How big is this utopianforest? The girls keep running into the dwarf. I put it to you that this is either a tiny forest (more like a spinny) or they meet a different dwarf each time. (Turns out dwarves keep changing in size.)
Either that or the girls are stalking the dwarf. Perhaps they are not as stupid as they appear on paper, and were in on the bear’s plan from the get-go, hoping to kill him themselves, but only after he reveals his store of treasure.
None of this is on the page, of course, because fairytales as recorded by the Grimm Brothers rendered girls and women innocent naifs who required rescuing by men.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED”
Snow White belongs to a category of stories in which girls are taught self-sacrifice in order to better serve men. These stories didn’t stop appearing in the 1800s. More recent examples:
In “Snow White and Rose Red” an ursine prince asks to come in and warm by the fire. Of course the women let him in, as Mrs Tittlemouse let in the toad, also to sit in front of her fire. Because he wanted to. Because he believed he had the right to her space, her time and her attention. And because the girls fulfilled their feminine roles of caring, all worked out in the end.
This is the story of sisters, presented as different sides of the same coin. Any personality difference is symbolised by the contrasting colour of their hair.
These archetypes have been recycled in many stories, for example in Laura and Mary from the Little House series, or Anne and George from The Famous Five series. One is quiet, the other active:
Snow-White was more gentle, and quieter than her sister, who liked better skipping about the fields, seeking flowers, and catching summer birds; while Snow-White stayed at home with her mother, either helping her in her work, or, when that was done, reading aloud.
These are the Ideal Girls, at one with nature, loving each other deeply. They always share everything and are perfectly clean and tidy. They have no moral shortcoming at all.
In a way, Snow White and Rose Red have superpowers. They are high mimetic heroines according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. Their superpower is a specifically feminine variety. These girls are so well connected to Earth and nature that nature cannot harm them. The idea that women are close to nature both elevates and hinders women. If you’re close to nature, you can’t rise up to become one with God, unlike men, who are Gods of their own domains.
Because these girls are so Good, ‘no mischance befell them’. This exposes a problematic ideology in which bad things happen to bad people. So what, exactly, is their story worthy problem? How do we make a story out of that? When the main characters of a story are Mary Sue archetypes, all the interest must come from the opponents. What tends to happen is, the main characters are so boring the contemporary reader ends up empathising with the opposition, simply because they’re not boring. This is partly why Mary Sue characters are a bad idea in modern stories, except in parody.
Snow White and Rose Red live in Arcadia, where even at night in the surrounding woods are perfectly safe, and berries available whenever they’re hungry. What more could these characters want? They want for nothing, of course. This is part of what makes them so Very Good.
(It’s easier to want for nothing when all is provided for you.)
So any desire must come from other characters. The bear is the character with the strong desire for change, so the story kicks off when he enters the story.
Adventure comes to the door of their idyllic, cosy cottage, inhabited only by three women (the sisters and their mother).
One evening, as they were all sitting cosily together like this, there was a knock at the door, as if someone wished to come in.
All but the youngest audience will understand that this is not a bear but a prince. He’s a talking bear. (The film Brave takes the bear transformation plot and inverts its gender by turning a queen into a bear. ) Readers convince ourselves we don’t know if he’s a goodie or a baddie, though his royalty status is telegraphed when he rips his fur on the lintel and a little bit of gold shines through. This is supposed to be a reassuring tale.
The dwarf is clearly a baddie from the start. If you’ve only ever read modern, illustrated versions of this story it’s a surprise to read the Grimm’s version and learn how very small he is at times. Case in point, the girls mistake him for a grasshopper at one point. In my childhood picture books he is almost half the height of the girls.
If you met someone cranky but they were not much bigger than a grasshopper, their rage wouldn’t really scare you, would it? On the other hand, the dwarf is able to pick up ‘a sack of jewels’. In fairytales, dwarves are as big or small as the story requires them to be at any given time.
THE SIZE OF THE DWARF
On that point, how big were fairies, dwarves and other small fantasy creatures really meant to be? That depends on where you come from and in what era you lived.
Elizabethans loved miniature creatures, and the Jacobeans even more so.
Take a creature like Oberon (fairy king). In one story he is three feet tall, in other he is the size of the King on a playing card. Take another fantasy creature, the witch’s familiar. In England the witch’s familiar is a very small creature like an insect or a bee, but in Scotland, familiars are also attached to magicians and are bigger, more powerful creatures. Take fairies. Before Shakespeare they are about as big as insects, similar to the English witch’s familiar. Shakespeare himself made his fairies ‘in shape no bigger than an agate-stone’.
In this old tale, the dwarf is small enough to be picked up by a large bird.
The trope of the human picked up and carried away by a bird clearly plays into ancient fears.
With no plans of their own due to living in a forest utopia, agency comes from the bear. Clearly he didn’t need to warm himself beside the fire. Bears are capable of thriving in very low temperatures. His plan from the start, revealed later, was to spend time next to the girls so that they’d fall in love with him. He is rewarded with rough and tumble and close physical affection.
Making use of the Rule of Three, the girls keep rescuing the angry little dwarf. The reason they do this has been proposed in the first section of the story: They help someone out of trouble because they are Good. They are basically Goodness Automatons. These girls have never considered ethical dilemmas such as The Trolley Problem, in which we sometimes help more people by sacrificing one.
Eventually the bear turns up to save the girls from the dwarf’s wrath. The dwarf tries to convince the bear to eat the girls instead.
“I am a king’s son, who was enchanted by the wicked dwarf lying over there. He stole my treasure, and compelled me to roam the woods transformed into a big bear until his death should set me free. Therefore he has only received a well-deserved punishment.”
SPELLS BROKEN AT DEATH
The idea that a spell can be broken once your oppressor is dead can be found across various superstitious cultures. Most disturbing is that of the houngans in Haiti, origin of zombie mythology.
A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. In this community, if you want to take revenge on someone, you pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victim’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed — they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave. When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.
Although the supernatural parts of that story are not real, the zombie status of certain ostracised people is completely real. That’s what disturbs me the most. Imagine visiting a community in which someone is ignored, because everyone believes they’re the walking dead.
