Here’s the premise of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove: Two Texas Rangers decide to move cattle from the south to Montana running into many problems along the way.
Detail a legendary journey while including the harsh realities of Wild-Western life to show that the ‘legends’ of the Wild West were ordinary men working in unglamorous conditions.
Pulitzer Prize winners may have a reputation for being dense and requiring much work, but if that’s the case, Lonesome Dove is an exception. This is what you’d call ‘super readable’. A page-turner. Which is just as well, because you could build a house with these bricks.
If you would like to know what it feels like to be a cattle man in the Wild West in the mid 1870s, and you don’t like the idea of getting kilt or drinking black coffee for breakfast or hoiking up black phlegm from all the dust or using your saddle for a pillow while sleeping on the hard, cold ground; if you aren’t the owner of an actual time machine, then this is the book for you. McMurtry does an excellent job of detailing the day-to-day realities of being a cowboy in the Wild West.
And few authors would be more qualified. Larry McMurtry’s own father was a cattleman, along with every one of his eight uncles. McMurtry himself obviously absorbed a lot of the dialect, grammar and vocabulary of cattlemen, putting it to good use in his Western novels.
A coming-of-age is a genre that focuses on psychological and moral growth of a main character who is growing from youth to adulthood. Personal growth is the most important characteristic in this genre. It relies on emotional responses and dialogue rather than action. (How do you know who’s the main character? It’s the one who changes the most.)
There are many children’s stories (or stories about children) in which the child loses their innocence. When that character is a bit older (adolescent) then it’s called a coming-of-age story.
Sometimes people think they know you. They know a few facts about you, and they piece you together in a way that makes sense to them. And if you don’t know yourself very well, you might even believe that they are right. But the truth is, that isn’t you. That isn’t you at all.
— Leila Sales
Structure Of A Coming-of-age Story
At the beginning of the story, childhood has already been left behind, and the hero has concluded that the world is not a safe or blissful place. An event that occurred prior to the beginning of the story, or the hero’s overall situation, has made the hero feel lost or stuck in a world over which she has little or no control (the death of a brother in Stand By Me; a dystopian society in The Hunger Games; the social pressure and institutional indifference of school in The Breakfast Club).
After the hero’s introduction in the setup of the story, he is presented with an Opportunity that will either make life even worse (Katniss’ sister being chosen for the hunger games; the introduction of the bully in Karate Kid), or will hold the promise of some escape from his pain (the report of a dead body in Stand By Me; the Rolling Stone assignment in Almost Famous). In response, these heroes’ outer motivations are declared, and their pursuit of those goals begins.
As with any character arc, it is in this journey that their transformation occurs. But in coming of age stories, the conflicts the characters face force them to realize that they are now on their own, that parents, friends and society will not save them, and they must rely on themselves. And with this painful realization comes each hero’s individuation. They now define themselves and stand up for who they are – usually in defiance of parents or figures of authority.
So at the end of the journeys in the movies above – and in all coming of age stories – the world has not changed. It’s as painful and inhospitable as ever. But the hero is now equipped with the strength and courage and independence to face the world head on, and to move into adulthood living his or her essence.
— Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website
I have a friend who swears she can’t stand any kind of coming-of-age story. I think this is because her definition is a little narrower than mine — she’s thinking of the genre typified by the likes of American Pie.
In one sense, all memorable stories are coming of age stories, if what we mean by the term is a story about someone who moves from one stage of development to a more advanced one. […] Films explicitly labeled a “coming-of-age story,” however, are often about nothing more than someone’s becoming aware of sex.
— Howard Suber
This seems to be the common message of coming-of-age stories for a YA audience:
You’re not going to die. Here’s the white-hot truth: if you go bankrupt, you’ll still be okay. If you lose the gig, the lover, the house, you’ll still be okay. If you sing off-key, get beat by the competition, have your heart shattered, get fired… it’s not going to kill you. Ask anyone who’s been through it.
Coming-of-age stories tend to emphasise dialogue or internal monologue over action.
They are often set in the past.
The main characters of coming-of-age stories are typically teenagers. Almost without exception, coming of age stories are about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, from being defined by family or society to defining oneself. The main character is somewhere between 10-years-old (Elliott in E.T.) and late teens (the four heroes of American Graffiti). However, sometimes an adult main character is emotionally delayed. An example of a coming-of-age character in her late twenties is Ruth in I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore.
