, in stark contrast to Annabelle who at age 12 is just starting to encounter adult problems such as prejudice and injustice. Henry and James run around gleefully, eat without self-consciousness and must be protected as the children they still are.
For a while, being included in these conversations had made me feel tall. Now I was ready to be eleven again and back up in bed like my brothers.
Other characters exist to flesh out the town and contribute to the plot — the kindly German man despised by town locals, the gossipy Annie Gribble. (Annie Gribble is somehow an onomatopoeic name. Perhaps because it contains the ‘gr’ consonant cluster, in common with ‘grumble’.)
Annie Gribble lived in a small house that we passed on our way to market. I’d only been there once, to drop off a bushel of peaches at canning time, but she’d invited us in for a glass of lemonade, my father and me, and I’d been fascinated by the switchboard that dominated her front room like a loom strung with thin black snakes.
With the snake simile in final position of that thumbnail character sketch, we are left with a very clear impression of Annie Gribble. She is not to be trusted.
The constable is a kindly fellow, big and strong, but not as good at detective work as Annabelle.
By the end of Wolf Hollow it’s clear that these minor characters were fleshed out for a reason. Annie Gribble is a very handy archetype to have in a story, for narrative purposes. As the town gossip she is an omniscient eye. In Anne of Green Gables we have Rachel Lynde who performs a similar purpose.
It is explained that Wolf Hollow no longer has wolves but used to be the place where wolves were trapped and shot. There were deep pits dug there, which the wolves would fall into. Another story with wolf in the title but not in the storyworld is “The Wamsutter Wolf” by Annie Proulx.
It is immediately clear that the character of Toby is the personification of a wolf — a wild creature roaming around suspiciously, misunderstood by humans. It is no surprise when something bad happens to him. The history of the wolves has foreshadowed the calamity which befalls the human-wolf. To be clear, there is nothing supernatural about this story. It’s not a werewolf tale. But this feels like a place of fantasy laid upon a real-world setting — the symbol web and the ‘evil’ newcomer and the poetic place names lend this feeling. Toby is compared to a farm dog numerous times throughout the story.
When Betty is found the ‘hunt’ for Toby intensifies.
‘Hollow’ is a great word.
We might think of it romantically, as we are encouraged to do in Gilmore girls with the name ‘Stars Hollow’ — a genuine utopia, separate from the ills of the world by virtue of its being in a bit of a ‘hole’ (which has completely different connotations).
More generally, ‘hollow’ means ‘having a hole or empty space inside’. This describes the townspeople who so easily discriminate against those who are different from themselves.
It is eventually revealed that two of the three guns Toby hauls around are broken. ‘Hollow’ weapons, hollow threats — symbols of how Toby looks dangerous but actually isn’t.
Plot wise, it is significant that Betty falls into a literal hole in the ground. This is of course a form of retribution, and readers are encouraged to examine our own glee, especially when it’s revealed how close Betty came to death.
Toby’s scarred and deformed hand is a distinguishing feature eventually used to prove his real identity. This trope is used to comic effect by Daniel Handler in A Series of Fortunate Events, with the tattoo of an eye on Count Olaf’s ankle.
It is significant that Toby’s hand is disfigured because the author is making use of the Red Right Hand trope.
Toby is a Grotesque (and grotesques often have Red Right Hands). A grotesque is ugly on the outside but good on the inside. (Or if they’re bad, it’s because they’ve been treated badly.) But because of his “Red Right Hand”, the townspeople (as well as the readers) have been trained to see Toby as evil. There are good deformities and bad deformities, and having a deformed hand is not a good one, in literature.
Though most people probably think of the Nick Cave song these days, the term originated in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Before that, there are references to red hands in the Bible. Toby is clearly a Jesus figure — ostracised by many for his difference, an aesthete, a long beard, a carpenter, intrinsically good, loves children.
In any case, the history of storytelling has taught us that characters with red hands might be supernatural and also very, very bad. So when Toby turns out to be a good guy, Lauren Wolf has subverted reader expectations, and hopefully the self-revelation for the reader is: Don’t judge people at first sight.
