The Symbolic Basement In Fiction

The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826

In Gaston Bachelard’s Symbolic Dream House, you probably shouldn’t go down to the basement, ever. I mean it. Nothing good ever happens down there. The basement is the house version of a fairytale forest — a descent into the subconscious. We can’t control our subconscious. That’s what makes it scary.

EXAMPLE ONE: BASEMENTS AND BEREAVEMENT

The older woman character in Alice Munro’s “Free Radicals” has recently lost her husband. It’s scary to live alone. The reader is never entirely sure if she really had an intruder, or if she sort of hallucinated him, inspired by a visit from the meter reader, who goes down to that dreaded basement.

First she must deal with her dead husband’s things. That’s when the reader is introduced to the basement. Or, shall we say, ‘cellar’. (Cellar sounds way less scary.)

This is also the bit where Munro introduces the fuse switches —a soft Chekov’s Gun. (Munro is generally expert at depicting places in a realistic way.) I mean, this is what a real cellar looks like, right? Important: Detail is multivalent in Munro’s fiction — it works at both literal and symbolic levels.)

She would deal with the cellar first. It really was a cellar, not a basement. Planks made walkways over the dirt floor, and the small high windows were hung with dirty cobwebs. There was nothing down there that she ever needed. Just Rich’s half-filled paint tins, boards of various lengths, tools that were either usable or ready to be discarded. She had opened the door and gone down the steps just once since Rich had died, to see that no lights had been left on, and to assure herself that the fuse switches were there, with labels written beside them to tell her which controlled what. When she came up, she had bolted the door as usual, on the kitchen side. Rich used to laugh about that habit of hers, asking what she thought might get in, through the stone walls and elf-size windows, to menace them.

— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals

EXAMPLE TWO: BASEMENT AS COSY PRISON

Another example from Alice Munro.

Basements are not always scary, spooky places, especially in a city like Vancouver, where a basement may simply be another ordinary level of a house, set up accordingly. In “Cortes Island“, the newly married 1950s bride feels both cocooned and stifled by her marital home. Here we have the cosy description:

There were two and a half rooms in our apartment. It was rented furnished, and in the way of such places it was half furnished, with things that would otherwise have been thrown away. I remember the floor of the living room, which was covered with leftover squares and rectangles of linoleum—all the different colors and patterns fitted together and stitched like a crazy quilt with strips of metal. And the gas stove in the kitchen, which was fed with quarters. Our bed was in an alcove off the kitchen—it fitted into the alcove so snugly that you had to climb into bed from the bottom. Chess had read that this was the way the harem girls had to enter the bed of the sultan, first adoring his feet, then crawling upward paying homage to his other parts. So we sometimes played this game.

— Alice Munro, “Cortes Island

When the couple move out into a third floor apartment, the narrator has got herself a job and become less of a shadowy, peripheral figure in the world. She has been relegated to ‘married woman’ status — newly invisible. She is inclined to retreat further into her comfortable, introverted state.

This means leaving the cosy comfort — but also the prison — of her basement.

MORE ON BASEMENTS AND CELLARS

Attics aren’t much safer than basements, to be fair. Atriums are different again.

Basements are secret places — what we do down there is often against the rules. In Adventureland, teenagers have sex in their parents’ basements rather than in their own bedrooms. In the popular imagination, young adults remain in their parents’ basements if they fail to launch into the responsible world of adulthood.

You might try writing a scary basement scene using the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s IT as inspiration. Notice how the camera moves as if it’s a fish in the ocean, about to gobble you up. Stephen King as well as the filmmakers fully get that symbolic association between City and Ocean, underscored by the dialogue “You’ll float too!”

How to recreate this ominous floating on the page? Well, it’s all in your choice of detail. Try starting with a wide-angle description, zooming in, lowering your ‘camera’ by describing feet and stairs… and so on.

A Quiet Place is another film in which a basement fills with water. (Ridiculously quickly, but acceptable within the world of the film.)

Stephen King loves his basements. In Carrie, Mrs White is destroyed while taking refuge in the basement.

Basements are pretty much mandatory in gothic children’s horror, and have made me wish many times we had basements here in Australia. Lemony Snicket and Courage the Cowardly Dog stories make heavy symbolic use of basements. Mercy Watson’s family has a basement, and those are cosy picture books, with just a hint of danger.

But in funny children’s stories, the basement can be a carnivalesque setting. Jeff Kinney’s Greg has a basement. That’s where sleepovers happen, among other hijinx. The basement of an office block is used to similar effect in The I.T. Crowd.

