Trespasses by Alice Munro Short Story Analysis

“Trespasses” is a short story by Canadian author Alice Munro, included in the collection Runaway, published 2006.

This piece might challenge everything you’ve learned about how to structure a story. All the parts are there, but not as you’d expect. If Alice Munro had anonymously joined one of my writing critique groups over the years, she may well have been offered the following notes:

  • This is superbly written and achieves astounding psychological insight, but who is your main character here?
  • Perhaps you’ve started in the wrong place with two sections of throat clearing? The real story is that of Lauren, so why not maintain focalisation of Lauren throughout the entire piece?
  • What’s the point of the restaurant scene? We never see the old married couple again. All the more reason to nix the first few sections?
  • I find it hard to believe a ten-year-old is allowed that much freedom.

Okay, honestly, if someone in one of my writing groups had uploaded “Trespasses”, they may have even received those notes from me. And this is why it’s so hard to offer critique on literary short stories — the form is deliberately experimental. Is anything ever wrong? Well, yes, of course. Except these ‘wrong’ things are so very specific to any single story we can’t fall back on guidelines. This is why some writers have learned to hate guidelines (or ‘rules’) altogether. (I’m not in that camp.)

That’s because in “Trespasses”, as in all of Munro’s work, there is an explainable reason for all narrative choices. It’s just, putting these reasons into words is so hard. If we can articulate what Munro’s doing here, we can bring more nuance to the ‘writing guidelines’ we have learned.

To that end, I recommend the following paper: ‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro ‘s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis by Nancy Easterlin, who does an excellent job of putting Munro’s unusual narrative decisions into words, with the overall message that Munro is deliberately disorienting the reader.

Why would any writer want to do that? Let’s investigate.

THE OLD AND NEW MEANINGS OF TRESPASS

Despite attending a Presbyterian church, I was required to memorise the version of the Lord’s Prayer with ‘trespasses’ rather than ‘debts’.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…

I didn’t understand the archaic meaning of ‘trespass’. I’d only ever seen the word on signs. I grew up in semi-rural New Zealand — these signs were always affixed to farm gates and I knew I hadn’t been walking around on farms, so as far as I was concerned, I was sweet. I also couldn’t fathom what was so very wrong about setting foot on private property — surely there were worse sins? Maybe someone’s just taking a quiet short cut…

no trespassing seagull

I now have a handle on the wider meaning of ‘trespass’, but the word is so closely linked to Christianity that as I delve into Munro’s short story the words of the Lord’s prayer are forefront in my mind. Signage aside, I rarely hear the word ‘trespass’ in everyday English.

“Trespasses” by Alice Munro will likely be a story about ‘sin’. (What story isn’t, though?) This is also a story about ‘overstepping boundaries’, making it more in line with the modern definition of ‘trespassing’ we see on signage.

trespass definition

The story “Trespasses” encouraged me to consider the following:

  • How might one kind of trespass (within a family) make a person vulnerable to a trespass from an outsider?
  • What is the difference between loving someone and trespassing upon them? Might love commonly co-exist with trespassing?
  • Can the truth be more damaging than fiction? What if the fiction is later found out? Is the damage then simply postponed?
  • Can too much information make a child vulnerable? Surely too little information is also bad. Where’s that line?

PLOT OVERVIEW

Eileen and Harry and their daughter Lauren [EVENTUAL MAIN CHARACTER] have recently moved to a small town where Harry has bought the town’s newspaper. While unpacking, Lauren asks about the contents of a box that seems particularly light [MYSTERY], and her father gives her the first version of some past events. [STORY WITHIN A STORY] Eleven years before, he and Eileen had a baby, soon after which Eileen learned that she was pregnant. After a fight, Eileen drove off with the infant and had an accident in which the baby was killed. The box contains the baby’s ashes. This is just the beginning of Munro’s story, however. [MANY SHORT STORY WRITERS WOULD END THE STORY HERE, AT LAUREN’S DISCOVERY.] Another woman, Delphine [MINOTAUR OPPONENT], who believes she is the biological mother of the first (presumably illegally adopted) baby, has tracked them down [ OPPONENT’S PLAN]; she also assumes that the living girl Lauren (both babies were named Lauren) is her daughter and pursues a relationship with the girl. As Lauren gradually begins to suspect, based on Delphine’s hints and indirect revelations, that she might be adopted, Harry and Eileen learn of the friendship that has emerged between the two. The result [BIG STRUGGLE] is the late-night attempt to provide the canonical narrative of the past events and the hasty, long-delayed ceremony to scatter the ashes of the baby who died a decade before.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

CHARACTERS OF “TRESPASSES”

Harry

Eileen’s husband and Lauren’s father. Used to work at a news magazine but quit his job after burning out. Has come to this new town having bought the local paper. He remembers this town from his childhood. For Harry, this is a home-away-home children’s story, underscoring his boyish nature. (Though he is revealed to be far more dangerous than any little boy.) “A broad-faced, boyish-looking man with a tanned skin and shining light-brown hair. His glow of well-being and general appreciation spread around the table…’

Eileen

Harry’s wife and Lauren’s mother. Much thinner than the local women in this small country town, marking her out as a sophisticate from the city. (Munro tends to describe characters’ BMI as something meaningful.) Eileen makes coffee each morning, takes it back to bed and drinks it slowly. Eileen works in her husband’s newspaper office (so she can never really get away from him). She wears ‘casually provocative outfits’. She is beautiful. ‘Her manner in the newspaper office was crisp and her expression remote, but this was broken by strategic, vivid smiles’. Eileen is a capable woman who prefers to do things like sanding and wallpapering on her own, without help from family. She is an isolated, self-contained person. Emotional isolation is perhaps a protective thing.

Delphine

We meet Delphine early in the story but are encouraged to mostly forget about her. At first I thought she might be the family dog, or some smaller animal sitting in a cage on the front seat. The story opens with someone (or something) called Delphine sitting in the front of the car with Harry. It takes a while before Alice Munro lets us know who Delphine is. This is part of Munro’s deliberate disorientation. Eventually we learn Delphine is the name of the woman who works in the restaurant. Interestingly, the name ‘Delphine’ and ‘the woman who works in the restaurant’ are only subsequently connected. Not many writers would hold off connecting the woman and the name. Munro also uses this trick in “Save The Reaper“, in which it takes the reader a while to realise two women are mother and daughter. This is so the reader can experience these two women as friends, which is the kind of relationship the mother in that story wants; in contrast, the daughter wants a mother who behaves like a mother. Using this trick, Munro lets the reader know how it feels to have a mother who behaves as a friend by tricking us into thinking the two women are simply friends.

When we do properly meet Delphine in “Trespasses”, Munro introduces her to us via Lauren’s eyes:

She had long fine hair that might be whitish blond or might be really white, because she was not young. She must often have to shake that hair back out of her face, as she did now. Her eyes, behind dark-rimmed glasses, were hooded by purple lids. Her face was broad, like her body, pale and smooth. But there was nothing indolent about her. Her eyes, now lifted, were a light flat blue, and she looked from one girl to another as if no contemptible behaviour of theirs would surprise her.

It’s a dump. Delphine said things like that. She spoke vehemently — she did not discuss but stated, and her judgments were severe and capricious. She spoke about herself — her tastes, her physical workings — as about a monumental mystery, something unique and final.

She had an allergy to beets. [UNEXPECTED DETAIL IN FICTION] If even a drop of beet juice made its way down her throat, her tissues would swell up and she would have to go to the hospital, she would need an emergency operation so that she could breathe.

She believed a woman should keep her hands nice, no matter what kind of work she had to do. She liked to wear inky-blue or plum fingernail polish. And she liked to wear earrings, big and clattery ones, even at her work. She had no use for the little button kind.

She was not afraid of snakes, but she had a weird feeling about cats. She thought that a cat must have come and lain on top of her when she was a baby, being attracted to the smell of milk.

Why does Alice Munro choose these details to describe Delphine? First, they are being filtered via a ten-year-old, and kids pick up on oddities. What have cats and snakes got to do with anything? We might also go the symbolic route — Delphine is the ‘snake in the grass’, sneaking up on this family, meaning to set up an unwanted relationship. But more importantly, I feel, Delphine is established as a woman whose mind goes to strange places. It is a fantasy that she doesn’t like cats because of an incident she couldn’t possibly remember, and almost certainly didn’t happen. This is the moment I don’t quite trust Delphine. This must also be the moment Lauren doesn’t trust her, either.

Lauren

Lauren is ten years old, her exact age calculated only after her father explains the past. Until that point I thought Lauren was a few years older than that. She is given a lot more freedom than typical contemporary ten-year-olds (though this story is at least 15 years old). Lauren’s love of sugary foods marks her out as a child, though. Lauren makes her own breakfast, usually cereal with maple syrup instead of milk. Lauren is lonely at school. This much is explained by the narrator. It’s a complex situation, so the narrator steps in to describe the nuance:

Her isolation at school was based on knowledge and experience, which, as she half knew, could look like innocence and priggishness. The things that were wicked mysteries to others were not so to her and she did not know how to pretend about them. And that was what separated her, just as much as knowing her to pronounce L’Anse aux meadows and having read The Lord of the Rings. She had drunk half a bottle of beer when she was five and puffed on a joint when she was six, though she had not liked either one. She sometimes had a little wine at dinner, and she liked that all right. She knew about oral sex and all methods of birth control an what homosexuals did. She had regularly seen Harry and Eileen naked, also a party of their friends naked around a campfire in the woods. On that same holiday she had sneaked out with other children to watch fathers slipping by sly agreement into the tents of mothers who were not their wives. One of the boys had suggested sex to her and she had agreed, but he could not make any progress and they became cross with each other and later she hated the sight of him.

Lauren is thereby established as dangerously ‘precocious’ (not a word I like), and at this point I expect the worst for her. Fortunately, Lauren is still young enough to blurt everything out to her mother when things feel really bad, and I figure this is why Munro made Lauren ten and not, say, thirteen. (In stories, perhaps as in real life, a thirteen year old’s trouble is more likely to be discovered by a caring adult rather than the child breaking down and telling all.)

The Dead Lauren

The deceased baby forms the ‘ghost‘ (a.k.a. psychic wound) of Harry and Eileen and of Lauren, too. This baby was killed in a car accident due to not being strapped in properly. Eileen was pregnant with a new baby at the time (Lauren the Second).

How would it feel to find out your parents had a baby before they had you, and this baby was called the same name? I might start imagining a completely other life for myself — one in which the other Lauren had lived and I had died. Munro’s plot is an interesting, slightly complicated set up but I’ve seen similar in real life — parents have years of difficulty in conceiving a baby, go through the lengthy faff of the adoption process, adopt a baby, then immediately find themselves pregnant. Something about being around a baby seems to influence fertility rates, at least anecdotally:

One theory floating around is that women who are around babies somehow experience improved fertility. […]

“There is zero evidence of this, other than anecdotes,” Dr. Paula Amato, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, told Healthline.

Healthline

SETTING OF “TRESPASSES”

SEASON

The framing story, in which a family disposes of ashes, begins a few weeks before Christmas, which in Canada is winter. Something is coming to an end.

  • ‘The sky was clear and the snow had slid off the trees but had not melted underneath them or on the rocks that jutted out beside the road.’
  • ‘black lacy cedars’ (putting me in mind of a Tim Burton movie)
  • ‘There was a slight crackle to the snow, though the ground underneath was soft and mucky’ (suggesting an snail under the leaf setting). This sort of sentence can be described as ‘multivalent’, meaning it can be interpreted as both literal and metaphorical. Multivalent = having many applications, interpretations, meanings, or values. There is plenty of multivalent detail throughout Munro’s fiction.
THE TOWN
  • Harry’s family used to have a summer place on one of the lakes around here. There is a hotel on the main street. This hotel no longer has a liquor licence.
  • A Victorian mansion, now a nursing home (Gothic overtones)
  • a brick tower which used to be a broom factory
  • the graveyard going back to 1842.
  • a fair in fall, suggesting a Gilmore girls type utopia
THE HOTEL

He pointed out things in the dining room that were just the same — the high ceiling, the slowly rotating fan, even a murky oil painting showing a hunting dog with a rusty-feathered bird in its mouth.

The hotel serves canned green beans even though it is fresh bean season. This is another example of a unexpected detail — perhaps it is noticed for its irony. Where else in this story is irony at work?

The unwelcoming Mr Palagian and his hotel are inextricably linked — juxtaposed against each other by the unwelcoming owner versus his sign which reads ‘WELCOME’. More irony.

There is also an ironic gap between the narrator’s delightful chatter and the grim story of the dead Lauren underneath. What makes the narrator seem delightful and chatty? That’d be the ‘incidental nature’ of the discourse, cue those strange details — like your best friend chatting to you over coffee, each new recollection prompting a related, delightful and interesting one.

I’m reminded of the following meme, which is not at all how a writer plots. Instead, Munro’s narrator achieves the illusion of a ‘chatty’ storyteller, because that’s what ‘chatty’ means, right? Someone who is never short of the next thing to say, because one thing segues effortlessly into another thing:

Me Telling A Story flow chart
See also
THE HOUSE

The word ‘liminal‘ seems apt here. The ‘vacationland wilderness’ is, functionally, a heterotopia:

They had rented a house at the edge of town. Just beyond their backyard began a vacationland wilderness of rocky knobs and granite slopes, cedar bogs, small lakes, and a transitional forest of poplars, soft maples, tamarack, and spruce. Harry loved it. He said they might wake up one morning and look out at a moose in the backyard. Lauren came home after school when the sun was already getting low in the sky and the middling warmth of the autumn day was turning out to be a fraud [SHE KNOWS IT’S A SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING]. The house was chilly and smelled of last night’s dinner, of stale coffee grounds and the garbage, which it was her job to take out.