There is only one happy ending for girls in fairy tales — marriage to royalty. The prince regains his rightful treasure. (I doubt it was rightful.) They end up with even more treasure than before. Instead of trying to return it to its owners, they keep it, because they are royalty.
Snow White marries the prince and Rose Red marries his brother.
The mother moves out of the cottage and presumably into the palace with her daughters.
Probably because of the Disney film, Snow White from the story with the seven dwarves is the more famous Snow White. This remains a tale for those who read fairytale collections. I think “Snow White and Rose Red” would’ve been much better known 100 years ago, which is why a soap advertisement like below worked for an earlier audience.
But the trope of the female duo (twins, sisters, friends, enemies), each with a different colour hair, remains a staple. TV Tropes call one iteration the Betty and Veronica trope. On film, TV and in illustrated books, it’s really handy to give two girls different coloured hair — the audience won’t get them mixed up. This is why the actress who plays Paris on Gilmore girls was asked to colour her naturally brown hair to blonde, to make her visually distinct from Rory Gilmore.
Header illustration: Richard Doyle — Snow White and Rose Red 1877
Why are trains so useful to storytellers? In stories, trains play a functional role, getting your characters from one place to another. But there’s more to it than that. Perhaps we encounter storytellers on trains more than in any other place.
On Trains You Lose Your Regular Self
The train is a perfect place to pretend to be a different person. He said he was French. He was on his way to work on his Ph.D. in Art History in San Antonio. He had grim opinions on organized religion. He could have been flirting with me, but more likely he was just bored.
A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because  it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which  one can go from one point to another, and then it is also  something that goes by.
Modern audiences are unlikely to feel this way, but trains initially excluded women.
Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, says the burgeoning use of the steam engine in the early 19th century incited an unusual panic. Some “experts” believed that women’s bodies weren’t fit to travel at 50 mph. “They thought that our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as the train accelerated to that speed,” says Bell.
Multi-layered places and objects are especially useful for creating a symbol web. Take any word which means two different things at once; or a tree, which can be covered in leaves or bare; or a sea, which has a surface and also great depth; blackberries, which are delicious but also a pest; the colour yellow, which means happiness but also decay… You get the picture. As Foucault mentions above, trains are great, symbolically, because the audience has not only two but THREE different relationships with trains.
Epiphanies Happen On Trains
Trains have a special position outside other forms of public transport. It’s no accident that Neal of Planes, Trains and Automobiles has his epiphany while riding a train. Compared to planes and automobiles, trains provide a meditative calm.
In her 2014 film Appropriate Behaviour, Desiree Akhaven bookends the story of a young woman trying to get over a recent breakup with scenes on a train. It is difficult to show epiphanies on screen. A lot relies on the skill of the actor, but the setting also helps. The train journey shows that the main character is ‘moving on’, but emotionally.
Trains Are A Metaphor For Passing Time
Lior’s song below is a love song, assuring the object of affection that “We’ll grow old together.” Lior also tells us that “time moves like a train”.
In fact, time moves nothing like a train. That is simply our human experience of it. For more on that read The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.
Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.
Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopianfantasies; in these journeys, the railway functions as a protean, paradoxical space, not merely instrumental but instead active. Long after it vanished from the landscapes of the real world as a functional means of transport, the steam train in particular continues to feature in works of fantasy aimed at children, operating by laws often unlike those of the realms through which it passes, and providing a space for the dramatisation of spiritual and emotional adventure. […] Railway journeys serve an important role within the metaphorical as well as the narrative economy of utopian texts; this role is sometimes a subversive one, and ultimately calls into question the relationship of reader to text.
Railway trains in utopian fantasy literature operate like alternative worlds, allowing space and time within the narrative for establishment, subversion, and clashing of the logics and values of the other realms of the text. In this way they can be described in terms of Foucault’s well-known formulation of “heterotopia“. […]Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz, Elaine Ostry
Train Stations As Beginnings and Endings
The train station as a place of beginnings and endings is seen in many stories. One especially memorable train station for me is that depicted in Anne of Green Gables.
For a younger generation of readers, it is often the train of Harry Potter which resonates.
The train station platform functions identically to the bus station platform. You can probably think of many resonant scenes set in train and bus stations. A bus station marks the end of a student-teacher relationship in Mr Holland’s Opus. A bus station makes the end of a housekeeper’s employ with a problematic man in Hud. There is also the strong feeling of regret at what could have been in another parallel life. Symbolically, these platforms are functioning as crossroads.
Another resonant parting of ways (largely inaccessible to young viewers because of its uniquely adult emotion — regret with no hope) is the train station scene in Remains of the Day.
That sense of the ‘parallel’, imagined life that could have been is perhaps why trains (and express service buses, which travel along their own invisible, pre-laid tracks) lend themselves to well to stories in which we’re encouraged to consider fate, and our own hand in it.
Trains As Contra-Symbol
The symbolism of a train can be milked any which way by a storyteller. The train can feel at once oppressive but also afford freedom. The best example of this contradiction in action is perhaps Japan.
Trains are a huge part of Japanese life and are also a huge part of Japanese storytelling, perhaps especially in manga culture. Japan is famous (infamous?) for its pushers, but pushers also existed in New York:
In the early 20th century, New York subways actually had attendants, colloquially called “sardine-packers,” to physically cram people in. The Japanese famously employed uniformed, white-gloved “shiri oshi” — meaning “tushy pushers” — to do the same during rush hour. A pusher in Tokyo told The Times in 1995, “If their back is toward us, it’s easier, but if they’re facing us, it’s harder because there’s no proper spot to push them, though we try to push their bags or something else they are holding. In any case, we always first say, ‘We will push you.’” Once the trains left the station, the attendants used long, hooked poles to recover shoes and other items that had fallen on the track. Said another pusher, back in 1964, “I really wonder how so many of those girls manage to go to work with one shoe.”
Trains are thereby seen as oppressive, but also afford Japanese children a freedom Western children rarely have — the train network is so reliable, so crowded and easily navigated that children are often trusted to ride trains without adult caregivers in a way I wouldn’t see here in Australia.
For passengers inside, trains are a safe form of travel. But in Japanese towns and suburbs, trains travel regularly across your path, and you must stop at the gate and the lights. The threat of death is near. All you’d need to do is disobey the signs.
