The Love Of A Good Woman by Alice Munro

The Love Of A Good Woman” by Alice Munro is the title story in the collection which won the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2013. It’s a long short story — about 70 pages. We might even call it a novella, though let’s just go with this:

The title story of Alice Munro’s collection, The Love of a Good Woman, provides an illustrative “example of the difference between novelistic elaboration and short story mystery and intensity.”

— from the introduction to The Art of Brevity edited by Per Winther, quoting Charles May

Here’s my best description of “The Love Of A Good Woman”: a literary Stand By Me, in which we never find out what happens, because the mystery is not the point.

  • Both are set in the 1950s (Munro’s story in 1951; Stand By Me in 1959).
  • Both feature a plot in which boys out on a day trip adventure aim to gain respect by (or after) finding a dead body.
  • Both are set in a fictional small town where everyone knows everyone.
  • Even in Stand By Me, the story is really about relationships rather than the dead body.
  • Stand By Me is based on a Stephen King short story (called “The Body”). Both short stories feature dream sequences.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”

The story begins with three boys finding the body of the town’s optometrist in his car submerged in the river. Although one might expect the plot immediately to focus on the mystery of the drowned man, Munro is in absolutely no hurry to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. She follows the three boys into their individual homes and leisurely explores their ordinary secretes. At the beginning of the next section of the story, Munro leaves the body and the boys altogether and focuses on a cranky dying woman, Mrs. Quinn, cared for by a lonely home nurse named Enid. Mrs Quinn tells Enid that Rupert, her husband, killed the optometrist when he saw him trying to fondle her. When Mrs. Quinn dies, Enid, who cares for Rupert, decides she must tell him what she has heard and urge him to give himself up. The way she decides to do this, however, creates the open-ended ambiguity of the story: she asks him to row her out on the river, where she will tell him what she knows, also informing him that she cannot swim. At the last minute, she changes her mind but cannot escape the situation. the story ends just before they leave the shore, so the reader does not know whether Enid confronts Rupert and, if she does, whether he pushes her in the river or rows them both back to the shore.

“The Love Of A Good Woman” begins like a novel, but instead of continuing to broaden out, as it introduces new characters and seemingly new stories, it tightens up, slowly connecting what at first seemed disparate and unrelated.  It is a classic example of Munro’s technique of creating a world that has all the illusion of external reality, while all the time pulling the reader deeper and deeper into what becomes a hallucinatory inner world of mystery, secrecy, and deception.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity

NARRATION

[Alice Munro] is so gentle though, so respectful. She doesn’t make that error that Katherine Mansfield stamped on in DH Lawrence of invading bodies and psyches as if we could ever understand others by magical omniscience rather than by empathy.

from a Goodreads reviewer

(I happen to be a Katherine Mansfield fan, but I see what the reviewer is talking about.)

CHARACTERS IN “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”

  • Cece Ferns — never tells his family anything. An only child. Older parents than usual. The older Cece Ferns is a heavy drinker and smoker. He abuses the son. It’s not clear if he abuses his wife or if the wife is suffering from another ailment. Cece has stepped into the role of carer.
  • Bud Salter — called “Buddy” by adults (he doesn’t like that). Bud comes from a bustling nuclear family with older sisters who are in the throes of romance and teenage-hood, and a much younger brother.  The mother is harried and the father is presumably at work. This household feels a bit like that depicted in Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Malcolm in the Middle. Far from ‘perfect’, but also very homely.
  • Jimmy Box — Jimmy lives with a huge extended family. His father is disabled after polio as a 22-year-old. He has a bicycle-repair shop in the shed behind the house. This is another bustling household a little similar to Bud’s, except the family seem to genuinely get along. In contrast to Bud’s self-absorbed older sisters, Jimmy’s sisters apologise whenever they bump into one another. And his father is as nice outside the home as he is in it.
  • Ralph Diller — mentioned by name — another boy who could have easily been swapped out for any of the others. Not present for this particular discovery.
  • Mrs Willens — is out in her garden, seemingly unaware that her optometrist husband is dead in the water.
  • Colonel Box — related to Jimmy but slightly estranged
  • Mr Pollock — retired from the drugstore
  • Fergus Solley — ‘not a half-wit but looked like one’
  • Captain Tervitt — had been a real captain. Now special constable. Deaf and doesn’t normally wear hearing aids. Sleeps on the job but is nonetheless respected around town. A very prankable grown-up, in other words.
  • Enid — the home nurse for Mrs Quinn. Went to school with Rupert and was part of a group which bullied Rupert. Grew up next to Mr and Mrs Willens.
  • Mrs Quinn — says she’s age 27, on her death bed. Liver disease.
  • Mrs Olive Green — Mrs Quinn’s sister-in-law.
  • Rupert Quinn — Mrs Quinn’s husband, Olive Green’s husband. Tall. Potato Irish face. If he remembers Enid from school, he doesn’t let on.
  • Lois Quinn — Quinn daughter
  • Sylvie Quinn — Quinn daughter

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN”

In its structural sophistication, richness of theme, and moral complexity, “The Love of a Good Woman” is one of the most thought provoking stories in Munro’s oeuvre, arguably her most ambitious achievement. In the two collections published in the first half of the 2000s, namely Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and Runaway, the writer continues to surprise and challenge readers, and scholars. Much in the fictive territory is familiar— the southwest Ontario settings; one narrator’s impulsive infidelity, another’s long- practiced aloofness— but the reader will notice some changes in the landscape.