Harry’s view of the forest is utopian, but as any reader knows, a story featuring a house situated on the edge of the woods is imperilled. At best, the forest is the family’s dark subconscious. They’re about to go there — right into the deepest, darkest Jungian parts of it. When it comes to houses, the basement is the psychological equivalent of the forest. Notice how Eileen wants to send Harry down to the basement of their rented house, along with all his possessions, including their box of ashes.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TRESPASSES”

The thirty-seven-page story is told in seventeen sections that vary in length from under a page to about six pages. It starts with a section covering the first part of the final scene [FRAMING TECHNIQUE], the four characters finding a site on a riverbank to scatter the ashes, and ends with the rest of the scene, the scattering of ashes and the beginning of the ride back into town. On one level, then, the present event of dispersing the ashes functions conventionally as a narrative frame. However, Munro develops this overt structural circularity on more subtle chronological and psychological levels, since the town is a place of childhood vacations for Harry, and since each adult character, through unacknowledged feelings of guilt, responsibility, and desire deviates from but ultimately returns to his or her version of the past events. The story thus enacts a debased version of the myth of eternal return, wherein the structural return to the oozy riverbank reflects the return of each of the adult characters to his or her muddy version of the baby’s adoption and death.

Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis
THE MYTH OF ETERNAL RETURN

What is ‘the myth of eternal return’? Children’s stories in particular tend to contain the soothing message that no matter what happens out in the world, you can always return home to safety. Harry himself has returned to a childhood utopian setting of his — he genuinely believes this ideology.

I put it to you that this is why Alice Munro has chosen a ten-year-old as main character — books for Lauren’s age group are all about the safe return home, or finding a new and safer home.

But reality differs from children’s books. For so many people — children included, Lauren as one example — home is not safe at all. Unlike the storybooks tell her, Lauren’s home is not homely.

NARRATION

As well as structurally, Munro’s chosen style of narration underscores the theme, of ‘what is really true’?

One theme of “Trespasses,” as of much of Munro’s longer fiction, is the difficulty of establishing authoritative narrative accounts.

Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

Alice Munro has chosen a roving camera for this story, which opens with an unseen narrator. Who is this person? It feels like Alice Munro herself, but that’d be a mistake. (Narrators are not authors.)

Munro orchestrates this process of deception at the level of narrative technique, employing an ostensibly reliable narrator who, beguiling readers with her intelligence and charm, surveys the narrative world and delivers a comic, apparently loosely connected, and superficial account of events. In this manner, Munro compels readers to stand quite outside the narrative world for the first five pages, in alliance with the narrator and without any hint that there will be an orienting perspective among the characters.

Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

If we imagine a film, the camera zooms in to sit on Harry’s shoulder, then shifts to Lauren’s.

To borrow terms and (creepily heteronormative) illustrations from Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card (milkshake duck), “Trespasses” begins like this:

… and gradually moves into this, in which the boy below is first Harry, next Lauren:

SHORTCOMING

THE PARENTS’ WEAKNESS

At first “Trespasses” looks like it’s going to be about the character of Mr Palagian, told by a storyteller narrator, much like The Great Gatsby. But this is not about Mr Palagian at all.

Why does Munro do this?? Alice, are you messing with us?

In “Trespasses,” Munro’s circuitous delineation of the ambiguity surrounding events and the evasions that sustain those ambiguities are a product of her delayed introduction of the main character (and thus the orienting consciousness), a delay that confounds the reader’s ability to prioritise and evaluate incidents and information, and so to determine narrative relevance. Typically, readers approach literature under the assumption that the author will provide a speaker, a narrator, or a character to serve as a central point of reference, focusing emotional-cognitive effort in the literary environment and, in consequence, motivating and guiding reasoning processes in the direction of constructing and sustaining narrative order. This is, in some respects, a matter of convention… the reader’s commitment to character functions is the imaginative equivalent of a real-world self, and its absence can deprive the reader of a vantage point for seeing, cognising, and acting. Thus, when Munro intentionally withholds her main character’s identity for the first six pages of “Trespasses,” she deprives her readers of the point of orientation (the character function) that will prompt for and facilitate narrative construction. Munro’s goal in thus disabling event- and fact-based narrativity is to fully reveal the psychologically disabling conditions of that main character’s life and the ethically troubling domain of her upbringing.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

Here’s what I get out of that: Munro is making the reader disoriented about who the important people are because that’s how Lauren feels, too, not about a story, but about her actual life.

Munro’s delayed revelation of the story’s main character in combination with conventional features of narrative presents readers with a territory devoid of its true and necessary focalizing perspective, that of the ten-year-old Lauren. Meanwhile, Munro effectively provides the narrator as an alternative (though ultimately false) other “self” with whom readers identify. Thus standing on the perimeter of the setting rather than entering actively into it, readers are deprived of crucial information by orientational disadvantage and immobility.

Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

Back to Mr Palagian for a minute. Here’s the description of Mr Palagian, as filtered to the reader via Harry. I mean, Harry is a writer, so he’s a natural fit as the character chosen to (indirectly) narrate someone else’s life:

Someone like Mr Palagian—or even that fat tough-talking waitress, he said—could be harboring a contemporary tragedy or adventure which would make a best seller.

The thing about life, Harry had told Lauren, was to live in the world with interest. To keep your eyes open and see the possibilities—see the humanity—in everybody you met. To be aware. If he had anything at all to teach her it was that. Be aware.

But this description of Mr Palagian is not even about Mr Palagian. ‘What Sally says about Susie says more about Sally.’ This description is about Harry. We learn that Harry’s shortcoming is as follows:

Harry is so interested in people as possible fictional inspiration that he’s not going to see what’s going on in the real world, with his very own daughter. His shortcoming is misplaced focus due to literary pretensions. He likes to tell Lauren things as her father and mentor. It is ironic that as he instructs Lauren to ‘be aware’, he fails to achieve genuine awareness himself. Something in this story is going to surprise him. Of that we can be sure. Later it bears out:

Harry was not as angry as Eileen [about Delphine].

“She seemed a perfectly okay person anytime I talked to her,” he said. “She never said anything like this to me.”

Eileen is equally preoccupied with superficial appearances. We see this in her observation of the family in the hotel dining room — she wonders how they could get so fat. She has no comment about the misogynistic joke that comes out of the old man. What’s the point of the anniversary celebration? At first it seems disconnected from the rest. First, it has allowed us to know more about Eileen and Harry and their superficial, middle-class shock (at the green beans and the fatness). Second, it introduces the theme of violence within marriage. Eileen and Harry cannot hear the old man’s joke as a joke; we learn later that violence between husband and wife is far too close to home.

I don’t find Harry an empathetic character. I find him quietly dangerous. Harry describes Eileen as ‘hysterical’, and talks to their daughter about her dead older sister without Eileen’s knowledge and consent. A father tells his daughter something in confidence, encouraging secrets within the family. Emotional incest. Some people feel the phrase ’emotional’ incest devalues the word ‘incest’ but whatever we call it, this relationship within a family a real and icky phenomenon:

Emotional incest is not sexual. Instead, this type of unhealthy emotional interaction blurs the boundaries between adult and child in a way that is psychologically inappropriate. When a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child, it is considered emotional or “covert” incest. The outcome of this family structure often produces similar results — on a lesser scale — as sexual incest.

Psych Central
LAUREN’S WEAKNESS

Ironically, Harry and Eileen have brought Lauren up thinking that if she is exposed to all the worldly knowledge, the knowledge itself will protect her. Unfortunately, it’s this knowledge, and the experience of living with hipster, free-loving parents, which marks her out as more mature (faux-mature?) than her peers, and serves to isolate her from them.

“Trespasses” is one of several Munro stories in which the central character is an adolescent girl whose parents and their associates live by a lingering set of counter-cultural attitudes, which include a mild anti-establishment posture and a belief that children should be treated as adults. While the parents are deluded in their sense of superior honesty and freedom from conventional mores (they seem as repressive, viciously passive aggressive, and jealous as any of the usual human lot), these attitudes help them evade the moral and ethical consequences of their actions.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

And isolation is itself supremely dangerous. In her early teenage years Lauren is the lonely new girl in town, seeking friendship outside the home as well as emotional distance from her own parents. As the story opens, Lauren is presented as dangerously vulnerable to the advances of a sexual predator.

DESIRE

HARRY’S DESIRE

Harry is clearly after a new start in a new town, where he can rebuild his social capital by being important at the newspaper and perhaps find time on the side to write a novel, using local personalities as inspirational fodder. Harry is recovering from some mental health issues himself, having faced ‘burn out’ at his previous job. (We don’t know exactly what this means — ‘burn out’ is a conversational term and could be major or code for something else.)

Lauren is finding her place in the world as a young teenager and craves genuine connection with equals. This is more of a psychological need which leads directly to her Desire. (Shortcoming and Desire are very much interconnected.)

Here’s why Alice Munro’s stories are famous for being psychologically complex. Sentences like the following:

It wasn’t possible to tell the whole truth because she couldn’t get it straight herself. She couldn’t explain what she had wanted, right up to the point of not wanting it at all.

OPPONENT

Alice Munro sets up a family in opposition to each other. It’s more about what she doesn’t show than what she does: We don’t see Lauren and Eileen interacting much at all until Lauren’s confession that she’s been seeing Delphine. It’s as if Lauren Number Two is a ghost to Eileen. Eileen is mostly emotional unavailable. Perhaps she has withdrawn from her daughter, opening up the gap for the father to come in and overfill it. However, this changes towards the end.

The other opposition comes from outside the family. Who is standing in the way of Lauren finding genuine friendship? The woman who isolates Lauren from her peers, pretends to be her friend, then reveals herself to be a kind of predator.

Alice Munro at first led me to think Delphine might be a sexual predator. She seems to keep that as a reveal at about midpoint. This is what I’m thinking as Lauren learns it, up in Delphine’s attic bedroom. Perhaps this is why Munro’s narration first lets us into Harry’s head; along with Harry, we become wary of Mr Palagian instead — that old magician’s trick of misplaced focus. Or, ‘disorientation’.

There are story-external factors encouraging the reader along this line of thought — namely, the real world statistics on gender and sexual predators. A sex offender is simply more likely to be gendered male. When we think ‘sex offender’ we think of a man: a man like Mr Palagian, perhaps — uncannily foreign (intersecting with xenophobia), gruff, lacking in social graces.

Unfortunately, the most dangerous predators have very good social skills. Poor social skills make one an equally poor predator.

Delphine knows exactly how to win Lauren over. But again, I have been fooled. Delphine is not a sexual predator but with completely different intentions — she wants a connection with the girl she believes to be her adopted daughter.

PLAN

DELPHINE

Delphine’s plan, at first appears as following: to coax an attractive, vulnerable underage girl to her bedroom where she will see what she can get away with.

But my focus was (deliberately?) misplaced. Delphine is not a pedophile. She is a troubled woman and grieving mother. Her plan is to move to Harry and Eileen’s town and strike up a connection with her daughter.

LAUREN’S PLAN

Without a plan of her own, Lauren goes along with Delphine’s pla.. Lauren is only ten, so she is reactive rather than proactive. Except in fantasy and in children’s literature, ten-year-olds don’t tend to rescue themselves from adult opposition.

People respond in unexpected ways to trauma. Lauren is scared by Delphine, a trauma which follows her all the way home. Once home, she decides to eat — not because she is hungry but because she is trying to expunge something horrible. The symbolism of the whiteness outside feels like a type of cleansing:

The felling in her stomach was of both a swelling and a hollow. It seemed as if she might get rid of that just by eating the right sort of food, so when she got into the house she went straight to the kitchen cupboard and poured herself a bowl of the familiar breakfast cereal. There was no maple syrup left, but she found some corn syrup. She stood in the cold kitchen, eating without even having taken her boots and her outdoor clothing off, and looking out at the freshly whitened backyard. Snow made things visible, even with the kitchen light on. She saw herself refelcted against the background of snowy yard and dark rocks capped with white, and evergreen branches drooping already under their white load.

This paragraph reminds me of the ancient tradition of ‘sin eating’ in which the sins of the recently dead were transferred to a village person who, for a fee, consumed food & drink handed to them over the coffin. This sin-eater would be shunned by their village, much like lepers were. Mourners would pay the designated sin-eater to rid their departed loved ones from all their sins. The sin-eater would then perform a ritual. This would allow the dead person to enter Heaven without sin-free. I wonder if the sin-eaters really did believe they would be forever damned in hell after they themselves died. Apart from societal shunning, it doesn’t sound like a bad gig in a starvation economy — sin-eaters received both food and payment.

One well-known account of sin-eating goes like this:

The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given for…taking upon himself the sins of the deceased.

Enacademic

(Does anyone know what a maga-bowl is? If so, I’m interested.)

I wonder if Alice Munro encountered this account. I’m aware that in Canada maple syrup is a pantry staple, in which case Lauren’s penchant for maple syrup could be symbolically unloaded, but might the maple syrup be doing double (‘multivalent’) duty — an intertextual reference to the ‘maga-bowl of maple’ described above?

In any case, Lauren’s attempt at sin-eating don’t work. She throws the food back up.

BIG STRUGGLE

Lauren faces two main scary moments and the reader is right there with her:

  1. In Delphine’s room
  2. At her own house, as her parents get drunk and fight

There is nowhere Lauren feels safe.