Silence of the Lambs turns the ground level of a house into something way more reminiscent of a basement, then we realise there’s a deeper layer — a deep hole, where the baddie keeps his skin prisoners. All of this is highly symbolic, of course: This guy lives among us (at ground level) but has hidden, evil depths in his twisted psychology.

As far as fairytale basements go, Bluebeard depicts your archetypal horror basement.

 

Header image The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826

Conflict In The Kitchen

kitchen

Kitchens are wonderfully useful for writers. Of all the rooms in the house, the kitchen offers props for fleshing out body language beats. It offers implements that might kill you, as well as food that might sustain you. People naturally gather in kitchens, even people who despise each other.

Not surprisingly, I find far more examples of kitchens in work by women. Some writers really enjoy the kitchen as a setting — Alice Munro is one such writer.

KITCHEN NUMBER ONE: “QUEENIE” BY ALICE MUNRO

I looked at the rusty-bottomed bread tin swiped too often by the dishcloth, and the pots sitting on the stove, washed but not put away, and the motto supplied by Fairholme Dairy: The Lord is the Heart of Our House. All these things stupidly waiting for the day to begin and not knowing that it had been hollowed out by catastrophe.

This contrasts with Queenie’s new kitchen, after she elopes:

The kitchen was the nicest room, though too dark. Queenie had ivy growing up around the window over the sink, and she had wooden spoons sticking up out of a pretty, handleless mug, just the way Mrs Vorguilla used to have them. The living-room had the piano in it, the same piano that had been in the other living-room. There was one armchair and a bookshelf made with bricks and planks and a record-player and a lot of records sitting on the floor. No television. No walnut rocking-chairs or tapestry curtains. Not even the floor-lamp with the Japanese scenes on its parchment shade. Yet all these things had been moved to Toronto, on a snowy day.

— Alice Munro, “Queenie

KITCHEN NUMBER TWO: “FICTION” BY ALICE MUNRO

In the following scene, the reader is reminded that Joyce now feels old. The devilled eggs symbolise this change: once popular party foods of the 80s, by the late 90s, nobody was eating eggs anymore.

They are washing the dishes in the kitchen. Joyce and Tommy and the new friend, Jay. The party is over. People have departed with hugs and kisses and hearty cries, some bearing platters of food that Joyce has no room for in the refrigerator. Wilted salads and cream tarts and devilled eggs have been thrown out. Few of the devilled eggs were eaten anyway. Old-fashioned. Too much cholesterol.

“Too bad, they were a lot of work. They probably reminded people of church suppers,” says Joyce, tipping a platterful into the garbage.

“My granma used to make them,” says Jay. These are the first words he has addressed to Joyce, and she sees Tommy looking grateful. She feels grateful herself, even if she has been put in the category of his grandmother.

“We ate several and they were good,” says Tommy. He and Jay have worked for at least half an hour alongside her, gathering glasses and plates and cutlery that were scattered all over the lawn and verandah and throughout the house, even in the most curious places such as flowerpots and under sofa cushions. The boys—she thinks of them as boys—have stacked the dishwasher more skillfully than she in her worn-out state could ever manage, and prepared the hot soapy water and cool rinse water in the sinks for the glasses.

“We could just save them for the next load in the dishwasher,” Joyce has said, but Tommy has said no.

“You wouldn’t think of putting them in the dishwater if you weren’t out of your right mind with all you had to do today.” Jay washes and Joyce dries and Tommy puts away. He still remembers where everything goes in this house.

— “Fiction” by Alice Munro

KITCHEN NUMBER FOUR: “JAKARTA” BY ALICE MUNRO

Sonje’s kitchen is described via the viewpoint of an older male visitor, so Munro is channeling a male when she points out what he would notice:

The kitchen was another big room, which the cupboards and appliances didn’t properly fill. The floor was gray and black tiles — or perhaps black and white tiles, the white made gray by dirty scrub water. […] As they passed through the kitchen Sonje had put the kettle on for tea. Now she sat down in one of the chairs as if she too was glad to settle. […] The telephone was rining. A disturbing, loud, old-fashioned ring. It sounded as if it was just outside in the hall, but Sonje hurried back to the kitchen.