Another novel, for slightly older readers perhaps, deals with questions of right and wrong, appearance vs reality. Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates.
The Utopian World is prevalent in children’s literature, known by various names as listed here. Move into young adult, and the top end of middle grade, and you will encounter The Apparent Utopia.
Besides slavery and dystopia, freedom and utopia, there is one other kind of world you can create for the beginning or end of your story: the apparent utopia. This world appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster. The suburbs are often an apparent utopia, with their manicured lawns and friendly neighbours, but in stories there is usually something terrible going on in the suburbs.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the apparent utopia looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface.
A SHORT HISTORY OF APPARENT UTOPIAS
The apparent utopia is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:
There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffereing, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.
This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over. The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’
But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia — one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman — the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.
— A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin
The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern Apparent Utopian story is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place — it simply seemed so. This puts the audience in a state of unease, because from our comfortable position on the other side of the page or the screen, we too, could be living
APPARENT UTOPIAN SETTINGS
Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the ‘apparent utopia’.
“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”
— Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”
Mad Men, of course, is an apparent utopia, set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are an apparent utopia.
So if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know things are rotten just under the surface:
Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”
Anne Of Green Gables has a lot in common with modern YA stories aimed at young women.
THE INFLUENCE OF CINDERELLA
In real life, the character of Anne Shirley would be a lifelong social workers’ project. Her parents died of ‘the fever’ when she was an infant and since then she’s been pushed around from place to place. She has literally no one in her life who really cares for her. Children simply do not thrive when there is no one to care for them. This gives the beginning of the Green Gables saga more in common with a fairytale than realistic fiction.
THE INFLUENCE OF JANE AUSTEN
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, just shy of 100 years later. I’m in no doubt that L.M. Montgomery grew up reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables is the 1908 Canadian equivalent for slightly younger readers. However, Anne seems to be based on her child self.
Anne Shirley is basically an Elizabeth Bennett character.
In no particular order:
Diana Barry is Jane — each the sweet and beautiful confidante but ultimately too boring to ever exist as a main character in a novel. Both Jane and Diana are victims — in some ways — of their narrowly prescribed circumstances, being completely devoid of freedom. They do pretty much as they are told and they will have uneventful, reasonably happy but low-drama lives.
Lizzie is closer to her father just as Anne is closer to father figure Matthew Cuthbert at first.
Marilla is much kinder and less comical than Lady Catherine de Bourgh but fulfills some of the same story functions. For example, when Marilla cautions Gilbert Blythe that Anne is still very young this must plant the idea of courting her seriously in his mind, because that’s when he offers to escort her to her reading of The Highway Man. Likewise, it’s when Lady Catherine visits Lizzie at her home telling her that Darcy is already engaged to her sickly daughter that Elizabeth stubbornly refuses to say she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, despite rumours. Ironically, this outwardly event brings to consciousness her suppressed feeling that in fact she does like Darcy very much.
Suppressed affections for the most eligible boy in the village. Both Lizzie and Anne have romantic notions — Anne’s are a little more immature — and their ideas of romance actively stand in the way of them finding love until they overcome their fears.
These fears are thought to be borne of ‘pride‘. I find pridefulness quite an old-fashioned notion. I believe Lizzie and Anne suffered from anxiety, which I can well understand, living as fertile women in an age where sex and love was not discussed openly, but where women died during childbirth in every village, and if you didn’t pick your man wisely? Too bad, you were stuck with him. How could you pick wisely, though, when decorum wouldn’t let you spend any real time alone with him? To the early 1900s reader, however, ‘pridefulness’ as a female weakness was well understood, and made for a good psychological weakness. Bookish girls were often told not to bury their noses in study — Diana Barry is an example of a girl whose parents thought that way — and girls were expected to marry whether they wanted to or not. If they chose not to, they were called stubborn — and Marilla is an example of that, growing old and lonely in her twilight years as she gradually loses her eyesight. “If you don’t get married and have children you’ll live a lonely life,” readers are told. Pride as a psychological weakness is readily understood across cultures, and in Japan we see another quite different culture which nevertheless understands that pridefulness is something to be overcome. See for example Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a Japanese story through and through but echoing strong shades of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables nonetheless. Kiki is Anne, Tombo is Gilbert. (By the way, Anne of Green Gables is very popular in Japan. Japanese tourists make up a disproportionate number of tourists to Prince Edward Island each year.)