ANAGNORISIS

Sure enough, The Lord’s Prayer has been the thematic backbone of this short story. I have this confirmed when Eileen says “Our Father which art in Heaven—”

Eileen seems to have had a Anagnorisis about her family — she knows that she can’t create a homely environment for Lauren so she’ll be better off at boarding school. Harry never realises that. He will continue in his delusion that he has found the perfect home in this little town where he owns the newspaper and they live in an idyllic little house on the edge of a vacationland wilderness.

But still, um, is this story really finished? For real?

Munro not only strains readers’ desire for narrative closure by providing information that seems incidental (apparently useless) at the outset but forestalls readers’ ability to begin sorting information and thus shaping the narrative by refusing to establish an orienting perspective within the setting. In rendering problematical the truth that readers are cognitively predisposed to pursue—initially, a factual account of past events and their connection to the present—Munro redirects attention to the self-justifications of her characters and the implications of their stories for the submerged main character, Lauren, and her potentially focalizing perspective. The story of her life, in fact, is one of a faltering, or long-deferred, orientation—in other words, of an unrealized because unrecognized self.

Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

In other words:

  • Lauren doesn’t get the straight truth about herself, so dear reader, don’t think you can have it told to you straight, either. This is how it feels, see?
  • Lauren does have a bunch of other information, about life in general. But that info isn’t exactly helping her out. I mean, she’s only ten.

NEW SITUATION

She was so sick of these burrs that she wanted to beat her hands and yell out loud, but she knew that the only thing she could do was just sit and wait.

Surely the burrs, too, are multivalent. We have burrs in our yard and the dog collects them. Here’s the thing about burrs: If you don’t get rid of them they bury their way right into your skin and cause a lot of pain. They can even get infected. Symbolically, a burr could stand for anything that works like that. Perhaps in this story the burrs symbolise the little bits of information Lauren gathers as she grows up.

Ultimately, since a ten-year-old doesn’t have much agency, what else can Lauren do but sit and wait out her childhood, until she can be free of these parents?

We don’t see this happen on the page, but we extrapolate that Lauren will be sent away to a boarding school. I imagine a Sally Draper future for Lauren, followed by a clean break from her ageing parents.

Sally Draper boarding school

Header photo by Patrick Tomasso

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Blackberries by Thomas Kenneally Short Story Analysis

blackberries

“Blackberries” is a short story by Thomas Keneally, included in an anthology I got free when buying another book at Dymocks back in 2009. Allen and Unwin have since released a number of short stories from big name Australian authors as eBooks, including “Blackberries”, available for a couple of bucks each.

The marketing copy of “Blackberries” is telling:

Austin North sees himself as a fine English teacher in his local high school. His students respect him, and he finds personal fulfillment in teaching them the power of poetry to move and inspire. However, Austin’s self-perceptions are upset by his infatuation with a young Sudanese girl, a recent immigrant to Australia. When Austin realises that he is just another predator in her difficult journey, he is forced to re-examine his own values and relationships.

When composing cover copy, log lines and premises, writers are encouraged to convey ‘some sense of the outcome’. Here, the publisher reveals the main character’s arc: Don’t worry, this isn’t just another story about a middle-aged man’s hard on for a teenage girl! He does experience a character arc! He learns he’s actually a shit!

Because surely we’ve reached a cultural moment in which a mainstream thinking audience is sick and tired of profiles of ephebophilia, especially those which simply expose rather than critique, as if this phenomenon is new to any reader. As if stories which centre, and therefore prioritise, a man’s erotic desires over a woman’s are new to any reader. The title itself makes me squirm — what might “Blackberries” refer to? Or rather, to whom? Women of colour sexualised as food items is another old-ass trope. So let’s hope it’s not that.

a woman reclines tired in a chair while man looks on
The Argument by Albert Beck Wenzell – Date unknown

But that final sentence of the marketing copy offers hope. Perhaps Thomas Keneally offers an interesting take in “Blackberries”? Annie Proulx is another short story writer who made use of the double-edged symbolism of blackberries in “Heart Songs”. Blackberries are sweet and delicious but also an invasive weed. Proulx’s short story offers a good contrasting text for another reason — Snipe in “Heart Songs” doesn’t change at all.

How does a person realise that his erotic desires are problematic, and impacting others badly? Austin’s character arc interests me, because how often do Anagnorisiss like this occur in reality? And if it does happen, how might we kick it off?

STORYWORLD OF “BLACKBERRIES”

  • Somewhere in the Australian ‘bush’, which means rural area — oftentimes there’s little in the way of shrubbery. (This perplexed me when I first arrived here.)
  • In this particular part of the New South Wales ‘bush’ there are a number of refugees, notably from Southern Sudan.
  • In small towns in New South Wales (I live in one myself), sport is important. To be good at sport gives you lots of prestige.
  • Refugees and immigrants have together formed the local Sudanese committee which helps new Australians settle. This has been started by an engineer (highly skilled immigrant not refugee) from Sudan. His name is David Malwai.
  • Most of the Sudanese immigrants are Coptic Christians.
  • Some of the teenage Sudanese boys are starting to form gangs but are still ‘better behaved than some of the Aboriginal young’. (The unseen narrator is therefore white.)

MAIN CHARACTERS OF “BLACKBERRIES”

  • Austin North, English teacher
  • David Malwai, Sudanese engineer
  • Miriam Salong, gifted runner
  • Meredith North, Austin’s wife, council worker

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BLACKBERRIES”

SHORTCOMING

Austin North sees himself as a fine English teacher in his local high school.

This is a character who doesn’t see anything wrong with himself, morally, ethically. The world’s reaction to him generally props up this self-image. Keneally shows Austin as king of his arena — enjoying the repartee with the boys (while ignoring the girls, assuming they will simply leave school and get pregnant).

— Because they are soft, poor things, said Angela Yankovich, a bright kid who was a member of some evangelical church group, at least for now. Austin had a feeling that it wouldn’t last. In six months time she would forget all that and be the girlfriend of some town hoon whom she’d think the smartest thing she’d ever met and who might steal her future from her.
— Exactly right, said Austin, more to reinforce her than because she had got the point of the poem

The name Austin derives from older names meaning “exalted, venerable”. What about his surname, North? Could the symbolism of cardinal direction be relevant here?

To cut it short, Austin North is an old school sexist, misogynist. “Blackberries” is not a comfortable read and isn’t meant to be. But the narrator, pulling away from Austin’s point of view, assures us that he’s good at his job:

Austin had a reputation as an excellent English teacher. Even the kids who pretended to get nothing out of his classes often got plenty. It was a game they played, him and them, arguing the usefulness of poetry year by year. He enjoyed the tussle — it was better than having a class full of obedient automatons who took notes frantically. And in every class, you saw a girl here, a boy there, suddenly becoming intoxicated with words. Softly and humbly…

But is it possible to be a good teacher and also a teacher who sexually objectifies female students? Isn’t ‘respecting every student as a child without assuming for them a dismal future’ a necessary element of ‘good teacher’, without which you are a ‘shit teacher’?

I push on with that question in mind.

DESIRE

On the scale of self-awareness, Austin is right up there. He’s an English teacher, so he knows all about Lolita, and he sees disturbing shades of Humbert Humbert in himself.

So although he feels this attraction for the Sudanese student, he doesn’t want it.

OPPONENT

The opening scene sets up a classroom in which Austin’s bright year tens are his opponents, but with the arrival of Miriam Salong, Austin has a new type of opposition — and he’s very uncomfortable with this one.

PLAN

So far, so good. Austin proves himself a Good Guy, right?

Except if you’re a teacher you’ll know to suspect a teacher who detains a student after class for no good reason — alone, no less. Austin goes no further than that, but if the story were told from Miriam’s point of view we might learn of her fear.

Even with a narrator who sympathises with Austin, it’s clear that Miriam can see who he is, and has disturbing hints of what he is feeling. This is not a young, naive teenager, but a girl who has seen all kinds of things. I expect she is expert at reading body language, especially when she can’t understand all of the English.

In short, Austin has no plan of action, other to find opportunities to catch time with the object of his affection and to pretend to everyone else that he feels no way at all about Miriam.

In stories like this, other characters must come up with the plan. In this case it’s the school principal, who tasks Austin with the task of persuading Miriam’s parents, via David, to let her wear PE gear.

BIG STRUGGLE

Austin is in constant fear of his infatuation being found out. There is no big Battle preceding his Anagnorisis but there is the proxy big struggle in which he is scalded by the very hot chai. In lieu of a big struggle wound, you see.

ANAGNORISIS

This is one of those short stories — more rare in reality than by reputation — in which the main character sees something small and has a major epiphany:

Miriam walked back into the room in that long school tunic, passed her father and mother, and then turned and sat at her mother’s side. The mother reached out her arm, and Miriam lifted her feet from the floor, tucked them beneath her, and lowered her head in a gesture of utter acceptance onto her mother’s breast, as if it were the source of a beloved authority.

Turning the page, the narrator explains what Austin has realised:

And watching that gesture, that obeisance, Austin saw Miriam’s childhood laid bare to him and found himself in a second humiliated and cured. The heart to which Miriam now listened was the constant clock in the world of flux which had brought her at last here, to this bare suburb, and into his classroom. And seeing Miriam resort this way, with such bodily grace, to the one given of her universe he saw himself with acute pain as simply another predator, as one with the soldiers and militias who came storming in, maiming and demeaning, carrying off cattle and burning the grain. His obsession had reduced him to the role of just another plunderer.

Though instantly reborn, he could tell at once that he was somehow a diminished man, frightened, cured but suffering the most bitter doubt about what he had not doubted before — his effectuality on earth, his equilibrium as a friend to humankind, a friend of poetry, an acquaintance of history.

NEW SITUATION

Austin is sick of teaching. He asks his wife if the council (where she works) has any openings for gardeners and groundsmen, and he is serious.

He was all right while he was actually in class. It was between classes that shame and self-knowledge corroded him. He was aware he was not the sociable man he once was, and his colleagues, he could see, were bemused by this.

Meanwhile, Miriam wears modest PE clothes and breaks the NSW record.


So, what do you think? Do you buy that character arc? Might a man be cured of his inappropriate erotic thoughts by suddenly seeing a child as… a child?

I remain uncomfortable with this story. I’m uncomfortable with the title, with the unspoken whiteness as unchallenged default, and with the unseen narrator who makes value judgements about Austin which, in an excellent story, would be left to the reader.

For that reason, I may have appreciated “Blackberries” a little more if it had been written with first person narration, with the possibly unreliable Austin as narrator, rather than Keneally’s ambiguously-reliable unseen narrator, positioned as moral authority owing to his omniscient scope.

Ultimately, of course, we already have a massive corpus of stories about grown-ass men who get the hots for nubile young women and learn something valuable about life and themselves. That in itself is the story. Keneally uses Lolita as an intertextual example — he knows what he’s done here — but why bother?

Is there really a single new thing to be said on that topic? And no matter how well it is written, how poetic the epiphany, can a modern story like that ever be really great?

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Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan Analysis

a crab walking on black cracked earth

“Singing My Sister Down” is a horror short story by Australian author Margo Lanagan. Find it in Lanagan’s collection Black Juice, published by Allen and Unwin. Black Juice was published in 2004, but “Singing My Sister Down” has proven especially resonant with readers, anthologised numerous times since. “Singing My Sister Down” is now a modern Australian short story classic.

Reading it again today, I stop halfway through and watch a Cookie Monster skit which has blessedly come through my Twitter feed. It’s just too much. I can’t think of many short stories this intense, though “Brokeback Mountain” is another (more so than the film).

OTHER creepy short stories TO COMPARE AND CONTRAST

The collection Black Juice is sold as young adult fiction, but I suspect that’s a decision especially relevant to small book markets like Australia, in which publishers convince high school English teachers all over the country to buy class sets. Another Australian author marketed as young adult is Sonya Hartnett, but I can’t pinpoint what, in the stories themselves, makes Hartnett’s work YA.

Anyhow, the marketing strategy works, because Black Juice has since become a set text for many Australian high school students.

Meanwhile, American students enjoy a story with a similar vibe: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

I went to school in New Zealand. Our resonant horror short story in senior English class was “King Bait” by Keri Hulme — a similarly pessimistic commentary on what can happen when a small community comes together for an event.

But this is the most harrowing of them all. What makes “Singing My Sister Down” so damn memorable and scary? (And what makes it attractive to English teachers?)

THE HORRIFIC PLOT OF “SINGING MY SISTER DOWN”

NARRATION

The story is narrated from the point of view of a brother, who is charged with the task of playing music at his sister’s murder. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between the event and his retelling of it. He could be recounting the story many years into the future, or it might have just happened. He appears to be retelling the story as a way of understanding it. This is generally the case for storyteller narrators. All through the ‘ceremony’ he knew something was off, but was powerless to stop any of it.

SHORTCOMING

“Singing My Sister Down” is the story of a community rather than of an individual. The Moral Shortcoming of this community: Their traditions include abject cruelty.

The Shortcoming of each of its inhabitants: They cannot see a way out of this ritual. This is what they know. They don’t think to question it.

DESIRE

This is where “Singing My Sister Down” stands out over many other types of horror stories, some of which I don’t find scary at all.

There is no Desire to rescue this girl from the tar pit. (Not from the characters within the setting, that is.)

This defies our expectation of narrative in general. The vast majority of stories with a similar setting would take a different path. The twentieth century taught us to expect men rushing in to save a girl from sinking into quicksand.