Isla Duncan

WEAKNESS/NEED

Clearly, Alice Munro has never been an adolescent boy herself. But I swear she’s been following a group of them round, including inside their heads. I’ve never been an adolescent boy either, but I fully believe she’s depicted their psychology perfectly. These boys are stuck uncomfortably between being children and respected men in a patriarchal culture, expected to behave in a certain way — strong and stoic — that is their arch Weakness. Or perhaps their real Weakness is that they are prematurely wanting to be treated like men when they don’t have the skill set yet. If they could just relax and enjoy being children for a while longer, they wouldn’t have any problems, to be fair. They could’ve just told their parents about the body, after all. Alice Munro makes sure to explain why they didn’t do this, within the third person narration.

Enid is the main character of the other thread in this story, and psychologically complex. Alice Munro is a writer who understands that people behave differently according to the situation. Enid is a wonderfully kind, giving and self-sacrificial adult. Yet as a teenager she was on the wrong side of bullying. This describes many adults, I think. Munro doesn’t do anything basic like try to convince us that Enid’s utter goodness as an adult is all down to the  guilt she feels about picking on Rupert in high school. This really is a matter of situational psychology — sociable people who are decent adult human beings can be drawn into the bullying system of high school due to those exact same sociable attributes.

DESIRE

They want to be taken seriously. But they also don’t want the responsibilities of adulthood just yet. In this particular story, this Desire is manifested in several competing desires: To earn the prestige of having found a body; to run away from the confronting reality of death.

Enid’s backstory tells us that she wanted to be a nurse, but because of she belongs to the last generation of girls who were never expected to have a job, she is persuaded away from becoming a registered nurse and instead becomes a practise nurse (less corrupting). She would obviously like to be useful and helpful. And what is her Desire in this particular story?

OPPONENT

Who stands in the way of the boys being taken seriously? Natal families tend to stand in the way of this, no matter how ‘good’ they are. The job of the adolescent is to bifurcate oneself from the natal home and establish an independent identity. The families themselves are therefore the boys’ Opponents, as well as all the adults around the town who treat them as boys, rather than as the respectable men they are hoping to be (prematurely).

The unseen Opponent of the entire town is obviously whoever killed the optometrist. But this  literary short story does not belong to the thriller/detective/murder mystery genres, and so Alice Munro is under no obligation to prioritise the importance of the murderer.

Who stands in the way of Enid’s wish to feel useful and helpful? Mrs Quinn herself achieves this by being such an unpleasant patient. This provokes unwanted, unpleasant emotions in Enid that Enid would rather pretend she never experience. So Mrs Quinn is one of her Opponents.

Enid’s mother, too, is an Opponent because this is a woman who believes women of means should not be working, and certainly not working so hard. But because she is reliant as an adult upon the income of her natal family, Enid is in a similar situation to the boys who found the body — not fully realised as an independent person. For the boys this is because of their age; for Enid it is gender.

PLAN

As expected, due to their Weakness and Desire, the boys do a very responsible, adult thing by Planning to report the body to police. But when faced with the reality of the sergeant their younger selves win out, this time. They prank the old man and run away.

BATTLE

Once the boys have pranked the deaf old man, they disappear from the story. For them, the Battle scene was the conversation at the police station.

The reader is shown the scene of the murder via a hypodiegetic section in which the narrator summarises what Mrs Quinn has told Enid.

SELF-REVELATION

Unlike the novel, which would be bound to develop some sort of satisfying closure, [“The Love Of A Good Woman”] reaches a moral impasse, an ambiguous, open end in which the reader suddenly realizes that instead of living in the world of apparent reality, he or she has been whirled, as if by a centrifugal force, to an almost unbearable central point of intensity.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity

In other words, this plot is shaped like a vortex.

How else can we explain by Alice Munro left us hanging like that? This is a story about truth vs reality, and reality is presented as unattainable. Via dreams and unreliable narrators (the sick and dying; the boys; and even Mr Quinn’s testimony, whose word would be so unreliable it’s not even worth us hearing it) we live out our lives and we all need to find the particular kind of humility in which we’ll never know the full truth of any situation. We are all unreliable narrators.

Notice how Munro has set this up. She has included:

  1. Narration about how sick people often go through a phase of extreme pessimistic and lack of confidence, all out of whack with the reality of their sometimes very nice lives.
  2. Enid has these sex dreams which disturb her, but which she puts down to mind garbage.
  3. Enid has this false memory in which she sees her father sucking a woman’s breast. Some people mistakenly use the phrase ‘false memory syndrome‘. Avoid that, because it’s not a syndrome in the medical sense. False memories are so common that we should in fact consider them a natural mechanism of the human brain. I have a few myself. I distinctly remember walking around as a young kid at my nana’s motel. I encountered one of the cleaning ladies in the linen cupboard. Instead of saying hello, she pushed me right over to the ground before walking past me. The ‘memory’ is as vivid as any other from my preschool years, but I don’t believe it happened. I was far too clingy a child to be walking around the motel complex without my mother, for starters.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The boys probably told someone about the dead body eventually, or perhaps someone else did. In any case, we never find out more about them. Their story feels a little like a McGuffin. But we can extrapolate what will happen to the boys, because Munro has given us enough to go on with Enid’s backstory, and the description of all the people who use the textbooks, and how people’s lives tend to go in this town after they finish their high school education.

We don’t know whether Enid lives or dies. We don’t know whether Mr Quinn committed the manslaughter. But what we do know is that Enid has reached the absolute pinnacle of self-sacrifice. Whatever happens out on that lake, she’ll never be the same again.

 

 

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

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.

(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. Since both mother and daughter undergo a character arc, this is what John Truby would call a Double Reversal. You see it 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.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Miranda is the Every Child so her weakness 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 weaknesses.

[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.

BATTLE

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.

SELF-REVELATION

The Self-revelation 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 EQUILIBRIUM

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.

How To Write Mystery

The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

– Ken Kesey

Mystery is the secret spice of all compelling books. It is the unexpected and yet perfectly fitting element; when it appears its rightness is palpable, and yet often just beyond the reach of easy explanation. Why does it feel so right? We can’t quite put our fingers on it.