Unlike L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen was not under contract to write any more stories if Pride and Prejudice were to take off. Not true of Lucy Maud, who was forced to write an entire series about Anne under contract even though she didn’t seem to want to. I feel her instincts were right — there’s a good reason why Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and there’s a reason why the sequels to Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t sell as well. Both Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are complete stories in their own right. There are of course readers who love the entire Anne series, but others feel quite keenly that the rest of the series pales in comparison. I hesitate to use the word ‘formula’ because Anne of Green Gables, much less Pride and Prejudice, is far from ‘formulaic’, but there is a good reason why Anne of Green Gables works. (See Story Structure, below.)
For more on the similarities between P&P and Anne, see here.
THE INFLUENCE OF L.M. MONTGOMERY ON MODERN STORIES
For the younger set, throw in a bit of Anne of Green Gables and there’s an unlimited number of popular and enduring stories that can be made from the pieces:
Go a bit younger and the granddaughters of Anne Shirley are Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and Clementine. Mischievous, well-meaning, average looking, each of these heroines find themselves in regular scrapes when all they want to do is have fun.
Let these heroines enter adolescence and they will probably have something about their physical appearance they can’t stand. That Anne Shirley so hates her hair makes me think that maybe adolescent self-criticism predates the Mad Men era after all. That said, Anne Shirley had very good reason to hate her red hair. In the 1800s it was genuinely thought that girls with red hair (and green eyes) were — if not exactly witches — at least ‘wicked’. The word ‘wicked’ comes up several times in the book. This was thought to be an innate characteristic that went with red hair, and in fact the idea hasn’t died completely. One day it will seem as archaic as phrenology. Anne Shirley was deemed to have a temper on her because of her red hair, so every time she lost her temper, it was put down to her having red hair. If that isn’t a justifiable reason to be angry in the first place, I don’t know what is.
Young adult novels for girls will almost always have a romantic subplot if not romance as a main plot, and increasingly, middle grade fiction has a hint of romance too. (The boy and girl will probably start as enemies, end as sort-of-friends.) Romantic stories with drama as the wrapper tend to endure across generations and area also more respected by critics.
I also see the influence of Anne of Green Gables in a popular TV show such as Gilmore girls. Stars Hollow is a modern day American Avonlea. Both are genuine utopias. Apart from death — which happens in a romantic way — falling over in the middle of a field and passing swiftly — nothing really truly bad happens in Avonlea. Rory is smart and bookish like Anne, but overall more of the Diana character. The mother of Gilmore girls is feisty enough in her own right to provide some interest and conflict. Also like Gilmore girls, Rory has a bit of a rags to riches arc — she was never truly destitute, but because her grandparents are wealthy she is able to pursue her academic dreams.
Often a measure of a novel’s success, in its depiction of a particular place, occurs when readers feel they know it, they recognize it, or, better yet, they want to visit. Such has been the case with the perennial favorite, Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, fans of Anne Shirley have sought out the small island in eastern Canada, keen to meet the character and tour the landscapes she made memorable—The Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood, Lover’s Lane, the Birch Path. Like the free-spirited Anne, who loves and names almost every tree and flower she encounters, they, too, want to know the place that had such an influence on her. For lovers of the Anne novels (Maud Montgomery wrote an additional seven for the series), much of the magic seems rooted in the very land Anne roamed.