— “Jakarta” by Alice Munro

KITCHEN NUMBER FOUR: “PINE” BY ROBIN BLACK

This description opens the short story. The kitchen is used to introduce us to the first person narrator (our viewpoint character) and to Heidi, the focal character. This is an example of a character sketch—really two character sketches—using choices about kitchen design as a point of difference between them. So, a different kind of conflict:

Heidi’s kitchen floor is marble tile, a hard and unforgiving platform for her clumsy gait. If it were me, I think, watching her, I would have put down pine—soft, uneven planks of gentle pine to absorb the step-clump, step-clump sound of my own feet. My foot, and then the pause that would be seared into my soul, that sad and silent pause. And then my other foot.

If it were me, I would have built a smaller kitchen too, I’m sure, a room of easy reaches and rolling carts. But Heidi, with her latest-model leg—her fourth she told me, since losing the original—Heidi is more defiant than I, perhaps. More feisty. Or possibly just more in denial. And so her kitchen is bowling-alley large. Stadium large. Super-dome large. There are two cooktops, two dishwashers, two ovens, and a microwave. There are appliances so modern that their function is indiscernible, and these marvels are spread across three islands all in all, an archipelago of kitchen design, which Heidi navigates with great goodwill, cheerful as she clumps across each expanse.

KITCHEN NUMBER FIVE: A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED BY ROBIN BLACK

The father in this short story is seeing his estranged daughter for the first time in four years. He focuses on the knife in her hands, which makes him feel uncomfortable. Or is it really the knife that’s making him uncomfortable?

“We’re not there yet.” Zoe is peeling a potato — with a knife — so rapidly Jeremy is fearful for her hands. “But we’ll get there. We do have bills to pay, and designer veggies are like gold.”

“I’m looking forward to hearing all about it,” Jeremy says. His gaze is fixed on the course of her blade, on the flying strips of skin. “I’m looking forward to seeing it all.”

“I’ll give you a tour,” Colin says. “The whole operation.”

“Not today, though.” Zoe’s potato falls into a ceramic bowl: another takes its place in her hands. “Dinner’s in just a little while. I hope everyone’s hungry.”

“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black

KITCHEN NUMBER SIX: WIFEY REDUX BY KEVIN BARRY

In this short story, Kevin Barry’s main character — a middle-aged dad of a teenage daughter — is coming to terms with the fact he is no longer young himself. His own teenager is an unwelcome reminder of lost youth. Although he has everything he could possibly want — a nice middle class house, the works — now all he wants is to be young again.

Note how Barry paints a portrait of a well-off family — the food they eat, the alcohol of choice, the ‘island counter’ — these details turn the main character’s life into a caricature of middle class success, thereby questioning the very notion of success.

A sunny Saturday, heaven-sent, in peejays — it should have been perfection. Saoirse was sitting at the island counter, trembling, as she ate pinhead porridge with acai fruit and counted off the hours till she could start glugging back the ice-cold Pinot Grigio. I was scraping an anti-death spread the colour of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto a piece of nine-grain artisanal toast. Ellie was vexing between flushes of crimson rage and sobbing fits and making a sound like a lung-diseased porpoise.

— “Wifey Redux” by Kevin Barry

KITCHEN NUMBER SEVEN: ITHACA IN MY MIND BY PETER TEMPLE

The main character in this short story is a self-important writer, annoyed after being fired by his literary agent. We see him take his annoyance out on everyone and everything. Here, it’s the toaster (I think it’s a dig at the Thermomix and similar kitchenware). I like this example because there can be conflict in the kitchen even when a character stands alone in it:

He made toast in the machine she had bought: five hundred and forty dollars. The bloody thing had twelve settings. Numbers one to six barely warmed the bread, seven and upwards charred it just as effectively as some twenty-five dollar piece of shit from Target.

— “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple

FURTHER READING

Photo in header by Jacek Dylag

My Summer Of Love Film Study

My Summer Of Love is a 2004 film based on a novel by Helen Cross set in 1984. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), My Summer Of Love bears similarities: A relationship of romantic infatuation between two teenage girls from very different backgrounds. My Summer Of Love puts the relationship between the girls to the forefront, making it a romance rather than a crime drama. This is a love story but it is a tragic one.

My Summer Of Love movie poster

 

GIRLS AND FANTASY LIVES

Picture books and middle grade novels are full of boys with rich fantasy lives, in which the line between reality and fiction is blurred. But when it comes to young adult and adult fiction, what happens to all these dreamy boys? They disappear. Destructive, manipulative fantasies suddenly become a female characteristic.

david the dreamer boy and his fantasy life
David The Dreamer from 1922

At one point the girls enjoy a post-coital cigarette. This is such a Hollywood cliche that filmmakers themselves must be aware of what they’re doing. Here, the girls have themselves been influenced by what they’ve seen on the silver screen. Smoking in bed is what adults do, they have learned, and so they do it.