Another reason mystery is less talked about, I think, is because many people meet this fascinating, fleeting sense of a meaning almost grasped, a music almost heard, and conclude it is a failure in themselves and in others to fully comprehend a book. This is not so.

Conceptual layers, conceptual depth, is what creates nuanced and interesting books. The elusive intellectual feeling of mystery comes from our minds’ effort to compare multiple conceptual frameworks, like looking through layers of tracing paper to see the one image those layers create. It’s intellectual exercise, and it’s fun. And it means you’re doing it right.

Mystery is what draws us back to a book again and again; it is what makes any work of art more than the sum of its parts.

Chronicle Books

how to write mystery

What Is A Mystery Story?

Continue reading “How To Write Mystery”

A Long Way From Chicago By Richard Peck

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is a Newbery Honor book from 1998, set in the era of The Great Depression. An adult narrator looks back and remembers his wily trickster grandmother. This book is one of the most moving and well-written children’s books I’ve read, at once comical and resonant.

THE COVER OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

A Long Way From Chicago

On all the various covers of A Long Way From Chicago the image of Joey in the plane features strongly. In one of the chapters Grandma finagles Joey a ride on a plane at the country fair but the plane ride itself is very much secondary to the chapter, in which we and the child characters learn the extent of Grandma’s cunning — as well as how tricks can somehow backfire.

So what’s with the centrality of the plane illustration? Continue reading “A Long Way From Chicago By Richard Peck”

Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death

In Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death, Wallace and his dog, Gromit, open a bakery and get tied up with a murder mystery. But, when Wallace falls in love Gromit is left to solve the case.

The Japanese title is “The Bad Dream Of Bakery Street’.

GENRE BLEND OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

comedy, horror, romance >> cosy mystery

STORY WORLD OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

The town’s milieu was inspired by thoughts of 1950s Wigan. It’s sort of like 1950s steampunk. Similar towns are seen in the live action Midsomer Murders series. It’s very English. As a consequence, Wallace comes out with very British idiomatic expressions pretty much every time he speaks. His life revolves around very English foods, especially cheese.

The films appeal to a dual audience partly by including a frequent scattering of allusions to pop culture. There are plenty of puns and nods of recognition in the intratext — Meat-a-bix written on Fluffles’ bed box instead of Weet-a-bix, for instance. Continue reading “Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death”

Retro Kids’ Mystery Story Title Generator

Long Title

First, pick a number between 1 and 24.

Now pick two numbers between 1 and 55.

1. The Mystery Of The Old Bungalow
2. The Secret Of The Spooky House
3. The Clue Of The Broken Parrot
4. The Case Of The Black Cave
5. The Crime Of The Hidden Puppet
6. The Curse Of The Dancing Cat
7. Intrigue Of The Moonlit Scarecrow
8. The Haunting Of The Dark Dragon
9. Sign Of The Invisible Ghost
10. What Happened To The Fire Magician
11. The Story Of The Shrinking Footsteps
12. Adventures Of The Crooked Cipher
13. Night Of The Double Labyrinth
14. Day Of The Sky Maze
15. The End Of The Thirteenth Witch
16. Crusade Of The Underground Wizard
17. The Tale Of The Twin Dungeon
18. The Crime Of The Disappearing Pearl
19. The Search For The Black Treasure
20. Operation: Christmas Mountain
21. The Disaster Of The Dangerous Island
22. The Time Of The Murderous Crow
23. The Final Hours Of The Green-eyed Spider
24. Sabotage Of The Doggone Hand
25. Living Jungle
26. Cliff-top Stranger
27. Flaming Professor
28. Underground Thief
29. Scarred Claw
30. Secret Escapade
31. Musical Butterfly
32. April Fool’s Day Cat Burglar
33. Wedding Day Train Robbery
34. Sneaky Trouble
35. Flower Show Lighthouse
36. Museum Valley
37. Art Gallery Mess
38. Thanksgiving Disaster
39. Evil Floor
40. Fearsome Gold
41. Winking Silver
42. Blinking Boomerang
43. Moaning Mask
44. Muttering Chest
45. Sneezing Clock
46. Terrible Shed
47. Cranky Basement
48. Kidnapped Nightmare
49. Invisible Terror
50. Talking Pumpkin
51. Wandering Lair
52. Two-toed Trap
53. Nervous Slumber
54. Headless Smoke Screen
55. Melted Cauldron

 

Short Title

Pick two numbers between 1 – 55.

1. The Magician’s Secret
2. Ringmaster’s Sapphire
3. Crocodile’s Mother
4. Joker’s Silver
5. Spider’s Wedding
6. Werewolf’s Revenge
7. Viper’s Key
8. Monster’s Mansion
9. Stalker’s Summer Camp
10. Ghost’s Circus
11. Vampire’s Trumpet
12. Zookeeper’s Blues
13. Librarian’s Fright
14. Substitute Teacher’s Last Resort
15. Rogue’s Target
16. Stamp Collector’s Games
17. Dog’s Trail
18. Wolf’s Footsteps
19. Station master’s Island
20. Whale’s Cavern
21. Pigeon’s Lake
22. Master’s Mine
23. Shark’s Deathtrap
24. Mermaid’s Creep-show
25. Witchmaster’s Cabin
26. Scorpion’s Splutter
27. Phantom’s Tale
28. Skeleton’s Mirror
29. Owl’s Shadow
30. Warrior’s Twin
31. Pirate’s Brother
32. Professor’s Laugh
33. Shop keeper’s Knee
34. Monkey’s Father
35. Raven’s Scar
36. Chum’s Giggle
37. Wildcat’s Wail
38. Detective’s Helmet
39. Dinosaur’s Sister
40. Serpent’s Pyramid
41. Devil’s Mark
42. Apeman’s Siren
43. Millionaire’s Freighter
44. Zombie’s Arrow
45. Outlaw’s Bridge
46. Demon’s Flight
47. Kennel-keeper’s Journey
48. Smugglers’ Sting
49. Criminals’ Sock
50. Psychic’s Tunnel
51. Robot’s Ransom
52. Renegade’s Crime
53. Candy Striper’s Challenge
54. Rhino’s Vision
55. Trick-o’-treater’s Seven

 

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk Novel Study

Wolf Hollow cover with night sky and a huge yellow moon

Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.