But here, that hero trope is subverted. NO ONE is coming to rescue this girl. As reader, I feel this really frustrating glass wall between myself and the setting. There’s no way I can dive into the book and do something. Please, won’t somebody do something?

The desire of the family is to see Ikky accept her punishment of slow and sadistic death, and to make this murder (coded by the characters as fair and just punishment) follow the community’s customs around death, because they only get one chance to say goodbye.

OPPONENT

The Opposition that exists in “Singing My Sister Down” is not so much between the characters themselves. Technically, there is an opposition between Ikky and the rest of her community, because presumably she’d rather not be killed in this fashion. She has spent the recent days ‘sulking’ — understatement of the story.

Yet Ikky is grimly accepting of her punishment, indoctrinated by a culture which says this is the way things go. There is some mild opposition between Ikky and the aunt, who cannot face the tar-pit ceremony, but because the aunt remains off the page, this is a soft oppositional web.

There has been a big Battle which took place off the page — the axe fight in which Ikky killed someone. Off-the-page opponents can be scary too.

Regarding the hints about how Ikky got here: She was a newlywed. She killed someone with an axe. I extrapolate that she killed her new husband with an axe. Based on statistics around women who murder men, there was very likely a self-defence element at the base of Ikky’s crime.

In the 20 per cent of murders committed by women, over two-thirds were women killing men who had been abusing them.

Sydney Morning Herald

This reader’s sympathy is therefore with Ikky.

This is a horrifically soft Opposition in this story, given the life-and-death situation. This in itself is a subversion. We expect people (and characters) to fight tooth and nail to save their own lives.

I’ve watched enough true crime shows to know that people usually do fight to the death, and will injure themselves severely in the hope of saving their own lives. Survival instinct kicks in. Another thing I’ve learned from a true crime show: Prisoners on death row don’t eat their last meals. Prison guards ask what they’d like and do an excellent job of preparing the meals. They know the prisoners won’t touch it, then they’ll eat it themselves. This was mentioned in a documentary about a serial killer — presumed psychopathic. This guy stood out from all the other (probably psychopathic) prisoners facing imminent execution in America because he indeed ate his last meal, and seemed to enjoy it. Evidence of his lack of humanity. (I figure this is why baddies so often eat apples and sandwiches after committing  horrific crimes in stories. Normal people couldn’t eat a thing at a time like that. In fact we’d do the opposite of eat — we’d throw up.)

Ikky in “Singing My Sister Down” eats her last meal of crab meat as she sinks into the tar pit. I don’t believe this is realistic, but it is horrific. And mimesis is over-rated — I believe there is a symbolic reason for the crab meat, and also for her eating it.

THE SYMBOLISM OF CRUSTACEANS

What’s with the crabs, I wonder? I just read another short story with crabs by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings“, in which the magical realist setting opens with an invasion of crabs coming in from the sea to inhabit the human habitat. In that story, land meets the sea as earth meets heaven (an angel falls to earth and is not as ‘angelic’ as everyone expected).

But in “Singing My Sister Down”, is there any symbolic significance regarding the crab meat? I personally find crabs creepy. They’re like the huntsman spiders of the sea. They have too many legs. They walk sideways. Their eyes are entirely black and stick up on stalks. There is nothing cute about a crab. Worst of all are the pinchers. Even a cooked crab gives me the willies.

Actually there is one thing worse than crabs on the beach. And that’s live crabs dropped alive into boiling water. I have no empathy for a crab walking along the beach, but as soon as a chef throws a crustacean into water, suddenly I’m horrified.

Time and again, throughout history, the same pattern happens: Studies eventually show that animals apart from humans feel far more than we thought they did. Same with crabs.

Normally this discussion is around lobsters.

Robert Elwood once boiled a lobster alive – lobsters being one of the few creatures we eat that we are allowed to slaughter at home. It is the usual way to kill, and cook, them. “Would I boil a lobster now?” asks Elwood, emeritus professor at the school of biological sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, referring to the work he has done for more than a decade on crustaceans and pain. “I wouldn’t. I would kill it before boiling.” […]

The argument is: we know the areas involved in pain experienced in humans; if you don’t have those areas, you can’t feel pain. But it’s quite clear that, in evolution, completely different structures have arisen to have exactly the same function – crustaceans don’t have a visual cortex anything like that of a human, but they can see. Given the evolutionary advantage of experiencing pain, there is no reason to assume they should not have this protection against tissue damage.”

Is it wrong to boil lobsters alive? from The Guardian

Why should this even be surprising to us at this point?

It’s illegal to boil crustaceans alive in my home country of New Zealand; Australia is progressing more slowly, state by state. When “Singing My Sister Down” was published, this worldwide trend had yet to begin.

Do I think that’s the main message of “Singing My Sister Down?” That we shouldn’t cook crustaceans alive because we wouldn’t cook a human alive in a tar-pit? Nope. Don’t think that. But that’s where the crab thing took me.

Crustaceans aside, the most disturbing opposition in “Singing My Sister Down” exists not between the characters themselves, but between the story and the audience. We desperately want someone to step in and stop this from happening. Nobody does.

We might say the opposition = the setting. There is a freaky robo-fate to how this ceremony plays out, akin to the ‘mechanical behaviour’ trope found so often in horror.

Weirdly, the ‘mechanical behaviour’ trope is found also in comedy. A comedy example is Roy asking “Have you turned it off and on again?” on The I.T. Crowd. At one point the ‘mechanical-ness’ of this act is exploited in full, when Roy hooks up an actual tape recorder to do his entire job. Most commonly, the character with mechanical behaviour has an element of the fussbudget about them.

In horror the mechanical behaviour of the villain exposes his lack of humanity. You can’t reason with such a character. Worst of all, you can’t kill something mechanical — horror monsters keep coming back and back and back.

But here, the setting itself — the culture of this messed up little community — is the force which propels this girl’s family to go ahead with her murder. This, in my view, is the most horrific form of mechanical behaviour there is.

PLAN

There is no plan to rescue Ikky. The Plan is to carry out the tar-pit sinking in customary fashion. The bulk of the detail in “Singing My Sister Down” is around the rituals, and a blow-by-blow description of the sinking.

The narrator might easily be describing a wedding, which also involves music and flower wreaths. Indeed, there has recently been a wedding.

‘Well, this party’s going to be almost as good, ’cause it’s got children. And look what else!’ And she reached for the next ice-basket.

This juxtaposition evokes unease in the reader. Births, deaths, marriages… all completely different things… all involve similar ritual.

BIG STRUGGLE

We know what the climax is going to be, which is why it’s so horrible. It’s one thing to be almost ‘cuddled’ warmly by the tar. It’s another thing to suffocate in the damn stuff.

It is nightfall before this happens. Because the story is narrated by the brother onlooker, his memory of the exact moment is clouded. ‘… and they tell me I made an awful noise…’ The setting seems to come alive — setting becomes a character in its own right with the flowers ‘nodding in the lamplight’. The setting itself has already been established as the main opposition (the cultural milieu rather than, say, weather elements a la a disaster story). So an ‘aliveness’ is entirely appropriate at this point.

ANAGNORISIS

If we were expecting an ending with a sense of hope, this story lets us down. No one steps in to save this young woman.

The narrator says finally that he ‘will never understand’. He experiences no Anagnorisis, at least not the kind we hope he will have — that this was a terrible thing that happened. What if he did realise that? What if he realised the injustice of it? It’s not in his best interests to think too hard about this ritual, otherwise he might spend the rest of his life berating himself for failing to step in and save Ikky.

By dashing our expectations, the reader may instead experience the revelation — that when communities come together, humans are capable of the most heinous acts. But we know that already, perhaps.

There is nothing in this story that hasn’t happened somewhere at some point in human history. The details may be different, but during the European witch craze, women (and across Europe, plenty of men) were burned alive with the consent of entire communities. We have far more recent examples, most notably from WW2, but into the present.

DEATH

Characters in stories die frequently. Sometimes it’s no more than a plot feature. In other stories, death becomes thematically significant. This is one of those stories.

The sinking itself takes place over a day, thereabouts. Symbolically, stories which take place over 24 hours tend to be a compressed insight into a single human lifespan. This is how Ikky can eat. We all eat to stay alive, all the while knowing we’re still going to die.

More on that, then. At the beginning of this story, Ikky, her family and her entire community knows she is going to die. Slowly. Horrifyingly slowly. But isn’t that the case for all of us? We all know that we ourselves are going to die. Not today, probably, but someday. Life itself is a horrifyingly slow death.

We don’t know this as children. Even after learning everybody dies, children have difficulty with the concept that they themselves will one day be dead. We can’t imagine not existing. We have equal difficulty imagining not being born. If you have kids, they’ve probably asked you: “Where was I when I wasn’t born?”

Then we hit the teen years, or perhaps the 20s, and the concept of death really sinks in. (Heh.) Heidegger called this part of human development Being-toward-death: The ‘moment’ (more likely an extended period) in which we come to understand that we ourselves will die — that from the point of conception we’ve all begun the journey towards death.

Marketing reasons aside, this aspect, even more than the age of the characters, is perhaps what makes “Singing My Sister Down” a genuinely young adult story.

NEW SITUATION

Since the narrator has learned nothing, this tradition of tar-pit murders will continue inside the setting.

But I believe this narrator is wilfully avoiding his Anagnorisis — that he could’ve done something to stop it.

Wilful ignorance is another fascinating aspect of being human, and “Singing My Sister Down” could be used as a deep-dive into that.

Instead, let’s go nitty-gritty.

THE CREEPY NARRATIVE VOICE OF “SINGING MY SISTER DOWN”

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson shocked and angered many American readers when first published because the opening seemed to promise a cosy depiction of a bucolic community coming together for an annual event, then did the old switcheroo and turned into a horror. Part of this was to do with the narrative voice — conversational and cosy.

I doubt the reader would be fooled by Lanagan’s story, which is creepy from the get-go. I suspect the diction feels creepy partly because of the uncanny valley effect — English, but not quite English. The voice feels almost translated from an unknown language, and because we don’t know where this is set, or which language is spoken, it could be anywhere.

It could happen where you are, right now.

How does Lanagan create this creepy narrative voice?

LEAVING OUT WORDS – JUST LEAVING THEM OUT

‘Yes, Bard Jo.’ Dot sat himself to listen.

I would most naturally say ‘Dot sat himself DOWN to listen.’ But this is an idiomatic expression and we don’t really need the ‘down’ of ‘sit down’, do we? I wonder if she crossed it out during a revision or if she never wrote the word in the first place.

invented WORDS

We don’t know how she fits all that into her days, but she does, and all the time she’s humming and thrumming.

The onomatopoeic word ‘thrumming’ creates a nice rhyme, and lends the voice a poetic feel. The word seems to vibrate right through you, in a mimetic way.

Also: ‘tea-tent’, ‘a mystery child’, ‘his house’s smoke hole’ (obviously in lieu of a chimney), middlehood (instead of ‘middle age’), and so on and so forth, right the way through the story.

INSERTING PREPOSITIONS AND ARTICLES IN UNEXPECTED PLACES

he wears the comfortable robes

Note use of ‘the’. I might have written ‘he wears comfortable robes’, but by making use of ‘the’, it is taken for granted that there is a division of robes – some are comfortable and others are probably worn on formal occasions. ‘The’ adds to the verisimilitude of the story by suggesting everyone is already in possession of this fact.

OLD WORDS IN NEW COMBINATIONS

Dot saw the women bent to the vegetable fields.

In my dialect of English, I have never used the phrase ‘bent to’. I would probably make use of some phrase more wordy, like ‘Dot saw the women bending down to tend the vegetable fields.’ But I like Lanagan’s phrase much better. Not only does she manage to convey an idea succinctly, she creates a new ‘idiomatic expression’ – one that’s not idiomatic in OUR world, but one which the reader can easily take as idiomatic in this fantasy world of the story. Since the phrase is slightly out of whack in English, it’s like this story has been translated from another language. This adds to the fantastic mood.

Also: ‘talking wisdom with the Bard’, ‘made a bitter laugh in his throat’ (not ‘laughed bitterly in his throat’, which would be hackneyed), ‘weaves song stuff’, ‘grilled bean pats’ for breakfast.

CREATIVE GRAMMAR

And when that’s quieted, we can hear Anneh and Robbreh again, steady in their song.

Sure, ‘quiet’ is both an adjective and a verb in English, but when it’s a verb it’s usually used as a transitive verb (i.e. it takes an object) as in, ‘The teacher quieted the students’. When ‘quiet’ is used as an intransitive verb (i.e. without an object), as it is here, it’s usually used in the phrase ‘quiet down‘, e.g. ‘The students quieted down.’ So Lanagan has used a transitive verb as an intransitive verb and dropped the bit which makes it a phrasal verb.

Also: ‘they SAW television’ (instead of watched).

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A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee Picture Book Analysis

A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever (2008), written and illustrated by Marla Frazee, was a Caldecott Honor book and garnered starred reviews from the big hitters. Today I’m taking a close look at what makes this book so good.

A PICTURE BOOK FOR PICTURE BOOK ENTHUSIASTS

It starts with the cover. This is a picture book for kids, but it’s also a picture book for people who have spent many years reading picture books, engaging the adult part of the brain. The joke on the cover is, “Who are these boys smiling at?” I have previously noted that when illustrators draw characters as if they’re posing for photographs, this is a form of direct address — sometimes accidental, I’m sure.

Smile, Baby! You’re On The Cover Of A Picture Book!

