Children’s Books With Kate De Goldi, Saturday Morning, RNZ

 

A DROWNED MAIDEN’S HAIR: A MELODRAMA BY LAURA AMY SCHLITZ

Good Masters, Sweet Ladies was reviewed earlier and was loved.

The first novel from Schlitz is A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, about a young orphan.

‘[The orphan] focuses on a self-pity that everyone wants to feel sometimes, and that perhaps helps a child or an adolescent to think through their fundamental separateness.’

– The Child that Books Built, Francis Spufford

The author uses Victorian Gothic really skilfully in her books. It’s a great playground for children’s writers at the moment: Writers don’t have to wrestle with technology in the story and this historical setting is dark and mysterious and very colourful, and lends an air of fantasy.

This is a really good story. There are big things being talked about women’s place, about exploitation at all levels of life. The author looks very interestingly at disability and writes really tenderly about unusual friendships about people who are marginalised.

SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS

The things that Schlitz did well in her first novel were done equally well in this one. (There are two titles for this book depending on the continent.)

This is a fantastic adventure about two orphans who work for an Italian puppeteer. They live in poverty. This is a fable, of sorts.

Names of characters are really important in this: Clara (light) Wintermute (she can’t speak). In her house she’s been silenced by the grief of her parents. Four of her siblings died in the cholera epidemic but she survived and has the guilt of a survivor.

While the plot may sound a bit hokey, the writing is very beautiful. The music, the rhythm of the words… We learn a huge amount of detail about Victorian London.

Something Schlitz does without any shrinking is show the evil capacity of ordinary adults. It’s quite frightening the way the adults have buried sexual desires which are under the surface of the text. Having said that, this is very much a children’s story. The end is elevating.

There may be a sequel. Much recommended.

FROM NORVELT TO NOWHERE BY JACK GANTOS

Dead End In Norvelt was enormously funny. Eleanor was the secret hero of that story. As much as anything it was a plea for young people to be aware of history. The most interesting part was the relationship between the hilarious older woman and the young boy. In a way it bordered on the farcical, being about mass murder. All the elderly ladies are dying off.

De Goldi was really looking forward to this next book but was frequently disappointed. It feels like a rushed out sequel. In this book Jack and Miss Volker take off across country. Miss Volker wants to find her true love and shoot him. Jack somewhat mysteriously is allowed to go along for the ride. This is just an excuse for the author to talk about some very serious moral issues in fiction. Again, he’s wanting young readers to understand America’s complex history. Really good writers are aware constantly of the times in which they live, wanting to get readers to make connections and understand the times they live in.

But this book is sloppily written. His quite dark but very absorbing older stories and his memoir are very gritty and sharp. This suffers from under-editing and over-writing. Adverbs just kind of flail around the text.

However his theme is the Jekyll and Hyde of American history and indeed all of our history. There’s a running gag in which Jack reads comic versions of classics instead of the classics themselves. His mother and Miss Volker are always wanting him to read seriously. A parallel is drawn between America’s vision of itself at its founding and the subsequent history, and the good and the bad. Miss Volker offers two page lectures on American history which De Goldi actually found very interesting, but wondered how a young reader would be with it, even though they’re told in a very lively way. These historical lessons aren’t woven very well into the narrative.

There’s also a lot of talk about killing. It got to a point where it was borderline troublesome. Did Gantos and the publishers think this would be a good tale for ‘the lads’? Will young readers pick up violent irony?