Visitors to Prince Edward Island will find much to love in its natural beauty—a narrow strip of rolling hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with lush fields, quiet coves, and miles of white sand beaches. But its pastoral, timeless feel can’t quite explain its powerful draw. While the summers are mild, its winters are long, and two of the primary industries—fishing and agriculture—can be tough to pursue at any time of year. Yet tourism, the second most important, remains strong, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving every year to experience the same sites that were such a part of Anne Shirley’s adventures.
It is, in many ways, an odd phenomenon, a balancing act between the real and the fictional that Canada’s National Park Service, among others, helps sustain. In the town of Cavendish (“Avonlea” in the novels), in the house known as Green Gables, visitors can see the rooms where Anne and Matthew and Marilla slept; they can walk the same paths, cross the same streams and inhale the same fir-scented air.Along the way, they can relive some of Anne’s more memorable moments—scaring herself with Diana in the Haunted Woods, welcoming spring with her schoolmates on a mayflower picnic, accepting Gilbert’s offer of friendship on an evening stroll as the novel concludes. And yet these are all imagined events, superimposed on the PEI canvas—until one reads more about Montgomery’s life. There, in the pages of her journals, which were first made available to the public in 1985 (edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston), is where the real and the fictional intersect.
Anne of Green Gables is episodic in nature, but the character development of Anne (and Marilla and Matthew) is linear. I discuss the episodic/linear nature of Anne of Green Gables in Types Of Plots In Children’s Literature.
Anne has the same weakness as Cinderella — all alone in the world with literally no one but her imaginary friend Katie. Audiences love an underdog character, and Anne is nothing if not an underdog.
She’s a destitute orphan
As each of these main underdog attributes is overcome, the next becomes an issue. The fact that Anne is a girl places the story firmly in its era — big budget stories are still being made where female characters have to prove themselves first (which usually involves being ‘feisty’, and making it among the boys on an adventure outside the home), but this generation of children is finally starting to see stories about girls whose femaleness is not something that makes them an underdog. (You can see the recent evolution in Brave versus Moana, for instance.)
Anne needs to find someone to love her in order to find fulfilment. First she must find parental figures. Later, because old people die, she must find a romantic partner. Anne of Green Gables is a love story as well as a romance.
The love story is designed to show the audience the value of community between two equals. The central concept of love stories is quite profound. Love stories say that a person does not become a true individual by being alone. A person becomes a unique and authentic individual only be entering into a community of two.
What’s really at stake is not the individual characters as much as the love between them.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
Anne of Green Gables is in some ways a very modern story. Whereas many 20th century films and books were about women waiting for men to save them, Anne Shirley works hard and we know she’d be just fine even without her Gilbert. Our culture has even reached the point where we get popular films such as Bridesmaids, about seriously flawed women (not even attractively flawed) who must get themselves ready for equal partnership before they can find love.
Like the perfect job interview (and the perfect kidlit heroine), each of Anne’s weaknesses has a flipside strength:
She is imaginative but prone to distraction. (I argue that Anne Shirley is an ADHD girl through and through.)
She is smart at school but also smart mouthed (audiences love, love, love a character who has the nerve to say what she thinks — it explains the cosiness of Doc Martin, too, popular with an older audience).
She appreciates all that is beautiful but remains toxically dissatisfied with her own lack thereof.
She is tenacious but stubborn. Her tenaciousness gets her far in academia but until she overcomes her stubbornness she won’t get far in love.
She is infectiously full of the joys of spring but immature.
Anne has neither the age nor wisdom to see what her real desires are. Though we as audience can see that her red hair should really be the least of her worries given her dire predicament at the start of the story, Anne gives her hair an undue amount of attention. When Marilla teaches her how to pray, Anne ‘asks humbly’ to:
Stay at Green Gables
Grow darker hair
Both requests indicate Anne’s deeper seated and far more serious need to be accepted and admired.
The lesson here is that main characters don’t necessarily know (or voice) what they want. But the audience must know.
On her journey Anne meets the full complement of both developed and flat allies, enemies, fake-enemies and fake-allies. The allies are famously described by Anne as kindred spirits.
