Who’s-Dead McCarthy by Kevin Barry

In the short story “Who’s-Dead McCarthy“, Irish short story writer Kevin Barry takes someone’s darkly morbid fascination with death and exaggerates it in a story-length character sketch — a man who talks about death so incessantly that people cross the road to avoid him. It’s wonderful.

I think humour only ever exists in something that sets out to be serious. Anything that sets out to be humorous is doomed.

Common Faults In Short Stories

Do you know anyone who takes a keen interest in death? My mother is a longterm resident of the area where I grew up. She’s worked in various fields and knows a hell of a lot of people. She’s also very good at remembering names and faces. So every morning, first thing she does when reading the paper is open to the funerals page at the back. Every now and then — more and more often more lately — she will say, “Oh no, Such-and-such has died.” Sometimes this is whispered in a mournful tone — sometimes stated matter-of-fact.

As a teenager living at home, I found this aspect of my mother’s morning routine comically morbid. I couldn’t imagine ever taking such an interest in the death pages myself.

Read the full text of “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” at The Irish Times.

STORYWORLD OF “WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY”

My second cousin, who is a Northern Irish New Zealander, swore he saw the Grim Reaper jumping over the back fence the evening before his father died. With this as the sum total of evidence, I have a feeling that the story of the Grim Reaper is quite popular in Ireland.

[McCarthy’s] role as our messenger of death along the length of O’Connell Street and back seemed to be of a tradition. Such a figure has perhaps always walked the long plain mile of the street and spoken the necessary words, a grim but vital player in the life of a small city.

Ireland is a Western culture of course, and compared to various non-Western cultures the West is reticent about death, preferring to deal with it mainly via metaphor, folklore and symbolism.

This story is a case in point, and opens with a description of Limerick in winter. Winter is the perfect symbolic season for a story entirely about death. There’s no summery ironic juxtaposition here.

Con McCarthy himself is depicted as a part of the landscape, setting him up as a supernatural figure, at one with nature (nature including death):

The main drag was the daily parade for his morbidity. Limerick, in the bone evil of its winter, and here came Con McCarthy, haunted-looking, in his enormous, suffering overcoat. The way he sidled in, with the long, pale face, and the hot, emotional eyes.

The city of Limerick contains the River Shannon, which plays on an age-old fear of rivers as places of death. They literally were, before modern plumbing. When I traced my own family history I discovered an ancestor had been killed while crossing a river on horseback. You’d probably find the same. The death records in England show that in the early modern period, drownings were quite common with toddlers — they could drown in ditches, in brooks, or in tubs of wort, the liquid extracted from the mashing process during the brewing of beer or whisky. Girls were more likely to die falling into buckets and wells than rivers because they stayed closer to home. Anyway, it’s no surprise that we historically fear water.

The symbolic river running through Limerick in “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” is a proxy for The River Styx in Greek mythology — the body of water which supposedly takes us from the world of the living to whatever lies beyond.

NARRATIVE VOICE OF “WHO’S DEAD MCCARTHY”

I was once in a writing group with an Irish fellow and felt a little envious of his distinctive, comedic voice. He had a way of writing which felt like he only had to transcribe his natural speaking voice onto the page and whatever he said would come out funny.

Of course, that was a vast under-appreciation of what it takes to write funny stories in a strong, distinctive voice. I was forgetting that I, too, come from a country where my regional accent is naturally comedic to outsiders. Flight of the Conchords is testament to this phenomenon, in which Brett and Jemaine ham up the Kiwi for laughs.

This is why I’m somewhat sympathetic to the commenter who had this to say about Kevin Barry’s story at the Irish Times:

How much of this is selling stock country types to city audiences? Also the romantic fallacy that there is wisdom in the primitive and misses the point that our man Con is really a groupie since what he is obsessed with is the star move everyone in the country can make — dying is the one thing that will get you in the paper and on radio, make you star of the show in the big house with the cross on it, in the same-sized box, with the same priest saying the same mass, going to the same limo in the sky where you’ll be the same as everyone else. It’s the small — or dull-man’s — revenge.

The great danger in writing with non-dominant dialects for laughs is that some readers will feel you’re lampooning the underdogs. And that is never a nice feeling. Those who speak with naturally ‘funny’ accents are at an advantage when aiming for comedy, but the flip side is, we also have trouble being taken seriously. Though I am not Irish, I understand this quandary first hand due to living outside New Zealand while speaking (for a while, at least) with a hilarious Kiwi accent.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY

“Who’s-Dead McCarthy” begins as a comical character sketch of one character (Con McCarthy), as told through the eyes of the ‘straight man’ narrator. We know nothing of this narrator except that he is ‘normal’ whereas Con McCarthy is not normal — unduly obsessed with death.

But then the story shifts — gradually rather than suddenly — and the story is now about the narrator’s response to death. The story morphs into an introspective, reflective meditation about the narrator, and about all of us, and how Con McCarthy has been instrumental in the narrator’s own perspectival shift.

So who is the ‘main’ character of such a story? They both are, equally, but for purposes of analysis, the ‘main character’ is the one who changes the most over the course of the narrative. So in this case it is the narrator. (Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘change in circumstance’ equals ‘change in perspective’. If we were going for ‘change in circumstance’ then Con would win out, since he goes from living to dead.)

SHORTCOMING

The audience is fully encouraged to enjoy Con McCarthy as a figure of fun, alongside the narrator. This is our shared moral shortcoming. We prefer to laugh at people who embrace death rather than accept it head on. The narrator’s moral shortcoming is that he treats Con with contempt, not thinking for a minute that he might learn something from the old man. (Until he does.)

DESIRE

The narrator deals with Con by turning him into a figure of fun, but his deeper psychological shortcoming is that he finds death terrifying. Better not to think about it.

‘Not thinking about it’ is in line with what the surrounding (Western) culture expects in regards to death. Talking about death when the deceased is not directly related to oneself equals ‘revelling in it’. There’s the line between appropriate and inappropriate smalltalk. Con crosses it, failing to heed any negative social cues.

OPPONENT

Since the narrator does not want to think too much about death, and since Con won’t shut up about it, the two are in opposition to each other. Of course, Con McCarthy is the comical real-world equivalent of the supernatural figure of the Grim Reaper. It’s not Con who is the main opposition — the real opponent is death itself.

MYTHOLOGY OF THE GRIM REAPER

Death has long been personified in fairytale and folklore. The Grim Reaper plot was a popular one for the medieval writers of jests and fables:

Death promised a man that he would not take him without first sending messengers. The man’s youth soon passed and he became miserable. One day Death arrived, but the man refused to follow him, because the promised messengers had not yet appeared. Death responded: “Have you not been sick? Have you not experienced dizziness, ringing in your ears, toothache, and blurred vision? These were my messengers.” The man, at last recognizing the truth, quietly yielded and went away.

Retold from Death’s Messengers, Grimm, no. 177, type 335. 

The Grim Reaper is most often a terrifying figure, but Kevin Barry has inverted the terror here and made him into a figure of fun.

The way Kevin Barry depicts this old man as a supernatural figure is masterful. It is achieved partly by painting him as timeless and unknowable:

He did not seem to hold down a job. (It was hard to imagine the workmates who could suffer him.) His occupation, plainly, was with the dead. It was difficult to age him. He was a man out of time somehow. The overcoat was vast and worn at all seasons and made him a figure from a Jack B Yeats painting or an old Russian novel. There was something antique in his bearing.

The rain that he drew down upon himself seemed to be an old, old rain.

THE COMEDY OF “WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY”

To that end, what are the exact comedy mechanisms at play?

  • A lot of situational comedy relies upon expected gags which play out in almost exactly the same way time and again. In Keeping Up Appearances it’s Hyacinth being surprised by the dog in the car, and throwing herself against the hedge. It’s funny because we know it is coming. Occasionally it’s subverted. Likewise, Catherine Tate’s sketches rely heavily on audience expectation, as do the sketches in Little Britain. It doesn’t take long to set these up. Twice is enough. In “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” the author sets up a fully expected script with several repetitions of the same conversation. This becomes inverted in the final sentence. This example of common comedic set-up reaches beyond comedy, however — the key is in the flip at the end. The narrator has become the figure of fun, and is now at the mercy of death himself. Moreover, the fact that the reader ‘expects’ what’s coming mirrors how we ‘expect’ death to come to each and every one of us, but we don’t know exactly what ‘the author’ (fate) is going to do with it in our own particular sketch. We know we’re going to die. We don’t know exactly when and how. This is its own kind of comfort and delight.
  • Con McCarthy is turned into a comedic character partly due to melodrama.
     

“Elsie Sheedy?” he’d try. “You must have known poor Elsie. With the skaw leg and the little sparrow’s chin? I suppose she hadn’t been out much this last while. She was a good age now but I mean Jesus, all the same, Elsie? Gone?”

His eyes might turn slowly upwards here, as though in trail of the ascending Elsie.

(Notice how the author repeats the melodrama in the final sentence, with the same image of the eyes slowly moving up: ‘I let my handsome eyes ascend’. Why ‘handsome’? That word pulled me up short the first time I read it. This is the narrator now viewing himself from another plane. His younger self would of course be ‘handsome’. He is also seeing himself as an actor on a stage.

  • The comedy in this short story shares something in common with the comedy in many picture books; ie. the story goes as far as you think it could possibly go, but the author has the skill of taking us that one extra step further. A picture book example is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more ridiculous could get stuck in a tree, something does. In “Who’s-Dead McCarthy”, the ‘one more miserable thing tacked onto the end of great misery’ transforms the story-within-the-story of the bull attack from a sad story into a hilariously sad story, because it is revealed the family were watching. The added touch ‘They’ll never be right’ is the flourish that actually made me laugh. The epitome of gallows humour.

PLAN

Sometimes ‘plans’ are a matter of avoidance, eventuating in an expression borne of exasperation.

By the time the narrator confronts Con, I’m sure he’s thought of saying all those things to him many times before. Finally it’s out. But for storytelling purposes, this was the narrator’s ‘plan’.

BIG STRUGGLE

Exasperated, the narrator has confronted Con, and delivers what we all assume will be a cutting blow: Nobody wants to hear you talk, Con. We cross the road to avoid you.

Imagine being told that everyone hates you, basically. This is one of the greatest blows a human can suffer.

ANAGNORISIS

But Con does not respond as expected, by getting upset with the narrator, feeling shunned, suffering hurt. It becomes clear to the reader (and to the narrator) that Con’s fixation with death has somehow elevated him above earthly conventions like ‘fitting in by small-talking about frippery’. He has moved to a higher plane, confronted by his own old age and imminent death, where the spectre of finality causes worldly concerns to shrink permanently into insignificance.

“Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“Why are you so drawn to it? To death? Why are you always the first with the bad news? Do you not realise, Con, that people cross the road when they see you coming? You put the hearts sideways in us. Oh Jesus Christ, here he comes, we think, here comes Who’s-Dead McCarthy. Who has he put in the ground for us today?”