A psychoanalytic reading of a coming-of-age story done badly might “pathologize” childhood – i.e read childhood as a symptom to be overcome in the journey to mature adulthood. This is why in a lot of coming-of-age tales, the child (adolescent) grows a bit, but at the end demonstrates that they haven’t given up on childhood completely. We see it, for instance, in Monster House, in which DJ decides to go trick-or-treating after all, despite eschewing all boyish things at the beginning of the story.
In order to come of age, the main character will have to leave home. Coming-of-age tales therefore quite often conform to mythic structure.
What Is A Bildungsroman?
My friend who can’t stand coming-of-age stories is probably fine with the bildungsroman. (The plural, by the way, is bildungsromane.)
The bildungsroman is a specific subgenre of coming-of-age story. It is especially prominent in literature and focuses on the protagonist’s psychological and moral growth, and thus character change is extremely important.
The German translates to ’novel of formation’ or ‘novel of education’.
The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune.
Usually in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the protagonist leave on their journey.
The goal is maturity, and the main character achieves it gradually and with difficulty.
This makes the bildungsromane inherently Romantic, because it has an optimistic ending that affirms the main character’s entry into adulthood.
Another Romantic idea: belief in the individual. Romanticism is all about the individual taking responsibility for themselves, living their own best life, finding one’s own place within society and so on.
The genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the main character and he/she is ultimately accepted into society — the main character’s mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the protagonist is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity.
YA novels evolved from the bildungsroman.
In its broadest sense, every story is a bildungsroman, right down to toddlers who star in picture books. Doesn’t every character grow, outside those in series fiction (which Maria Nikolajeva calls ‘paraliterature’?) Some sort of character arc is a requirement for a full and complete narrative.
Some academics prefer to narrow the term to a more useful definition: Bildungsromane star characters who mature from childhood to adulthood. This, at least, is useful.
The guy who came up with the word (Wilhelm Dilthey, 1870), meant it to refer to stories in which
There is a cultural goal
Which is the complete unfolding of all the natural qualities
Then there’s a clear path toward that goal
By this definition, the bildungsroman is a direct path from confusion to clarity.
Here’s another definition of the bildungsroman, by Jerome Buckley.
A sensitive child grows up in a rural setting feeling confined by his entire family (but especially by the father), and the father can’t understand the boy’s imaginative life (because these stories are traditionally about boys).
School proves restrictive so the boy leaves home to go into an urban centre.
He will have at least two romantic experiences.
One of those has the potential to corrupt him and the other has the potential to purify him. (Can you see how sexist Betty and Veronica tropes are inherent in these stories?)
His initiation is complete when he does a bunch of soul-searching then triumphs over the trials he faces with his parents/money/women and accepts his own capacity for work and for love.
Which is probably a bit too specific. Also, in the traditional bildungsroman, the main character is setting out to deliberately become independent. He’s trying to cultivate himself via novel experience. These are quest narratives. The quest is ‘to find oneself and grow up’.
But have you heard of the Entwicklungsroman?
Another type of story about the maturation process.
This is a very broad category in which an adolescent character grows (some). It’s subtly different from a bildungsroman because in the bildungsroman, the adolescent matures to adulthood.
Entwicklungsromane can be thought of as novels of growth or development, whereas bildungsromane are coming-of-age novels sometimes referred to as ‘apprenticeship novels’.
I suspect a lot of YA novels are more entwicklungsromane than bildungsromane, because rarely does a YA character seem like an adult at the end of the story. More likely they’ve overcome one particular problem, but still have a lot of growing to do before they can exist in the world independently and happily. Then again, when does one become an adult?
There’s no room in the traditional definition of Bildungsromane for female characters. If a story stars a young woman, it’s probably an Entwicklungsroman. Most authors throughout the history of literature consider growing up female as a choice between auxiliary or secondary personhood, sacrificial victimization, madness and death (paraphrasing Annis Pratt, in Archetypal Patterns In Women’s Fiction). There’s no real psychological growth or maturity there. See also my lengthy post about the Female Maturity Formula.
That said, there are examples of female protagonists who seem to fit the bildungsroman perfectly. Katherine Paterson’s Lyddie is one example.
Lyddie is emotionally orphaned by her father. Her mother’s out of the picture too.
Though embarrassed about being illiterate she decides to journey from the family farm in Vermont. She eventually arrives in the mill town Lowell, Massachussets.
She is educated in a straightforward literacy narrative by coworkers Betsy and Diana.
She has two sexualised encounters with men.
The first is quite debasing when her foreman harasses her.
The other is more like a purifying romance in that Lyddie’s neighbour wants to marry her because he loves her mind.