This low-level fear is utilised in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The way a train hurtles unstoppably forward is at symbolic odds with the fact that, should you stand in front of it, your life comes to an immediate halt. Symbolically, you’ve now got this juxtaposition between how an individual’s life ends suddenly but the world continues on.
The image of the body tied to a train track reminds us that trains are in fact dangerous, if you’re near the tracks. When characters walk down the tracks our blood pressure rises a little. The audience doesn’t know when a train is about to turn up.
Even Miyazaki’s fantasy world of Spirited Away includes a train.
The trailer of 5 Centimeters Per Second shows us that almost the entire film (comprising 5 interconnected short stories) takes place in trains and train stations.
Trains As Dangerous Monsters
For passengers, trains are one of the safer forms of transport. But trains pose a danger for anyone crossing their path. Like a mechanical horror monster who just won’t stop, a train literally can’t stop at short notice.
Trains As Symbols Of The City
Trains and the subway system are often central city images with multiple meanings in children’s literature. In Holman’s Slake’s Limbo, the New York subway becomes a metaphor for escape and freedom. We are told early in the novel “Aremis Slake had often escaped into the subway when things got rough above ground. He kept a subway token in his pocket for just that emergency”. Moreover, the subway takes on a greater magical force or power related to Slake’s personal choices and destiny, rather than merely a means of transit: “Slake with the instinct of other migratory creatures flew from the train at Seventy-Seventh Street and Lexington Avenue. This was an unusual move in itself; Slake usually exited only at transfer points”. Comparatively, in Robert Munsch’s picture book Jonathan Cleaned Up-Then He Heard a Sound, illustrated by Michael Martchenko, the mysteries of the city’s subway are perceived in a fantastical and absurd manner when young Jonathan’s living room becomes a subway station. It is an ordinary day at home when suddenly the living room wall opens up, a subway train pulls up and “all kinds of people came out of Jonathan’s wall, ran around his apartment and out the front door.” A mission down to City Hall leads Jonathan to find (in a moment reminiscent of Dorothy finding the “great and powerful Oz” behind the curtain) a little old man, who craves blackberry jam, behind a huge machine that apparently runs the city. He tells Jonathan that because the computer is broken, he does “everything for the whole city”. The story hilariously concludes with an illustration depicting the subway rerouted to stop at the Mayor’s office instead. Through Jonathan’s imaginative perspective, the behind-the-scenes controls of the city are in a realm as mysterious, fantastical or absurd as a mad tea party in Wonderland.
Case Study: Trains in Katherine Mansfield Short Stories
You’ll find the most dense symbolism in lyrical short stories, so let’s take a closer look at some stand-out examples.
In her paper on Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Escape“, Masami Sato has this to say about train symbolism, in which every aspect of the train is ripe for close-reading, including the doors (open or closed?), the rails on the balcony, and the carriage shared with others:
Using trains symbolically is a technique found frequently in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidentally meet, separate, take time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. We can see some of this symbolism in the last paragraph of “The Escape”.
The door of the carriage seems to refer to the threshold, or border, between the wife’s world and the husband’s heavenly (maybe, by implication, his ideal) world. The door is open, which denotes that he is still connected with his wife’s world, even though he does not want to be completely submerged in it. However, since he is holding on tightly to the brass rail with both hands, this could possibly signify his effort in trying to cling to his sense of happiness, having escaped, if only momentarily, the space which is dominated by his turbulent relationship with his wife.
The train carriage, for the wife, could be seen as a place to relax: as mentioned before, the wife is talking contentedly with the other passengers, while the husband is absorbed in his solitary emotions of happiness, apart from her, in the corridor. Their juxtaposition refers to two different worlds, and suggests that from a gender point of view, the worlds of men and women do not cohere seamlessly.
The story began with the couple missing their train and ends with a scene on a train. I would suggest that Mansfield intentionally uses the symbol of the train journey at the beginning of the narrative to demonstrate the emotional gulf between the husband and wife, a state which is shown to be highlighted if they spend time in too close proximity to each other. In the story’s ending, Mansfield suggests, by their positions in the separate (yet adjoining spaces) of the train compartment and the corridor, that perhaps, in a marriage, a certain amount of distance between individuals is more comfortable for both of them.
The train of “Something Childish” is both a motif and a setting. I’ve written before about the symbolism of trains. Alice Munro is another short story writer who likes to make heavy symbolic use of them. Trains are interesting as an example of heterotopia — an ‘other’ space, separate from the regular world. To enter into a heterotopia is akin to going through a fantasy portal (even when the story is not speculative in nature).
Trains are the perfect fatalistic symbol; there’s only one path for a train — its pre-laid tracks. A fatalistic view of the world means you’re all about destiny, and subscription to the idea that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.
The trains of “Something ChildishBut Very Natural“ are also useful for symbolising the iterative nature of our daily lives — trains basically do the same things every single day, turning up at the same places at the same times. This gives a sort of Groundhog Day vibe to a story, before an author switches readers to the singulative (but on this particular day…)
Trains and tunnels go together. “Something Childish But Very Natural” is also an excellent example of how tunnels are used symbolically. Two young lovers ride a train, falling more and more in love as their journey progresses. But their dreams of love are punctuated by tunnels, foreshadowing the darkness of their emotions at story’s end.
Also in “Something Childish But Very Natural”, Mansfield matches Henry’s excited, elevated heart rate to the sounds of the train moving over the tracks. She describes how the train smells — wet india-rubber and soot. We really do feel transported to the era of steam engines.
Case Study: Trains In Alice Munro Short Stories
Alice Munro has also written short stories which take place on trains, one of my favourites being “Chance”.
What about the train thread in this story? First, the sexe en plein air near the tracks, between Nita and Rich. Later, the train reappears and now it is a symbol of fate.
“You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.” “There’s hardly ever a train.”
The train track itself led the murderer to Nita’s house. There was nothing she could do to stop him. This fate was set in place the moment she started the affair with Rich. (And even that was probably fate.)