But here, Marla Frazee draws us in on the humour of this particular picture book convention (largely outdated now — you’ll find it on classic Little Golden Books). “How long do we have to stand here and smile?” asks one of the boys, simultaneously making the joke (to adults) and encouraging (child) readers to open the cover to get on with the adventure.

Let’s turn now to the back flap:

Marla Frazee based this book on real people and real events. Almost all of it is completely true. Except:

  • Bill and Pam do not have a striped couch.
  • James and Eamon do change their shorts occasionally.
  • Bill’s vocabulary lessons don’t just happen when he’s driving.

But other than that, it is all true (sort of).

I love the observation about the shorts, because picture book illustrators make certain concessions for the sake of story, putting reality aside — one of those things is keeping the main character in the same clothing from beginning to end. Otherwise the young reader may not realise the character is the same person, especially when faces are drawn in generic style, as they are here, with dots for eyes and little else to distinguish between the two boys.

This is the kind of wry observation which appeals to an adult co-reader, achieving a genuinely dual audience. There’s an argument to be made that it’s impossible for children’s stories to be highly regarded unless they appeal to adults as well as to their ostensibly ‘main’ audience — kids. But there we have it. Children’s books are in fact ‘Everybody Books’, which is why they’re so hard to do well.

IRONIC DISTANCE BETWEEN TEXT AND ILLUSTRATION

A deadpan text narrates the events of the week, from the obligatory nature hikes and sleeping on an inflatable mattress downstairs to Bill’s well-meaning attempts to engage them in wildlife study and Pam’s great cooking.

Kirkus

What does Kirkus mean when they say ‘deadpan’? How do picture book creators achieve deadpan?

I believe Kirkus is referring to what Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott have called ‘ironic distance’. Later Kirkus uses the word ‘counterpoint’. Publisher’s Weekly calls it ‘contradiction’.

The standout example of this concept is seen in Rosie’s Walk, in which the pictures tell a completely different story from the text. For any given illustration/text combo, we can plot it somewhere on the ‘ironic distance continuum’. In this particular book, the deadpan humour is achieved by doing the ironic inverse of what Pat Hutchins did. In Rosie’s Walk the main text is staid while the illustrations contain life and death excitement. In A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever, the text often promises excitement while the boys sit around and do basically nothing. The point is, holidays promise much but sometimes deliver little other than quiet contemplation and relaxation.

EXAMPLES OF IRONIC DISTANCE

Text: Eamon thought this chat was fascinating.
Illustration: Eamon, a middle-childhood aged boy, sits on the sofa between two elderly people. The look on his face suggests he is very uncomfortable. His posture suggests he wants to get off the sofa and do something else. It is clear he does not find the chat about penguins fascinating.

Text: And finally James did [arrive] with just a couple of his belongings.
Illustration: James has arrived with a hyperbolic, ridiculous amount of luggage, overflowing from cardboard boxes.

Text: He had never been away from home for an entire week, so he was very sad when his mother drove away.
Illustration: James has a big, confident grin on his face and the speech bubble suggests he shouts ‘Bye!’ enthusiastically. He is not sad at all.

As is evident from these first examples, the ironic distance is to do with emotion. Marla Frazee is expert at conveying emotion via facial expression and body language. A less experienced illustrator would’ve had a hard time pulling this off.

I’d like to note, too, that picture book writers are often advised to ‘leave out anything that can be conveyed by the illustrator’. A sentence like ‘He was very sad’ is often given as an example of exactly the sort of thing that should be left to the illustrator. What’s often left out of these discussions is that sometimes the illustration says the opposite. Writers are advised to add illustration notes only if there is a very big ironic distance between illustration and text. This is where an author/illustrator is at a massive advantage — Marla Frazee is able to milk the entire continuum of ironic distance because she’s doing both. I’m constantly amazed at how well illustrators and writers work together to create excellent picture books when they don’t sit down at the initial stages to work things out together, but author illustrators equally adept in both (rare) certainly have this extra edge.

The comic book format of A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever is a good choice to convey the ironic distance between adventure and relaxation, because comic books are so heavily associated with super heroes, and super heroes never sit around — they’re always gearing up for something heroic, and then doing it.

THEMES

My own child was born in 2008, the year this was published, and I think the storyline has only become more relevant since then. Once kids are dragged away from their devices it takes a while for them to re-engage the kind of imaginative thinking which results in penguins made from gathered beach items. These boys are taken on a journey from the modern world into the world of their own imaginations, symbolically transporting them back to a more simple time.

This is the exact kind of nostalgia which appeals to the adult audience, and confirms my view that this book will be understood on a different level by adults. (My premise is that nostalgia is the one emotion young children cannot share with adults.)

THE GRANDPARENT ARCHETYPE IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS

This story also subverts some expectations adults will have about picture books. We’re used to child-grandparent combos in which the grandparents have regressed back to childhood and enjoy fantastic adventures at the level of a child. Think Grandpa Jo from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and all the picture books featuring dancing grannies who have time for their grandchild even though the parents are too busy to notice the magic around them.

This books is not like that. This book is more akin to my own reality. Grandparents have time for grandchildren and go out of their way to create fun experiences, but the grandchildren remain wholly unappreciative. Because let’s face it, there has never been a bigger generation gap than that which exists between today’s grandparents and their grandchildren. Technology is the clear reason.

STORY STRUCTURE OF A COUPLE OF BOYS HAVE THE BEST WEEK EVER

So what are children to make of this picture book? If we take away the parts they won’t yet identify with, is there enough left in the story for them? The answer is yes, but this is a picture book for a slightly older audience than the 3-4 year old set — the child reader will have to understand irony. This typically happens around age 8. So I might introduce this story to 7 year olds and up, with plenty of conversation from the adult co-reader.

SHORTCOMING

There’s no clear ‘main character’ because this is the story of a ‘generation gap’, in which the kids and older people are equally important. But young readers will naturally identify with the boys, so let’s go with them.

James and Eamon are a realistic admixture of excited and apathetic. Now that I think about it, this is a very rare thing in picture books. They’re excited to be with each other at their grandparents’ house, but together they slip into this snarky, underwhelmed attitude which bonds them to one another rather than to the older man who is ferrying them around.

“I thought you are supposed to walk on a hike,” one says to the other in the back seat of the grandpa’s car. “Yeah, not stand and look at some flower for an hour,” the other snarkily replies. Significantly, they sit very close together while the grandfather figure remains removed, in the front seat of the car and driving.

So, these boys have a clear moral shortcoming — they are failing to appreciate all that is right there for them to enjoy. Would the child reader have the same response as me, who is used to being an unappreciated chauffeur? I doubt it.

Their psychological shortcoming is that they have forgotten how to have a full spectrum of fun. The zombie-eyed illustration of the boys staring into a television is a commentary on how ‘young people these days only notice the world around them when it’s happening through a screen’. This is clearly from an adult’s point of view — an older generation commenting upon a younger generation.

There’s another layer of humour in the zombie-eyed scene — Pam has given the boys coffee ice-cream — massive icebergs of it. I recently made the mistake of buying ‘Coffee Intense’ flavoured ice cream from Woolworths and inadvertently lay awake all night after eating it — my previously sampled coffee ice cream from Aldi must have basically no caffeine in it.

DESIRE

The boys want to have fun on holiday, but they don’t know how to have the right kind of fun. Frazee’s illustrations mimic real life when she shows the boys having fun one moment, bored and zoned out the next. That’s exactly what modern kids are typically like. Moreover, the boys are rough housing with each other when the grandfather figure has unrolled a large map for them to appreciate. They are having fun, but it’s the sort of fun which can’t be contrived.

OPPONENT

The grandparents’ idea of fun activities is at odds with that which James and Eamon find genuinely diverting, so Young vs Old make natural Opposition.

PLAN

The boys ostensibly plan nothing — in naturalistic stories, kids don’t always make plans. They have to go along with adults’ plans. However, they do make their own mini-plans, to have fun in the moment. Their running gag is that they do everything in the same way. This constitutes a plan of sorts, kiddie version.

Finally they decide to do as they were expected to do all along — go outside of their own volition.

BIG STRUGGLE

The boys have been battling with the older people all week, not in any traditional sense, but the older generation has set ideas about how boys should spend time at ‘Nature Camp’.

This long-running Battle ends after the old people have exhausted themselves trying, and fall asleep snoring on the sofa. This is when the ‘winners’ emerge victorious — the boys go outside and look at their natural surroundings for the first time.

ANAGNORISIS

And it turned out to be the very best part of the best week ever.

This is a rare example of a story in which the main characters as well as the ‘opponents’ have both come out equally victorious. The boys have learned to appreciate the natural world around them, just as the older folks have been aiming for all along. However, they couldn’t  be finagled into appreciating it. It was only after the old people removed themselves that the boys were afforded time to get bored, and inspired.

The adult reader learns from this story that kids don’t appreciate things in the way we hope, though they will still be appreciating our efforts in their own way. We’ll have an easier time of child care if we just let kids get bored sometimes.

The genius here is not that the boys finally get outside in the end; it’s that their joy in being together is celebrated equally whether they’re annihilating each other in a video game or building a replica of Antarctica on Bill and Pam’s dock. As respectful of kid sensibilities and priorities as it’s possible for an adult to achieve.

Kirkus

NEW SITUATION

The reader has seen it was boredom itself that led to the boys’ true appreciation of nature. They have now made their own fun using very low-tech items and we can extrapolate that they have learned the skill of playing outside in nature.

I doubt it’ll endure when they’re back in their regular world of scheduled activities and computer games, but one day, if these boys become parents, they’ll probably teach their own kids to make penguins out of seashells.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever reminds me of an older book from the early 1980s, Three Days On A River In A Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams.

Follow the red canoe from page to page as it journeys down river carrying the family on a camping tour. It’s the next best thing to paddling it yourself.

MARKETING COPY
Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams our first morning
Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams our first morning

In Williams’ story, a family go on a canoe down a river — what it says on the tin. The story takes young readers through the entire process, from planning and packing to coming home and feeding the caught fish to the cat.

Three Days On A River In A Red Canoe is a good example of a narrative in which the main opponent is ‘nature’ rather than other characters: First it rains, thenthere is a gale, then the canoe almost overturns in the current of the river.

I’m reminded of Frazee’s story because the in both stories, the artwork is simple enough to let a young reader think they can produce something similar. I was recently listening to a picture book illustrator saying that she includes more naively drawn illustrations in each spread with the specific purpose of inviting the reader to create their own.

Frazee’s story is a picture book/comic book blend in its layout; Williams’ story is a picture book/informational text blend, and even ends with a non-fiction section on rivers.

Of course, both are about holidays, and the titles are similarly structured.

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Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig by Kate diCamillo Analysis

Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson series are genius examples of funny, endearing, broad-audience picture books. There’s so much to learn. Today I take a deep dive into Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig.

Eugenia and Baby Lincoln may live next door to a pig, but that doesn’t stop them from living a gracious life. And the amiable Mercy Watson is equally determined to follow the delightful scent (and delicious taste) of the pansies her thoughtful neighbours are planting to beautify their yard. “Where have all the flowers gone?” shouts Eugenia, who is finally ready to take extreme measures — and dial Animal Control! Has Mercy’s swine song come at last? Or will her well-pampered instincts keep her in buttered toast?

marketing copy

Mercy’s appetite has got her into trouble again. When Eugenia Lincoln’s pansies go missing, Animal Control Officer Francine Poulet arrives on the scene. But as she soon discovers, not just anyone can think like a pig. Especially when that pig is porcine wonder Mercy Watson!

from the Teachers’ Notes issued by Candlewick Press

In common with Mercy Watson Fights Crime, the marketing copy centres Mercy’s opponent, Eugenia Lincoln. The educational notes centre the story-specific opponent. Either way, this story is about Mercy’s opposition, and I believe this is key to making these stories work. Mercy is too pig-like to make a sufficiently interesting character in her own right. Her Desires are basic; her Plan is always the same — to follow the joy. A character like this exists for her cute-appeal, but must be surrounded by very interesting opposition, and the opposition must make plans sufficient for a story.

NARRATION IN THE MERCY SERIES

This aspect of Mercy influences the narration, as well. The Mercy books are split into very short chapters (about 2000 words divided into 15 chapters = 133 words per chapter). Focal character changes with the chapter:

Chapter 1: Mercy and the Watsons sit happily at home doing something cosy together. In this case, they are drinking lemonade on the patio. There will be something not quite right in the world. In this case, Mrs Watson has put a lot of lemons in the lemonade and this makes Mr Watson’s lips pucker. This ‘something not quite right’ is comical but also foreshadows conflict to come.

Gourmet Magazine June 1956 lemonade

Chapter 2: Switches to Eugenia and Baby Lincoln next door. Eugenia isn’t happy that she’s living next door to a pig. They’re all outside on this hot day, and the pig is very evident. To counteract the fact of living next door to a pig, Eugenia decides they will plant pansies. Each chapter is a gag in its own right, with set-up and punch.

A joke has two parts: setup and punch. The setup raises the tension in the audience, if only for a moment, through danger, sex, the scatological–a host of taboos–then the punch explodes laughter.

Robert McKee, Story

In this chapter, the set-up is that Eugenia will plant petunias. The punch is that she will make Baby do the hard work of digging.

Chapter 3: We follow Mercy through a hole in the hedge into Eugenia’s yard. Mercy eats three pansies (The Rule of Three In Storytelling), with the full understanding that she goes on to eat every single pansy.