Although at the beginning of the story Anne has no one and the whole world seems against her, as soon as she hits Avonlea strangers show various kindnesses. For example, there’s the station attendant who is charmed by her. I suspect Anne has always found comfort in the small kindnesses of strangers she meets along the way.
The flattest enemies are the women who abuse Anne by requiring her to look after their many children, all the while psychologically abusing her. First we have Mrs Hammond; next we have the prospect of the local Mrs Bluitt, whose very name suggests Anne would not be happy. As a side note, revisiting the story again as an adult, especially as we face the prospect of re-entering a world in which men control the fertility of women, I have more sympathy for Mrs Hammond as a victim. The 1980s miniseries starring Megan Follows almost encourages the viewer to read Mrs Hammond as lesbian, about to move in with her possessive, shoulder-rubbing female friend as she accuses Anne of basically killing the husband herself, with her failure to deliver lunch on time. What if Mrs Hammond was gay? What if she never wanted any children at all, but was stuck with all those twins? In a pre-contraceptive age, Mrs Hammond is arguably as much as a victim as Anne Shirley.
Marilla is an opponent who turns into Anne’s firmest ally by the end of the book.
Miss Shirley is a Miss Honey archetype (used by Roald Dahl in Matilda), an ally in every way.
Soon a pattern emerges — Anne is universally liked by good people, even if those people are crotchety on the surface. Diana’s auntie is the best example of that. Anne is a bit of a travelling angel trope, though rather than leaving town for good, she is pulled away to complete different parts of her life’s journey, returning every now and then.
In any love story, the desire and opponent are the same person. This is specific to love stories. So, Gilbert Blythe is both desired and an opponent. Same for Marilla, actually, because this is a story about a girl falling in love with her (substitute) parents.
There is a romantic triangle in Anne of Green Gables, since it is clear from the start that Diana Barry admires Gilbert Blythe. But because readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the first character they see, we are all rooting for Anne and Gilbert, even though Diana probably ‘deserves’ him more, if you think about it. We can see Diana isn’t quite smart (or educated) enough for Gilbert though, who is obviously more interested in fiery women like Anne. How does Montgomery manage readers to the point where we don’t end up mad and frustrated at Anne for her stubborn resistance to Gilbert? Diana realizes Gilbert isn’t her destiny. After a conversation with Anne near the end of the book, we are left with the impression that while Diana will pursue Gilbert if Anne doesn’t want him, she’ll happily give him over to Anne.
Josie Pye is a different matter — Josie is that snobby, girly character found in most popular books for girls — a girl who thinks she’s better than other people (the worst thing a girl can possibly be). Josie is rich but not academically inclined. She is well-dressed and confident and sees Anne as her rival, setting up a rivalry even before Anne has noticed she exists. This ensures the audience dislikes Josie Pye. Josie is not all that interested in Gilbert — she is mostly keen to deprive Anne of him.
Anne’s childlike, episodic adventures at Avonlea culminate in a ‘near drowning’ (which is no such thing), but the suggestion of death is there. A common storytelling technique in middle grade is to have another character come to the rescue of your protagonist. In this case it’s not a true rescue, more of a farce, as if acted upon a stage (where Anne often imagines herself, in fact). The rule here is that your main character still has to help themselves when it comes the character arc. They can be helped out in some sticky plot situation, but ultimately, change is up to them.
By the way, is there a deeper meaning to Anne’s obsession with The Lady of Shalott? Since it occurs at a climactic moment, I suggest there is. Doomed to view life through reflections, the Lady’s life is a mere shadow with no experiences of her own. Like The Lady of Shalott, Anne is inclined to live vicariously via women whose lives she has invented inside her head. This is the very thing preventing her pursuing anything in real life with Gilbert, right there in front of her.
Anne’s obsession with Tennyson’s poem isn’t really helping her get over her red hair issues, because it encourages us to focus on form over substance. The leak in the boat symbolises her psychological weakness — it will be her undoing — she needs the love of Gilbert to teach her she is in fact worthy in her own right. Signfiicantly, Gilbert has said he prefers brains over beauty anyway.