The girls’ whole summer is a construction of performed melodrama. There has always been handwringing about young women and the types of stories we let them read — a century ago it was thought that novels would rot their minds. Ten years ago it was Twilight, more recently it’s sick-lit, and concerns (justified or not, I’m not sure) that 13 Reasons Why encourages suicide as a legitimate and successful form of revenge. Mona’s background in fiction includes horror films. As evidence we see her mimic the voice of a movie devil. But what has influenced Tamsin?  She says she loves Edith Piaf. We also see she has made up melodramatic things about Piaf’s life. (Edith Piaf did lead a rather tragic life but she didn’t murder anyone, and not with a fork.) Tamsin’s mother may or may not be an amateur actress but in any case Tamsin seems to worship (real) actors, and has no doubt seen a lot of plays and films. She has been exposed to Nietzsche, and encourages Mona to read him, but soon shows that she doesn’t really know anything more than his name.

Perhaps boys continue with their fantasies but those take a different form and are not seen as such. Tamsin’s father is having a series of affairs. Perhaps this should be compared to the sexual fantasies and longing of his teenage daughter.

THE CHARACTER OF TAMSIN

Tamsin is an intriguing blend of savvy and naive. Though she’s not all that dangerous yet due to her lack of power in the world, she is certainly a dangerous woman in the making.

Is Tamsin on the sociopathic spectrum? Not being a psychologist myself, and with Tamsin not being a real person, I am free to speculate. I can certainly make a good case for it:

  • Though this isn’t explored further, we know that Tamsin has been suspended from boarding school because apparently she’s a bad influence on others.
  • The scene which really makes me think Tamsin has zero empathy is the one where they visit the wife of the singer who was using Mona for sex at the beginning of the film. Tamsin revels in the misery she is causing this woman. Neither of the girls are woke enough to see that this woman is not part of the man’s problem, but it doesn’t take a sociopath to fail in that.
  • Later she winds Phil around her little finger for laughs. (Anyone else reminded of that saying: “Men are terrified women will laugh at them; women are terrified men will kill them”? Despite appearances, Tamsin isn’t old enough yet to know to be scared of men like Phil.)
  • Tamsin picks up that Mona is interested in horror movies and gives her a genuine scare by taking control of the ouija board session.
  • Tamsin’s fantasies about her sister being dead are creepy, to say the least. It’s likely she has zero affection for Sadie.
  • Tamsin is charming, intoxicating and fun to be around.
  • I have heard that sociopathic women are not subject to the same body insecurities that most women are. That’s not the same as saying that any woman comfortable with her body must be a sociopath — think of it in the inverse: sociopathic women know exactly how attractive they are, unbound by society’s rules and expectations about femininity.
  • Sociopaths are more likely to use sex as power, and are therefore more likely to identify as bisexual, because power is the goal — gender of sexual target is irrelevant. (Again, not true in the inverse.)
  • The sorts of lies Tamsin tells are in line with what you’d expect from a sociopath — she lies to control others. She has no other reason to lie to Mona. She doesn’t need money or anything like that.
  • Since sociopathy is to some degree genetic, the philandering father is a possible sociopath in his own right. (We don’t learn enough about the mother.)

The audience sees that Tamsin is a ‘fantasist’ before Mona does. The older you are, the earlier you see it.

Tamsin doesn’t change at all over the course of the film. She is a mendacious ‘bad influence’ at the outset and remains so. We know she will go straight back to boarding school, latch onto some new victim and continue to wreak havoc with people’s emotions.

STORYWORLD OF MY SUMMER OF LOVE

Filmed in Todmorden, this story is set in a very similar Yorkshire town.

SEASON

The book upon which this film is based starts in May, 1984. This was apparently a record-breaking heatwave for the area. Season is symbolic here — the extreme heat of this summer mirrors the ‘passion’ these girls feel for each other. Todmorden won’t see another heatwave quite like this one for a very long time. Likewise, we can surmise Mona won’t fall in love like that again.

The music, fashion and cars of the film make no attempt to take us back to 1984 — instead it looks like 2004. Nor is there anything about this that couldn’t be 1964 or even 1944, with a few surface-level modifications.

Here Emily Blunt is dressed in big hoop earrings and a headband from the 1970s, but I was wearing those same things in 2004 — they’d come back into the fashion chainstores.
my summer of love sunbathing
Do people still sunbathe in the heat of the day? Not like they did in 1984, surely. (I can’t speak for Yorkshire.)