Another marketing image centers the ‘rule of three’ by foregrounding three pansy stalks.

Mercy is depicted as happy and oblivious, with her eyes closed for most of it. Mercy is more animal than human, akin to a very small child. She wants whatever good thing appears before her. First it is the violets. (Next it is the prospect of food at a children’s party.)

Chapter 4: As fully expected, Eugenia discovers Mercy has eaten all her pansies. The evidence is clear, as Mercy has pansy petals on her chin. This chapter ends with a chase scene. The look on Mercy’s face indicates Mercy thinks this is a game of chase. Eugenia’s hands are posed to look like she wants to strangle the pig.

Chapter 5: Mr and Mrs Watson wonder where Mercy has gone. Interestingly, Baby pops up to add something to the conversation. Previously she was witness to Eugenia’s chasing Mercy. Baby is very much ‘the reader’ — she turns up when the narration needs her to be there. She says what the reader would like to tell the other characters. And she appears to ‘float’ from one scene to another. The gag in this chapter is that Mr and Mrs Watson also believe Eugenia and Mercy are playing a game of tag. “They look so happy!” Baby gently tells them that Eugenia is not happy. (The reader already knows this, too.)

The point of view continues to switch like this. Then a new character comes into the fold — the wonderful Francine Poulet.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON THINKS LIKE A PIG

SHORTCOMING

Mercy doesn’t have much in the way of executive functioning, so when Eugenia next door plants violets — with the express purpose of making her forget they are living next door to a pig — Mercy can’t help but eat them. But this isn’t all that interesting, so for the purposes of this story, the main character is the chicken-bodied Francine Poulet (whose last name means chicken in French.)

Francine is comically single-minded. She has grandiose notions, and she fancies herself a superhero. Her single-mindedness will be her downfall (literally).

DESIRE

Francine relishes the challenge of locating a pig. She exclaims that this is a ‘career expanding opportunity’.

A NOTE ON LANGUAGE

Notice how Kate diCamillo uses these multisyllabic words within very simple sentence structures. It’s important that she’s able to use the words she would like to — otherwise much of the humour would be sacrificed. Note, too, that there’s nothing in ‘career expanding opportunity’ that can’t be sounded out.

OPPONENT

A note on Mercy’s series-long opposition:

Eugenia Lincoln calls Animal Control on Mercy. Eugenia functions as the long-term nemesis of Mercy, though Mercy remains blissfully unaware of this. Eugenia’s sister Baby is constantly trying to talk Eugenia down. She functions as the child reader, trying to persuade Eugenia that Mercy isn’t so bad. Unfortunately for Mercy, but fortunately for the plot, Baby fails in this mission every time because she is lacking in fortitude, assertiveness and is inclined to self-doubt. So the two sisters next door are an Opponent/Ally combo. This makes them especially useful.

After Eugenia calls Animal Control, Francine Poulet steps in as the main ‘Opponent’. But unlike Eugenia, Francine is a likeable character, and she is now The Main Character.

diCamillo establishes Francine’s likeability first during the phone conversation, in which Francine plays a guessing game with Eugenia. Francine is thereby set up as someone who enjoys fun.

For Francine, everyone on Deckawoo Drive is opposition, because nobody helps her locate the pig:

  • The Watsons are so distraught they’re not making any sense.
  • The Lincoln sisters disappear — they were only involved in the inciting incident of calling Francine in the first place.
  • Stella is opposition because she has insisted Mercy wears a hat. This is the comedy mask trope, and prevents Francine from realising that Mercy is not a person (at first).

PLAN

Francine is depicted as the human version of a chicken, but her plan in this story is to ‘Think like a pig.’ This is Francine’s catch phrase. She repeats it to herself over and over.

Repetition is a basic building block of comedy. Lines which in themselves are not all that funny can become funny if repeated as part of a comedy. Stand-up comedians have lines/reactions that, when repeated, become even funnier.

Seinfeld’s Kramer — how he always has a dramatic way of coming through the door
The I.T. Crowd’s Roy — “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” (both repetition and mechanical behaviour)

We see Francine look increasingly animalistic v she really does look like a chicken as she leaps over the hedge. Next she’s down on her hands and knees sniffing about. Then her beaked-shape nose is in the air. Finally she is up a tree, like a roosting chook. Normally in stories, a human character is presented as a single animal. In Mercy Watson Fights Crime, the burglar is depicted as a weasel. Here we have an extra layer — a human depicted as a chicken pretending to be a pig. A veritable turducken.

And that’s why I love the titles of the Mercy series. The titles are especially apt — of course Mercy thinks like a pig. She IS a pig, and she’s a very piggy pig, too (unlike Olivia, for instance). It is actually the Animal Control woman who ends up thinking like a pig. The title both describes Mercy and subverts our expectations. (Too many titles ruin some of the fun by spoiling the plot.)

BIG STRUGGLE

The comedy mask comes off when Francine realises Mercy is wearing the blue hat. The reader has already realised this, if not from the preceding chapter, from the curly tail sticking out.

ANAGNORISIS

In lieu of a Anagnorisis we have the set-up and ‘punch’ — the big narrative punch is that Francine has caught Mercy after realising it was a pig wearing that hat.

NEW SITUATION

The books in the Mercy series always end in the same way — the characters come together on stage for a bow — they sit down and eat toast.

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Mercy Watson Fights Crime by Kate diCamillo Analysis

“Mercy Watson Fights Crime” is book number three in the Mercy Watson series by Kate diCamillo, first published 2006. This series is beautifully illustrated by Chris Van Dusen.

SETTING OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME

Where in America is this series set? Based only on fictional representations, this feels Southern to me. (Do Americans get that? I have to guess.)

ERA

This is archetypal, mythical 1950s America, in which happiness consists of a wife at home wearing an apron making everyone lots of delicious food. The houses are large, the gardens manicured.

What do I mean by ‘archetypal, mythical 1950s’? Picture books are not exact depictions of real homes. When it comes to picture books, illustrations will likely include:

  • wooden beds with sturdy bed beads and foot boards
  • a chair in the bedroom
  • a glass of water next to the bed, and a conically shaped bedside lamp
  • a large, warm kitchen with 1950s appliances (e.g. the chrome toaster, which has since come back into fashion, but has a retro feel)

It has become clear in 2019, with the publication of Mercy’s origin story, that this is not literally 1950s America. Chris Van Dusen was charged with the task of drawing a cute, young, highly loveable pig, and in one interview admits that he initially forgot to age-down Mr and Mrs Watson. He subsequently put sideburns on Mr Watson and gave Mrs Watson a fringe. This suggests it was the 1970s when Mercy was young, which actually makes this 1980s America. (How long do pigs live? This is getting depressing… Okay, I looked it up: 15-20 years. Could be the 1990s.)

Apart from all that, the following image is reminiscent of American TV shows from the 1950s and 60s, which made use of split screen. We rarely see split screen used today unless the filmmaker is deliberately evoking a mid-20th century vibe. (More correctly, the split screen has evolved. You could say we’re living in the age of the split screen — so often we are watching TV while simultaneously on the Internet.)

A split screen from Pillow Talk, 1959

Even the cartoon convention of ‘screech’ zig-zags emerging from the toaster is reminiscent of Superhero comics from the Cold War era.

A GENUINE UTOPIA

Even in a genuine utopia, something exciting must happen. The storyteller’s challenge is to create the frisson of excitement while preserving the cosy, safe environment.

How does Kate diCamillo achieve that? First, she opens with a cosy goodnight scene. You can’t get much more reassuring than this:

Mr. Watson and Mrs. Watson have a pig named Mercy.
Each night, they sing the pig to sleep.
Then they go to bed.
“Good night, my dear,” says Mr. Watson.
“Good night, my darling,” says Mrs. Watson.
“Oink,” says Mercy.

the opening to Mercy Watson Fights Crime

Chris Van Dusen’s illustration reinforces the love that the Watsons feel for their pig — they’ve even had Mercy’s initial inscribed into her bed head. But look again. Look at the shadows. You could argue that, well, of course the shadows must be there — if the illustration contains a light source, then there must be shadows. But every single thing in an illustration is on purpose. Nothing existed here before the blank page. That strong shadow which falls across the bed? That’s ‘The Other Parents’ a la Coraline. A shadow that strong and defined gives the illustration an exciting, menacing vibe. Van Dusen could easily have made that bedspread light orange and it would’ve looked fine. The addition of that shadow is a master stroke.

Compare with the next bedroom scene — a simple one-point perspective, which is a useful layout when the illustrator wants to avoid any scary art noir associations. In the illustration below, Mercy has heard a noise from downstairs. She’s not scared at all because she hears the toaster screech and thinks someone is making toast.

Notice how Van Dusen has avoided casting the bedroom in darkness. Yet no one has switched the light on. The brightly-lit bedroom is an outworking of Mercy’s state of mind ie. not worried one bit. And if Mercy’s not worried, readers needn’t worry either.

The shadow which does exist is of Mercy’s own head —comical rather than menacing.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME

Marketing copy centers Opponent Leroy Ninker as the main character, with lots of fun onomatopoeia:

Leroy Ninker is a small man with a big dream: he wants to be a cowboy. But for now he’s just a thief. In fact, Leroy is robbing the Watsons’ kitchen right this minute! As he drags the toaster across the counter—screeeeeech—and drops it into his bag—clannngggg—little does he know that a certain large pig who loves toast with a great deal of butter is stirring from sleep. Soon a comedy of errors (not to mention the buttery sweets in his pocket) will lead this little man on the wild and raucous rodeo ride he’s always dreamed of!

from the Teacher’s Guide issued by Candlewick Press

I believe Leroy is the main character of this story, so will break down the structure accordingly. This is also a carnivalesque story, which has its own specific structure.

SHORTCOMING

Importantly, Leroy is not very smart. (Not sure how much he thinks toasters fetch on the black market.)

He personifies objects and can’t work out how to get out of the house without disturbing a sleeping pig. More than that, he’s burgling someone’s house and doesn’t seem to realise he should leave the scene afterwards rather than ride around on a pig!

Leroy is also endearing because of his imaginative capacity. While riding Mercy, we are told he imagines riding a dangerous bucking horse. He’s a Walter Mitty character — harmless, with big ideas about himself. This ability to sink into a paracosm is also his downfall.

DESIRE

Ostensibly, Leroy wants to steal items from other people’s houses. This is the outworking of a deeper desire, which is to imagine himself a fearsome, respected and tough bandit, reminiscent of the fantasy of the Wild West.

OPPONENT

Let’s consider Leroy as Opponent here for a moment.

Leroy Ninker is introduced in an ominously tinted scene. This is the archetypal robber, with the eye mask, the sack flung over his back. These would make him generic, much like the robbers in Walter The Farting Dog, in which generic robbers are useful. But diCamillo is turning the robber himself into a comedic character, and a comedic character requires a distinguishing feature or two. Kate diCamillo has made use of a mash-up of archetypes to arrive at a unique man:

  • archetypal robber
  • archetypal child who wants to grow up to be a cowboy.

Leroy is basically a Cat In The Hat character, who turns up when he isn’t meant to and wreaks havoc. While wreaking havoc, the child viewpoint character (Mercy) has a lot of fun.

Before she lets Mercy have fun, diCamillo reveals Leroy as an unthreatening character, despite his sticky fingered ways. He contains several layers of comic irony:

  • A small man with a big hat (in which the hat symbolises his self-importance)
  • He makes plenty of noise himself while telling the toaster to be quiet
  • He has sticky fingers both literally and metaphorically, because his favourite food is butterscotch.

But what about the enduring opponent of Eugenia Lincoln next door? It’s a rule of this setting that the sisters must appear at one point, in which the narration switches point of view. It’s also necessary for the plot to work, because Leroy turns out to be Mercy’s comrade in fun.

PLAN

Leroy will break into Mercy’s house and see if he can get away with stealing things. He will wear his cowboy costume because this is basically cosplay.

His Plan looks set to fail when Mercy trots downstairs thinking someone is making toast. Instead, expectations are foiled, because Mercy doesn’t realise this guy is a burglar. How does diCamillo turn this into a comedic situation? First there’s the comedic obliviousness — characters who don’t realise what we realise are always laughable (dramatic irony). But on top of that, diCamillo slows the pacing right down. Narratologists would say the story is set to ‘pause’.

One way a writer can achieve that is by saying what is not happening. This was pointed out to by by Jane Alison in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. Mercy sees that there is no toaster, no bread and no butter. But she wholly fails to see what IS there; she is single-mindedly fixated on buttered toast.

BIG STRUGGLE

In a carnivalesque story, the ‘Battle’ is an episode of extreme fun. Here it is the comedic sight of a tiny bandit cowboy riding a pig, all the while thinking he’s an actual cowboy.

Comedy is heightened when we are shown other characters enjoying the spectacle with us. Eugenia and Baby come in handy for that — they are functioning not so much as Opponents but as the two old men from The Muppet Show who make sardonic comments about everyone else in their vicinity.

ANAGNORISIS

The characters experience no anagnorisis because this is a comedic story in which the characters remain less knowledgeable about their situation than the readers, who have seen a broader picture. We’ve seen Mercy going to bed, the inside of Eugenia and Baby’s home, the arrival of the robber and the conversations between the police officers. This is true omniscient narration, and keeps the reader in audience superior position, feeling smart.