The Main Plot
Anne learns that she truly belongs to Avonlea, even if she started out as an unwanted orphan. She has won numerous people over and spurred their own character arc (especially that of Marilla and Matthew, but also that of Rachel Lynde, Diana Barry’s mother and the crotchety old maid aunt*).
*As a side note, why is Diana’s old maid aunt so much richer than Diana’s natal family? My own guess is that Diana’s extended family is aristocratic by heritage, but perhaps the father made some bad investments and they have since lost most of it, which is why the aunt is the only one still able to pay for Diana’s music lessons. In this sense, Diana is very much like Jane Bennett — not only docile and beautiful and kind but also in a financially precarious position unless she marries well — and she will be expected to marry well in order to haul the financially failing family back into Prince Edward Island’s gentry class.
The Romantic Subplot
When Gilbert reveals that he and Anne tied for first in the Queens exam it is clear to Anne, seemingly for the first time, that they are true equals. This will eventually lead to a full-blown romance and marriage, but not in this first book.
After the death of Matthew we are left with Anne and Marilla together — Anne wants the best for Marilla and Marilla wants the best for Anne (college). These two goals will continue to butt heads and we’re not quite sure exactly what happiness will look like for these two, but when Gilbert offers to walk Anne home we know those two are going to end up together and we know for sure that Anne is going to look after Marilla in her old age.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a Studio Ghibli film released in 1989. This film was always popular in Japan but — though it’s hard to remember now — Studio Ghibli films didn’t take off in the West until 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke.
BASED ON A POPULAR JAPANESE CHILDREN’S BOOK
Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a novel published in 1985 by Eiko Kadono. Kiki’s Delivery Service is Kadono’s best known work. Like L. Frank Baum, she really only had this one big hit and wrote lesser known sequels which are lesser known. (There are 6 in the series altogether.) As of 2017, Kadono is 81 years old.
Hayao Miyazaki is 76. The film therefore has the combined sensibilities of a Japanese pair of artists born around the time of the World Wars. This affects both the setting and the sentiment.
“Just follow your heart and keep smiling,” advises the mother before Kiki sets off. This feels like not only a distinctly Japanese thing to say, but also an especially feminine aspiration, though probably applied to everyone in Japan born after the war.
STORYWORLD OF KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
Where are these Miyazaki films set? Not in Japan but not in Europe, either. The utopian storyworld of Kiki’s Delivery Service (and several of the other Studio Ghibli films) has the trains, the hilly suburbs and the closeness of the sea but also has the cobbled streets and nooks and crannies of somewhere like Barcelona, with intratext on the signs looking a lot like English with a few flourishes reminiscent of kanji. We are to believe this is another world, a world where magic exists unobtrusively in the real world of the story.
[Studio Ghibli] shot 80 rolls of film in Stockholm and Visby, gathering location images as inspiration for the scenes in Koriko. For the most part, Koriko is composed of images of Stockholm. A side street in Stockholm’s old city, Gamla Stan, is one model. Sweden was the first foreign country Miyazaki ever visited.
Fictional Koriko is, however, much larger than Visby and features buildings and shops with the look of Stockholm.
This is perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most analysed, of the English country gardens in children’s literature.
This is an illustration by the wonderful Inga Moore, also well-known for her illustrations of Wind In The Willows. Though Inga Moore is a modern illustrator, her style has a classical style which you might almost expect to have been published with the originals.
Inga Moore is unexpectedly Australian, though these very English landscapes make more sense once you learn she was born and in and moved back to England.
Mr McGregor’s Garden is the most perfect vegetable and flower garden ever seen — its vague topography makes it one’s idea of what an old-fashioned country garden should be. The interesting adventures that Peter Rabbit had there have, at first sight, a familiar moral basis of filial obedience, but that is not what one remembers them for; it is the rural magic, the delicate beauty of the pictures, the few words, precise and perfect, that describe them, and the idealised view of the longed-for North Country of Beatrix Potter’s childhood holidays to which she eventually returned.
— Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Blount continues: The work of Alison Uttley has many of the same strains as Beatrix Potter. There is the same Northern countryside, populated exclusively by small animals living their lives in holes, burrows and tiny houses. These books were published from 1929 onwards.
fire from wood
water from the well
candles made of rushes
a village community
a magic truce is observed at all times: no predators, no marauders, Wise Owl does not catch mice, the Rat only steals a few provisions and makes up for it by giving unexpected presents.
sometimes the animals talk in baby language
even the adult characters have childlike qualities
female adults are old enough to keep house and cook but young enough to enjoy games, tricks and picnics.
At Jonathan Rabbit’s school lessons are about flowers and nursery rhymes.
elements of folklore and animal fairy tale — the animals have magic that humans have lost
There’s a nearby woodland which might be based on Shere or Finchingfield or Tunbridge Wells but with tiny ‘doll’s house improvements which make this kind of art so satisfying’.
There are no humans in these animal garden utopias because if humans were to appear, the illusion of magic would be gone for the reader. In Potter’s A Tale Of Two Bad Mice, there must be a human who plays with the doll house, but the story isn’t about when the human is there.
The Enormous Turnip
A garden always has the potential for surprises. If left alone, pumpkins and other root vegetables can grow huge. The gardener’s concern is, ‘What’s happening right outside, under the earth?’ Especially in earlier times when homegrown food was essential as a measure against starvation, this concern would’ve been much more.
A classic tale such as The Enormous Turnip is about that mindset.
Here we see another English country garden illustrated by John Dyke for Ladybird. (Dyke also illustrated the Pigwig series.) There is a painter by the same name.
The English country garden includes robins, two beam fences, gates with cross bars, stone walls, undulating hills in the background and basic equipment like rakes, shovels and watering cans.
In an English country garden it is neither too bright nor too overcast, but just right for working up a light sweat.
Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is a British picture book written and illustrated by Mary Rayner in 1977. The story is part fairytale, part 1977 modernity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Rayner was born in 1933 in Mandalay, Burma of British parents. She was 8 years old when Japanese troops invaded Burma. Her mother and two siblings walked over the mountains into India. Her father had joined the army and was killed.
After the war, the Rayner family returned to the UK from India.
The sense of a family pulling together in dire circumstances is conveyed, though comically, in this story.
The illustrations are very much of England.
That’s because after a degree in English in England, Mary Rayner joined the publishing industry. Her first book was The Witch-Finder in 1976. This one came the year after, along with Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out. She wrote and illustrated the pig books for her own three children, though by the time she’d finished them they’d themselves grown too old for them.
All of her children grew up to be writers themselves.
STORYWORLD OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY
This is very much a fairytale world, borrowing elements from:
The depiction of the village is very much a fairytale one, and decidedly English.
Whoosh Ice Creams
I wonder if English readers will know what a Whoosh ice cream is? I certainly can’t find out from my Internet research, though I thought it might be an abbreviation of the Whoosh! Cecil flavour. Apparently that is chocolate ice cream with salted caramel and cashews, but I doubt that’s what’s intended here because when the pigs finally get their whooshes they’re holding a rainbow coloured ice block type of thing.
(I believe the Whoosh! Cecil is American anyway, but even in 1977, English children were very much influenced by American culture. We see that in the second scene in fact, where all the brothers and sisters are playing cowboys and Indians.)
Apparent Utopia of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady
This is an apparent utopia, in which everything looks homely and safe but in fact a child can be abducted by a stranger at any time. Fairytale worlds have always had the function of scaring children about strangers, and neglecting the cover the more sobering fact that adults most likely to hurt you are those you love and trust.
In any fairytale land you need a forest right next to the village/town. We have one here, and that’s where the wolf drives off to. It doesn’t matter for the purposes of a fairytale that there have been no forests in England since 1086 at the latest.
It’s fitting that the wolf drives a Volkswagen Kombi because those things were always breaking down.