In 1984, gay relationships were illegal. In the film the girls get thrown out of the local dance establishment, not just for being high and interrupting the singer, but also for being draped all over one another. For the locals — be it 1984 or 2004 — two girls in love would have been a confronting sight.

But this is not really a story ‘about’ being gay, banding together against the wider, intolerant, heterosexual world. It would be a mistake to focus on this as a lesbian film. Yet the algorithms at IMDb reflect a tendency for filmgoers to focus on the salacious at the expense of seeing the story for what it is:  Two (most probably) heterosexual girls playing out a love fantasy in what one of them thinks could replace real life.

my summer of love keywords

 

THE FAKENHAM HOUSE

The aristocratic house is ‘creepy’ in Tamsin’s words, made even creepier by her made-up stories about it. At various points I was reminded of Rapunzel, though Tamsin had cloistered herself away in her upstairs bedroom largely by choice. (The dollhouse in Sadie’s bedroom is symbolic. )

I was reminded of Rapunzel again later when Mona is literally locked inside her bedroom by her brother. Tamsin chooses to cloister herself inside her bedroom — the world is there for her taking, actually — whereas the financially poor, working class, ill-educated Mona is literally locked into her situation.

RICH AND POOR AS MIRROR CHARACTERS

A story instantly becomes more interesting when rich and poor come together in a story. A little Yorkshire village is the perfect opportunity for this — more so than London, probably — because country villages comprise tiny rows of cottages where the poorest people live, with ticky-tacky but newer cottages where middle-class people live (e.g. Mr Fakenham’s lover), but just beyond the town’s border lie the large homes of England’s aristocracy. The private-schooled daughter from the mansion down the drive is legitimately sharing the same country road as the girl from the pub.

riding bitch my summer of love
The ‘riding bitch’ trope isn’t limited to male-female duos — here we have the more dominant girl sitting behind the girl under her thumb. Though Mona is ostensibly in the drivers’ seat, it’s all an illusion. A double inversion on the trope.

NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE

IS MY SUMMER OF LOVE A COMING-OF-AGE STORY?
[This is more] a movie that is about being an age, than coming out of age

— Roger Ebert

What is a coming-of-age story? This isn’t an easy question because, at its widest interpretation, everything with a character arc could be considered a ‘coming-of-age’ story.

A coming-of-age is a genre that focuses on psychological and moral growth of a protagonist who is growing from youth to adulthood. Personal growth is the most important characteristic in this genre.

What, then, makes My Summer Of Love not a coming-of-age story, in Roger Ebert’s eyes? I guess it’s because 15-year-old Mona does not grow. Not in any desirable sense. She certainly comes to a realisation. She learns that she has been let down in love — again — that she has no one in the world apart from a volatile, ex-crim brother, and when she almost drowns Tamsin in the river she demonstrates that she has a bit of her brother’s murderous rage within her. When she walks down the road in that last scene — we don’t know to where — I get the strong feeling that her life will be just as terrible and deflated as she always expected it to be. In this story there’s nothing of the psychological ‘growth’ characteristic of a coming-of-age story. Rather, Mona briefly saw grander possibilities for herself during a brief brush with a child of the aristocracy, and now she has shrunk back into herself. A feature of a coming-of-age story is that the main character is now equipped with the strength and courage and independence to face the world head on, and to move into adulthood living her essence. Because we don’t get to see where Mona is going, it’s up to audience interpretation regarding what will happen to her next. Another viewer might see her attempted strangulation of Tamsin as a form of female empowerment, but I am not in that camp. I see this violence as a warning sign.

MIRROR PLOT

The plot of the ex-con older brother’s religious conversion seems unrelated at first but over the course of the story we realise both get at the main question: What does it mean to be a genuine person? Failing to live up to his standards of Good Christian Person, Phil tells his church buddies to up and leave the premises. Like Mona, Phil too is probably back on the path to ruination.