The revelation is simply a conclusion of fun. If we haven’t realised immediately we now know that Leroy’s penchant for butterscotch is going to be his downfall, because Mercy will accost him for it. Significantly, diCamillo made sure to ‘casually’ mention (twice) that Leroy enjoys butterscotch. (I was very slow on the uptake and didn’t even connect butterscotch sweets to Mercy’s love of buttered toast.) By the time we see Mercy on top of Leroy we’re wondering what she’s after. Then all is revealed: She’s sniffed out the treats!

NEW SITUATION

We might assume Leroy is taken to prison, though subsequent tales in the off-shoot series reveal that Leroy finds gainful employ at the cinema. The rule of this series is that everyone sits down to enjoy buttered toast. Order has been restored.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Some people enjoy wine and food pairing — I enjoy pairing children’s stories with stories for adults. Compare Mercy Watson Fights Crime with “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” by John Cheever.

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Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus! by Mo Willems Analysis

A comparison between Mo Willems’ Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus! and another from the same series, The Pigeon Wants A Puppy, highlights certain shared comedy writing techniques found in both.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

  1. Directly addressing the young reader
  2. A main character who eventually tries to trick the reader
  3. A big struggle scene featuring a tantrum
  4. A circular ending

STORY STRUCTURE OF DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS!

SHORTCOMING

Pigeon is only a pigeon and is not to be trusted doing human things (even though he or she speaks English).

DESIRE

This shortcoming is connected to pigeon’s Desire, which is to drive a bus.

OPPONENT

The adult Opponent within the world of the story is the bus driver who, before the title page, has told the reader that he’s just popping out for a few moments — could the reader please not let the pigeon drive the bus while he’s away?

This is funny in its own right because it suggests the pigeon has previously done just this. And the thought bubble coming out of pigeon’s head on the front papers suggests memory, not just wishes, in light of this fact.

But with the bus driver gone, Willems turns the reader into Pigeon’s Opposition, as is the case in Pigeon Wants A Puppy. In this story, the pigeon pleads with the reader and the reader (hopefully) is on side with the authority figure and knows not to say yes.

PLAN

Pigeon’s plan is to make a case with the reader:

  1. They will be careful.
  2. They have a cousin who drives a bus. We extrapolate that Pigeon would therefore be excellent at it.
  3. A sob story: “I never get to do anything!”
  4. Next, Pigeon tries to trick the reader into playing a ‘game’ which is presumably driving the bus for real.
  5. Finally, ending this sequence, four ‘pages’ per page, each with a new reason for letting Pigeon drive the bus speeds up the pace and suggests Pigeon goes on and on about this for ages.

BIG STRUGGLE

Pigeon throws a tantrum. Pigeon also threw a tantrum in The Pigeon Wants A Puppy. Big letters are scrawled across the page. Feathers float off (which kind of look like droplets of sweat — because I have anthropomorphised Pigeon).

ANAGNORISIS

We never know exactly what Pigeon is thinking after that because the ‘speech bubble’ is an angry scribble. But Pigeon looks resigned and downcast. Pigeon has the revelation that this is not going to happen.

This is confirmed when the bus driver returns and Pigeon has still not had a go at the wheel.

NEW SITUATION

But this is another circular plot and once the bus drives off, a big, red truck comes along. Pigeon decides they would like to drive that. No words are used for this — just another thought bubble. This time, Pigeon stands on the other side of the page (the right side). This creates a visual ending to THIS particular story.

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The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems Analysis

pigeon wants a puppy cover

The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems is one of my kid’s favourite books. The Pigeon books are similar to the Elephant and Piggie books in graphic design and in humour.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE PIGEON WANTS A PUPPY

SHORTCOMING

When I read this quote from the author/illustrator I knew that Willems thinks of story in the same way I do:

I don’t know if I can explain him — I can describe him. Pigeon has wants and needs and desires, and he has very few filters. He wants what he wants, he thinks he needs what he needs. He is railing at the injustice of it all. And the irony is that the kids who are usually suffering the injustice of it all, the kids who are being told when to go to bed, or what to do, or to eat, or how to eat, or how to dress — the second they get to stick it to the pigeon, they do.

I try to think that the Pigeon is a core, fundamental, philosophical being. He is asking the fundamental, deep questions: What is love? Why are things the way they are? Why can’t I get what I want? Why can’t I drive a bus? I mean, you know, Sophocles.

Mo Willems, NPR

DESIRE

The desire is right there in the title. Perhaps not much more needs saying.

Oh, except note how masterfully Willems has connected Desire to Shortcoming. This is always the best form of Desire in a story, returning the best results: Pigeon desires a puppy because he fails to do his research and understand consequences. He acts on his whims.

Note also: Willems is really ramming home the Desire line. There’s much humour in this because of pigeon’s complete lack of self-awareness. Of course he hasn’t wanted a puppy ‘for ages’. He’s decided right then and there. (If we didn’t already suspect that, we learn it by the end.)

By the way, the image on the colophon page perfectly illustrates how Willems may have brainstormed this series. We see list unwinding, headed “Things I Want”:

  1. Drive a bus!
  2. Eat a hot dog all by myself!
  3. Stay up late!
  4. Real estate!
  5. A big, red truck!
  6. Turtleneck sweaters!
  7. A driver’s license!

This list encapsulates pigeon’s whimsical  desires at the centre of other books in the series — a comedic mixture of childlike (big, red truck) and mature (real estate).

OPPONENT

The main opposition is the puppy, who stands in direct opposition to Pigeon’s desire because she doesn’t live up to Pigeon’s idealised conception of what a puppy would be.

In this way, the Opponent of The Pigeon Wants A Puppy is similar to the opponent in a crime story because the audience doesn’t see the villain until the big reveal near the end. There’s no crime here, of course. But the storytelling problem is the same: The storyteller must really build up the opposition

  1. to create payoff at the end
  2. to give the main part of the story its narrative drive

What crime writers do: Create other opponents along the way, much like mythic structure. Opponents apart from the main one, that is. (Family, colleagues, uncooperative politicians who won’t hand over the information you need etc.)

How has Willems created extra opposition, apart from the unseen ironic ‘villain’ of the puppy? Yep, he makes THE READER part of the pigeon’s web of opposition. It’s masterful. Willems achieves this by using the narrative technique of direct address.

PLAN

Pigeon has a Plan which demonstrates to the reader, in audience superior position, that Pigeon has NO idea what a puppy even is. Pigeon plans to:

  1. water it once a month
  2. go for piggyback rides on its back
  3. play tennis with it

Notice how Willems made use of the Rule of Three — three specific things Pigeon plans to do with a new puppy.

BIG STRUGGLE

In picture books the Battle tends to comprise a large proportion of the total story. It tends to be a Battle Sequence.

Picture book author Katrina Moore thinks of picture book structure like this:

  • Set up (how much Pigeon wants the puppy and how he is wrong about puppies)
  • Escalation (Woof! What’s that? Woof! Woof!)
  • Climax/Low Point (Pigeon gets scared half to death by a massive puppy head coming onto the page — by the way, notice how Pigeon is now facing backwards, opposite to the turn of the page? He has had a shock — this is common picture book convention.)
  • Resolution (what I’d call the Anagnorisis, though this may be a better word for it, since so often there is no Anagnorisis)
  • Wink (the reader knows this exact scenario will play out twice)

(For more on the Battle sequence and the forms it tends to take in picture books, see my post on Battles in Storytelling.)

ANAGNORISIS

“Really, I had no idea!”

The comedic thing about this particular Anagnorisis: Pigeon is unable to generalise learning to new situations. He (or she) learns that PUPPIES are not as expected but fails to learn that maybe WALRUSES won’t be, either.

NEW SITUATION

I recently read We Learn Nothing — essays by Tim Kreider and I believe it’s more common we learn nothing than learn something, in fact. No life lesson is learned. Just a very specific one. In this respect, Pigeon is identical to Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug, who learns a very specific aspect of Not Being An Asshole in every book, but there are so many different ways of being an asshole an entire series has been generated from Pig’s assholery.

At the end — ‘the wink’ —  Pigeon wants another wholly unsuitable pet. This makes the story a circular plot, ending where it began with slightly different variables, w swapped out for p.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS

The front cover says ‘pictures’. Is this simply because toddlers will understand ‘pictures’ but may not understand ‘illustrations’? I suspect there’s more to it than that — these are perhaps better described as pictures.

Every single thing in these minimalist picture books is there because it carries meaning. There is no background detail. These are stories about plot (centred on character) — they are not the sort of books in which the reader is invited to linger, enjoying the environment e.g. Blackdog by Levi Pinfold or anything by Shaun Tan.

It’s ultimately reductive, but my sort of cheat sheet is: If you were to look at all of my drawings [for a book] without any words and understand it, then there are too many drawings. The drawings are too detailed. And if you were to read the entire manuscript and it made sense, then there are too many words.

So it’s that marriage, that very delicate marriage between words and pictures, and then that marriage between author and audience where the audience is creating so much of the meaning. So my job is to create incomprehensible books for illiterates.

Mo Willems, NPR

How do picture book illustrators handle the delicate issue of swearing in children’s literature? Well, Pigeon clearly utters expletives here.

Other techniques derive from comic book convention, for instance the love hearts all around the speech bubble.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH BABYMOUSE: PUPPY LOVE

The Puppy Love book of the Babymouse series by Jennier and Matthew Holm has a similar plot structure but expanded into a middle grade graphic novel length. Babymouse goes through a series of pets but proves an unreliable owner. Each of her pets escapes. Eventually a stray dog turns up. Owning a dog is not what she hoped it would be. The dog gets up to mischief, first chewing her shoes and clothes, then chewing her entire room.

The story ends when the dog’s owner comes to get it. (Behind the scenes the mother must have put out the word about finding a lost dog.) The plot reveal is that the dog is a girl, not a boy as Babymouse had assumed.

In an ideal world this would not be a reveal, but studies have shown that animal characters are automatically coded male unless given an obvious feminine marker, such as the bow Babymouse herself wears on her forehead. So this ending asks readers to perhaps not assume, next time, that an animal who gets up to mischief MUST be male.

The other interesting thing about Babymouse is how every character in the story is an animal. Babymouse, her family and classmates are all animals, but in shape only. They are otherwise completely human. But animals who behave like regular animals also exist in the story. Of course, no explanation is given for this, and I doubt the typical reader would even think about it.

FURTHER READING

The Easy Acquisition Of Pets In Children’s Stories

Rex Dexter is itching to have a dog. He was practically born to have one. His name is Rex, for crying out loud. It’s a dog’s name. Any pooch is preferable, but a chocolate Labrador is the pinnacle. The best of the best. The dream of all dreams.

When Rex’s B-Day for Me-Day finally arrives, his parents surprise him with a box. A box with holes. A box with holes and adorable scratchy noises coming from inside. Could it be? Yes! It has to be! A . . . a . . .

Chicken?

Pet poultry?

How clucky.

One hour and fourteen minutes later, the chicken is dead (by a steamroller), Rex is cursed (by the Grim Reaper), and wild animals are haunting Rex’s room (hounding him for answers). Even his best friend Darvish is not going to believe this, and that kid believes everything.

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When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead Novel Study

WHEN YOU REACH ME REBECCA STEAD

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is ten years old now, published 2009. I’ve seen this middle grade novel described as magical realism, though for knotty political reasons we might prefer to call it fabulism. It is also science fiction and grounded in the real world. It packs a lot into 40k words.

There are many things to admire about When You Reach Me. But I’m not a fan of the title. I keep getting it wrong. (I keep thinking it’s When I Reach You.) It was originally called You Are Here, which I like better. (That would match the cover better, too.)

NARRATION

First, I admire the 12-year-old-ness of it. Take the following passage, which demonstrates the narrator is right there in a 12-year-old’s headspace.

“It’s okay.” I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.

I’ve heard this style of narration was sort of invented by Katherine Paterson. I’ve seen it described as ‘third-person limited omniscient narrative’, which basically means the narrator is looking back on fairly recent incidents. A little time has passed, but not much. They’re still a kid telling the story. We know it’s not an adult looking back telling the story because ‘it didn’t make me feel good’ is a kind of emotionally naive thing to say. An adult would be more articulate about it.

Yet at the same time, the narrator is saying something universal and true.

REBECCA STEAD AND KATHERINE PATERSON

Speaking of Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia has The Chronicles of Narnia as a possible intertext and When You Reach Me has the very clear intertext of A Wrinkle In Time. Are young readers expected to be familiar with A Wrinkle In Time? A children’s story with a strong intertext must exist as complete in its own right. No knowledge of Madeleine L’Engle’s work is needed here, but those who’ve read it will get more out of this one.

I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.

Goodreads reviewer who also loved A Wrinkle In Time as a kid

Stead was inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s classic and initially only mentioned it briefly but her editor advised her to make more of it if she wanted to keep it in at all.

Stead was aware that she did not want A Wrinkle in Time to have too big an influence on When You Reach Me. Keeping this in mind, she reread A Wrinkle in Time through the perspective of different characters, which enabled her to develop new connections and ideas in her own work.

Wikipedia
TIME TRAVEL

Even better than reading A Wrinkle In Time, I’d say it’s helpful for young readers to have considered the possibility of time travel. That is the most complex part of this novel. Time is presented as like a book with all the pages filled in. (Actually, the analogy used  in the story is a ring with diamond chips around it.)

Butchering it badly, the idea is this: we simply move through time, but we exist on each page forever. This is a mind-bending concept to consider. Brian Greene, Marcus Chown and other popular science writers are fascinating on this topic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yMiUq7W_xI

(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)

GENUINE SUBVERSIONS

I also love that Rebecca Stead sets up archetype characters and then subverts them. She doesn’t simply invert them — she properly subverts them. The Alpha Bitch turns out to be human and not that different from the main character. A bully character is set up then dismantled as a nerdy type.