Though moons tend to be massive in children’s books, this would have to be the most massive I’ve seen in a while!

I have previously taken a close look at a lesser-known picturebook called Wolf Comes To Town. Wolf Hollow is the literary, middle-grade version of that book in some ways.

Word count of Wolf Hollow is 60,000. Originally written as an adult book, marketed and edited as a children’s book.

STORYWORLD

West Pennsylvania, 1943, autumn. We’re told the year right away. It’s immediately clear that this is a war-aftermath story.

APPARENT UTOPIA

“Wolf Hollow” is a romantic, intriguing name reminiscent of something Anne Shirley would dream up. (Raccoon Creek and the Turtle Stone are other fetching names used in the book.) But unlike the world of (the original) Green Gables, this is no utopia. Instead, Wolf Hollow is an ‘apparent utopia’, where people grow ‘victory gardens‘ and residents are surrounded by nature. There is plenty of hygge — the peeling of apples, the large family table in their big, warm farm house.

By the time we got to the schoolhouse, it was raining in earnest. We three had worn oilcloth ponchos, hoods up, and boots, so we were plenty dry and warm, but many of the other children came in soaked and shivering.

SEASON

Like many stories with girl main characters, this story is closely connected to the seasons. Notice how the hygge is moderated by details that show this setting is not in fact utopian:

Each season meant a world refashioned inside its stalls and storerooms.

Pockets of warmth in winter, the milk cows and draft horses like furnaces, their heat banked by straw bedding and new manure.

In spring, swallows fledged from muddy nests wedged in crannies overhead, and kittens fresh and soft staggered between hooves and attacked the tails of tackle hanging from stable pegs.

Come summer, yellow jackets nested in the straw, old oats sprouted through the floorboards, Houdine hens laid eggs in odd places where they might yield chicks, and dusty sunlight striped the air like bridges to somewhere else.

TECHNOLOGY

This family has had electricity for a few years, introduced under President Roosevelt. Electricity had already become common in American homes during the 1930s but took longer to reach rural areas. This is one of the things which would’ve set a divide between ‘country kids’ and ‘city kids’ (Betty).

SCHOOL
The school house of Wolf Hollow probably looked like this
Alfred Eisenstaedt, Mining Town, Pennsylvania, April, 1943

Annabelle’s class would have looked something like as depicted above, but because of lack of resources the classroom is overcrowded, so that when everyone turns up most students have to share a seat.

Today, I would learn some arithmetic, no doubt, and a few state capitals, why we fought the wars we fought, what Anne of Green Gables would get up to next, and why I shouldn’t mix bleach with ammonia.

WAR

The futility, or the insignificance of war to these country children, is shown in the sentence above. War is listed in the same sentence as far more mundane things, including cosy fiction. The children don’t see the point of war.

FEMINISM

Annabelle realises she must do well at school. With two brothers she won’t have the opportunity to run the family farm. She has been told to study hard and get a career. Other girls of that era would have been told to marry well, but expectations were changing rapidly for women both during and after the war.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WOLF HOLLOW

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Annabelle is a likeable, ordinary girl. Her weakness is that so far she has lead a happy, sheltered life with no real calamity. At the magical (critical) age of 12 this is about to change.

Her happy, sheltered life exposes her weakness — she doesn’t yet know how to cope with adversity. Over the course of this story she must learn.

DESIRE

Overall, Annabelle wants to be left in peace to go to school and get a career.

In this particular story, Annabelle wants to stop Betty from bullying her and to keep her brothers safe. Later, this morphs into the intense desire for justice — to protect Toby.

OPPONENT

Betty

Betty is introduced on page 5. As newcomer, she is immediately interesting to both Annabelle and to the reader. We expect things of newcomers. She is a big, tough 14 year old girl from ‘the city’. She’ll be living with her grandparents, the Glengarrys.

Betty is a bit of a stock bully. But when she kills the bird (the inverse of Save The Cat) it becomes clear that she is more sociopathic than your typical middle grade bully. This girl has real issues. Partly to avoid problematic stereotypes, perhaps, Betty is blonde. (In the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature you rarely met a blonde baddie.)

That said, Betty’s pretty blondness is partly what leads to her getting away with baldfaced lies. Her grandparents don’t believe she is violent and the adults don’t think to question if she really could see Toby on the hill from the belfry. The way adults discriminate based on complexion and pigmentation is brought to the fore when Annabelle asks her father who Hitler does like:

My father thought about his answer. “People with blonde hair and blue eyes,” he said.

“I would assign every lie a color: yellow when they were innocent, pale blue when they sailed over you like the sky, red because I knew they drew blood. And then there was the black lie. That’s the worst of all. A black lie was when I told you the truth. ”

Steve Martin

In this way, Betty is the local little Hitler. Like Swallows and Amazons, also set across war time, here we have a novel where the community battles fought by the children in some ways mirror what’s going on in the wider world. Similarly, Betty has targeted Annabelle because she perceives she is rich. One part of the reason for anti-semitism — irrational as it is — has historically been due to the perception that Jewish people accumulate an unfair amount of wealth owing to their sticking together and supporting each others’ businesses.

One sure sign that someone is an anti-Semite is if he agrees with the statement that “Jews have too much power in our country today.

Mark Weber

Annabelle is not Jewish, though she does have brown hair and brown eyes. (A ‘Betty and Veronica’ dichotomy.) She comes from a WASPish family.