She returns to her home and recognises how much she has known.
She decides to defer marrying Luke until she has graduated from Oberlin.
Her initial reasons for leaving home have come from a self-conscious recognition that she needed to learn how to earn a place in the world.
Her final decision is based on the epiphany that the only thing limiting her is her own self-image.
She overcomes poverty, ignorance and personal pettiness. She learns to balance her own materialism with her love of others and love of learning.
Further Examples of Coming-of-age Stories
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly — First of the three big novels which define YA.
The Catcher In The Rye — Second of the three big novels which define YA.
The Outsiders — The third. This book changed YA fiction forever, not least because it was written by someone who was still a teenager herself.
The Wonder Years – an adolescent boy comes of age in 1960s America, an especially good setting for a coming-of-age series because that’s when America herself was going through some kind of ‘psychological growth’.
Mad Men – in this show a number of characters come of age. Peggy and Joan are the ‘secret protagonists’, set against Don Draper who will never change much.
Freaks and Geeks – a ‘Breaking Bad’ kind of plot in which a good girl learns to break free of her nerdy reputation
The Breakfast Club
The Perks of Being a Wallflower — the book is far better than the film, and I’m not someone who always says that
Malcolm In The Middle
Never Let Me Go
A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man — an example of Anglophone Bildungsroman
Sons and Lovers — is another, about a sexual awakening, which is one thing today’s worst teen coming-of-age movies have in common
David Copperfield is another stand-out Anglophone example.
A Mill In The Floss — there is no room in the original definition of Bildungsroman for female protagonists, but this is definitely a coming-of-age example.
What Maisie Knew – although Maisie is still very young she loses her childhood innocence.
The Secret Life Of Bees
About A Boy — in this case the main character is far too old to be living like a teenager and his young protege is more emotionally aware than he is. This, of course, is the point of the story.
Gone With The Wind — the main character is older and of marriageable age, but still pretty inward looking.
Adventureland – The main character has just finished university, but as he says into the phone at the beginning of the story he has been so focused on academics that he has no life experience to speak of.
We Are The Best – a group of girls about 12 or 13 years old who go on a mythological journey.
Turn Out Like His Father – A character has charge of a child (usually her son) and is desperate to keep this child from imitating another relative (usually his father). This is a fear of history’s repeating itself for his fate, which may be turning evil and usually ends with being dead. Harry Potter isn’t allowed to find out about his parents in case he turns out like them.
When an atrium appears in a story it’s likely there is a symbolic meaning. For example, the glass ceiling makes a character closer to god.
The Atrium As A Functional Room In Architecture
In architecture, an atrium is a large open air or skylight covered space surrounded by a building. Modern atria, as developed in the late 19th and 20th centuries, are often several stories high and having a glazed roof or large windows, and often located immediately beyond the main entrance doors (in the lobby).
Atria were a common feature in Ancient Roman dwellings, providing light and ventilation to the interior. The Latin word atrium referred to the open central court, from which the enclosed rooms led off, in the type of large ancient Roman house known as a domus.
The impluvium was the shallow pool sunken into the floor to catch the rainwater. As the centrepiece of the house, the atrium was the most lavishly furnished room. Also, it contained the little chapel to the ancestral spirits (lararium), the household safe (arca) and sometimes a bust of the master of the house.
It’s clear looking at the original function of the atrium what it might mean symbolically in stories:
a direct link between home and the heavens, where a character might go to look up at the sky and contemplate freedom, journeys or death.
luxury and riches — you’ll find an atrium in a house with unbound riches.
water, light and cleanliness — purity of spirit and soul
The human heart is also divided into ‘atria’. The atrium is the ‘heart’ of a large house, connecting various parts of the house to other parts. It is where various things meet, symbolically.
The inverse of an atrium is a cloister, or perhaps a basement.
Beauty and the Beast
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
The gardener’s glasshouse is a form of atrium.
I made use of the glasshouse atrium in Midnight Feast, in which the child character wishes she were more connected the outside world (but not really, now that she knows what’s out there).
An aquarium is related to an atrium… and below we have an atrium as it commonly appears in modern architecture.
Hilda Bewildered by Slap Happy Larry
Here is the background to page one of our third storybook app Hilda Bewildered, where the princess looks up and into the sky, wanting to escape.
The Jungle Book
The Jungle Book film poster depicts the jungle version of an atrium as first envisioned by the Romans in their architecture — a home in the jungle whose canopy of trees overhead lets in light. The forest is often seen as nature’s ‘cathedral’ but I think atrium is a better fit.