Case Study: Trains in a Robin Black Short Story
The following is the opening paragraph from”A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black. It demonstrates perfectly the way in which trains signify the passage of time. Notice, too, how Black is saying something about ‘train window scenery’ as well:
It isn’t even a two-hour train ride out from London tot he village where Jeremy’s daughter and her husband—a man Jeremy has never met—have lived for the past three years, but it’s one of those trips that seems to carry you much father than the time might imply. By around the halfway point the scenery has shaken ff all evidence of the city, all evidence, really, of the past century or two. […] It’s a fantasy landscape, he thinks. The kind that encourages belief in the myth of uncomplicated lives.
TRAINS AS SYMBOLS OF EXPANSIONISM INTO THE WEST
OVERVIEW OF TRAIN SYMBOLISM IN STORIES
When characters meet someone on a train they could so easily not have met them. This makes any encounter seem serendipitous.
This connects to a fatalistic view of the world (and perhaps of love), and the idea that ‘two souls were meant to meet’. The straight line of the tracks is a symbol of fate.
Tunnels (which are literally dark) can foreshadow emotional darkness to come.
Trains represent how humans experience time even though this is not how time actually works.
When we think of time in terms of straight, inevitable lines, we are drawn into a fatalistic view of the universe.
Trains are a part of the real world but work differently from the real world. We talk to people we might not otherwise have the chance to talk to. This is what makes them a heterotopia.
Header painting: George William Joy – The Baywater Omnibus 1895
Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.
That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.
After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In ‘the real world’ you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something. But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever (delight and) trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork. This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm and helpful rather than show your human side.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA
Heterotopia is based on the concept of utopia.
The Greek ‘u’ bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’.
The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’.
So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. Whereas the word ‘utopia’ has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More. The word ‘utopia’ is a bit confusing, actually, because it was based on a Greek pun. Of course, the pun got totally lost in translation. So in Thomas More’s pun, utopia meant both ‘place that is not’ and ‘good place’. (ou-topos vs. eu-topos). In modern everyday English, when we say ‘utopia’ we’re generally referring to the good place.
Heterotopias differ from these ‘good’ utopias because they allow for the inherently unpredictable nature of human contexts to disrupt this space.
The word heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.
The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. At least he wasn’t making any puns. Maybe he confused his own self as he was explaining it. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Some have picked up the word and ran with it.
Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into — children’s literature.
WHY WAS HETEROTOPIA INVENTED IN THE 20TH CENTURY?
Heterotopia is a 20th century concept because it best describes 20th century life and beyond.
In the Middle Ages there was a hierarchic ensemble of places when it came to humans here on Earth:
sacred places and profane places
protected places and open, exposed places
urban places and rural places.
In cosmological theory, there were:
the super-celestial places (as opposed to the celestial)
the celestial place was in its turn opposed to the terrestrial place.
(Galileo put an end to that. Galieo’s new theories made people realise the universe was way bigger than they’d thought. They also separated ‘time’ from ‘the sacred’, but that still hasn’t happened entirely with the concept of ‘space’.)
HETEROTOPIA IN A NUTSHELL
Heterotopia is a ‘real world utopia’. A utopia has no real place. A utopia is a ‘perfect version’ of a real place — a society turned upside down. But heterotopias are fundamentally unreal.
The mirror is a kind of utopia. (It is a placeless place.) The mirror is also a kind of heterotopia as well as a utopia. The mirror does exist in the reality of your bathroom. But while the person you see in the mirror is real, but the image in the mirror is unreal. The mirror is the ultimate link between the real and the unreal. That’s why mirrors are so fictionally interesting.
A heterotopia, similar to a utopia, is a kind of ‘unreal’ space.
Time works differently in a heterotopia.
Heterotopias have a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place. Either the entry is compulsory, as in the case of entering a barracks or a prison, or else the individual has to submit to rites and purifications.
A heterotopia is a place that represents society, but in a distorted way which calls to mind particular idealised aspects of the culture.
Heterotopias attempt to encourage transition from a space of chaotic governance and leadership to a mapped, organised one.
EXAMPLES OF REAL WORLD HETEROTOPIAS AND ANALOGUES FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Every culture has the concept of a heterotopia: privileged, sacred and forbidden places reserved for certain people.
There are ‘crisis hetereotopias’, where you find adolescents, menstruating women (See Menstruation In Fiction), pregnant women, women in general, the elderly. We have fewer of these ‘crisis heterotopias’ in modern society. It’s considered not-nice to lock people away when we don’t want to deal with them.
We still have boarding schools and many countries have the military service for young people.
Hogwarts is a well-known example. Harry Potter’s boarding school is a heterotopia because it is both separate from but also intimately connected to the world beyond its walls. Zooming in on more specific spaces within the Harry Potter universe we have some even better examples of heterotopias:
12 Grimmauld Place, the ancestral home of the Black family, located in the Borough of Islington, London, in a Muggle neighbourhood
The tent that Harry, Ron and Hermione share in book seven
The Room of Requirement is a space within the place of the school proper. Itonly appears when a person is in great need of it. The room is thought to have some degree of sentience, because it transforms itself into whatever the witch or wizard needs it to be at that moment in time, although there are some limitations. For example, it cannot create food, as that is one of the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. It is believed that the room is Unplottable, as it does not appear on the Marauder’s Map, nor do its occupants, although this could simply be because James Potter, Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew never found the room.
Those two spaces exist in the margins of safety and danger. There are shifts from order to disorder, from safety to danger. The idea J.K. Rowling is pushing forth is that young adults can be powerful when it comes to opposing the abuses that permeate the spaces in our own world. What the trio does in Hogwarts does not stay in Hogwarts. The teenagers go against authority, learning the limits of their own power. For this they need to operate in a fictional space which is part fantasy, part real-world.
Train And Steamships
Many children’s stories still feature steam trains even though most modern kids have never ridden one in their lives. The steam train, or the ship (offered as an example by Foucault himself) are especially good as heterotopias because they operate like alternative worlds. They are kind of like a portal in a portal fantasy, One obvious reason to linger in a portal is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are. But there are other reasons.
The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development… but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.
Pirate stories set on ships are likewise heterotopic.
In the past the ‘honeymoon trip’ had the purpose of removing a young woman from society so that she could lose her virginity elsewhere (out of sight, out of mind — because everyone’s always been scared of young female sexuality). So the honeymoon destination is a kind of heterotopia, without geographical markers.