Wolk makes clear exactly where Annabelle’s family sit in the economic hierarchy: as farmers they are neither poor nor rich, but exist outside the urban definition of ‘rich’ or ‘poor’. There is little to spare and the house is Spartan but being an old family with a large farm, they have been able to donate land for the school and church and are therefore rich by many standards.

However, the idea that you can look at someone from the outside and assume things about them is the critical idea here; Annabelle is not rich.

Andy

As Betty’s love interest, Andy is the romantic opponent. Andy, like Betty, is often compared to a dog. When he turns up late for school one rainy day he ‘tipped off his hood and shook all over like a dog as he looked around the schoolhouse.’

Aunt Lily

Annabelle’s parents are excellent parents, in danger of being Mary Sue characters, actually, so to disrupt the harmony at home we have Aunt Lily, another stock character who reminds me of two other fictional characters: Aunt Beryl from Katherine Mansfield’s most famous short stories, and from children’s literature, of Kate DiCamillo’s Eugenia from the Mercy the Pig series.

Wolf Hollow and Mercy Watson share a character trope of the skinny, elderly spinster

Aunt Lily is severe like Eugenia but also has a dreamy, romantic, thwarted-desire side to her, depicted with the small but telling detail that Aunt Lily goes to her room for Bible study, but can also be found listening to music and dancing at the end of her bed.

(Interestingly, Aunt Lily is a postmistress, which is the job L.M. Montgomery had, author of Anne of Green Gables. I wonder how closely L.M. Montgomery herself conformed to the severe postmistress trope.)

John and Sarah

Annabelle’s parents are loving and warm. Their response to the bullying situation is quite modern, in fact. An attitude fairly common in earlier eras was that children need to look after themselves, fighting back against bullies. Not so in this situation — when Annabelle tells her parents what’s been going on with Betty they tell her they’ll take care of it and that she should have told them sooner.

But the parents — owing to their goodness — are also opponents, in a way, because in any healthy parent-child relationship, the parents will never be completely on your side. Annabelle doesn’t want to worry them with her Betty issues so she hides the problems she is having. And here’s a storytelling problem — perhaps a problem for the modern child — “Why doesn’t Annabelle simply tell an adult immediately?” “Tattle-tales and ‘dirty dobbing’ weren’t part of my own school culture, but in the last 10-20 years schools have largely instituted zero tolerance for physical violence and I’m fairly confident that most children would tell an adult if they were left with a black welt. Wolk explains in several different places why Annabelle won’t tell her parents. First it’s because she’d like to deal with her own problems on her own — which is actually a rule for protagonists in children’s literature:

I wanted to see if she was a barker or a biter.

At the beginning of chapter four:

My mother gave me a funny look as I stood at the back door the next morning, readying myself, before setting off for school. When she said, “Something wrong, Annabelle?” I nearly told her about Betty. It wold have been a relief to put the whole thing in her hands.

But although there were only apples and potatoes, beets and a few winter squash left to bring in, and although she, of all women on earth, was capable and strong, I had it in mind to spare her this particular battle. I’d thought it through: If i told her, she’d have to go to her friends, the Glengarrys, and tell them that their granddaughter was a hooligan, something they surely already knew but would not want to hear from a neighbour.

And despite the fact that she’d been able to fix nearly every broken thing in our lives, my mother could not promise me that Betty would not come at me again, even angrier — or worse, go after my brothers — if I tattled on her.

I had learned what incorrigible meant. A scolding was not going to change anything, and so far Betty hadn’t done anything to deserve more.

Finally, however, Annabelle does tell her parents. This occurs after the third Betty incident, in fact, making use of the Rule of Three In Storytelling.

Toby

We are not immediately sure whether Toby has a dark side to him. He doesn’t want any food, but what does he want?

I’m reminded of the Galloway character in the Jennifer Lawrence film Serena, in which a weird dude walks around in an almost supernatural way. In the adult film the character didn’t work. Partly because of the Galloway character in my opinion, who is two-dimensional and not that interesting. He is two-dimensional precisely because we don’t know what he wants.

Wolf Hollow and Serena share the trope of the suspicious town wanderer

Lauren Wolk avoids this pitfall. Toby is introduced with a backstory in chapter three, after Annabelle’s first encounter with Betty. He soon proves his goodness to us, however, when he quietly intervenes in a bullying incident. (A true Save The Cat moment.)

PLAN

Wolk sets up a mystery. Although this is not a mystery novel per se, there are mystery detective elements as Annabelle sets about on her own fact-finding missions, determining of her own accord whether Toby could be seen from the belfry, and if Betty was even up there at the time of the rock incident.

BATTLE

The climactic incident, after the wire trap, after the lost eye, is when Betty and Toby both go missing. This happens Chapter 12, about p120 out of 290pp. A little less than halfway through.

SELF-REVELATION

Because this is a story retold by a storyteller narrator, after a distance of many years, the self-revelation is given to us at the very beginning, and even used on the yellow version of the book cover:

Wolf Hollow cover with writing
The year I turned twelve I learned how to lie. The year I turned twelve, I learned that what I said and did mattered.

(The first chapter is actually bookended by these two sentences.)

When it is clear that Aunt Lily believes Betty’s story that Toby pushed her into the hole in the ground, Annabelle realises that some people will believe anything so long as it suits their own preconceived view. She realises that there are good lies and bad lies — that the world is not black and white.

By the end of the story Aunt Lily has realised that she was quick to judge Toby. Of course, Aunt Lily’s self-revelation is a lesson to the reader not to judge hastily.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

This story has a classic fugitive arc. In children’s literature it’s often another child or an animal that the child rescues and nurtures. Courage The Cowardly Dog takes in the Hunchback of Notre Dame in The Hunchback Of Nowhere. In the case of Wolf Hollow, Annabelle is also harbouring a grown man in the hayloft. (Since this is literary and not horror comedy, the author did well not to make this sound creepy. I’m not sure it would work so well if it were set in 2017.) Haylofts are thought to be nurturing, comfortable places to sleep. At least, it’s always the case in stories.