SOME DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BOOK AND FILM
  • Mona narrates the book, so her Yorkshire dialect is strong. In the film we only see her idiosyncratic way of speaking when she actually speaks, and she doesn’t say that much.
  • Mona and Phil — called Porkchop in the novel because he is fat — have a sister named Lindy who is getting married for the 2nd time. In the film it is suggested that there are more kids than just Mona and Phil, when Mona tells Tamsin about her future hypothetical life in which she’ll have a bunch of kids, wait for menopause, or cancer, seeming to mirror her own mother’s sorry life. The entire subplot of the wedding has been omitted from the film probably due to the constraints on time. More story fits into a novel.
  • In the book we know Tamsin’s last name: Fakenham. It never comes up in the film. Being an allegorical name, I guess this might be seen as too on-the-nose.
  • In the book Mona is self-conscious of her appearance whereas nothing is made of this in the film. Perhaps because Mona has red hair, is skinny and freckled the audience is supposed to ‘know’ this about her without having to be told. Almost every 15-year-old who goes by that description in fiction has huge body image insecurities — the most famous being Anne of Green Gables. Mona bears other similarities to Anne Shirley — she is terribly alone in the world and has the ability to sink into fantasy. Perhaps Mona is Anne Shirley from another time and place.
  • In the film, Phil is shutting down the family bar at the beginning of the story but in the book Mona works as a barmaid at the pub where the family lives.
  • Mona thieves, plays on the fruit machines and drinks alcohol to help her cope with the day. We see Mona smoking and drinking but the film doesn’t show her gambling and thieving tendencies. This makes her even more of a naive puppet in Tamsin’s games.
  • Tamsin has returned home from boarding school and seems to be lonely, so Mona gets a ‘call to adventure’ when asked by Tamsin’s father Mr. Fakenham to befriend his daughter.
  • In the book Mona is on her way to school when she decides to visit the Fakenham house.  There is no mention of school for Mona in the film. We assume she’s left, or at least, she’s not going back. Her education is over. She seems a bit older than 15, too. Ages are not mentioned.
  • Mona finds Tamsin’s parents arguing about Mr. Fakenham’s affairs when she first visits the big house. In the film we don’t see Tamsin’s mother until the very end, and we find out about Mr Fakenham’s affairs through different means, left in the dark about whether this was actually going on, or if this too was another part of Tamsin’s fantasy.

SIMILAR STORIES

Heavenly Creatures is based on a true story which I feel is the main edge it has over this story. Peter Jackson’s film is also more heavily stylised, but the acting is on a par. Like Kate Winslet, Emily Blunt has gone on to be a big name.

The book My Summer Of Love — with its emphasis on a sister’s wedding absent in the film —  has been compared to The Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCullers.

Tonally, I am reminded of We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. Jackson’s novel is narrated by the mendacious teenage girl, whereas this story is narrated by a more ordinary viewpoint character. The setting, too, is similar. Merricat Blackwood is sequestered in her ‘castle’ but occasionally goes into the village.

Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review

STORY WORLD OF STRAYS LIKE US

Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.

This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:

“How did the guys find out anyway?”

“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”

Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an snail under the leaf setting. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:

“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”

The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.

Strays Like Us tree cover
Molly Moberly in the foreground with neighbour Will in the background.

The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here.

The 1990s was the era of peak fear when it came to AIDS. We heard about it a lot — it was feared in the West unlike anything else, mostly associated with gay sex and illegal drug use and therefore highly stigmatised. Young readers today probably haven’t encountered that attitude in their own milieu, as AIDS has largely left public consciousness in the West, replaced by other fears such as the odd ebola outbreak, or mosquito borne encephalitis.

More clear than the exact year of the setting is the month of each incident. The reader is grounded in time with consistent reference to the month, the holiday event (be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or the beginning of the school year/start of a new one) and the season (whether Molly can hear bees or not and so on). Reference to season is more common in stories for and starring girls.

Spring came in a hurry here, before I knew it. The wind softened, and I felt the year revolving under my feet. Bare branches began to bud, and I remembered the heavy green shade of the trees, last summer when I’d come.

Nature also tends to be important in feminine stories, connected inextricably to the seasons in most ‘storybook’ parts of the world. Richard Peck manages to convey the ‘apparentness’ of this snail under the leaf setting by adding ‘fake grass’:

We stood in a little know beside a patch of fake grass where the casket rested. There weren’t any flowers. Mrs McKinney and Aunt Fay looked smaller than they were, hunched in their winter coats.

Richard Peck also uses a technique which makes any social situation more interesting — he abuts rich and poor people together, linking them inextricably. Molly herself is genetically related to a rich woman, but her whole life she’s lived in poverty. This is a version of a Cinderella rags-to-riches tale. Mrs Voorhees, bed-ridden and hypochondriac despite having married into riches after her first husband died in the grain elevator, shows that money can’t buy happiness — the modern take on the rags-to-riches story.

REVEALS IN THE NARRATIVE OF STRAYS LIKE US

Contains spoilers, of course.

Strays Like Us is a masterclass in drip-feeding information. In a quiet story like this one, these reveals provide the necessary reasons to keep reading.