In Tom’s Midnight Garden we have another children’s book in which the moon is heavily symbolic. Night = day as the fantasy world = the real world. This is an example of low fantasy.
A descendent of The Secret Garden, sibling of Narnia and ancestor to The BFG, Tom’s Midnight Garden is an influential and much-loved book which won the Carnegie Medal.
STORY WORLD OF TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN
Real World Connection
The author grew up in Cambridgeshire but calls it Castleford here. This allows her to deviate from reality, placing objects where she likes them. It’s a convenient trick.
The story has been criticised for romanticising aristocratic England. We are lead to believe it’s a huge shame that the beautiful old mansion has been broken down into flats, but what is the alternative? For plebs to continue to live in servitude, while the aristocratic class live like kings?
The Mysterious Mansion
The aunt and uncle’s house is a large house surrounded by many little ones. We know immediately that this house is ‘different’. Mysterious. We can expect mysteries. It is also old — linked to the past — and was once a mansion but has since been divided into smaller flats. The aunt and uncle’s house lies north of Cambridgeshire, where the author herself grew up and where she set her stories.
Compared to Australians, at least, English readers are quite likely to believe in ghosts. It is therefore no surprise that Tom jumps to this conclusion after going through the portal.
This is a portal fantasy. The fantasy has similar workings to The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in that a child stumbles upon a door to another world inside the house where they have been sent to escape something going on at home. When they go back to prove their discovery the world has disappeared — this world is meant only for Tom.
The story starts with a case of measles.
Measles have been a real problem for humans for centuries. While white people developed some immunity over the centuries, they carried the measles virus to native people around the world and put severe, irreparable dents in their populations. In the 1950s, around 500,000 children a year caught the disease, and about 100 died as a result. It was therefore taken seriously. Tom’s Midnight Garden was published in 1958, and although breakthroughs were already being made at around this time it took another 10 years for children to start being vaccinated in Britain. However, people still weren’t vaccinating their children. As recently as 1988 there were still 80,000 cases of measles a year among children in England, including 16 deaths. This changed when the vaccination was combined into the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. The number of measles cases dropped significantly after that. But in 1998 there was another hit to the program after some false news emerged that vaccines cause autism. There has been some recovery from this scare, with around 95% of children receiving the vaccination, but there is still a large proportion of children of the 1990s who missed the vaccine and may never have it.
Tom Long is the main character.
His moral weakness is introduced first, though I may be having a different reaction to Tom as an adult reader who is now a mother — Tom doesn’t understand the reason for his being sent away and is in a strop about it. Instead of thinking about how much his brother must be suffering with measles he is completely inward-focussed and laments the loss of the summer he imagined, having fun with his brother climbing the apple tree in the backyard and so on. He fails to say a genuine farewell to his mother, though this is somewhat mutual.
The paragraph about the apple tree in the description of his own backyard tells us Tom’s need: He needs to be close to nature in order to be happy.
Tom wants to stay in his own house and enjoy the freedom of typical summer holidays. Like many stories about children of this age, this is about one boy’s quest for freedom — spiritual if not actual.
Tom’s mother is his opponent, for wanting something different — she doesn’t want him to catch measles, and I’m sure she doesn’t want to have to look after more than one sick son at a time.
Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen are opponents simply by virtue of conspiring with his mother to host him.
Once at his aunt and uncle’s house a mysterious character is introduced, though adult readers will recognise The Woman In The Attic trope — “Mrs Barthlomew upstairs” who is the owner of the mysterious grandfather clock which strikes 13 o’clock. She dresses all in black and other adult characters give the impression she’s not to be messed with.
Tom is fighting against his imprisonment. He plans to get around his measles quarantine in any way he can, even if it means never actually leaving the house. For starters he’ll find out the yard is like, even though it’s apparently nothing to write home about.
When he finds the magical garden he confronts his aunt and uncle, who lied to him about their poky little backyard. He realises only he can see it.
Now he needs to find out as much about it as he can.
The mystery deepens as characters emerge on the scene:
Are they ghosts?
Is Tom, perhaps, a ghost in the style of Sixth Sense or The Others? These Dead All Along films are much more recent than this children’s book of course, but they were based on older stories such as “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” from 1890 (also an episode of The Twilight Zone). I’m thinking maybe Tom died of the measles and though he thinks he was waving to his brother Peter he was actually waving to the live version of himself? The thing about the Dead All Along trope, once you realise the character is dead all along, everything prior in the story makes more sense. That’s not what happens in this case. The explanation is a bit different.