“The loft will be fine,” he said. “It smells good up there. And I like the doves.”

I’m not sure about reality, though. I imagine it would feel scratchy and probably full of ticks. Here in Australia — snakes. However, a bed of hay is a common feature of utopian (or apparent-utopian) stories.

In the utopian world of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki and Gigi sleep on a bed of hay and wake up to find they’re in someone’s breakfast.

An a fugitive arc the goodie eventually proves their goodness to the public. In this case Toby had to get into the hole and rescue the girl he supposedly harmed.

The problem with grotesques, though, is that in stories they don’t get happy endings. Experienced readers will have expected this as soon as we learned about Toby’s hand. It was inevitable from the set up that Toby would be shot.

However, it was not so inevitable that Betty died. The author avoided melodrama and achieved mimesis by having Betty die undramatically of systemic infection.

We can extrapolate that life will go on as before, but Annabelle is now an adult, or closer to it. That makes Wolf Hollow a coming-of-age story. Annabelle has been drawn into an adult world and there’s no going back. Aunt Lily may or may not be a tad kinder.

In America, lying can never be an act of caring. We find it hard to accept that lying would be protective, this is an unexamined idea. In some countries, not telling, or a certain opaqueness, is an act of respect.

Esther Perel

FURTHER CHARACTER NOTES

Ruth

Annabelle’s best friend Ruth is a dark-haired, red-lipped, pale girl with a quiet voice. We know immediately that she is not the star of the story. Such girls do not star in middle grade fiction. (They may find themselves viewpoint characters.) Instead, this girl loses an eye. I’m reminded of Mary and Laura from the Little House On The Prairie series. Laura is the spirited girl with gumption and attitude; Mary is expendable (plot wise) and sure enough, Mary too becomes blind. (The fact that Mary Ingalls became blind in real life is beside my point. It’s possible Mary’s subdued ‘personality’ was emphasised to fit how she became, by necessity, after losing her sight, and her freedom.)

Annabelle’s younger brothers, age 9 and 7, are repeatedly portrayed as existing in the world of childhood, in stark contrast to Annabelle who at age 12 is just starting to encounter adult problems such as prejudice and injustice. Henry and James run around gleefully, eat without self-consciousness and must be protected as the children they still are.

For a while, being included in these conversations had made me feel tall. Now I was ready to be eleven again and back up in bed like my brothers.

Townspeople

Other characters exist to flesh out the town and contribute to the plot — the kindly German man despised by town locals, the gossipy Annie Gribble. (Annie Gribble is somehow an onomatopoeic name. Perhaps because it contains the ‘gr’ consonant cluster, in common with ‘grumble’.)

Annie Gribble lived in a small house that we passed on our way to market. I’d only been there once, to drop off a bushel of peaches at canning time, but she’d invited us in for a glass of lemonade, my father and me, and I’d been fascinated by the switchboard that dominated her front room like a loom strung with thin black snakes.

With the snake simile in final position of that thumbnail character sketch, we are left with a very clear impression of Annie Gribble. She is not to be trusted.

The constable is a kindly fellow, big and strong, but not as good at detective work as Annabelle.

By the end of Wolf Hollow it’s clear that these minor characters were fleshed out for a reason. Annie Gribble is a very handy archetype to have in a story, for narrative purposes. As the town gossip she is an omniscient eye. In Anne of Green Gables we have Rachel Lynde who performs a similar purpose.

SYMBOL WEB

Wolves/Dogs

It is explained that Wolf Hollow no longer has wolves but used to be the place where wolves were trapped and shot. There were deep pits dug there, which the wolves would fall into. Another story with wolf in the title but not in the storyworld is “The Wamsutter Wolf” by Annie Proulx.

It is immediately clear that the character of Toby is the personification of a wolf — a wild creature roaming around suspiciously, misunderstood by humans. It is no surprise when something bad happens to him. The history of the wolves has foreshadowed the calamity which befalls the human-wolf. To be clear, there is nothing supernatural about this story. It’s not a werewolf tale. But this feels like a place of fantasy laid upon a real-world setting — the symbol web and the ‘evil’ newcomer and the poetic place names lend this feeling. Toby is compared to a farm dog numerous times throughout the story.

When Betty is found the ‘hunt’ for Toby intensifies.

Hollow

‘Hollow’ is a great word.

We might think of it romantically, as we are encouraged to do in Gilmore girls with the name ‘Stars Hollow’ — a genuine utopia, separate from the ills of the world by virtue of its being in a bit of a ‘hole’ (which has completely different connotations).

More generally, ‘hollow’ means ‘having a hole or empty space inside’. This describes the townspeople who so easily discriminate against those who are different from themselves.

It is eventually revealed that two of the three guns Toby hauls around are broken. ‘Hollow’ weapons, hollow threats — symbols of how Toby looks dangerous but actually isn’t.

Plot wise, it is significant that Betty falls into a literal hole in the ground. This is of course a form of retribution, and readers are encouraged to examine our own glee, especially when it’s revealed how close Betty came to death.

See also: Punishment in Children’s Literature.

But when Annabelle has her final idea she has it at the Turtle Stone, which is at a high point. In stories, characters have revelations in high places. Like Moses in the Bible.

See Also: The Symbolism Of Altitude

Toby’s Hand

Toby’s scarred and deformed hand is a distinguishing feature eventually used to prove his real identity. This trope is used to comic effect by Daniel Handler in A Series of Fortunate Events, with the tattoo of an eye on Count Olaf’s ankle.