  • Molly’s mother is a drug addict
  • Who is in hospital
  • And who has checked herself out back in October even though it is now Christmas
  • Will’s father is not in prison after all, he’s cooped up inside Will’s house with pneumonia
  • Which turns out to be AIDS
  • The homeschooled girl Molly meets at the library seems to have the perfect family situation but engages in criminal behaviour when she sets fire to the school
  • And is badly burned
  • In chapter 14, the wealthy, lonely woman Molly visits turns out to be her grandmother
  • Chapter 14 also gives readers and Molly the true extent of her mother’s terribleness. She is trying to use her status as a ‘mother’ to prevent a stint in jail for dealing in dope.

These reveals are in most cases based on lies told to other people, half-truths told to save feelings and stories told to comfort oneself. A lot of middle grade stories ask readers to consider the function of lies versus truth, and this is a good example.

The revelation that Will really does have a father turns out to be a bit of a ‘reversal’ so far as Molly’s concerned. She thought she was like him, but now she realises she’s alone in her predicament. This is possibly the worst thing that Molly can hear right now, just as it’s clear her own mother is not on her way to collect her and in fact has gone AWOL. This is how Richard Peck puts his main character through her paces, doing the worst to her but within the confines of a safe environment.

 STORY STRUCTURE OF STRAYS LIKE US

NARRATION AND VIEWPOINT OF STRAYS LIKE US

Written in first person, Molly Moberly looks back to an earlier time in her life. At the time of ‘writing’, she is older and wiser. We are constantly reminded that this is written by an older person looking back. As a narrator, the older Molly is able to hint at differences between what is ‘true’ and what is ‘perceived’ by herself at the time. She is also able to tantalisingly foreshadow the reveals by telling the reader that there are secrets about this snail under the leaf setting waiting to be uncovered.

Will wouldn’t have to pay because of what happened to his dad. That’s what I thought because that’s what I wanted to think.

 

The Kirkus reviewer describes this form of narration as ‘abrupt and somewhat detached’ and also ‘wistful’ and ‘ingenuous’, showing that when it comes to picking your narrative technique, you simply cannot please everyone. However, Kirkus does admit that the narration ‘gains strength’ as the story progresses.

What do you think?

SHORTCOMING

I’ve done no study on this, but it feels like alliterative names are more common in children’s literature, as well as in light-hearted genre fiction for adults. Molly Moberly, Missouri. This story has dark themes and Molly’s alliterative name — in a very small way — helps remind us somehow that this is a children’s story. Molly’s isn’t the only alliterative name; we also have Brandi Braithwaite and Rocky Roberts.

PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS

Molly Moberly has a ‘ghost’ which is revealed to the reader in drips and drabs but quite early on. She has been sent to a new foster home in yet another town because her drug-addicted mother is unable to care for her. Molly needs to find a parental figure. She also needs to let go of her biological mother ever fulfilling that role for her.

MORAL WEAKNESS

Because Molly is scared of rejection, she is disinclined to make friends, ostensibly because she figures she won’t be sticking around long enough to bother making any. When Will from next door introduces himself she treats him badly by rejecting his offer of friendship and hoping he’ll roll off the roof.

DESIRE

Molly has no wish other than to keep her head down, out of trouble, with her new life on hold waiting for her mother to come and get her.

More deeply, she wishes for stability and family.

OPPONENTS AND ALLIES

Will McKinney is a fake-opponent ally. He is in a similar situation to Molly — with precarious family circumstances and a lot going on.

Other opponents are well-meaning, as opponents often can be. Mrs Pringle, the well-meaning full-time mother who gives Molly a pile of clothes is trying to help, but ends up potentially damaging Molly’s sense of self-sufficiency by treating her as a charity case.

Aunt Fay is a true ally, understanding Molly’s emotional needs and giving good advice. Aunt Fay is the motherly figure Molly needs. Aunt Fay is well-developed as a character. When Will’s father dies we are given the hint of an existential crisis when she looks away out her side window at the tombstones and laments her own capacity for keeping the man alive or being able to keep him comfortable.

The cast of demented and sick people in Aunt Fay’s life make for a cast of eccentric and crotchety characters, alternately grateful and annoyed by Molly’s existence. These characters are not fleshed out — we don’t get to know their motivations. They function mostly as thumbnail sketches within Molly’s journey.

Rocky Roberts is a misunderstood villain. Like the disfigured man in Wolf Hollow, he is the handy scapegoat for bad things that happen in this small town.