Connected to these subversions: By the conclusion of the novel it is clear that sometime there’s no grand fatalistic reason behind certain actions. The inciting incident, in which Sal is punched in the head, had no good reason behind it. It had a stupid reason behind it. The message, therefore, is that violence is senseless. (Sometimes it really is.)

But here’s what most critics have admired the most: The way all the time travel fits together, and how one clue leads directly to the next in this mystery, science fiction plot. There must be something especially gratifying for readers about that flow-on feeling you get from some stories, even if it’s only subconscious.

CHARACTERS OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Stead doesn’t introduce the main child character’s name right away. In fact, we’re several chapters in before we know it. This has the effect of turning the main character into the Every Child, in which the readers can easily map themselves onto the fictional proxy.

Eventually we learn her name, at the beginning of chapter three:

  • Miranda — so named because it stands for people’s rights. A standout quirk: Miranda reads and re-reads A Wrinkle In Time. She carries around a battered copy.
  • Mother — Uptight, small (suggesting a nervous disposition), with a large social conscience. She wanted to be a lawyer but works in a lawyer’s office. In this era (she had her daughter in the late 1960s) it was very hard for women to become lawyers. Women were infantalised by the dominant culture. This mother now works in a lawyer’s office. They are not super wealthy, because they do lots of legal work pro bono. (A Save the Cat set up.) Miranda having access to legal help comes in handy later. (If you’d like to ruin children’s books for yourself, take notice of the parents’ profession.) The mother has her own character arc. That she only fits children’s clothes is a telling detail — the mother is childlike. Her constant rejection of the perfectly good, very nice Richard is a sign that she is yet to grow up. By the end of the story the mother is wearing business attire. Richard comments how good she looks. This change of clothing is symbolic of the mother’s own coming-of-age. Both mother and daughter undergo a character arc. You see this in the film Lady Bird, in Pixar’s Frozen, Thirteen and Freaky Friday. (Mother and daughter double reversals are common.)
  • Richard — Mother’s boyfriend of two years, so basically Miranda’s step-father. German. A lawyer, also with a strong social conscience. Stead gives him the quirk of one leg shorter than the other, and a constant reference to this which marks him out as not actually perfect. He sits at the table reading the newspaper (like lots of children’s book fathers) and is more laid back than the mother (like most children’s book parents).
  • Robbie B. — kid at school who says Miranda was named after a kidnapper. (I looked it up — he means Ernesto Miranda.)
  • Belle — owns ‘Belle’s Market’ near Miranda’s house. The produce she sells there isn’t great. Belle is an older friend and mentor to Miranda. Rebecca Stead has populated Miranda’s life with a network of people across the age ranges — probably more age variety than would be typical for a twelve-year-old. But this helps to expand the time. Annie Proulx does the exact same trick in many of her short stories, especially the Wyoming ones. She’ll often open a story about one character by giving us backstory about how he’s the fourth generation to own this land, etc. This is very deliberate on Proulx’s part, as she’s said so in interviews. In short, children’s writers can also achieve this time-expansion thing by including a wide age-range of characters. This has been happening for a long time, with the inclusion of older mentors and grandparents, even as social networks in Western children’s real lives have, on average, shrunk.
  • Sal — Sal and his Mom Louisa live in the apartment below. Sal ‘used to be’ Miranda’s best friend.
  • Louisa — Louisa works in a nursing home.
  • Mr Nunzi — another resident in the apartment block. Smokes, is careless with it.
  • Mrs Bindocker — the neighbourhood busybody who talks a lot. (A Rachel Lynde character.) Even her name sounds like someone speaking quickly. (Maybe it also reminds me of the word ‘spin doctor’.)
  • The Laughing Man QuackerQuack for short. Or ‘Kicker‘. The local scary guy. I listened to a true crime podcast once about a boy who went missing. One resonant observation: Police should always ask the kids for information. If there’s a weirdo hanging around, it’s likely the kids will know about it even if the adults don’t. When this guy is introduced we don’t know whether he’s going to be an opponent or an ally. Because this is middle grade, I’m going for false opponent who turns out to be an ally. As it turns out, The Laughing Man is a Jesus character in the same way that Leslie Burke is a Jesus character in Bridge to Terabithia, adding to the parallels I see between When You Reach Me and Bridge to Terabithia.
  • The boys by the garage — In a flash back, one of them beats Sal up. Clear bully opponents. The one in the green army coat punches Sal. Later we learn his name is Marcus and he goes to the same school as them.
  • Marcus Heilbruner is not your typical storybook bully. He likes to read books about maths. He believes time travel is possible. His bully characterisation is thereby subverted.
  • Julia — a rich classmate who goes on trips to Switzerland etc. The middle-grade equivalent of an alpha bitch trope. Julia describes her own colouring by referring to her skin and eyes in comparison to foods, which by 2019 is something many women of colour are wishing white people wouldn’t do. (Julia is a girl of colour but she’s been written by a white author.) But how woke were any of us back in the dark ages of 2009?
  • Annemarie — Annemarie’s longtime bestie. But in sixth grade Julia decides to punish Annemarie. Annemarie’s bedroom is covered in pictures of Julia, which reminds me of the Eleanor Estes story — The Hundred Dresses.
  • Alice Evans — the girl who gets picked on most. Gullible but book smart.
  • Dick Clark — the host of the gameshow Winner’s Circle. This is based on a real game show called The Pyramid Game.
  • Mr Tompkin — a teacher at school. Described by Miranda’s mother as a ‘frustrated architect’. The mother is herself a frustrated lawyer, so her thumbnail sketch says as much about her.
  • Wheelie — the school secretary. The students consider her the person who runs the school. She is nicknamed Wheelie because she never seems to get off her castor-wheeled office chair, but simply rolls around. Another quirk of Wheelie: She doesn’t take any shit and she’s precious about people using her stationery, and later, her phone. This adds tension after there’s a ticking clock set-up and Miranda really, really needs to use her notepad, then her phone.
  • Colin — a boy at school who follows Annemarie and Miranda around these days. He is the middle grade romantic interest of Miranda. Miranda wonders if Colin likes her. There’s some non-sexualised touching, like pressing foreheads together. Eventually the reader is rewarded when Colin kisses Miranda.
  • Jimmy — the guy who owns the sandwich place. He hires Colin, Annemarie and Miranda to work for him during their early lunch hour. He’s a schlubby guy but he provides the equivalent of a ‘cafe hub’ (seen in many TV series, especially) where the middle grade kids can legitimately, safely hang out. Well, I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Parents and teachers would be all about the child protection, though I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a 12-year-old in New York City in the late 1970s. Maybe there really was that much freedom? See also: Lampshading Parental Absence In Children’s Literature. Stead herself has said: “[F]rom age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other’s houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that’s a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I’m not sure that most kids have that today”. This is a good reason why so many contemporary children’s books are set in a time before mobile phones and so-called helicopter parents.
  • Jay Stringer — a kid at school who doesn’t notice anything when he’s reading. Characters like this serve to populate the story authentically. This is why they’re given names, despite being part of the scenery.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written.

Sam Eddington

There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read.

Betsy Bird
  • Each chapter is headed something like ‘Things That Smell’ or ‘Things You Keep Secret’, which is the structure of the gameshow Miranda’s mother is preparing for. In this way, the mother’s desire to win money at a gameshow is a subplot and structural guide to Miranda’s story — wanting to solve a mystery of notes which seem to come from the future.
  • The chapters are very short, more like micro chapters. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this. The advantage is that you feel you’re making progress. Structurally, short chapters fit the theme of time as a series of individuated moments. But here’s what one of my Goodreads friends had to say:

I didn’t hate [When You Reach Me], just found it quite hard to read. The chapters are very short which seriously interrupted the flow of the story for me. I understand that this is probably aimed at keeping the interest and attention spans of the target audience (children) but I think it would have been better to extend the chapters and allow the reader the chance to get drawn into the story more.

  • Miranda herself is more of an observer than someone on a hero mission. People around her each have their own desires and plans and she regards her community as a mystery to be solved. Who is the laughing man? Why isn’t her best friend talking to her anymore? Is time travel possible? Why did the bully punch Sal? What is the Queen Bee mean girl planning for her beta? And so on.
  • For the final quarter of the book, the reader is in audience inferior position. We watch Miranda embark upon a mission. She’s in a 1970s assembly, helping Annemarie get to the toilet before she wets herself (a Save the Cat moment which endears her to us). She’s asking Wheelie for paper (we don’t know what for). Miranda has gone from being a fairly passive viewpoint character to being the hero of her own story. This is a subtle but satisfying switch and increases narrative drive as readers head for the climax.

SHORTCOMING

Miranda is the Every Child so her shortcoming is that she has limited freedoms. These kids have quite a lot of freedom, to my mind, being New York City kids and living in a socially connected neighbourhood.

She’s a mimetic hero — not especially good at many things. She’s no good at cutting sandwiches, no matter how many times she does it. But she’s surprisingly good at making origami frogs. Like regular kids, she is still working out her strengths.

Because Miranda is narrating her own story from the near future, she has a little bit more emotional maturity than she had before, but not much. She is a typical twelve-year-old in all respects.

Miranda has her own minor moral shortcomings.

[Rebecca Stead] tied in parts of her childhood into the novel. Besides the laughing man, she included her primary school, her apartment and a sandwich store where she used to work. Stead also added memories of herself acting mean without reason.

Wikipedia

DESIRE

Mystery desireline: Miranda wants to know who is sending her the postcards.

Romantic subplot: She wants to remain best friends with Sal, the boy in a neighbouring apartment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel the same way. This is therefore a story about learning to let go of your crushes.

OPPONENT

Rebecca Stead wastes no time in setting up the mystery, which functions, structurally, identically to an opponent. (The unseen opponent is the person sending the postcards.)

The mystery element of this story has a strong visual motif — that of the knot. Richard likes to untangle knots when he’s working on a difficult lawyer problem. Miranda learns this trick from him. Knots as motif endure throughout the story, alongside keys. Miranda’s mother refuses to give Richard a key to their apartment. In the end she does — two keys — tied together with a knot. In a parallel plot thread, Miranda has solved ‘the key’ to the mystery of the Laughing Man, and the symbolism is (literally) tied up.

A bully hierarchy is set up by the author but eventually subverted.

Miranda is often at low key odds with her mother, who is still quite childlike. Richard, on the other hand, is her emotionally mature ally.

Jimmy is an opponent as well as an ally — he provides a safe space for the kids to hang out and work though there is the subplot of him thinking they stole his two dollar bills.

PLAN

Here’s the thing about mimetic, childlike heroes. Paul Jennings does this too. Kids aren’t great at planning unless they have excellent executive functioning. Kids like Miranda don’t so much go about formulating a plan to solve a mystery. They tend to function as reactionaries. Others have the plans — they react. They are good observers, though, which makes them good storytellers.

So, Miranda gets a postcard, reacts. Gets another postcard, reacts. The plans she does make are not in service of solving the mystery. That’ll resolve itself eventually. Contrast a kid ‘hero’ like Miranda with a single-minded cop like Sarah Linden from The Killing.

BIG STRUGGLE

Rebecca Stead uses an interesting technique to dilate the pacing of the death scene. She numbers the events sequentially.

I consider the truck death scene the first part of the Battle.

ANAGNORISIS

The Anagnorisis comes quite early, before the Battle sequence. Miranda has a developmental milestone by realising that she is part of something much bigger. This is achieved by use of what is called The Overview Effect:

Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart. Okay. Now life begins. It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger. And one day something crawls out of the water onto land. There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike. There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin. But basically they are the same. They create shelters, grow food, experiment. They talk; they write things down.

Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun. There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.

I’m sure there’s probably a Heideggerian explanation for this particular developmental milestone, in which children realise they are a part of something bigger. I have previously looked at one of Heidegger’s more famous theories in relation to children’s stories — Being-toward-death. That’s what kids realise they are going to die someday. It’s a pretty common character arc in young adult literature. The magical age of 12 is a time for many such revelations, and Miranda is indeed 12. Now, I have a limited upper capacity for reading about Heidegger, but perhaps someone else can confirm, or write a doctoral thesis on how Rebecca Stead’s work is about children realising that they are a part of something bigger, a.k.a., Being-in-the-world. (I just Googled it. It ain’t been done.)

Back to talking about structure. After the Battle sequence in When You Reach Me we have the mystery part of the plot which comes together. We learn that The Laughing Man has been sent to save Sal from being run over by a bus.

The words ‘book bag pocket shoe’ are revealed as the places where Miranda finds the notes.

Then we learn the big reveal: Who The Laughing Man is, and you probably guessed it before it is revealed (or confirmed) and this makes us all feel very smart.

Just as well, because the time travel part of this book confuses the hell out of me.

NEW SITUATION

There’s a romantic happy ever after, though not for the main character. She gets her friendship happy ever after, plus the budding romance with Colin.

And for anyone who says you can’t get away with epilogues in middle grade novels, I present to you When You Reach Me as example.

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Deep Holes by Alice Munro Short Story Analysis

Deep Holes” is a short story by Alice Munro. You can find it in the June 30 2008  edition of The New Yorker. I’m very much reminded of Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer and the real life of Christopher McCandless.

But “Deep Holes” is not the story of the son — it’s the story of the mother, left behind to deal with the loss of a child in this way. How does a mother cope with that?

Continue reading “Deep Holes by Alice Munro Short Story Analysis”