It is significant that Toby’s hand is disfigured because the author is making use of the Red Right Hand trope.

Toby is a Grotesque (and grotesques often have Red Right Hands). A grotesque is ugly on the outside but good on the inside. (Or if they’re bad, it’s because they’ve been treated badly.) But because of his “Red Right Hand”, the townspeople (as well as the readers) have been trained to see Toby as evil. There are good deformities and bad deformities, and having a deformed hand is not a good one, in literature.

Though most people probably think of the Nick Cave song these days, the term originated in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Before that, there are references to red hands in the Bible. Toby is clearly a Jesus figure — ostracised by many for his difference, an aesthete, a long beard, a carpenter, intrinsically good, loves children.

In any case, the history of storytelling has taught us that characters with red hands might be supernatural and also very, very bad. So when Toby turns out to be a good guy, Lauren Wolf has subverted reader expectations, and hopefully the self-revelation for the reader is: Don’t judge people at first sight.

RELATED

Another novel, for slightly older readers perhaps, deals with questions of right and wrong, appearance vs reality. Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates.

 

Broadchurch Pilot Episode TV Writing

broadchurch-poster

Broadchurch is a TV murder mystery in which a village is a miniature for society. As one reviewer points out, “the death which happens at the beginning incites all sorts of unexpected human behaviour, with repercussions all around the town. Initially the show seems to be making the banal point that the residents of this bucolic town are not what they appear at first glance. But they are not what they appear at second glance either.”

Genre: Broadchurch takes the classic buddy detective template (she’s by the book, he plays by his own rules) and gives the procedural depth by showing the emotional aftermath of an unspeakable crime (drama).

22 (actually fewer) Steps In The First Episode (using John Truby’s movie steps from Anatomy of Story)

Self-revelation: This comes later in the series, no doubt. For now we see the set up. Ellie has compared herself to the more experienced Met guy and realised she may not have what it takes after all for the job she so wanted. She has probably overestimated her own abilities as a detective because she hasn’t been significantly challenged.

Ghost — Alec Hardy has a ghost which may or may not ever be revealed to us (it never was in Casablanca, in which we never really learn why the hero left America). But it’s only hinted at. (Later we’ll learn he’s hiding a serious health condition.) But Ellie on the other hand, has been living in a kind of paradise world, symbolised by her returning straight from holiday. In a paradise world, a ghost is not possible.

Ellie’s inciting incident: A friend of her son has been murdered. The inciting incident connects Ellie’s need with her desire: She needs recognition and she desires to help her friends to achieve justice by finding out the truth. This is a good place to put the inciting incident, because Ellie just thinks she’s had the worst day ever, not getting the job she wanted, but then that pales into insignificance when the murdered boy is found. This plunges her into the most harrowing career challenge of her life. (Another character asks if she’s ever done a murder case before — she says no.)

Storyworld

broadchurch looking out to sea

The town of Broadchurch in Wessex, England, is bracing itself for an annual influx of holiday tourists. This is a quaint village right next to the sea. The sort of place where even police officers can enjoy ice creams while in uniform.

broachurch icecreams pier

The story world is an outworking of your hero. Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s weakness—when it exists—and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.

— John Truby

The Sea

A walk along a clifftop leads to a steep drop onto the beach, which is the scene of the crime, and sets up this town’s relationship to the sea: 

The sea has both a surface and a depth, and just like the ocean, this little town has that dichotomy; there’s the 2-dimensional happy, safe, low-crime surface contrasted against the murky depths below — the ultimate 3D landscape where all creatures are weightless and live at every level. In this story, the ocean deep is not a utopia but a terrifying graveyard.

— see John Truby

The oceanic nature of the story world is echoed in the camera movement as the pilot episode opens. The very first shot is of a choppy ocean. Next we have a camera ‘swimming’ around the neighbourhood, zooming in on various houses, panning across rooms, as if all of this town is underground and we’re seeing it as a fish. The oceanic colour scheme is even used in Danny’s mother’s room, which is painted out in an oceanic theme. This colour blue is seen again in the grandmother’s shirt, in Danny’s lunchbox (which he is not there to collect.)

The fish movement camera is used again as Danny’s father walks along the main street. He’s talking about mundane things with friends and acquaintances, but the music tells us something terrible has happened. Who is following him? (Us.) Much use is made of juxtaposition, as his exchanges are cheerful and they’re talking about everyday things. We see a poster for the Broadchurch Fair, presumably a weekly, light, fun-filled event.

Broadchurch is an ‘apparent utopia’. This village appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster.

Character desire is clearly established in the first episode.

Ellie Miller comes back from holiday giving out souvenirs when she is called into her boss’s office and told she hasn’t got ‘the job’. She wants a promotion from detective sergeant to detective inspector. The job has gone to a man. Ellie wants recognition and respect and career advancement. We know this from the very first scene. Compared to solving your first murder mystery, this is a fairly low-level goal, as initial desires should be. Psychological weakness: We get the sense that while Ellie may be ready for promotion in her small town, she is not sufficiently in control of her own emotions to do a good job. She needs to be paired with her opposite in order to learn. Ellie wishes to be called Ellie rather than Miller — a symbolic difference in how each detective approaches the job. Ellie can’t work without putting her personality into it. Ellie is a motherly figure, asking for ‘all the gossip’, giving out presents like stuffed toys and lipgloss.

Alec Hardy — Hardy’s reasons for relocation are kept from us for now, but we know that he has been shifted from the Met to avoid the consequences of some kind of scandal to do with a previous, high-profile murder case. Moral weakness: Hardy has no people skills whatsoever, bossing people around to get the job done. But the audience will forgive him for this, as he is very good at his job and cares deeply about finding the truth. No doubt Hardy and Miller will each learn from the other. Alec Hardy will be a fake-opponent, and we can see that from the beginning because his skills and weaknesses line up so nicely with those of Ellie.