Nelson Washburn stands for people who cast judgment over others without scrutinising the facts. Brandi Braithwaite, a caricature of a snarky adolescent girl, goes one step further and full-on makes up a story about seeing Rocky Roberts with a can of petrol on the night of the arson. These characters are opponents of ‘the truth’, which is what Aunt Fay stands for, and what her great niece Molly strives towards.

PLAN

In a post-Pollyanna kind of way, Molly learns to care for herself by first caring for others, looking outside her own situation to see that others have their own problems, even when it appears they are living in a kind of utopia. This is Aunt Fay’s plan, no doubt, rather than Molly’s own idea. But usually in these stories, where a ‘plan’ has been foisted upon them by someone else, about halfway through the main character will switch from being extrinsically to intrinsically motivated. When Molly plays cards with Mrs Voorhees we know she’s switched her mindset. Nobody told her she had to do it — she sees Aunt Fay caring for others and takes her lead.

BIG STRUGGLE

Aunt Fay models a necessary but uncomfortable confrontation about boundaries by having it out with hypochondriac Edith Voorhees who is sapping too much of her time and emotional energy. This marks the beginning of Molly’s anagnorisis — that things are always in flux:

Why couldn’t [Aunt Fay] go back to being the way she’d been, getting sassed by Mrs. Voorhees and sassing her back? Why did things have to keep changing, even here?

Next, Aunt Fay has another uncomfortable conversation with the coach when he brings in an injured Will, in a town where people are worried about the blood of the son of the man who just died from AIDS.

“Then talk plain. I do.”

In this way, Aunt Fay is modelling the telling of truth.

Next it’s Molly’s turn to have a big struggle of her own. Chapter 13 (a symbolic number?) describes the conflagration at the high school. This is the outer ‘big struggle’ which symbolises Molly’s internal growth. At the beginning of this chapter she is still keeping her ‘Debbie notebook around’ — though she’s only using the blank pages to keep notes about school, not to write fiction about her mother. The pace quickens as Aunt Fay is challenged with the task of getting Tracy Pringle’s mother to call the ambulance, with the ticking-clock of a badly burned child. Waiting downstairs, Molly realises that this big house is ‘too empty’. It dawns on her that Tracy doesn’t have a father (and that she is therefore not the only ‘stray’). The Pringles’ house appeared at first glance to be a warm house but is in fact cold and unwelcoming.

ANAGNORISIS

This is a story about found family, popular in middle grade stories. The message is, “You need to start finding your own people, because those you got lumped with by circumstance aren’t necessarily the best people for you.”

Strays Like Us makes use of the ‘Magical Age Of 12′ principle, in which Molly Moberly is 12 at the beginning of the story, turns 13 partway through it, and this maps exactly with her character arc from ‘naively hopeful’ to ‘realistic and rational’. In tandem, Will goes through the masculine version of coming-of-age, growing tall with a thicker neck and bigger muscles, especially after he loses his father and his grandfather mistakes him for father.

NEW SITUATION

If you do not have a happy ending for the young, you had better do some fast talking.

— Richard Peck

The story ends when Molly is 13 and a half. She’s growing out of childhood pastimes that require getting her hands dirty. The story has followed the course of one full year and the final scene places Molly back up the leafy tree from the opening scene, creating circularity and the sense of an ending.

Something’s happened to summer. It melted away before we knew it.

Summer is of course a metaphor for childhood. The seasonal emphasis in this story has marked Molly’s trials in her journey from childhood to adolescent.

Molly gives the social worker her precious Debbie notebook, no longer precious. She wants Debbie to have it if it gets to her, which is the outer reason for her getting rid of it, but at a psychological level she is letting go of the idea that her birth mother will ever be her real mother.

It is rare to find an out-and-out evil mother in children’s literature, though this one comes close at one point. Peck doesn’t break the final taboo — that in which a child really doesn’t feel anything at all for her mother:

I loved my mother, and she loved me. She loved me like a rag doll you drag around and then leave out in the rain. I still love her, but I live here.

This middle grade novel offers no neat solution to the social issues presented. This may or may not feel satisfying, depending on what the reader needs from a novel:

The novel settles upon a host of difficult issues and then, indescribably, lets them go: When Will sustains a bloody injury while playing ball, the coach requests that he quit the team because other members are afraid of contracting HIV. Instead of countering this ignorance, Will retreats, and the issue is dropped, with only a few utterances of protest from Aunt Fay. The novel becomes something of a treatise about a generation of children who have been cast aside by their parents; with its compelling premises and Molly’s fragile but tautly convincing voice, it will be seized upon by Peck’s fans, but may leave them longing for more.

Kirkus