“I can’t help it,” he said. “I find it very … impressive.”

“Impressive?”

“That there’s no gainsaying it. That no one has the answer to it. That we all have to face into the room with it at the end of the day and there’s not one of us can make the report after.”

NEW SITUATION

The narrator now shifts his own way of looking at the world. In a sense he becomes Con, next on the chopping block.

I BECAME MORBIDLY FASCINATED by Con McCarthy.

Whereas Con is obsessed with death, the narrator becomes obsessed with Con’s obsession with death.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Another short story in which the narrator becomes like another character originally despised is “Sucker” by Carson McCullers, written when she was seventeen. In both cases there is a verbal confrontation as Battle scene, followed by an unexpected reaction, followed by a body-swapping plot, though only in the psychological sense.

Header photo by Yomex Owo

Scuffy The Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton

Scuffy The Tugboat

The Little Golden Books series was launched in 1942, just as the second world war ended. Children needed to hunker down with cosy stories (along with their parents). Scuff The Tugboat was one of the earlier publications of this highly successful franchise, first printed in 1946, and the epitome of ‘cosy’. Now you can buy an edition with a big 75th Birthday Celebrations on the front.

What makes this book a classic? Is there anything special about it, to be replicated by modern picture book writers?

STORY STRUCTURE OF SCUFFY THE TUGBOAT

From Scuffy the Tugboat (1946) Tibor Gergely (1900-1978)
From Scuffy the Tugboat (1946) Tibor Gergely (1900-1978)

The full title: Scuffy The Tugboat and His Adventures Down The River. Obviously, the river is highly symbolic.

But apart from the ‘pull along’ drag of it, in which there’s no going back, the river in this story could easily be a road and the main character could easily be walking down a path. Scuffy The Tugboat is your classic mythic structure: A character leaves home in search of something, meets various trials and tribulations along the way and either returns home or finds a new home, having learned something new about himself.

But this is the little kid version of a mythic journey — all suggestion, nothing followed through or explored in depth. A cosy myth, in other words. The illustrations by Tibor Gergely are also cosy in their palette and subject matter. (I like the concept of hygge to describe ‘cosy’ in picture books.)

SHORTCOMING

Scuffy was sad. Scuffy was cross.

The story opens with the shortcoming of the main character with no mucking about.

“A toy store is no place for a red-painted tug-boat,” said Scuffy, and he sniffed his blue smoke-stack again.

Scuffy’s shortcoming: He feels cooped up and under utilised in the toy store.

Talking toys in children’s literature pretty much play the same role in storytelling as talking animals.

DESIRE

This is a case of a character mistaking their malaise (desire) in their self-diagnosis. Scuffy thinks he wants to go out into the wide world, but he’ll learn that’s not what he wants at all. That’s what he wants on the surface, but deep down he wants a family.

I was meant for bigger things.

The journey will teach him what those bigger things are.

OPPONENT

The opposition in this story revolves around size.

Making Use of the Miniature In Storytelling

It eventually becomes clear to Scuffy that he is too small to survive in such a big world. Along the way he meets various cosy opponents:

  • The cow who almost drinks him by accident
  • The owl which hoots and gives him a bit of a scare
  • The men inadvertently blocking his way because they’re trying to pry free some floating logs. They won’t listen to the little tugboat.

PLAN

Scuffy’s plan is to float down the river. He is self-important and speaks as if he owns the river. But eventually, when he realises the river is pulling him along and that he is stuck on this journey, he realises the plan belongs to the river, not to him.

The river moved faster and faster.

“I feel like a train instead of a tugboat,” said Scuffy, as he was hurried along.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle sequence begins with the pathetic fallacy of the rain coming down, which tends to make water choppy and dangerous.

Faster and faster it flowed.

The river itself, which started out as a brook, is now perilous for a tiny boat. Men come rushing to fight the flood with sandbags and whatnot. This is the big Battle scene.

ANAGNORISIS

“Oh, oh!” cried Scuffy when he saw the sea. “There is no beginning and there is no end to the sea. I wish I could find the man with the polka dot tie and his little boy!”

NEW SITUATION

The man with the polka dot tie has known all along that Scuffy would want to be saved right before the perilous journey into the sea, so in a scene that’s basically deus ex machina, the man with the polka dot tie plucks Scuffy out of the water and saves him.

Now that Scuffy has been on his big journey and learned how small he is compared to the world, he is happy to float in the bathtub at home.

WHERE DOES SCUFFY THE TUGBOAT FIT IN THE HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?

Scuffy was published at a time when children’s books were undergoing a change. Scuffy appeared near the end of the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature and helped ushered in the Second.

Scuffy The Tugboat presents to young children a world which is big and scary. It ultimately says: The world is big and scary — way more scary than you know. You may have dreams, but the best place for you is at home, safe with your family.

I suspect this is how many people were feeling in the aftermath of the second war. Older adults had lived through two major crises. Most of the book buying public had suffered great loss.

I suggest that is why there’s nothing subversive or daring about this book. Scuffy the character does something bold, but child readers are not expected to emulate his attitude, which is presented to the reader as arrogance rather than confidence. By the end of the story Scuffy’s arrogance has been ‘fixed’. He knows his place.

Scuffy the Tugboat feels quite different from anything published today, in which children are respected to the point where they are told they can save the world — if not today, then one day. In contemporary children’s books, when children return to the safety of home, they are more likely to have earned independence, and the reader extrapolates that this journey out into the world was the first of many more.

Ironically, modern children have far smaller worlds than the baby boomers who were reading Scuffy the Tugboat. For many of today’s children, the most freedom they ever get ‘out in the world’ is the world they see through books and other media. Perhaps there’s no irony here at all. Perhaps we can expect, in any era, children’s books to afford exactly the freedoms denied to the young readers who enjoy them.

Home » river

The Wer-Trout by Annie Proulx

trout fishing

Do you like the idea of river fishing, without the annoying realities? One option is an afternoon plumped in front of Deliverance, starring the late Burt Reynolds. Another option is Annie Proulx’s short story “The Wer-Trout”, included in her Heart Songs collection of the late 1990s, though first published 1982. You won’t know what to expect from this one, as Proulx’s short stories can be darkly humorous or downright dark, and you might think you’re in for a Wallace and Gromit Wer-Rabbit experience. Be forewarned, this is one of the dark ones, with a little humour to make it even darker.

I’m also reminded of The Homesman, with the psychotic episode of a woman who’s stuck in the middle of nowhere with no social support (and past the point where she can seek it out herself). I’m reminded also a short story by Keri Hulme from her Te Kaihau collection, “King Bait“, which is more clearly magical realism. The magical realism in Proulx’s story could be interpreted as character invention, or part of a tall tale. The tall tale is a strong part of masculine, living-in-the-wild tradition that’s probably where the genre was birthed.

This story is written in present tense. An interesting exercise is to look at why Proulx wrote some of these stories in past tense and a few in present. I believe it’s because “The Wer-Trout” has an element of build-up, as in a traditional supernatural tale, and the present tense is good for maintaining a suspenseful tone.

“The Wer-Trout” makes an excellent mentor text if you’re writing:

  • Two characters (or couples) living different but parallel lives
  • Creating suspenseful atmosphere
  • Writing a story with magical realism elements but which is nevertheless grounded in realism
  • Writing a character who is living in denial, pretending he doesn’t care, when his Anagnorisis is that he actually does.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WER-TROUT”

[Rivers] has left the city to open The March Brown, a failing shop [WEAKNESS] stocked with “custom-tied flies, antique rods, imported English creels and old fishing prints, his books of Chinese poetry”. At the beginning of the story his wife leaves him [ROMANTIC OPPONENT], her exit precipitated when the woman who lives in the trailer up the road drives through their garden and mows down their little apple tree. Rivers tells himself he does not care about his wife’s departure [MISIDENTIFIED DESIRE], finding peace in his Chinese poetry and the ambiance of his empty shop: “He has found a way to cure himself of all suffering and worry by memorizing ancient Chinese poems and casting artificial flies in moving water. He is solaced by the faint parallels between his own perception of events and those of the string-bearded scholars of the Tang, enjoying, as he does, a sad peace at the sight of feathered ephemera balanced on the dark-flowing river.” Realizing that all his ambition is gone, he “doesn’t know if this is contentment or deadly inertia.”

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
THE TWO-SIDED NATURE OF REPOSE

This paradox around inertia/idleness/relaxing seems to be at the heart of the themes in this story. Others have noticed the same thing, in which the concept of repose forms a kind of contronym:

When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break.

Kieran Setiya, Idleness As Flourishing

As busy as we think we are today, people were complaining about business back in 1982. Traditionally, the rural life is considered the arena of relaxation (symbolised by all the hobby equipment Rivers sells in his shop), whereas city life is considered the arena of work and productivity. While this distinction has its problems (farming and rural shopkeeping requires many hours’ labour, though they may be lower in stress), the idle/busy distinction is nevertheless a distinction maintained in city minds. I believe Proulx is encouraging us to examine that part of our rural idyllic collective imagination. She makes sure to tell us that Sauvage works very long hours, lingering on descriptions of how his headlights look as he leaves in darkness and comes home in equal darkness.

On the same day Rivers’s neighbour, Sauvage, the husband of the woman who smashed the apple tree [PROXY OPPONENT], comes home to discover his wife eating a mouse. Because she has thrown their telephone in a sink full of hot water, Sauvage rushes to River to call an ambulance to take her to a mental hospital.

Visiting Rivers’s shop the next day, Sauvage proposes a fishing trip to the Yellow Bogs in the north-country swamps, a place he has heard about from his French Canadian grandfather, who spoke of the huge brook trout to be found there. The two men set out on their adventure, which reads like a parody of Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925, in which Nick Adams gains a measure of psychological renewal after the trauma of the First World War.

On the trip Rivers plunges into a fantasy world of his own making. An alcoholic who has not had a drink in six years, he begins drinking heavily. While fishing apart from sauvage, he takes off all his clothes except his boots, wades into the water, and fishes with his shirt wrapped around his head as protection against black flies. After he dresses and returns to camp, Sauvage, who has seen him through the fog but not recognized him, says there is another, crazy fisherman in the bogs. Thinking to scare Sauvage [PLAN], Rivers tells him he saw the Wer-Trout (man-trout), a being with a man’s body and a trout’s head, who goes after fishermen who catch female trout. “That’s how come our wives are gone,” Rivers adds. “In the daytime when we weren’t there the Wer-Trout came around …. and scared them away”. Sauvage laughs off Rivers’s story [BIG STRUGGLE], but later, alone in his tent, Rivers pulls out his last bottle of whisky and sees his face distorted in the curve of the glass, “the chinless thorat, the pale snout, the vacant rusted eyes of the Wer-Trout”. Having become a grotesque embodiment of all the pain he has sought to avoid, he finally glimpses his own culpability [ANAGNORISIS] in the failure of his marriage.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

MASCULINE COMMUNICATION

I feel this is a commentary on masculine communication, or lack thereof. Annie Proulx really does seem to be a part of this culture, though gendered female in life. It’s quite amazing. In any case, it seems that, aided by alcohol, Rivers would like to open up about the situation with their wives, rather that this displacement activity of fishing. But Sauvage isn’t having any of it. He’s a rough, manly man who goes into nature to escape his domestic problems, not to indulge in them. He retreats into his own tent, angry with Rivers for bringing his wife up in the context of a joke.