Alec and Ellie are almost like the mirror image of each other. Normally in a set up the audience gets a very clear picture of the main character’s psychological weakness as well as their moral weakness, but here Ellie’s psychological weakness is highlighted whereas with Alec we get his moral weakness.

Beth Latimer — the murdered boy’s mother. We see her in her natural environment, getting her family off to school for the day — she wants her daughter to attend a school event even though the daughter is trying to pull a sickie. Then her desire changes suddenly when she is told her son hasn’t turned up at school (he was supposed to be spending the night somewhere else) and she is hellbent on finding out where he is. Then she is hellbent on finding out whose is the dead body on the beach. In follow-up episodes we can predict that she will be equally hell bent on finding out the truth. Beth is a bit of a ‘rule breaker’, jumping over the boundary police line in a panic over her son. (If a character can’t do that then, when?) The audience wants to see her do just that.

Olly Stevens is introduced in his work office — he is a young journalist who has just been turned down from the last of the big newspapers and now he’s stuck here in this tiny town working on non-event stories. Olly wants excitement, and he needs to prove himself somehow to get his foot in the door of a major paper. Moral weakness: He needs to start respecting other people’s privacy. He leaks the name of the murdered boy to the press even though his police officer aunt has told him not to.

Trendy young vicar — Moral weakness: using the death of a boy to spread the word of God.

Ally/Allies — Ellie’s main ally is a fake opponent, the new guy from the Met. Her husband is her emotional support. She is friends with people on the staff, though her boss has things she is not telling her, as evidenced by a secret conversation with Hardy while they eat ice cream on the pier.

Opponent — We don’t yet know who the main opponent is, but it looks like it’s going to be a web of people, including her own son, who deletes files from his C-drive as soon as his mother tells him his friend has been found dead. In the village we’ve also briefly met a creepy newsagent and a middle-aged misanthrope who is always lurking off to the side.

Mystery — Ellie must first uncover her opponents THEN defeat them. As far as she’s concerned, the whole town is on her side. In the detective genre there must be a mystery to compensate for the missing opponent because these stories deliberately withhold the opponent until the end. So we need something to replace it: the mystery of who murdered the boy. In a different genre, this would be when the opponent is introduced.

Fake-ally opponent — We have the strong sense that Ellie is not yet aware of the extent of hidden allegiances and deceptions going on in this town (helped with the symbolism of the sea). Her son may fit into this category, even if he’s too young and naive to be deliberately oppositional. Ellie’s boss may be a fake ally — in this genre the boss often ends up making things difficult for the spunky underling. Since fake-ally opponents are usually revealed after the main opponent (or mystery) has been revealed, we’re likely to find out what the allegiances and alliances really are in the next few episodes.

Reveals — Reveals are things the hero learns as the story progresses, and each reveal is supposed to be more significant than the last. Since this is a TV series there will be significant reveals much later on, but there will be minor reveals right the way through. Ellie’s first reveal: She hasn’t got the job of DI. But the guy from the Met who botched that other murder did get it, and she’s going to have to work with him. This is great, because the best reveals are about the main character’s opponent. Ellie’s second reveal: That the death of the boy is suspicious. Ellie’s decision: Her decision to solve the murder with her new boss will help her to gain the respect she craves, which means her new desire is a ‘bend’ of the original desire rather than a completely new one, which is perfect. (A river changing course.)

Plan — The new DI speaks clearly to the family and to the camera — he promises to find the killer. Ellie is along for the ride with him. There are bound to be problems along the way, with the audience wondering how these two can possibly solve such a difficult mystery. They’ll have to change strategy several times along the way.

Opponent’s plan — we already see the son hiding information that may be helpful to Ellie. But we don’t yet know what else is going on behind the scenes.

Drive — this will come in subsequent episodes. For now, Ellie is in reactive mode, looking stunned.

The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar

Hear “The People Across The Canyon” read by Douglass Greene at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

This is my favourite story from the excellent collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. This is partly due to how much I relate to the characters; when our daughter was 5 some new neighbours moved in next door. They were very unfriendly, but had two sons who were overly friendly. They would invite our daughter next door, but oftentimes she came back subdued, and once, crying. I never knew what happened next door, but I did learn more and more about the family, and had to stop my daughter from going over there. When you’re the parent of a child between around 4-8, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction; children so often live in their own worlds. “The People Across The Canyon” encapsulates that confusion most beautifully.

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Shirley Jackson’s Louisa, Please Come Home

Shirley Jackson's Louisa Please Come Home can be found in this collection, along with other short stories similar in tone.
Shirley Jackson’s Louisa Please Come Home can be found in this collection, along with other short stories similar in tone.

Disclaimer: If you attend Floyd Light Middle School, or any other school, especially if your teacher is called Mr William McDonald, and he has set an assignment on “Louisa, Please Come Home”, you should probably know that he does not agree with the following analysis. (I probably don’t agree with it either. I wrote it ages ago.)

In any case, if you’re brave enough to refer to my personal blog in an assignment, prepare for a condescending lecture and a bad mark.

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Without meaning to, I keep reading short stories written by women who died young: Katherine Mansfield, Angela Carter, and now Shirley Jackson, who died age 48 in 1965 of heart failure. Jackson’s husband released Louisa, Please Come Home after her death. Before that, she was best known for The Lottery, which is still her best known short.

Shirley Jackson’s best fiction is troubling and creepy, but this story, though interesting, is neither scary or suspenseful. Instead, you’ll be left wondering what possessed the main character to do such a thing, and maybe you’ll start wondering if our view of the people closest to us is really the accurate version.

I’m sure this short story appeals to me partly because I’m interested in the idea that perhaps there is no ‘true self’ — that we learn to fill the roles imposed upon us. I explore this same idea in our YA short story app, Hilda Bewildered.

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