The honeymoon destination is the closest real world analogue I can think of for the portal fantasy that takes a character (and her sidekick) away to a fun and fabulous land where children can eat as much as they like of whatever they like and get up to other carnivalesque mischief. After all, in children’s literature food is basically sex.
Libraries and Museums
A 20th century heterotopia. Time works differently here because in these places time never stops ‘building up and topping its own summit’.
A lot of children’s books feature libraries — probably because children’s authors are huge fans of books. For instance, A Series of Unfortunate Events contains memorable libraries.
Cinemas and Theatres
Juxtaposition is very important when it comes to the importance of a heterotopia. Cinemas and theatres are heterotopic because they are capable of juxtaposing “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”. There’s the audience, sitting comfortably in their chairs, juxtaposed with whatever mayhem’s going on on the screen or stage.
These are sites of temporary relaxation.
The theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space.
Drag queen cabarets are especially good examples of heterotopias because the men dressed as ‘women’ are not mimicking real women at all, but a particular kind of ideal woman, with exaggeratedly feminine attributes. They caricature feminine traits. What is the raison d’etre of kikis and drag queen cabarets? The kinder interpretation: Drag queens highlight the ways in which femininity is a performance. And through a misogynistic lens: by highlighting that femininity is a performance, women are seen to be performative, duplicitous and basically liars when we put on ‘masks‘ such as make-up, and dress to make our legs look longer and so on.
In children’s books there are few (if any) drag queen cabarets — this is considered adult entertainment. But we do often get a form of cross-dressing. This is most often done to disempower boys by comparing them to girls, long considered a lesser gender. This is not a form of heterotopia but a kind of gag. There is a drag performance in the movie version of Coraline — not a gender transgressive one but one performed by the two women who live together next door. (Are Miriam Forcible and April Spink cis women? I like to think they are not.)
Whenever a character in a story visits the cinema or the theatre and watches fiction on the stage, this might (or might not) be metafictional, depending on whether the author calls attention to the fact that, Hey, look, this character is watching a play and you’re reading a book about them watching a play.
Perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden. We must not forget that in the Orient the garden, an astonishing creation that is now a thousand years old, had very deep and seemingly superimposed meanings. The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center (the basin and water fountain were there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm. As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).
Since heterotopias represent a society’s idealised version of reality, each culture has its own raison d’etre. Japanese gardens are all about balance, because balance is important to Japanese people. French gardens are made of straight lines whereas English gardens mimic the irregularity of nature (with the emphasis on ‘mimic’). Gardens are attempts to recreate an ideal, utopian nature.
Heterotopia is also about the side-by-side, the near and far, and simultaneity.
Botanical gardens in particular are driven by the desire to reconstitute the whole world in a walled enclosure.
A cemetery is a heterotopia because the tombs form a sort of ideal town for the deceased, each placed and displayed according to social rank. Our local graveyard divides people according to religion — we have protestants on one side, Catholics on the other. The odd atheist (I assume) is over by the fence, as far as possible away from the religious folk. This represents some sort of idealised town, in which people of different/no faiths don’t have to deal with each other.
Also, a cemetery gives the illusion to its visitors that their departed relatives still have an existence and status, symbolised by the stone of their tomb. This is a simulated utopia of life after death, but it is also a representation of the real world, where things like your religion and status — as described briefly on your tombstone — actually matter.
Take the strange heterotopia of the cemetery. The cemetery is certainly a place unlike ordinary cultural spaces. It is a space that is however connected with all the sites of the city, state or society or village, etc., since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery. In western culture the cemetery has practically always existed. But it has undergone important changes. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the cemetery was placed at the heart of the city, next to the church. In it there was a hierarchy of possible tombs. There was the charnel house in which bodies lost the last traces of individuality, there were a few individual tombs and then there were the tombs inside the church. These latter tombs were themselves of two types, either simply tombstones with an inscription, or mausoleums with statues. This cemetery housed inside the sacred space of the church has taken on a quite different cast in modern civilizations, and curiously, it is in a time when civilization has become ‘atheistic,’ as one says very crudely, that western culture has established what is termed the cult of the dead.
Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language. In any case, it is from the beginning of the nineteenth century that everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay, but on the other hand, it is only from that start of the nineteenth century that cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities. In correlation with the individualization of death and the bourgeois appropriation of the cemetery, there arises an obsession with death as an ‘illness.’ The dead, it is supposed, bring illnesses to the living, and it is the presence and proximity of the dead right beside the houses, next to the church, almost in the middle of the street, it is this proximity that propagates death itself. This major theme of illness spread by the contagion in the cemeteries persisted until the end of the eighteenth century, until, during the nineteenth century, the shift of cemeteries toward the suburbs was initiated. The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place.
Disney World is the ultimate real world heterotopia. The characters are really nice to visitors not because Donald Duck is best friends with every visitor but because friendliness and photo opportunities are the service parents have paid for. The place is open only to those with enough money to enter — poverty and beggars are absent. The ‘city’ itself is a miniaturised version of an idealised world. For more on Disney World as the ultimate heterotopia see this article.
Although this describes Disney World it applies equally to malls:
Stephen Fjellman explains in Vinyl Leaves that the ‘magic’ of Disney World is actually a cognitive overload associated with decontextualization. ‘Cognitive overload’ simply means that the visitors’ senses are constantly overloaded by stimuli: music, stories, animatronics, cute characters, pretty buildings, rides, simulations and more. The visitor is overwhelmed and loses part of his capacity to discriminate information or think.
Booths in the middle of the ‘street’ with salespeople trying to sell you mobile phone plans, insurance and do your taxes, depending on the time of year
The sub-heterotopia of a children’s entertainment arena, again different depending on the time of year. Before Christmas you can pay for the simulated intimacy of a photo with Santa. During school holidays you can be tied up to bungee ropes and jump and flip up as high as the third level of the mall. For younger kids we have mechanical horses which ‘run’ if you rock them the right way.
Music which is different depending on the store
Smells — some unintended, like the chemicals coming out of the nail salon; others intentional, such as the smell of baking coming out of the gourmet bakery.
Lighting which highlights some features over others
Massive advertisements, often of semi-naked women, always young and either smiling or seductive.