THE WOMEN OF “THE WER-TROUT”

The women are unnamed archetypes. Sauvage’s wife is described like a modern (Greek) Gorgon a woman with hair made of living, venomous snakes. Her eyes turn men into stone.

Rivers has noticed the wife driving the Jeep up from the mailbox at the base of the mountain, her animal-brown hair long and tangled, shooting away from her head like dark, charged wires, her beaked nose, bloodless lips, black eyes like wet stones.

But in this story, Rivers sees the woman as a crow. Later she will mow down his apple tree with her wagon. Crows are known to feed on apples if you don’t put bird nets on them.

The wives are linked whereas Sauvage’s wife is compared to a crow, Rivers’ wife likes to embroider birds. By linking the wives, Proulx also links the husbands. She’s creating two couples living in parallel.

SETTING OF “THE WER-TROUT”

As she always does, Proulx makes a strong connection between character and environment. Characters who can’t cope with the harsh environment are spat out:

In “The Wer-Trout”, Sauvage’s wife seems unhinged by living in a trailer in an isolated spot “at the base of the mountain,” and Sauvage returns home one day to find her eating a mouse; she is hospitalized. Thus the decay Proulx identifies encompasses not just the effect of climate on manmade structures, but also the corrosive effect it has on the psyche of individual characters.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

The weather is especially important to a story set in Northern Vermont:

The stories in Proulx’s Heart Songs suggest that newcomers to northern Vermont will be unable to cope with the weather and this factors in their decisions to live. […] In “The Wer-Trout”, Rivers’s wife leave him during the late wet spring to return to the city, sick of living “on a back road where tongue-tied, hostile natives squat in claptrap trailers.” It would seem these transplants, in addition to their personal problems, cannot manage the severity and monotony of the northern Vermont climate, and since they have the means to leave, they do.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

CHARACTER NAMES

Annie Proulx likes to use unabashedly symbolic names. She uses them here for the two main characters.

Because of Dior’s marketing, I’m familiar with Sauvage from this:

sauvage

Which frankly was crying out for this modification on billboards:

sausage

ESPECIALLY since the name is meant to be so evocative of manliness. In English it’s also a common wine term:

Sauvage is a French term meaning “wild” or “natural.” There are three things it might refer to. First, when appearing in a tasting note, it might mean gamy, earthy or forest floor flavours. Second, it might reference a wine that was fermented with wild or indigenous yeasts. Finally, I’ve also seen it refer to a sparkling wine, to indicate that no dosage (a sweet syrup added just before bottling) has been added, making it very dry, even drier than a brut sparkling wine.

Dr. Vinny

Then there’s Rivers, who is has chosen for himself an equally symbolic name as his French-Canadian neighbour. His father’s name was Riverso, meaning “Misfortune, Reverse, Wrong Side”. I have a similar family name it started out as Eustace (in French) but was shortened to Stace at some point, probably because it was being shortened naturally anyway, but also perhaps because it rhymes with English ‘useless’.

The Symbolism of the River in Storytelling

What’s the new thing Annie Proulx has done with the river and symbolism in this story? It’s authentic genius. I believe Proulx’s rivers can always be tied to the fatalistic nature of life plonk certain archetypes in a certain environment and just see what always happens. But rivers also contain a paradox they are slow in some places, fast in others. Moreover, we tend to sit by rivers, watching them move past us this effect is seen no more clearly than when river fishing. The moving nature of the river underscores our fixed position beside it. This ties back to the dual nature of repose sitting by the river fishing can be considered a fun pastime, but that kind of idle repose can equally be a torture, as it turns out in this story. Quietude is what drove the women away.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WER-TROUT”

Two men are in superficial, dick-waving conflict with each other, but this stands as proxy for another kind of deeper conflict: concerning that of their respective wives, who aren’t there to catch it.

SHORTCOMING

This is the story of two men, but for storytelling purposes they are one and the same man.

They are unable to communicate well, but despite their wish for a solitary rural life, they do need company. They will try to find it in each other.

Rivers is never a sympathetic character. He has his sights set on ‘something more’ with the woman next door (presumably at least 20 years younger). He makes a rude gesture when she doesn’t wave, though he waits until she looks away before making it. Yet we do feel some sympathy for him. It’s not a good feeling to constantly be ignored by a neighbour, especially when you’ve moved somewhere to enjoy a rural lifestyle, with thoughts of making friends with your neighbours.

DESIRE

Overall, Rivers and Sauvage want to live in rural Vermont and lead quiet, happy lives with the love of their lives. That’s the long-term desire underpinning everything, but that’s far too broad for the purposes of a short story.

In this particular short story, two men want to find company in each other to paper over the fact that their wives are gone. They think a fishing trip would be good for this purpose.

Because they’re both telling themselves that it’s the act of fishing that’s the real thing they want, they head off on a quest for a really big fish, part of folklore. But the quest for the massive trout is a conscious desire.

OPPONENT

The opposition web involves men and their wives, then each other, as they try to clumsily find solace in each other’s company.

Of course, they are each their own worst enemies as well Sauvage because he’s not able to communicate with another man, and Rivers because of that and also because he mistakenly thinks alcohol will help him in that regard. It’s significant that these men are neighbours the geographical proximity tends to highlight to the reader their similar (parallel) lives. Like the four men in Deliverance, or each character in Winnie-the-Pooh, each of these characters represents a different aspect in men in general.

PLAN

Sauvage suggests the fishing trip, so they prepare for the trip and go.

Change of plan they’re not getting on very well so they split up.

Further change of plan Rivers wants to antagonise Sauvage and when he sees the opportunity he pounces.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle is the naked-man conversation between Rivers and Sauvage, in which Sauvage won’t talk about his wife, or engage in Rivers’ churlish attempts to talk about it, and retreats inside his tent.

ANAGNORISIS

This part of narrative structure is often emphasised in a short story, and “The Wer-Trout” is a good example of a short story in which the Anagnorisis is the main point.

By placing the mouse in the pan, Rivers tips over into seeing himself as a horrible person. But we deduce this is the end of a long line of wrongs. Those wrongs are left off the page, but we’ve had enough snippets of conversation between Rivers and his wife to guess that he’s put his needs above hers. It’s masterful that Proulx leaves this off the page. I did get the sense, reading the wife’s dialogue that there’s nothing unusual in the reasons for his wife’s leaving that’s why it’s not the main part of the story. A wife leaving a husband because she can’t cope with rural life is a story that feels done before. So instead the writer has focused on the Anagnorisis phase of the story.

NEW SITUATION

There’s an extrapolated ending, in which we know what’s going to happen without it being on the page. (The words end at the Anagnorisis, which can make short stories seem a bit perplexing to the uninitiated.)

Rivers won’t let Sauvage away with his attempt at escaping difficult conversation, and mean-spiritedly places a dead mouse in Sauvage’s pan for him to find later. The reader knows that of course Sauvage will be reminded of his wife’s psychotic episode when he sees this. It will ruin the trip for him, and possibly ruin future trips. It will certainly cement the rift between neighbours who might otherwise find solace in each other.

To tie up the conscious desire of catching the delicious trout, Sauvage has success (because he’s not drunk) but this story is still a tragedy for him, because he doesn’t get what he needs someone to provide emotional support in a difficult time. He probably thought Rivers was going to be a sage father figure, especially after Rivers did him the courtesy of leaving him to use the phone in peace, but drunk Rivers is quite a different character.

King Bait by Keri Hulme Short Story Study

king bait keri hulme

“King Bait” is a short story by Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, which won the Booker Prize. The setting is a magical realist New Zealand. “King Bait” is a good mentor text:

  • If writing in the oral tradition, inspired by the tall tale
  • If writing a story with supernatural elements in which the characters never understand the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon. (There’s an unwritten rule about telling such stories — read on for more.)
  • A good example of a short story which links opening sentence to final sentence, creating circularity and a sense of a conclusion.

In “King Bait” we see a number of features common to Keri Hulme’s narrative style:

  • New Zealand qualities: Content – whitebaiting, Friday night at the pub; Language – Maori words e.g. kai (food)
  • Mixes colloquial language with poetic prose. She makes use of colloquialisms in dialogue to convey characters and their lifestyles. When rising to the thematic climax she is inclined to make use of poetic techniques.
  • Very graphic description – sex, violence, disgusting descriptions of blood e.g. ‘moise warm groove’
  • Dense use of symbolism e.g. hooks are symbolic of many things. Lots of symbolism is left mysterious and ambiguous, like the cones and goblets of Hooks and Feelers.
  • Magic realism
  • Uses first person narration but with irony and precision. She as the reader and we as the readers are aware of things the main character is not. The first person is often androgynous.
  • Use of ellipsis. She often leaps forward and leaves the readers to form our own connections. Ellipsis serves to economise space, add mystery and encourage alertness. Absence can be more powerful than presence because the imagination can take over.
  • Paralinguistic features such as unconventional capitalisation, running words together, separating words (parataxis)
  • Varied main characters. Hulme is able to transcend gender.
  • Like Katherine Mansfield, Hulme uses idiomatic expressions of her time to build character. e.g. Katherine Mansfield says ‘diddums’. Hulme says ‘bloody oath’.
  • Stories are multi-layered. Both Katherine Mansfield and Hulme are interested in subconscious drives and motivations.
  • Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Hulme is inclined to avoid describing beautiful things such as flowers, dwelling instead on the macabre. She shares this in common with American writer Annie Proulx.
  • Mansfield is often omnipresent, writing from an omniscient point of view. Hulme takes one viewpoint.

SETTING OF “KING BAIT”

WHITEBAITING IN NEW ZEALAND

Every country has its weird delicacy. For this white girl, who grew up in the South Island of New Zealand, that weird delicacy was whitebait. Ask me to describe them? They taste of squish and air. It’s not about the flavour, you see. They look like strips of grated potato, which is what our mother used to bulk out the patties when there wasn’t enough whitebait to go around — which there never was — because you rarely catch a family sized amount. If you want to buy whitebait from the fish shop, it costs a fortune. There’s one difference though, between grated spud patties and proper whitebait patties: the crunch. As kids we were glad not to have to endure those eyes, which crack between your teeth. We preferred the hash brown version. Whitebait enthusiasts LIKE the eyes. Indeed, that’s the entire reason for eating them. When creating the cheapo version, some people have been known to sprinkle poppy seeds into their grated potato just to recreate the sensation of crunchy little black eyes. In the West, we rarely consume animals in their entirety. Not in modern life. But certain water creatures are one exception. (Mussels are another, but let’s not get into those.)