STORY STRUCTURE OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY
It’s interesting that Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady opens with the mother pig scrubbing the floor because she is not the main character. We see her overleaf very much not coping with her ten children — she has her head buried in her hands. Most mothers in picture books are coping very nicely, in their aprons and clean, middle class homes, so it’s interesting to see this variation of motherhood. I wonder why the author decided to open with the mother — perhaps she’s saying that while the mother is busy with housework the children will get up to mischief.
The main character of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is Garth. He wants an ice cream. Not only does he want an ice cream, he wants an upgraded ice cream. While all the siblings are happy with whooshes, Garth hopes there will be enough change to buy himself a double cone with flakes coming out of it. This is obviously the luxury choice of the storyworld. At first it looks as if Garth is punished for being so greedy. But he gets his upgraded cone in the end, because the mother feels sorry for him after his ordeal. It is therefore left to the young reader to decide if being greedy was all worth it.
There is a problem with the plot in my opinion: It is decided that Garth, alone, will go to the ice-cream truck and get 10 ice creams for his brothers and sisters. But there is no way in hell a person with hands let alone a pig with hoofs could carry back the ice creams alone. Haha. This is what Hitchcock would have called a refrigerator moment.
While a good measure of suspended disbelief is necessary to enjoy picture books, this is one step too far. In real life I’m guessing children will be familiar with the difficulties of carrying multiple ice creams without help, and there is no good reason why several of the little pigs wouldn’t go along to help Garth. It’s necessary for the plot, however; Garth is vulnerable precisely because he is alone.
The wolf dressed as a nice lady.
Perhaps the wolf really is a female wolf — she remains ungendered. But the evil wolf dressing up as ‘grandma’ obviously has its roots in Little Red Riding Hood. I believe therefore that most readers will read the wolf as male underneath. (In cases where a female is revealed to be a male, this is playing on an instinctive human fear of mistaking something for something else. This trope continues today and is damaging to the trans community. See Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl.)
Just as happens in Dr Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, this story makes use of symbolic crossroads. When the ice cream trail runs out at the crossroads, the pigs are forced to change their plan from ‘following the trail’ to actively searching for Garth.
Meanwhile, in the van, Garth hears the wolf singing about chops and realises someone’s not quite right.
Even an abducted and therefore quite helpless child character must not be passive. We enjoy watching Garth try to get himself out of this difficulty of partly his own making. (If he hadn’t been so greedy about counting the money to see if he could upgrade his ice cream he might have noticed, as well all did, that the ice cream vendor was a wolf.)
There is a fairly lengthy action scene in which the reader enjoys seeing the wolf try to control a bicycle built for ten as it careens downhill. This eventually ends with him being thrown into the river.
Next there is a shot to Garth inside the van, realising he’s in trouble. The van breaks down. Garth breaks free.
In this comic tale there is no groundbreaking soulsearching revelation. Instead, the pigs — who live in fairytale land, after all — realise that they still haven’t had their ice creams, and that they can just go up the hill and get some for themselves now that the evil wolf has been taken care of.
All is fair in this story, because the mother points out that she’s already paid for them, after all. (There’ll be no promotion of thievery in picture books, thanks very much.)
It’s fitting that the final image we see is of the wolf’s old straw hat, caught in the branches which hang into the river.
In stories, hats have a special significance of denoting power or otherwise. A father will give his son a baseball cap, for instance, or a king will give a prince his crown to symbolise a transfer of power. Without the hat as disguise, the wolf is now rendered completely powerless. We can extrapolate from this image that he won’t be bothering this village again.
Farms in children’s literature are often a kind of utopia. Often these are animal utopias, and the reader is not supposed to even think of what the animals are really there for. Writing of the book Hepzibah Hen, a Children’s Hour favourite from 1926, is described by Margaret Blount as ‘the antithesis of Animal Farm‘, in which
there are a few hints of what a farm is really for, but they seem to relate to a kind of social code — one does not mention the word ‘Christmas’ to a turkey, or ‘Pluck’ to a hen.
— Animal Land
Storybook farms require hens. Honestly, hens are the best kind of farm animal. They have the best personalities!