A help desk which supposedly caters to your every need, including telling you where to find things and dealing with misplaced items, like a patient mother
Tiny cars with flags on the top, so toddlers can imagine the mall is a city
Balloons with ‘Westfield’ written on them, simulating a party atmosphere
Mechanical animals, which take you to an imaginary other world if you put two dollars in the slot.
While malls are the ultimate shopping heterotopia, individual shops do their best to emulate the exclusivity of their stores — the very definition of ‘brand’.
Quite recently, a new kind of temporal heterotopia has been invented: vacation villages, such as those Polynesian villages that offer a compact three weeks of primitive and eternal nudity to the inhabitants of the cities. You see, moreover, that through the two forms of heterotopias that come together here, the heterotopia of the festival and that of the eternity of accumulating time, the huts of Djerba are in a sense relatives of libraries and museums. for the rediscovery of Polynesian life abolishes time; yet the experience is just as much the,, rediscovery of time, it is as if the entire history of humanity reaching back to its origin were accessible in a sort of immediate knowledge.
The ‘trailer park’ or the ‘mobile home community’ is a compulsory form of gated community — made compulsory due to poverty.
Rapunzel lives in the ultimate gated community. Rapunzel is the ur-Story of any overprotected girl who has lost freedom to move around her environment due to real or perceived danger.
Harlen Coben’s novel Safe was adapted for TV, starring Michael C. Hall, Michael C. Hall’s mish-mashed, weird-ass British accent, and a gated community which may not be so safe after all.
There are even heterotopias that are entirely consecrated to these activities of purification -purification that is partly religious and partly hygienic, such as the hammin of the Moslems, or else purification that appears to be purely hygienic, as in Scandinavian saunas.
In a children’s book the tree house can function as a kind of religious space, letting in only those who perform the ritual of a password (e.g. Enid Blyton’sThe Secret Seven). In The Three Investigators the boys have a caravan in one of their uncles’ scrapyard.
The first wave of colonization in the seventeenth century, of the Puritan societies that the English had founded in America and that were absolutely perfect other places.
Jesuit colonies that were founded in South America: marvelous, absolutely regulated colonies in which human perfection was effectively achieved. The Jesuits of Paraguay established colonies in which existence was regulated at every turn. The village was laid out according to a rigorous plan around a rectangular place at the foot of which was the church; on one side, there was the school; on the other, the cemetery-, and then, in front of the church, an avenue set out that another crossed at fight angles; each family had its little cabin along these two axes and thus the sign of Christ was exactly reproduced. Christianity marked the space and geography of the American world with its fundamental sign.
The daily life of individuals was regulated, not by the whistle, but by the bell. Everyone was awakened at the same time, everyone began work at the same time; meals were at noon and five o’clock-, then came bedtime, and at midnight came what was called the marital wake-up, that is, at the chime of the churchbell, each person carried out her/his duty.
Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much—-if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.
But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle—-who already has six wives—-Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.
Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia.
In YA fiction featuring the heterotopias of brothels we have Naked by Stacey Trombley, Dime by E.R. Frank and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, among others.
There are others, on the contrary, that seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions. Everyone can enter into these heterotopic sites, but in fact that is only an illusion—we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded. I am thinking for example, of the famous bedrooms that existed on the great farms of Brazil and elsewhere in South America. The entry door did not lead into the central room where the family lived, and every individual or traveler who came by had the right to open this door, to enter into the bedroom and to sleep there for a night. Now these bedrooms were such that the individual who went into them never had access to the family’s quarter the visitor was absolutely the guest in transit, was not really the invited guest. This type of heterotopia, which has practically disappeared from our civilizations, could perhaps be found in the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.
For children, a hotel doesn’t have to be a sex destination in order for it to function as a getaway.
I would include the world of beauty pageantry as a heterotopia. This world is explored in films such as Little Miss Sunshine, Whip It! and Dumplin.
IS HETEROTOPIA A USEFUL CONCEPT FOR TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
The word is probably more useful for architects than for students of literature, because it describes the function of a real world fictional place such as a Spanish garden or a games room. The truth is, every story with elements of realism features a heterotopia. Some sort of closed arena is a requirement for a story, after all.
The word is still useful for students of literature and here’s why:
[Disneyland] is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation.
—Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1981)
Certain kinds of stories, including many children’s stories, are likewise presented as imaginary in order to make us believe the rest is real. Yet the very existence of these stories draws attention to the fact that the ‘real world’ is pretty fucking far from ‘real’. We’re actually living in a simulcrum of reality. I’m wearing a graduation gift that is a $300 dress ring, and it looks like it might be a lot more expensive than it is. Outside I have planted natives which I hope will look like they’re self-sown, if I can get them to establish.
When The Tiger Who Came To Tea leaves the house, the young reader’s attention is drawn to the fact that their real life is bound by certain rules and expectations. Foucault considered heterotopias escapes from authoritarianism, much like the carnivalesque settings in picture books. Subsequent thinkers have expanded his original meaning. Hetereotopias can also be dystopias, in fiction as in real life.
Children’s literature in general is very concerned with truth. Middle grade fiction in particular is read at a time when children are learning not only to lie, but when it is okay to lie. The concept of heterotopia is useful when considering the difference between reality and a shiny veneer which is not genuine at all. Is this expensive boarding school your parents have sent you to really all that great? Does this teacher in charge of your welfare really have your best interests at heart? Do the ‘popular’ kids in your class have real friends, or does popularity really mean ‘social status’? Is this world created for you by adults anything like the world you’ll be thrown into once you enter adulthood?
All children — at least, all well-cared-for children — live in a heterotopia, where they are protected from certain news stories, from the full spectrum of adult sexuality, from toxic food choices and their own bad decisions. The best coming-of-age stories — not the ones solely concerned with losing one’s virginity — are at their base about a young person realising the extent to which they’ve been living inside a heterotopia, and how much they’re willing to come out of it.
Heterotopia is also a useful concept when talking about the ‘Disneyfication‘ of children’s stories. This has been going on for more than half a century, and is an interesting look into how the West thinks of childhood.