This eye-eating culinary fetish is creepy, and Keri Hulme must have thought so too, because in 1984 she published a story about white bait, with focus on the eyes. “King Bait” is published in her first short story collection, Te Kaihau (The Windeater). This was one of our high school set texts. Our English teacher introduced us to the concept of magical realism with this particular story. (The following year he introduced us to The Bone People, Keri Hulme’s masterwork, which I had to read again in English 101 at university, which is when I read it properly, and even looked up the meaning of ‘pederast’.)

Our retired neighbours took me whitebaiting once. I was six. By coincidence, Te Kaihau (and this story) was published that same year. Our neighbour Don wore very long white gumboots which came up to his thigh. He could wade far enough into the river to set nets without getting his feet wet. Meanwhile, Noelene and I set about making a cup of tea. We caught one whitebait, singular. It contained less meat than your average garden worm. I don’t remember making it into a patty. We probably threw it back.

THE WEST COAST

In New Zealand, the West Coast is a place where rain is measured in metres. The West Coast catches most of the torrential downpours coming off the ocean — across the island, the main city of Christchurch is dry by comparison. I grew up in Christchurch. I had an uncle from the West Coast — he was drawn back there at every opportunity, to reflect quietly, to fish, to drink. Once a West Coaster, always a West Coaster. There’s a separate West Coast wave which only Coasters use. They’re seen as different and feel that they’re different. It’s a good place to start a cult.

A small town on the West Coast is a good retreat if you are — as Keri Hulme describes herself and her community — “intellectually-different”.

Of anywhere in New Zealand, you can almost believe magical things do happen over that side, over the mountain, exposed to the Tasman Sea.

The story is set in a specific, real place — under The Cobden Bridge. To be honest, I get a bit homesick just looking at the streetview. It’s such an archetypically New Zealand scene.

The river is an important geological feature of Greymouth. Rivers in storytelling can symbolise many things, and here the river symbolises plenitude. It also symbolises the Power of Nature.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “KING BAIT”

NARRATION

“King Bait” is written in the tradition of a tall story — heavily associated with hunting, fishing and camping. The tone is conversational, opening with:

I think this season’ll be the last, you know.

The rest of the story explains why the narrator thinks that. The oral feel is achieved with questions, as if there’s a narratee present in the room:

How did your mother cook them when she got them from the shop?

The modern legend “King Bait” is told via a first person narrator but this is a story of a town event, and a story about human nature. The viewpoint character has the character arc — a new belief that the world wasn’t quite as she saw it before.

SHORTCOMING

We are told in the opening paragraph that the storyteller doesn’t know what to make of the tale she’s about to tell:

Here I am, wound round in a welt of words, with a mystery on my hands, and very uncertain what to say about it. But this is the core of the matter, the heart of the nut: King Bait.

This is a clear connection to the Anagnorisis part of the story. (The psychological shortcoming always is.)

DESIRE

Surface desire: A successful fishing trip with a feed worth of whitebait, like everyone else in the town.

This year I’m all enthusiasm. Buy myself the regulation round Grey net, and a bloody great pole to go with it. Equip myself with gumboots, get out old fishing clothes, and head down to the river at odd hours, waiting on changing tides. […] hopeful of a nice little pudding at the bottom of the nylon bag. Or a very large one, for the season’s started out a boomer. Tons of bait about. Happy faces all around, reflecting my smug grin. Full stomachs abounding, appetite satisfied, bankbook replete, and yet expecting much, much more.

This hooks into a main idea of the story: Greed. The narrator started off with low expectations of a good feed, but when she saw it was a good season, her expectations rose accordingly. Even on the night before, the narrator has been enjoying herself at the pub, and has a belly full of whitebait. She doesn’t want for anything more at that point.

Deep desire: To believe in something bigger than human life itself. I believe the narrator is hoping for some external force to put a lid on her untamed desires, which get bigger and bigger according to circumstance.

OPPONENT

This is a tough one. The massive whitebait (named “King Bait”) that comes down the river doesn’t pose any overt threat to the whitebaiting community. But Keri Hulme injects much needed opposition with the character of the ‘thigh-booted, dungareed individual, made distant and inhuman by his action. For he is swinging his net like an automaton, scooping the bait, flinging it silver and anywhere onto the shore. There is saliva hanging in a shining string from the corner of his mouth, and I am not so far away that I can’t see the money-glaze on his eyes.’

By the way, the description of this man accords with descriptions of whitebait in a close up shot — the ‘shining string’ of saliva most of all. The technique of linking humans to animals is something I notice especially often in short stories compared to in longer works. Alice Munro does it in “Runaway“, linking a human character to a goat. In modern illustrations of The Pied Piper, the piper is often depicted as ratlike. Caleb by Gary Crew is another illustrated short story example, this time comparing a person to an insect. Angela Carter uses the technique in “Lizzie’s Tiger”, comparing Lizzie Borden to a circus tiger.

PLAN

Everyone catches the fish and cooks them up and eats them. This is conveyed succinctly, and also creepily:

All over the Coast the hiss of hot fat and the crunching of little eyes…

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is better described as a Climax in this particular story. On the other hand, there is a big struggle, but not between fish and people — the fish themselves are unlike normal whitebait — once caught they just lie there, as sacrifice.

The story next zooms in on the man who is possessed with greed. The narrator herself is knowingly possessed, pushing her way through ‘small fry and lame old ladies’. This is a big struggle between people with themselves and their own need for more and more and more. This was a recurring theme in work throughout the 1980s, and probably since the Mad Men era actually. Until the business of advertising kicked off, people could live in relative peace without constantly being told they needed the next latest thing. A picture book example with the same message is More and Better by Margaret Neve, published in 1980.

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator describes herself in a knowing way. She knows full well that on the night of King Bait, she was as crazed with greed as anyone else. She has not gone easy on herself, admitting to her audience how she pushed through weaker characters to get to the great feed. The anagnorisis concerns her own psychology.

As for where the river of bait came from and where they’re going, the narrator remains perplexed. In this regard, “King Bait” by Keri Hulme is the inverse of “In The Pit” by Annie Proulx.

“King Bait”: psychological revelation without our character understanding aspects of the plot.

“In The Pit”: our character comes to understand what happens regarding the plot, but there’s no anagnorisis regarding his own psychology, shortcoming and need.

And that’s the key to writing a supernatural story in which the supernatural phenomenon is never explained. Readers will accept supernatural stories with no setting explanation, but the writer is absolutely obliged to include another kind of personal anagnorisis, emphasis on SELF. Otherwise the story will feel pointless and you’ll get complaints that it’s unbelievable.

NEW SITUATION

The final snippets of dialogue “I hope they get there” and “God love us all, but are they ever coming back?” stuck in my mind, even though I read this story years ago.

For story crafting purposes it doesn’t matter that these questions remain unanswered, because the Anagnorisis was so robust: People are greedy and in times of plenty keep wanting more. We all have that tendency within is, and we must fight it at all costs.

We’ve had enough to expect this event will never happen again, signalled in the opening sentence. The final sentence therefore answers the question posed in the first, creating a circular ending.

Deliverance Film Study

Deliverance Film Poster

Deliverance is a 1972 movie based on the 1970 novel by James Dickey. Watch it in 2017 and it could have been made this year. The river setting, the timeless costuming, the themes and the film-making techniques have not dated. In fact, Deliverance continues to influence film to this day, including an homage in Carrie (the image of the floating hand), and the obvious influence on the 2017 film Jungle, starring Daniel Radcliffe. Deliverance is impressive when considering this was film shot before CGI. Actors put their lives at risk on this river, and didn’t come away unscathed. When playing dead, actors were either drunk or trained themselves to hold their breath and not blink for two minutes. Jon Voight really did scale that cliff, but with a harness that had to be kept out of the shot. When the boat breaks in two, that was thanks to a complex pulley system set up under the water. Unfortunately Burt Reynolds broke his tail bone and never fully recovered from that injury. Many years later, when Meryl Streep was filming The River Wild, she must have been thinking of this when she was almost killed during shooting.

The author of the novel played the police sheriff in the film. Because he is not an actor, the director basically had him playing himself.
The author of the novel played the police sheriff in the film. Because he is not an actor, the director basically had him playing himself. Jim Dickey was such a dickwaving macho tool he had to be told to leave for most of the shooting so the actors could do their jobs in peace.

The budget for Deliverance was very tight. Director John Boorman dropped the composer and went instead with the same banjo music utilised across the entire movie, functioning as a very simple soundtrack. Budget constraints led to a very pared down movie, but this simplicity is what also makes the film so good in the end.

Genre Blend Of Deliverance

In 2010 The Guardian named Deliverance as number five best action and war film of all time, which is a bit weird considering there’s no human war. (The war is man versus nature.) Deliverance is sometimes considered the first ‘eco-thriller’ which doesn’t really need further explanation — it’s a thriller with an ecological theme. Jaws and the Jurassic Park stories are other examples.

IMDb lists Deliverance as Adventure, Drama, Thriller, but there are also horror elements. The horror elements are what made Jon Voight reluctant to do the film. He read the script and had to have his arm twisted, because horror is not his thing.

Setting

Bridge scene from Deliverance
Bridge scene from Deliverance
The anglers, Nicolaas Verkolje, c. 1744
The anglers, Nicolaas Verkolje, c. 1744
The River

The Cahulawassee River is a fictional river and the movie was filmed on the Chattooga River.

The “Cahulawassee River” is likely a disguised reference to the Coosawattee River, which underwent development after the Army Engineers approved the building of a dam in 1959.  Today, the result is Coosawattee River Resort near Ellijay and Carter’s Lake; the former dramatic rapids are no more.

(The article tells us Coosawattee translates to ‘old Creek Indian place’.

Chenocetah’s Weblog

The Chattooga River is one of the most difficult rivers to kayak — rated top level difficult. After the film came out a number of people decided to try rafting down the Chattooga and a number of them died. When asked if he felt any guilt over this, the director explains on the director’s commentary of the DVD that he actually went out of his way to make the river look dangerous and uninviting. The Chattooga is beautiful and mostly untouched at time of filming, but too beautiful for the film. In editing the film was heavily desaturated, which I had initially put down to it being an old film, but this was done deliberately at the time.

A desaturated scene from the river of Deliverance, which is beautiful in real life.
A desaturated scene from the river of Deliverance, which is beautiful in real life.
Canoeing This Cover is painted by Carl Evers for Reader's digest , February 1966 kayak river
Unrelated, but this beautiful cover is painted by Carl Evers for Reader’s digest , February 1966. The painting is called “Canoeing” though I believe they’re using kayaks.