The battle scene is Tom rushing downstairs trying to get through the gate and failing, realising he can never go back.
I’m sure this book is a Rorschach test, with the reader imposing individual meanings onto the text. For me this story is about the end of childhood. You can never go back. But what if you could? You can, of course, but only in your mind.
There is a ‘Scooby Doo’ chapter at the end in which all is explained. Mrs Bartholomew heard Tom screaming her name and summons him up to ‘apologise’, but really she wants to tell him that she is Hatty and Tom was sharing her memories.
Tom has closure on the Midnight Garden and will return home satisfied. His uncle and auntie will remain a bit mystified about this slightly odd nephew of theirs.
In this story, however, the abundant and delicious food is used to show how Tom is stifled. He lies in an ‘apparent utopia’ — safe from harm in the suburbs with people who care for him and his every need met — but for a boy who needs to spread his wings this is a prison.
Aunt Gwen’s cooking was the cause of Tom’s sleeplessness — that and lack of exercise. Tom had to stay indoors and do crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles, and never even answered the door when the milkman came, in case he gave the poor man measles. The only exercise he took was in the kitchen when he was helping his aunt to cook those large, rich meals — large and richer than Tom had ever known before.
The Technique of Side Shadowing
For a breakdown of the 3 main types of literary shadowing see here.
Side shadowing lets the reader know how else the story might have panned out. One reason for using this is to offer alternative endings, to ask the reader to consider some sort of theme, like justice, or if the character made the right choice in the end.
But in the case of Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce uses side shadowing mainly to reassure us that ‘This is not just your run-of-the-mill ghost story. I know you think you know how this is going to pan out because you’ve read plenty of ghost stories, no doubt. But I’m telling you you’re in for a surprise!”
She achieves that message with the following passage, written using ‘would’. Notice too the metafictive reference to “Tom’s” reading lots of children’s books — when Tom is a stand-in for the child reader:
Tom resolved that, as soon as he was better, he would call on Mrs Bartholomew. True, she was an unsociable old woman of whom people were afraid, but Tom could not let that stand in his way. He would boldly ring her front door bell; she would open her front door just a crack and peer crossly out at him. Then she would see him, and at the sight of his face her heart would melt (Tom had read of such occurrences in the more old-fashioned children’s books; he had never before thought them very probable, but now it suited him to believe): Mrs Bartholomew, who did not like children, would love Tom as soon as she saw his face. She would draw him inside at once, then and there; and later, over a tea-table laden with delicacies for him alone, she would tell Tom the stories of long ago. Sometimes Tom would ask questions, and she would answer them. ‘A little girl called Harriet, or Hatty?’ she would say, musingly. ‘Why, yes, my late husband told me once of such a child — oh! long ago! An only child she was, and an orphan. When her parents died her aunt took her into this house to live. Her aunt was a disagreeable woman…’
So the story, in Tom’s imagination, rolled on. It became confused and halting where Tom himself did not already know the facts; but after all, he would only have to wait to pay his call upon Mrs Bartholomew, to hear it all from her own lips. She would perhaps end her story, he thought, with a dropped of her voice: [old fashioned melodrama based on the oral tradition] ‘And since then, Tom, they say that she and her garden and all the rest haunt this house. They say that those who are lucky may go down, about when the clock strikes for midnight, and open what was once the garden door and see the ghost of that garden and of the little girl.’
Tom’s mind ran on the subject. His cold was getting so much better […]
For me the side shadowing happens at exactly the right moment, as my attention is starting to flag and I’m wondering if I can already predict the ending of this story.
Pearce also makes use of foreshadowing and also backshadowing in this story — an example of backshadowing is the reference to Hatty’s sons dying in The Great War, which she explains is now known as the First World War. This sort of real world detail is knowledge shared between audience and characters.
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. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the apparent utopia.
Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath.
In the opening of L.A. Confidential (1997), Danny DeVito’s jaded, ironic voiceover explains how Los Angeles was marketed to wholesome family types, but turned out to be anything but.
Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic apparent utopia:
Pines By Blake Crouch
The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)
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 suffering, 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
THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA
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 itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are an apparent utopia, set in mid-century American suburbs.
FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS
American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The apparent utopia symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban apparent utopias often feature houses made mainly of glass.
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.”
The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.
Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a superior-feeling teenage NYC girl is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst — and so do we — because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface — because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.
This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which is full of parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no outside opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)
Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted apparent utopia because the town is not presented as a utopia at all — the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start — they didn’t want bigotry in this feel good show.