It is also useful for getting a handle on your own personal philosophy of children’s literature. To what extent are you comfortable with people/children living in multiple levels of reality? Do you think that when children read magical stories like Harry Potter this affects their real-world understanding of science? At what age should children be exposed to what? If we allow privileged child readers to remain in the heterotopia we have created for them will this affect how they identify with people less privileged than themselves?
Also, the words used to describe “non-realistic” narratives have not been specific enough. Academics were overlapping different words and using them interchangeably. This was no good. Take the word ‘fantasy’ itself. Different scholars call it a ‘genre’, a ‘style’, a ‘mode’, or a ‘narrative technique’. Believe it or not, people have big arguments about this. When describing children’s literature in particular, anything that’s not realistic is generally called either ‘fantasy’ (for long works) or ‘fairy tale’ (for short ones). This distinction is pretty useless really. Fairy tales and fantasy may seem related at a surface level, fairy tales came out of myth and have roots in archaic society. But fantasy is definitely a product of modern times. Heterotopia can be useful when talking about concepts related to modern fantasy stories, especially those with no portal. Portal fantasy most often has just the two distinct worlds — the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’ through the looking glass or whatever. But modern fantasy often involves a multitude of ‘secondary’ worlds. Traditional fantasy is all about simplicity, stability and optimism, whereas modern fantasy can explore reality in a much more complex fashion, emphasising uncertainty and ambiguity. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is a good example of this kind of fantasy.
Perhaps it might be especially useful for talking about fabulism, magical realism, and especially the typical modern child’s relationship with computer games. The word ‘spaces’ is often used to describe the imaginary worlds of computer games but we might use ‘heterotopia’ to be more specific.
From a distance the prison might be an out-of-town shopping mall, Texas Homecare, Do It All and Toys ‘R’ Us. There’s a creche at the gate and a Visitors’ Centre, as it might be for Fountains Abbey or Stonehenge. Reasoning that I am a visitor myself, I big struggle across the windswept car park but when I put my head inside I find it full of visitors of a different sort, the wives and mothers (and very much the children) of the inmates, Birds of a Feather territory, I suppose. At the gate proper I’m frisked, X-rayed, my handprints taken, and am then taken through a series of barred gates and sliding doors every bit as intimidating as the institution in Silence of the Lambs.
Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)
Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.
Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.
This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:
“How did the guys find out anyway?”
“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”
Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an snail under the leaf setting. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:
“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”
The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.
The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here.
The 1990s was the era of peak fear when it came to AIDS. We heard about it a lot — it was feared in the West unlike anything else, mostly associated with gay sex and illegal drug use and therefore highly stigmatised. Young readers today probably haven’t encountered that attitude in their own milieu, as AIDS has largely left public consciousness in the West, replaced by other fears such as the odd ebola outbreak, or mosquito borne encephalitis.
More clear than the exact year of the setting is the month of each incident. The reader is grounded in time with consistent reference to the month, the holiday event (be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or the beginning of the school year/start of a new one) and the season (whether Molly can hear bees or not and so on). Reference to season is more common in stories for and starring girls.
Spring came in a hurry here, before I knew it. The wind softened, and I felt the year revolving under my feet. Bare branches began to bud, and I remembered the heavy green shade of the trees, last summer when I’d come.
Nature also tends to be important in feminine stories, connected inextricably to the seasons in most ‘storybook’ parts of the world. Richard Peck manages to convey the ‘apparentness’ of this snail under the leaf setting by adding ‘fake grass’:
We stood in a little know beside a patch of fake grass where the casket rested. There weren’t any flowers. Mrs McKinney and Aunt Fay looked smaller than they were, hunched in their winter coats.
Richard Peck also uses a technique which makes any social situation more interesting — he abuts rich and poor people together, linking them inextricably. Molly herself is genetically related to a rich woman, but her whole life she’s lived in poverty. This is a version of a Cinderella rags-to-riches tale. Mrs Voorhees, bed-ridden and hypochondriac despite having married into riches after her first husband died in the grain elevator, shows that money can’t buy happiness — the modern take on the rags-to-riches story.
REVEALS IN THE NARRATIVE OF STRAYS LIKE US
Contains spoilers, of course.
Strays Like Us is a masterclass in drip-feeding information. In a quiet story like this one, these reveals provide the necessary reasons to keep reading.
Molly’s mother is a drug addict
Who is in hospital
And who has checked herself out back in October even though it is now Christmas
Will’s father is not in prison after all, he’s cooped up inside Will’s house with pneumonia
Which turns out to be AIDS
The homeschooled girl Molly meets at the library seems to have the perfect family situation but engages in criminal behaviour when she sets fire to the school
And is badly burned
In chapter 14, the wealthy, lonely woman Molly visits turns out to be her grandmother
Chapter 14 also gives readers and Molly the true extent of her mother’s terribleness. She is trying to use her status as a ‘mother’ to prevent a stint in jail for dealing in dope.
These reveals are in most cases based on lies told to other people, half-truths told to save feelings and stories told to comfort oneself. A lot of middle grade stories ask readers to consider the function of lies versus truth, and this is a good example.
The revelation that Will really does have a father turns out to be a bit of a ‘reversal’ so far as Molly’s concerned. She thought she was like him, but now she realises she’s alone in her predicament. This is possibly the worst thing that Molly can hear right now, just as it’s clear her own mother is not on her way to collect her and in fact has gone AWOL. This is how Richard Peck puts his main character through her paces, doing the worst to her but within the confines of a safe environment.
STORY STRUCTURE OF STRAYS LIKE US
NARRATION AND VIEWPOINT OF STRAYS LIKE US
Written in first person, Molly Moberly looks back to an earlier time in her life. At the time of ‘writing’, she is older and wiser. We are constantly reminded that this is written by an older person looking back. As a narrator, the older Molly is able to hint at differences between what is ‘true’ and what is ‘perceived’ by herself at the time. She is also able to tantalisingly foreshadow the reveals by telling the reader that there are secrets about this snail under the leaf setting waiting to be uncovered.
Will wouldn’t have to pay because of what happened to his dad. That’s what I thought because that’s what I wanted to think.
The Kirkus reviewer describes this form of narration as ‘abrupt and somewhat detached’ and also ‘wistful’ and ‘ingenuous’, showing that when it comes to picking your narrative technique, you simply cannot please everyone. However, Kirkus does admit that the narration ‘gains strength’ as the story progresses.