Although dangerous, on film the Chattooga doesn’t look especially dangerous. It looks calm on the surface. For the scene where the boat breaks in two, the filmmakers had to damn the river upstream, then let it go to create the right visuals. The first time they did this it trickled out and had little effect. The second time it came out much stronger than intended. The director still feels bad about that, especially since Burt Reynolds was doing his own stunts and injured his back. You can see the moment he injures his back which made it into the film, as most of this director’s film does. Burt struggled with injuries from many stunts his whole life, but in 2009 had to undergo back surgery and has been addicted to pain medication, so once you know that about the actor it’s hard to really enjoy that scene.

The symbolism of this river is a bit different from the symbolism of most rivers in stories (which tend to symbolise the flowing of time, with emphasis on irreversibility), because this river is about to be dammed. A dammed river means a stop – a premature stop – in time, a death. It makes symbolic sense that there were deaths on this river which is about to be dammed.

The irreversibility of time is also a feature of this symbolic river.  “Now you tell me how a canoe can drift up river.” says the cop, emphasising there’s no going back (in time).

The Setting As Character

Back to the narrative, Boorman really liked how the leaves looked during the scene where the men argue about what to do with the body. He describes the colour as ‘acid green’, and did not remove the colour from those scenes. He used an anamorphic lens to open up space between the characters in the rape scene and following, to let the audience see more of the forest. Boorman says he regarded the setting as a character in its own right. Sometimes I’m not clear what writers and directors mean when they say this, because for characterisation purposes a ‘setting as character’ is never adequate in its own right. Instead, it’s a thematic statement. I believe Boorman means the setting in Deliverance is functioning as an unseen army opposition. In fact, the rapist and his toothless sidekick are not treated as characters.

The Toothless Man from Deliverance is not treated as a character, despite being human.
The Toothless Man from Deliverance is not treated as a character, despite being human.

Boorman says on the commentary that he regards these two as malevolent underspirits of the forest representing the people of Atlanta, who are about to desecrate the river to make a dam. To Boorman’s mind, ‘character’ does not correlate with ‘human’.

The opening scenes are brighter, shot in full daylight, but for the river scenes he aimed to shoot on overcast days as much as possible. Because this is the Appalachian Mountains, a lot of the days are foggy, in fact.

After the men emerge from the river, the editing style changes. The river has been nothing but hard cuts, but now Boorman makes use of dissolves, to give the emergence a dreamlike quality. These men have re-emerged into civilisation and can’t quite believe it. They’ve been through such an emotional journey the real world looks quite different. At the end we get to see the river beginning to be flooded, and communities are sinking under this water, now placid and tamed. Ed and Bobby row past the dam where the water is rising. There’s something sacrilegious about killing a river, and something raw and crude about the dam.

Though this isn’t in the novel, Boorman has his own symbolism attached to the river/lake (which he considers one and the same). Rivers are always symbolic in story and can signify many different things, but to Boorman the body of water represents the subconscious. At the end, when the bloated dead man’s hand emerges from the water it dissolves into the post-traumatic dream of Drew. (That’s the image that you’ll find as homage in the first film adaptation of Carrie, made four years after Deliverance.) TV Tropes call this The Raised Hand Of Survival. It’s related to the horror trope in which a dead monster never really dies, mechanically coming back from the grave to continue to wreak havoc.

Appalachia

This is an Appalachian story, kind of. The native Appalachian people filmed are descendants of people who were part Native American, part white, and therefore ostracised from both communities. They turned in on themselves and this has caused problematic lack of genetic diversity. When Lewis peers into a window and sees a girl with multiple severe disabilities sitting next to her grandmother who is sewing, this is not staged. This is a real pair of Appalachians doing what they do, and the camera peered in the window. The old woman and the girl do not get acting credits. (I hope they at least got paid, and gave permission.)

The boy who plays the banjo does not have a mental disability, but because he looks like he does, he is treated as disabled by the rest of his community. By the director’s description this actor is perfectly bright, but could not in fact play the banjo. They found another child actor who could play the banjo, and the hand that comes up behind the boy belongs to a kid sitting behind him, doing the frets. The first few times I saw this film I thought the boy was supposed to be blind, but no. When the boy looks down at the men from the bridge, his thoughts are ambiguous, but because he is shown to be a kind of savant, it’s like he knows something about the river that the men don’t.

Another boy is playing the fret from behind, which explains the angle. The camera angle also elevates the boy into a position of authority. He knows something the men do not.
Another boy is playing the fret from behind, which explains the angle. The camera angle also elevates the boy into a position of authority. He knows something the men do not.

If you’re from rural America, however, particularly from Appalachia, chances are you still hate Deliverance for the powerfully negative effect it has had (and still has) on outsiders’ perceptions of this embig struggled region, presenting it as all hookworm and incest, buckteeth and bluegrass. “Squeal like a piggy, boy!” is a phrase that can still get you beaten up south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The Guardian

The actor who played Bobby has had people all his life yell out ‘Squeal like a pig!’ and has said that acting the part of a rape victim has lead to its own measure of PTSD over the years — he felt as if he was raped, and that the feeling has never left him. Considering this actor consented to the job and was paid to do it and knew it was simulated violence, not real, it’s vital we are mindful of the impact of real world sexual violence.

Boorman has had people tell him they walked out during that rape scene and one man told him he never set foot in a cinema after that.

I do wonder if the men who failed to sit through the rape scene in Deliverance were equally repelled by the much larger number of fictionalised scenes in which women are raped as part of a male narrative arc. Would that man have walked out of Thelma and Louise, for instance? Did the terrible shower scene from Psycho disturb him or titillate him? That is another question worth asking, because Deliverance is one of the few films in which the rape of a man is used as another man’s character arc. Usually, by far and away most often, it is the rape of a woman that is used instead. I suspect a lot of men are unable to put themselves in the position of a rape victim unless that victim is also male.

The director said that the Georgia accent is so extreme that anyone who speaks in it is halfway there as an actor. (Non-actors were used as extras in this film.)

Time In Cinematic History

The rape scene was new for 1972 audiences and has not been oft repeated. The violence was also new. The killing of the rapist was necessary to depict because this is the scene that brought on the moral decision. But when the film reached the censor’s office they ran into trouble. The censor at the time didn’t mind scenes where a man was shot and dropped out of frame and that was it, but didn’t want an audience to deal with a lengthy death. It takes a while for the rapist to die from the arrow wound. (The actor had to train himself to not blink and hold his breath for two minutes, which is how he convincingly looked like a dying man.)

The contradiction between the censor and the filmmaker: The censor believes that by lingering on a death the audience will either be shocked out of the theatre or learn to revel in it. The filmmaker believes that unless it’s a lengthy and therefore realistic arrow death, the audience will fail to take the gravity of the situation seriously. In the end, both censor and filmmaker have the same exact fear: That audiences will not take the death seriously.

The expression ‘squeal like a pig’ came about because the studio demanded they shoot alternative language for television so they had to find alternatives. So they all tried to think on the spot – everyone hates doing TV alternatives. It took the place of a more powerful phrase. But it was so good the director decided to keep it in the film version.

Time In History

When Ed returns home to his wife and wakes up plagued by post-traumatic dreams, it is clear how similar this experience is to that of a war veteran. Fun fact: The author himself was a fantasist, both off and on the page. He used to tell people he was a veteran of the Korean war, but he wasn’t. However, he might have been drawn to war stories. He would certainly have known a lot of men who had been to war, and perhaps by writing this novel he purged himself of some war fantasies. If he never went to war it makes sense that he himself might feel some deep, masculine desire to test himself in the wild against a formidable force. A lot of the movie-going audience lived through wars. Deliverance is a war story in theme rather than setting.

By the way, Dickey also told every actor on set that everything that happened in the film happened to him personally. But when Boorman saw him get into a kayak for the first time and capsize immediately, he realised nothing in the book had happened to him personally.

Characters In Deliverance

Who is this story about? Men. This story is about basic masculine urges and how they are civilised and suppressed by modern life. Burt wanted to kill someone. Men have an underlying need to express these deeper urges, which is why there’s the madness of war, why war is so exciting to many men (and also sport).

Deliverance is an interesting case study when it comes to character function. The logline tells us the main character is probably Lewis:

Intent on seeing the Cahulawassee River before it’s turned into one huge lake, outdoor fanatic Lewis Medlock takes his friends on a river-rafting trip they’ll never forget into the dangerous American back-country.

But this is a story about an ensemble of men. These men are so different from each other you wonder how they’d be friends in real life. In fact they’re not — Lewis doesn’t know a couple of the guys before this trip. Whenever you wonder how fictional characters would even be friends, it’s probably that each character stands in for a different facet of personality in The Everyman. (Or Everywoman, or Everychild). Deliverance is specifically a film about masculinity, and the various ways of being a man in the early 1970s. Men have a wild side, a conservative side, an underdog side, a family man side.

  • Lewis — ‘Tarzan’. He wears a sawn off rubber jacket exposing his biceps. Costuming was all the more important since we didn’t see these characters in Atlanta.
  • Ed — a family man who has known Lewis from way back (we’re not told how). Ed is an advertising executive, as the author was himself. This is the character Dickey most heavily associates with. Ed is not a natural macho man, but must take over once Lewis breaks his leg. He contrasts with Burt in his grey sweater.
  • Bobby — is the chubby insurance salesman who ‘is highly regarded in his field’, according to the kind-hearted Ed, anyway.  Bobby is an archetype — the aggressive yet cowardly side of a man. Bobby  is your modern gamer guy who is terrible at games but picks on girl avatars. He is pretty scathing about the hillbillies and loudly announces his disdain for the rubbish in front of the hillbillies themselves, commenting on all the rubbish, and they must have reached the end of the world, where all the rubbish ends up. He wears a comical pork pie hat.
  • Drew — We don’t even know this guy is a family man until the improvised funeral. On a continuum of morality, this guy is the most law-abiding and honest. He is also sacrificed.

Matt Bird, in Secrets of Story, writes that even when a narrative is about a group of characters, the audience warms to one in particular. This isn’t necessarily ‘the good guy’.  Who did you warm to?

Lewis is an interesting character, probably on the sociopathic spectrum, full of contradictions. He tells Bobby not to judge the hillbillies based on their looks, while all the while judging Bobby for being chubby, thinking him incapable of the river journey. He’s basically an asshole who seems to take delight in putting his male friends to the test, thinking he’ll come up trumps. His magnetism is no doubt partly down to Burt Reynolds’ star quality (this was the film that launched him). Boorman admits that Reynold’s overacted at times, but persuaded himself the cuts were okay because that’s who Lewis was. Lewis is not an empathetic character, but I do sense his need to get into the jungle and really test himself to his limits. He’s an adrenaline junkie. “Who does he think he is, Tarzan or something?” asks one of the other guys as Lewis goes off at night to investigate a noise. We are given enough information to make our minds up rapidly about Lewis. This guy is an archetype.

Ed is the character who has the character arc, transforming from someone interested in nature but cowed by it, to someone who faces a life and death struggle, and pulls through, transformed (though tragically).

