I was first introduced to death by my older sister who took me to see the movie Bambi when I was a little girl. I’d barely dried my tears over the death of Bambi’s mother, when I was crying again while reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book By the Shores of Silver Lake. Not only did Laura’s sister Mary go blind, but their loyal bull dog, Jack, died. In high school I reached for the tissue again when Scarlet O’Hara’s elderly father dies in Gone with the Wind.
Even then, I wondered why did writers let people and beloved animals die? I didn’t think it was too much to ask those with the power of make believe to keep everyone alive.
While the transhumanist movement and goal for singularity can make sense of our increasingly science-fiction world with its rapidly growing technologies, I see problems with articulating the wrongness of death; in a recent Slate article, Joelle Renstrom writes that,
Representing death as wrong gives it greater power, especially when people do die. If death is wrong, are people who die bad, or are they victims of an obsolete paradigm? Either way, making peace with death would be particularly challenging. Kids could grow up not just afraid of death, but also afraid of failing to fix it. Stolyarov makes death a powerful nemesis that could rule their lives—just as it’s ruled his.
The notion of immortality becomes a fact rather than a concept; to present that to a young mind, a nascent consciousness, does not bode well for their development.
[T]he Neverland is unmistakably the land of the dead, with all its implications. In Mrs. Darling’s vague childhood memories of Peter, “when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they shouldn’t be frightened”. Peter’s famous statement “To die will be an awfully big adventure,” is based on the idea of reversibility of death. This is not a Christian, but a pagan (archaic) notion. To die in the Neverland is an everyday matter, and the author deals with it quite casually: “Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method”. This is only possible, because it is not real death, but make-believe. Wendy is shot down by the not-so-bright Tootles and lies dead for a while, mourned by the boys, emerging from the little house in a perfect “returning-goddess” ritual. Even Tinker Bell, having taken poison, can easily be resurrected, because her life and death are merely a question of belief. If all the inhabitants of the Neverland are already dead, then of course they are not afraid to die.
Writers who choose to let their young protagonists die or commit suicide allow them to stay forever young.
– From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Although dystopia seems to be the opposite of idyll, it has in fact the same purpose: to conserve the children–as well as adults–in an innocent, unchanging state, comfortably freed from memories, emotions, affections, responsibilities–and from natural death. Breaking away from a safe and secluded dystopian society, children break out into linearity.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
Nikolajeva goes on to explain that quite a few authors depict a reverse process, and offers A Cry from the Jungle by Norwegian author Tormod Haugen as an example of an ‘extremely complicated and equivocal novel.’
Why do literary novelists love dystopia? from Salon
The Dystopian Timeline to The Hunger Games [INFOGRAPHIC] via Goodreads
A flowchart which will help you decode dystopia from eBook Friendly
In Sweden, a critic has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. In many novels, notably Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, we see a total disintegration of character, narrative and structure. YA novel as a narrative which goes beyond the point of no return to idyll also transgresses all conventions which are normally ascribed to children’s fiction.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
David Beagley, La Trobe University, lecture available on iTunes U
Kim Hill discusses Elizabeth Knox’s latest young adult novel with Kate De Goldi.
The daughter of a Pacific Island mother with a formidable background is a maths genius, among many other things. But all her life she’s been aware of something she calls ‘extra’ — an otherness to things. This is described very well by Elizabeth Knox. When Canny sets out on a trip with her stepbrother and his girlfriend, she finds herself drawn into enchanting Zarene Valley where the mysterious but dark seventeen-year-old Ghislain helps her to figure out her origins.
How does Mortal Fire relate to Elizabeth Knox’s two Dreamcatcher books?
This is set in a world similar to our own, but history has gone in slightly different directions. This is set in ‘Southland’, which is putatively New Zealand but also possibly attached to Australia. (Not necessarily physically but an antipodean entity.) The earlier books are set at an earlier point in history (around the Edwardian age). There is a special place set aside where people bring dreams to them. Now we’ve skipped ahead to 1959. (Elizabeth’s birth.)
Marvellous Aspects Of Mortal Fire
Knox’s work is described by the publisher as being ‘immaterial’, though Knox’s great facility is to lodge the reader in the material world. The style is no frills, though this is part of the point really. Some writers want each sentence to be a perfect entity. Others are looking at a broader canvas, using language in a more utilitarian way to tell the story. Knox probably falls into the latter camp, which suits the kind of stories she tells. She also spends a lot of time in this book setting up. But she nevertheless inspires confidence, so you do plough through the exposition. We will be taken somewhere meaningful.
Knox is a fantastically concrete writer, whether someone is manipulating bees (for magic) or it’s underground in a mine (so enthralling). The concrete writing lodges the reader in the here and now, including the problems of our modern world — big issues, particular things that have gone on in New Zealand, not least the Pike River Mining Disaster. In the story there is a secret entwined in that incident. This allows Knox to explore big issues such as power, (and in a different subplot) our inability to save people who are ill.
Knox is fantastic at ‘processes’, at describing how stuff is done.
There are many layers in Knox’s work. The magic of the material world adds to the layering. There will be probably be theses written about this author in future. There is so much to explore. There is complexity/nuancing/instability in her characterisation. No one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’: There are a whole lot of complex reasons to explain why people are as they are.
Knox is the preeminent heir to Margaret Mahy and Diana Wynne-Jones.
The book becomes page turning in the last two thirds of the book.
Names are always meaningful. (So ‘Canny’ is significant.) This technique is reminiscent of Catalogue Of The Universe (though not in any way derivative). Two characters come together and learn to love each other’s difficult parts. The place names of the alternate NZ are also really powerful. The names suggest New Zealand was settled earlier than it actually was.
The information in the book is belayed at a beautifully measured pace. The reader is almost expected to be mathematicians ourselves, putting the patterns together.
The earlier time of dreamhunting is mentioned. This book isn’t a sequel to Knox’s earlier ones, but simply exists in the same world.
What makes this a YA novel is that it involves a transformation, in which Canny discovers her full power. The story around her origins is so complex. This is a great YA novel. There are parts of YA that have been a little ‘used up’. It’s very difficult these days to be exciting with social realism. Kate De Goldi suspects that the only legitimate YA at the moment is speculative.
Into The River by Ted Dawe
Kim asks, What does this say about Ted Dawe’s Into The River? This is totally social realism, and very successful. But speculative fiction goes so well in YA stories because adolescence is an overwrought time. Everything is at full throttle. When that is being explored in social realism sometimes it just becomes melodramatic, unless it’s in the hands of a really good writer. But in a magical world, that same drama seems sort of persuasive.
Ted Dawe is an excellent writer. De Goldi can’t understand the furore around the content. Though explicit, it’s in context. The moral panic that has spurted out over Dawe’s book is in response to prizewinners. If a book doesn’t win a prize it can go more often under the radar. What about Singing My Sister Down, the short story by Margo Lanagan? Why are more people not outraged over that? Lanagan’s short story shocks but it contains no sex. It seems to be sex that shocks people. Also violence and drugs, but mainly the sex. Nevertheless, De Goldi urges people to red Ted Dawe’s book, because there’s an incredible sweetness about the main character. There’s no real message being promulgated in any way, but he holds a mirror up to society and asks the reader to take a hard look.
Both Into the River and Mortal Fire achieve that.