Bobby is an archetype, and he too is sacrificed in a way (after the rape scene). Bobby is not an empathetic character even though Lewis calls him ‘Chubby’, mostly because when the underdog picks on even weaker characters we can’t possibly feel sorry for the underdog. An audience has no sympathy for that. Also, he sells insurance. Presumably, Bobby does just fine back home in Atlanta. Bobby is a boy’s name – his chubbiness is like early boyhood. He has no character arc in this story. He doesn’t grow — he shrinks.

Drew is Good, almost to the point of being a Mary-Sue character, engaging the boy in the banjo-guitar duet, treating him as an equal for that moment, always the voice of reason, emotionally literate. Yet he remains in the background. We see less of him than of Lewis and Ed. He exists mainly to be the voice of reason in the dialectic about turning themselves in.

The actor who played Drew got the job because he could play guitar, but it turned out he had this party trick where he could do this with his arm.
The actor who played Drew got the job because he could play guitar, but it turned out he had this party trick where he could do this with his arm.

Each of these characters represents part of the author himself. Those who knew him could see this clearly. Funnily enough, the guy behind The Muppets says the same thing of himself:

Yes, I identified most with Grover and Fozzie, but there are bits of me in all of my characters. Me being boring is Bert, me pure is Grover, me obsessed is Cookie, me neurotic is Piggy, me insecure is Fozie, me uptight is Sam, me crazed is Animal. I’m a bit like each of them. And so are you.

(Noted with interest which of these traits Oz associated with femininity.)

Frank Oz
Backstory

From a storytelling perspective it’s interesting that Boorman chopped the first third of the novel right out. In Dickey’s novel the first third is about these guys’ regular lives in Atlanta. Boorman found this tedious, ploughing through the characters interacting with their wives and children and at their jobs. He knew that the audience would understand these guys with very little information, so he plunged us right into the wilderness with them. By the time the gas station scene has ended we know who they are, and if we’re still in any doubt, watching Lewis speed down that unfamiliar dirt road while Ed sits terrified in shotgun cements any ambiguity. This was Boorman treating the audience with respect, and marked a more modern way of storytelling. There’s a lesson in there somewhere about backstory. The reader doesn’t need nearly as much as the writer thinks we do.

In sum, this is Ed’s story. Ed is most often the focalising/viewpoint character.

  • We watch the hillbillies from Ed’s point of view, standing by as Ed plays guitar and Bobby makes fun of the attendant.
  • When Ed is scared of Lewis driving, we’re scared for them.
  • Ed is looking on as Bobby is raped
  • Ed goes missing after the small waterfall. We close in on Ed’s face.
  • We see through Ed’s eyes when the cops turn up — they’re talking to Bobby already.

Story Structure Of Deliverance

SHORTCOMING

It’s up to the audience to work out for ourselves why these men are on the river. The gas station attendant challenges the men, “Why do you want to do that for?” The audience might be wondering that too. But with this being a macho story, we understand by the end of the film that these men — Ed included — have a deep-seated psychological need to remove themselves from the safety of Atlanta and transport themselves to the wild where their manliness can be truly tested. By leaving out the backstory Boorman trusted his audience to get this intuitively.

DESIRE

He wants to kayak down the river with his long-term friend Lewis and two newer buddies from Atlanta then make it home safely to his wife and son.

He wants to prove himself capable as a man in the wild. At least, he doesn’t want to be shown up by Tarzan Lewis. We see this below-the-conscious desire when he wanders into the woods to try and shoot the deer. Why does he want to shoot it? Not for the meat, surely.

Early in the film Ed says something along the lines of, “It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world — no one will find us out here.” The men have been ‘delivered’ from the real world, transported into the wilderness. Later, most of them will be ‘delivered’ once again into civilisation. This speaks to Ed’s desire to get away from civilisation, but also foreshadows trouble to come.

OPPONENT

A very typical character web: The big, bad, inhuman opponent (nature, the dangerous river, the characters who are part of the landscape) is pitted against a small group of individuals who in turn are united against this big bad monster baddie but also function as opponents to each other owing to their day-to-day butting of heads. At first Lewis looks like he could be a psychopathic river buddy but he is soon taught a lesson and the setting itself becomes Ed’s main opponent.

On that point, the downfall of Lewis is satisfying because he’s such a dick-waving macho man, full of talk about needing to respect the river then failing to respect it himself, that it feels like karma and revenge when he breaks his leg and suffers immense pain because of it, needing to be rescued by his beta-male friends. I do believe this is a bit of wish-fulfilment the writer is exploiting in us with Lewis.

“You don’t beat it.  You don’t beat this river.”

Lewis

PLAN

Lewis challenges Ed about the strength of his desires near the beginning of their trip. “Why do you come along with me on these trips, Ed?” he asks. Ed admits he doesn’t rightly know. Ed is basically along for the ride, on a plan made by Lewis. When you’re writing a main character whose character attribute is ‘passive’ or ‘laid back’ it’s a good trick to give them a sidekick (who may initially look like the main character) with go-getter tendencies. This sidekick will start the story in motion. That’s Lewis, of course — the ‘protagonist’ in the original Greek meaning of the term.

Ed’s plan is to go along with Lewis for a fun time, see what happens.

BIG STRUGGLE

Deliverance is a mythic journey, so the men encounter a series of big struggles, culminating in intensity. (Unless the big struggles culminate a journey can feel too episodic).

  • They big struggle against the current, at first in small current, then in very large.
  • Ed big struggles against the deer (and loses his nerve). As he works his way through the forest searching he is now alone, away from the others. The sense of four people together has gone. We are all ultimately alone in death and this foreshadows that moment for him.
  • They hear a noise which may or may not be human (see what the writer did there?) and fail to locate the source
  • They low-key argue with each other along the way, establishing a pecking order
  • The men’s big big struggle with each other is the dialectical scene about what to do after Lewis shoots an arrow through the rapist. Lewis comes out on top, and Drew loses big time. When he falls into the river soon after, it’s deliberately ambiguous — did he throw himself into the water in despair or was he really shot? In the previous scene, when Drew starts to dig the grave, the digging becomes neurotic and it’s almost like he’s digging his own grave. They’re descending into a kind of primitive world when they bury the rapist. There’s no priest or ritual. Nor is there any priest when Ed and Bobby are required to perform an impromptu funeral for Drew.
  • Ed’s big struggle culminates with the murder of the Toothless Man (or is he?) and there’s a great visual as he comes face to face with his victim under the water.
  • There’s another big struggle between Ed and Bobby about what they’re going to tell the police. The two men are wearing the same shirts. They’re forever psychologically bound together because of the transformative experience they just went through.

Through these big struggles, the closeness of the men is being sundered. Sometimes a series of big struggles brings a family closer together (e.g. Little Miss Sunshine), but in this story the characters are torn apart.

ANAGNORISIS

Dickey himself explains the anagnorisis had by Ed:

“I think only one thing; that men…settle for too little in their lives. And this chance encounter in the river was for…Ed Gentry, some kind of opening to a dark place he would never know was there…John Berryman [the poet] once said that a man can live his whole life in this country without knowing if he is a coward or not.  I think it is necessary for him to know.”

James Dickey, on Deliverance

At what point do we see this self revelation happen on screen? We don’t see it happen immediately in some kind of rapid, epiphanic moment. This is why the denouement is important to this story.

When he shoots the man we know the macho part of his character arc is complete, because it started the moment we saw him unable to shoot that deer.

By the way, it’s accidentally unclear to much of the audience exactly what happens when Ed shoots the arrow at the toothless man. He shoots him in the back, and then immediately rolls over onto another of his arrows by accident. The director didn’t mean this to be at all ambiguous, but says that’s the best he could do in hindsight. It doesn’t help that we don’t see the enemy has been shot until he turns around.

When Drew throws himself into the river (or is shot), this demonstrates a very conservative view on truth and lying — by blunting the truth, this had a corrupting effect on the men. The underlying assumption is that lies can never really be buried — the truth either finds its way out, or haunts you forever. A non-conservative message would be the inverse — that lies are sometimes for the best, and let’s all move happily along with our lives.

NEW SITUATION

Boorman had to fight for the scenes that came after the men rowing into Aintry, with the rusty old cars on the side of the bank. By the by, Boorman describes these cars as ‘ironic‘. The men have earlier disparaged these rusty old cars as as symbols of non-civilisation — now they’re using them as evidence of civilisation. Their attitudes have changed in just a couple of days.

Why did Boorman fight to keep these scenes? Not because the audience couldn’t guess about how their lives were going to look now — but because we needed to see their slow anagnorises play out. Ed starts crying in the Aintry restaurant, but the kindly people there deflect and a woman starts talking about a comically large pumpkin. This shows his faith in humanity will slowly be restored.

We need to know if Lewis lives or dies — when we send him off he may or may not lose a leg, turning him into how many war veterans looked in those days. Stories such as Lonesome Dove end with survival but loss of limb — a victory is a pyrrhic victory if you don’t come out intact.

For Ed the point is very much the self-knowledge he gleans after he is forcibly set free.

John Kenneth Muir

The brothers they paid to deliver their cars came through. Ed can’t really believe the cars are there waiting for him.

The matter of the dead man is tied up briefly. It was Deputy Queen’s brother in law they shot – “He’ll come in drunk, probably.”

When Bobby and Ed say goodbye Bobby says, “I don’t think I’ll see you for a while.” I suspect those two never see each other ever again. Sometimes when a friend becomes associated with a negative experience, compartmentalisation means the friend has to go, especially if it’s a new friend.

Ed will go to visit the widow and family and do what he can for them, because we believe he’s a man of his word, not because we need to see it play out on screen. We do see him go home to Atlanta, hug his own wife and play with his young son.

Ed is a city man but connected to nature, yearning to be among it. But does he have what it takes to really survive in nature? Yes, it turns out he does. He has physically survived, but by turning into Lewis he lost a part of himself.

We see the little white church several times. This is a church rescued from drowning, later towed away. There’s a sense of having come back to civilisation but there’s this church is hanging over them, accusing them of this crime they’ve committed.

Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

light and shadow

Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity

Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.

This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated and blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.

Supernatural Intervention

Spiritual beings intervene on the side of the heroes, or sometimes against them.

cinderella-fairy-godmother-ruth-ives-1954
Cinderella and her fairy godmother by Ruth Ives 1954

Fire and Ice

Fire represents knowledge, light, life, and rebirth.

If we watch fire in the fireplace, which is a source of pleasure and comfort, it is expressive of a mood of aliveness, warmth, and pleasure. But if we see a building or forest on fire, it conveys to us an experience of threat or terror, of the powerlessness of man against the elements of nature. Fire, then, can be the symbolic representation of inner aliveness and happiness as well as of fear, powerlessness, or of one’s own destructive tendencies.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

Ice, like the desert, represents ignorance, darkness, sterility, and death.

The Snow Queen

Snow in 101 Dalmatians increases the tension. Being lost and in danger is bad enough, but when snow cascades down… even worse. Especially when your paw prints can be tracked by Cruella de Vil.

101 Dalmatians snowy scene

Nature vs. Mechanistic World

Nature is good; technology is evil.

Shaun Tan subverts this archetype in The Lost Thing. The weak, vulnerable ‘character’ is a machine who no one notices.

The Threshold

Thresholds are symbolised by a gateway to a new world which the hero must enter to change and grow. Fantasy portals take many forms.

Eric, by Shaun Tan, features a fantasy gateway which neither the narrator nor the audience fully understands.

eric-cupboard-shaun-tan

The Underworld

The underworld is a place of death or a metaphorical encounter with the dark side of the self. Entering an underworld is a form of facing a fear of death.

Hilda Bewildered, Slap Happy Larry, 2015.

hilda-bewildered-underfoot-jungle_800x600

I used a subway in our book app, but an overland tunnel achieves a similar thing. The 101 Dalmatians film is basically a long chase scene. A tunnel is used at some point to heighten the feeling that we’re on a journey and there’s nowhere to go but forward.

In fairytales, the forest can stand in for the underworld. (See below)

Haven vs. Wilderness

Places of safety contrast sharply against dangerous wilderness. Heroes are often sheltered for a time to regain health and resources.

This describes all fairytale worlds in which there is a forest right next to a town or village.

the-chase

See here for Symbolism of the Forest in Storytelling.

See also The Symbolism of Windows, in which a pane of glass often separates these two settings.

Water vs. Desert

Because water is necessary to life it commonly appears as a birth symbol. In religious ceremony, we have baptism. This symbolises spiritual birth and commonly involves water. There may be a strong psychological/physiological reason for this link — a lot of swimmers will tell you there’s nothing like a bracing dip in the ocean to completely clear the mind.

Rainfalls, rivers, oceans, etc. function the same way.

adventures-of-raggedy-ann-river
Adventures Of Raggedy Ann, falling into the river in a ‘baptism’ scene

In visual media like film, a dip in the water often accompanies the character’s Anagnorisis. A great example of that is the film American Honey.

The Desert suggests the inverse.

Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.

Howard Suber

Heaven vs. Hell

Parts of the universe not accessible to us = the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern our world. Gods live in the skies and mountaintops. The bowels of the earth contain diabolic forces.

See also: The Symbolism Of Altitude

The Maze

The maze represents a puzzling dilemma or great uncertainty. The maze can be part of mythic structure, symbolising the  search for the dangerous monster inside oneself, or a journey into the heart of darkness.

It doesn’t have to be a literal maze, but might instead be getting lost in an urban jungle.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is an example of an urban jungle maze.

The Cat Returns features a darkly humorous maze scene full of meta-humour and slapstick.

The maze is often a microcosm of the mythic journey, which is usually ‘epic’.

The Castle

The castle is a fortified place of safety which protects treasure or princess. The castle may be enchanted or bewitched, especially in the Gothic tradition.

Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954
Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954

Castle Motif on StorySearch

The Tower

A tower is similar to a castle but represents the isolation of self. Bluebeard’s castle was probably a tower.

Rapunzel is the archetypal tower.

Tower motif on StorySearch

The Magic Weapon

In a traditional mythic story, the hero needs a weapon to complete his or her quest (but mostly still his, because most heroes are males and when heroes are female they often don’t fight). In a big struggle-free myth, the characters don’t fight — instead they think and feel themselves out of a tight fix. In that case, the hero probably needs a mentor, or a library book or a magic spell (as in Brave). Interestingly, there is archery (weaponry) in Brave, but it’s not actually used for fighting. It’s more of a prop, and aids as a symbol for fate and the passing of time.

Weapon Motif on StorySearch

Mountains And Valleys

See here for the symbolism of altitude.

The valley enclosed between mountains can arouse in us the feeling of security and comfort, of protection against all dangers from the outside. But the protecting mountains can also mean isolating walls which do not permit us to get out of the valley and thus the valley can become a symbol of imprisonment. The particular meaning of the symbol in any given place can only be determined from the whole context in which the symbol appears, and in terms of the predominant experiences of the person using the symbol.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

The River

See here for all the different symbolic uses of the river in children’s literature.

new-equilibrium

Whirlpools

The whirlpool generally symbolises the destructive power of nature or fate.

In A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer (first wife of Dr Seuss), the whirlpool stands for something mysterious happening below.

failed-magic

Whirlpool Motif on StorySearch

Fog

See here for more about fog symbolism in literature.

Fog was once thought to be caused by demons/magic. In other stories fog is an ogre who has drunk until he has burst. Fog can be dispelled by a saint. Fog is a representation of soul.

A picture book example is Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Fog Motif On StorySearch

Colors

Red: blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder, autumn, women, hatred, death

Green: growth, hope, fertility

Blue: highly positive, security, tranquility, spiritual purity

Black: darkness, chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, wisdom, evil, melancholy

White: light, purity, innocence, timelessness (negatives: death, horror, supernatural)

Yellow: enlightenment, wisdom

Numbers

3—light, spiritual awareness, unity (holy trinity), male principle

Children’s books are all about the Rule Of Three.

Three is a significant number in witchcraft.

4—associated with the circle, life cycle, four seasons, female principle, earth, nature, elements

5 — Freemasons (like Pythagoras) regard the number five as sacred, hence they call the pentagram the Blazing Star. (Five points.)

Children’s books for girls tend to be circular in plot, following the seasons. (Books for boys, in contrast, are linear.)

7—the most potent of all symbolic numbers, signifying the union of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order, perfect number, a religious symbol

Snow White And The Seven Dwarves

9

Nine is often considered a magic number. For example, cats have nine lives. The ancient Greeks said that the number nine referred to the trinity of all trinities. Cats have 9 lives: the facts behind the myth.

12

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

light and shadow

Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity

Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.

This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated and blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.

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The River Between Us by Richard Peck

THE RIVER BETWEEN US STORYWORLD

The River Between Us cover
This cover gives no indication of the intended audience. Nor does it show that this is the story of a family. Anyone would think Noah were the star, and the faceless woman in the background the stereotypical love interest. This is one of my least favourite children’s book covers.

There are historical notes in the back of The River Between Us but unless you’ve been through the American education system and already know quite a bit about the Civil War and the history of New Orleans, I’d recommend flipping to that first.

  • July 1916 is the wrapper time
  • Summer
  • North America
  • Starts in St Louis, South Illinois. The family lives on Maryland Avenue in the West End. See: Maryland Avenue today. (Peck tends to center his stories in Illinois, and most often in Southern Illinois.)
  • Cars are a big deal to a young boy because unlike today you don’t see them any old where. “It was a big thing to drive a car out of town.” They’re not yet very reliable so preparation for a long trip is important. For example, cracking a raw egg into the radiator so it would hard-boil and seal any leaks. Fuel is to be strapped onto the car itself because there aren’t many fuel stations around yet. Only the upper middle class can afford them (hence the narrator is the son of a doctor). You have to crank it up and the windshield isn’t up for city driving. There are a lot of flat tyres — four in one day is not unusual.
  • This is the story of a journey. Stories with rivers are generally about journeys. See: The Symbolism Of The River In Storytelling.
  • Baseball is important. The local team is called The Browns (and was only later the Baltimore Orioles).
  • World War I is raging across Europe. Americans know it’s just a matter of time before they get caught up in it. They anticipate restrictions on travel once that happens.
  • ‘The War’ just as often refers to the Civil War
  • Grand Tower is a ghost town. There never was much to it but showed some progress after the Civil War, with a saddle factor, cigar plant, gun shops, brick works. There’s a hill called Devil’s Backbone. (These days it’s a park.)
  • The grandparents’ house is like going back in time, with the metonym of a black iron range standing for the earlier era.

 

  • 1861 is the flashback story within a story.
  • The American Civil War started in 1861 and lasted until 1865. The war officially began April 12 in Charleston. The big struggle at Port Sumter marked a turning point in the Civil War, when secessionists started to lose. Until then, escaped slaves could be sold back to the south.
  • Food is lacking in variety, especially in the winter. Mother makes a dish called ‘scrapple’ made from cornmeal and shredded pork off the neck bones. You slice of bits of it to fry in lard. For a fancy occasion you might fry it in butter.
  • Coffee is expensive and a luxury but the family drinks sassafras tea. (Root beer is made from the root of this tree.) These days it’s thought to be carcinogenic to drink it regularly.
  • In Southern Illinois the town was divided between north and south sympathies. By law black people aren’t even allowed in the state, although ‘everyone ignores this’. The fact that the law exists speaks to the levels of racism.
  • People commonly keep a sick drawer (to put medicines etc.) and a ‘death drawer’ (where they keep a sheet and clothes to be buried in). Very morbid sounding to the modern reader, but evidence that death is on people’s minds a lot more than it is today. People expected death, but at any moment.
  • After the Battle of Bull Run, this little town is ‘solid’ for the North. (Anti-slavery, with President Lincoln.)
  • Louisiana and New Orleans developed a ‘three caste’ system from the Caribbean. Mixed-parentage people were recognized as a distinct group, neither “White” nor “Black”. The history of slavery in Louisiana is a bit different. Under Spanish rule almost 2,000 slaves were freed. Most of them ‘self-purchased’ or were purchased by black relatives. Some were freed by lovers or fathers. With dwindling numbers of slaves to do the work, the numbers were augmented by mixed-race refugees from Haiti. They were called libres. Many were light-skinned. They were generally artisans and tradesmen. A few even became wealthy planters and slaveowners themselves. Under Spanish rule these gens du couleur formed militia companies and sometimes helped recapture runaway slaves. That’s how a three-caste system came about.

 

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUE IN THE RIVER BETWEEN US

Howard writes in first person, an elderly adult looking back on his early life. This is apparent from the first sentence: “They don’t make them like that anymore.”

Chapter two switches from the grandson as a young man to his great aunt, Tilly.

The narration has metafictional elements such as, “If life was a storybook, that would have been the night Noah left us for the war.” Peck is obviously conscious of the need to avoid tying up the narrative in too neat of a package — ironically, that would read like a contrived, made-up story and pull us out of realism. In this way, metafictive elements in narration can sometimes add to the realism of a story rather than detract from it.

See also: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction

CHARACTERS

WRAPPER STORY CHARACTERS

Narrator, Howard

  • Howard Leland Hutchings
  • 15 years old in 1916, so born just before the turn of the century. Published in 2003, the narrator would hypothetically be 104 at time of publication.
  • Younger brothers, twins, five years old: Raymond and Earl
  • Has grown up ‘thinking the whole world is paved’

Howard’s Father, Doctor William Hutchings Jnr

  • Father is a doctor, never seen without a necktie.
  • Works long hours — a 6 and a half day week
  • Self-made man (Bill Gates would disagree. Bill Gates refuses to call himself a self-made man in acknowledgement of his own privilege. Likewise, this son of a doctor had white middle class male privilege). That said, his own father was not rich. Doctors in poor towns were paid in fish and vegetables often.
  • Originally from Grand Tower on the other side of the Mississippi River
  • Lived through the Civil War

Howard’s Mother, Mrs Hutchings

  • Born and raised in St Louis
  • Does not like her husband’s family
  • Does not go on the trip, is not part of the story.
CIVIL WAR STORY CHARACTERS

Grandpa William Hutchings Snr

  • “Waxy with age, trapped by years in his chair but alive behind his eyes”

 

THE PRUITTS

Tilly Hutchings (nee Pruitt)

  • In 1916 she is a little old lady who wears an apron, wrinkled like a walnut
  • Youthful movements and build
  • Tilly’s mother takes in Delphine Duval and her companion Calinda
  • In 1861 she is 15 years old, which makes her 70 in the framing story.
  • She will later marry William Hutchings (the town doctor) and give birth to Howard’s father.

Noah Pruitt

  • Grandma Tilly’s twin brother
  • Missing an arm by his 70th birthday.
  • Marries Delphine

Delphine Duval

Although Delphine initially comes across as a Blanche Dubois type, her strength amazes and inspires everyone when the war begins to take its toll. Even the twins’ mother blossoms from Delphine’s proximity (“She put some starch in my spine,” Tilly’s mother says). These relationships cement and then reverberate throughout the novel. A showboat’s arrival on the Mississippi, and Tilly and Delphine’s trip to the big strugglefront in search of Noah, occasion further revelations about Delphine and Calinda’s background as well as fascinating details of the complex New Orleans society.

Publishers Weekly

  • Bedridden as an elderly woman, about    70 years old
  • Always stout
  • Smells of lavender, violet eyes, associated with the colour purple
  • French. “Her accent came and went.”
  • Has says she has a rich aunt in St Louis but it is later revealed that there is no aunt.
  • By the end of chapter four it’s clear she’s a fantasist who, like Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker and Richard Peck’s own Molly Moberly in Strays Like Us, has grand delusions about where she comes from and who her female relatives are.
  • Also like Molly Moberly’s real grandmother, she has taken to her bed in her old age.
  • From New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Says her grandmother one of Les Sirenes — beauties who fled the slaves’ uprising on the island of Saint-Domingue years and years ago. Grandmother took her mother to Cuba then New Orleans. Father is Monsieur Jules Duval
  • She cannot marry white men because there’s a Spanish and French law against it. However New Orleans customs are different — instead of marrying these women the white men set them up in houses. Daughters are brought up by their mothers and expects to find a white gentleman of her own under a similar arrangement. These women are called quadroons.
  • “We free people live on a kind of island, lapped by a sea of slavery.”

Cass Pruitt

  • Younger sister of Tilly who hallucinates. She sees ghosts of the past as well as visions of the future.
  • In 1861 she is 12 but looks 10
  • Wispy hair (to match her visions)
  • Small statured
  • Keeps chickens — her wispy hair is somewhat ‘feathery’ itself
  • Died of diphtheria after the Civil War at the age of 17

Calinda Duval

  • Delphine’s black companion (free person of colour)
  • ‘Her eyes trust no one’
  • Has the same eyes as Delphine (the first hint that they are half-sisters)
  • Not just in skin colour — Calinda is in other ways the mirror reflection of Delphine. “While Delphine would starve in a pantry, Calinda would thrive in a wilderness.”
  • As well as being the reflection character for Delphine, she is also a companion for Cass. Cass looks like a ‘scrawny, pale reflection of Calinda, including the tignon, tied in a tidy knot’.
  • Makes money by making pralines and selling them to passengers on passing ships.
  • Calinda wears a tignon because in 1786 a law was passed which required black women to cover their hair. Intended to keep black women in their place, it was also a fashion statement for black women themselves. Today it is worn as a celebration of Afro-American culture.
  • Real name CoinCoin, an ancient name
  • Calinda is named after a dance from the Caribbean.
  • Calinda and Cass together lend a touch of fabulism to the text, with their ability to predict the future and sense the past.

 

TREATMENT OF VIOLENT CONTENT IN A STORY FOR YOUNG READERS

Without graphic description, Peck does not shy away from the horrors of war, nor how it divided the families and friends of Grand Tower. Peck’s finely tuned writing makes plausible the ways in which these characters come together, putting their human concerns ahead of their political interest.

Publisher’s Weekly

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE RIVER BETWEEN US

This is a story within a story: The road trip in the present world of the story and the stories told about Howard’s father’s childhood.

Who is the main character? Well, this is two stories really but the story as told by Tilly is the main one. The wrapper exists for the function of connecting these people to modern readers: Peck is emphasising that this story happened only three or four generations ago (which is actually terrifying in today’s political climate).

In fact this is a story within a story within a story. This is Howard narrating Tilly narrating the love story of Delphine and her twin brother Noah. But it is also the mythical journey Tilly herself makes to locate her brother after he’s gone off to war. Who is the main character? To answer that question, “Who changes the most, not in circumstance but in psychological growth?” That would be Noah and Tilly both. Richard Peck has made them twins to provide both a male and female experience of one bit of the Civil War.

SHORTCOMING

The Pruitts are poor and therefore must suffer the social cost of harboring the young women off the boat — they need their rent money.

Noah no doubt has naive, heroic visions of being a war hero, and probably also wants to impress Delphine by being a big man.

Tilly’s big disadvantage is her gender. The mother’s ghost is that she has already lost a husband, so losing a son would double her grief. Being a woman herself, she needs Tilly less for chores.

DESIRE

Noah wants to fight but more deeply he wants to be a Man.

Tilly, like her mother, wants to keep Noah at home and to protect their home and hearth. When the mother sends her on a mission this is a female version of the Hero’s Journey.

OPPONENT

The Seceshs are the villains in this story — the ‘monster’ stand in — the overriding fearsome opponent. But in this particular setting, a purple area, there are plenty of locals who are fighting against the Yankees and the women who visit the house to cast judgement on harboring the girls from New Orleans provide a more local opponent, given faces.

Noah’s mother does not want him to fight, providing the well-meaning opponent. The mother shows herself to be a fairly despicable mother to Tilly, though, when she falls into a heap and tells her she only cares about the brother, not her. This mother is a completely different kind of mother-opponent to each twin.

In a more stereotypical story, Delphine would be an opponent to Tilly. There are many stories about girls — one rich, one poor — pitted against each other as opponents, but Peck has created a more nuanced frilly girl in Delphine by letting her add to the Pruitts’ life with the introduction of different foods and nice things.

PLAN

Noah joins the war but his plans to fight to the end fall short when he loses a limb.

Tilly takes Delphine on her journey to find Noah and refuses to go back home until she’s found him, as instructed by their mother.

BIG STRUGGLE

Tilly shows us some pretty shocking images. The big struggles taking place around this time all over America are off the page — we’re shown the aftermath.

ANAGNORISIS

At this point the story switches back to that of Howard. He realises the reason for the visit — Great Aunt Delphine is dying. We learn Cass is dead and buried, in an overgrown graveyard. She died of diphtheria a year after the war.

This tells us that the war’s casualties included more than just men dying heroically in big struggle. With war there is always a lot of other death too — for unromantic reasons such as this.

Another revelation: Noah is Dr Williams’ father, not the old Dr Hutchings. Great Aunt Delphine is actually Howard’s grandmother, not his great aunt, in a revelation similar to the one used in Strays Like Us.

NEW SITUATION

We learn that Calinda had to leave town because her skin was too dark to stay. We don’t know what happened to her — symbolic of how there is nothing in the historical records about what happened to the Quadroom women of New Orleans after the Civil War.

The rest of the family stays in the White town and has lived here in this big house together all these decades. Old Mr Pruitt is buried in the graveyard though not next to Cass. Old Mrs Pruitt was buried in the river.

I had expected Delphine would have married Noah but we learn they never married. Peck does this to let the character of Delphine retain her tradition of never marrying a white man (even though the law itself was passed by white men).

Howard is allowed to drive the car some of the way home. Howard, too, is now a man because he knows his own family history. Howard’s father tells Howard he’ll be joining the war if it begins. The reader knows it did begin, so we can extrapolate that Dr Hutchings went off to war.

Howard mentions a ‘daughter with giant violet eyes’, a detail so specific we might imagine Howard does have such a daughter and that’s who he’s telling this family history to.

 

Mr Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham

Mr Gumpy’s Outing is a picture book for young readers who are still learning English — a variety of verbs are introduced in a way that will help toddlers to remember them.

SETTING OF MR GUMPY’S OUTING

This is a very enticing setting — a lot of picture book characters live on farms or in middle class suburbs but not many live so close to a river, in an emerald green rustic cottage such as this:

My Gumpy owned a boat_700x688
Another heavily green book is the wordless More! by Peter Schossow

STORY STRUCTURE OF MR GUMPY’S OUTING

SHORTCOMING

Mr Gumpy_700x605
This is Mr Gumpy.

Mr Gumpy owned a boat and his house was by a river.

We’re told nothing about this man’s shortcoming at the beginning of the story — we are left to see what that is for ourselves.

We learn that his shortcoming is that he’s a pushover. He shouldn’t have let all of those animals onto the boat if the aim was not to get wet!

DESIRE

Mr Gumpy (presumably) wants a nice day out on the river in his boat.

OPPONENT

The opponents are all the creatures who want to join him, despite their tendency to engage in behaviours that lead to the sinking of small boats.

Mr Gumpy girl and boy_700x627

PLAN

Mr Gumpy will let the animals and children onto the boat but if he warns them to behave well, everything will be all right.

Mr Gumpy's Outing by John Burningham London Travel poster
Mr Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham London Travel poster

BIG STRUGGLE

And Into The Water They Fell_700x347

ANAGNORISIS

There hasn’t necessarily been any revelation or learning taking place in this carnivalesque story; it in fact seems that Mr Gumpy knew exactly what would happen from the start, since each creature on the boat behaved exactly as he’d warned them not to!

Have you a place for me sheep_700x355

Picture books are particularly well-suited to this kind of story, since they are read over and over again. The young reader can imagine that each reading is another separate incident which happens time and time again. This is partly what makes it funny.

NEW SITUATION

There are no hard feelings; no consequences.

Mr Gumpy's Outing table_700x380
Then they all sit down to tea. I’m heartened to see that there’s no housewife at home who has prepared all of this for them while they’ve been away (and who will presumably wash all their clothes!) Or perhaps she’s presently in the kitchen…

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Who Sank The Boat? by Pamela Allen

Pamela Allen’s tale has a definite Aesop quality to it, which tends to happen when you combine an idiomatic expression such as ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back‘ with the characterisation from tales of old, in which the mouse is a tiny but noble creature who has more influence upon outcome than initially expected. As in Mr Gumpy’s outing, we have a group of animals who all get into a boat, and they all end up in the water (but from overloading rather than from misbehaviour).

There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly

There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly

This is another tale with an emphasis on the sequencing of animals, resulting in an explosive climax. This cumulative structure comes straight from folktale, from stories such as The Musicians of Bremen, The Enormous Turnip and Chicken Licken.

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