What do you think?
I’ve done no study on this, but it feels like alliterative names are more common in children’s literature, as well as in light-hearted genre fiction for adults. Molly Moberly, Missouri. This story has dark themes and Molly’s alliterative name — in a very small way — helps remind us somehow that this is a children’s story. Molly’s isn’t the only alliterative name; we also have Brandi Braithwaite and Rocky Roberts.
Molly Moberly has a ‘ghost’ which is revealed to the reader in drips and drabs but quite early on. She has been sent to a new foster home in yet another town because her drug-addicted mother is unable to care for her. Molly needs to find a parental figure. She also needs to let go of her biological mother ever fulfilling that role for her.
Because Molly is scared of rejection, she is disinclined to make friends, ostensibly because she figures she won’t be sticking around long enough to bother making any. When Will from next door introduces himself she treats him badly by rejecting his offer of friendship and hoping he’ll roll off the roof.
Molly has no wish other than to keep her head down, out of trouble, with her new life on hold waiting for her mother to come and get her.
More deeply, she wishes for stability and family.
OPPONENTS AND ALLIES
Will McKinney is a fake-opponent ally. He is in a similar situation to Molly — with precarious family circumstances and a lot going on.
Other opponents are well-meaning, as opponents often can be. Mrs Pringle, the well-meaning full-time mother who gives Molly a pile of clothes is trying to help, but ends up potentially damaging Molly’s sense of self-sufficiency by treating her as a charity case.
Aunt Fay is a true ally, understanding Molly’s emotional needs and giving good advice. Aunt Fay is the motherly figure Molly needs. Aunt Fay is well-developed as a character. When Will’s father dies we are given the hint of an existential crisis when she looks away out her side window at the tombstones and laments her own capacity for keeping the man alive or being able to keep him comfortable.
The cast of demented and sick people in Aunt Fay’s life make for a cast of eccentric and crotchety characters, alternately grateful and annoyed by Molly’s existence. These characters are not fleshed out — we don’t get to know their motivations. They function mostly as thumbnail sketches within Molly’s journey.
Rocky Roberts is a misunderstood villain. Like the disfigured man in Wolf Hollow, he is the handy scapegoat for bad things that happen in this small town.
Nelson Washburn stands for people who cast judgment over others without scrutinising the facts. Brandi Braithwaite, a caricature of a snarky adolescent girl, goes one step further and full-on makes up a story about seeing Rocky Roberts with a can of petrol on the night of the arson. These characters are opponents of ‘the truth’, which is what Aunt Fay stands for, and what her great niece Molly strives towards.
In a post-Pollyanna kind of way, Molly learns to care for herself by first caring for others, looking outside her own situation to see that others have their own problems, even when it appears they are living in a kind of utopia. This is Aunt Fay’s plan, no doubt, rather than Molly’s own idea. But usually in these stories, where a ‘plan’ has been foisted upon them by someone else, about halfway through the main character will switch from being extrinsically to intrinsically motivated. When Molly plays cards with Mrs Voorhees we know she’s switched her mindset. Nobody told her she had to do it — she sees Aunt Fay caring for others and takes her lead.
Aunt Fay models a necessary but uncomfortable confrontation about boundaries by having it out with hypochondriac Edith Voorhees who is sapping too much of her time and emotional energy. This marks the beginning of Molly’s anagnorisis — that things are always in flux:
Why couldn’t [Aunt Fay] go back to being the way she’d been, getting sassed by Mrs. Voorhees and sassing her back? Why did things have to keep changing, even here?
Next, Aunt Fay has another uncomfortable conversation with the coach when he brings in an injured Will, in a town where people are worried about the blood of the son of the man who just died from AIDS.
“Then talk plain. I do.”
In this way, Aunt Fay is modelling the telling of truth.
Next it’s Molly’s turn to have a big struggle of her own. Chapter 13 (a symbolic number?) describes the conflagration at the high school. This is the outer ‘big struggle’ which symbolises Molly’s internal growth. At the beginning of this chapter she is still keeping her ‘Debbie notebook around’ — though she’s only using the blank pages to keep notes about school, not to write fiction about her mother. The pace quickens as Aunt Fay is challenged with the task of getting Tracy Pringle’s mother to call the ambulance, with the ticking-clock of a badly burned child. Waiting downstairs, Molly realises that this big house is ‘too empty’. It dawns on her that Tracy doesn’t have a father (and that she is therefore not the only ‘stray’). The Pringles’ house appeared at first glance to be a warm house but is in fact cold and unwelcoming.
This is a story about found family, popular in middle grade stories. The message is, “You need to start finding your own people, because those you got lumped with by circumstance aren’t necessarily the best people for you.”
Strays Like Us makes use of the ‘Magical Age Of 12′ principle, in which Molly Moberly is 12 at the beginning of the story, turns 13 partway through it, and this maps exactly with her character arc from ‘naively hopeful’ to ‘realistic and rational’. In tandem, Will goes through the masculine version of coming-of-age, growing tall with a thicker neck and bigger muscles, especially after he loses his father and his grandfather mistakes him for father.
If you do not have a happy ending for the young, you had better do some fast talking.
— Richard Peck
The story ends when Molly is 13 and a half. She’s growing out of childhood pastimes that require getting her hands dirty. The story has followed the course of one full year and the final scene places Molly back up the leafy tree from the opening scene, creating circularity and the sense of an ending.
Something’s happened to summer. It melted away before we knew it.
Summer is of course a metaphor for childhood. The seasonal emphasis in this story has marked Molly’s trials in her journey from childhood to adolescent.
Molly gives the social worker her precious Debbie notebook, no longer precious. She wants Debbie to have it if it gets to her, which is the outer reason for her getting rid of it, but at a psychological level she is letting go of the idea that her birth mother will ever be her real mother.
I loved my mother, and she loved me. She loved me like a rag doll you drag around and then leave out in the rain. I still love her, but I live here.
This middle grade novel offers no neat solution to the social issues presented. This may or may not feel satisfying, depending on what the reader needs from a novel:
The novel settles upon a host of difficult issues and then, indescribably, lets them go: When Will sustains a bloody injury while playing ball, the coach requests that he quit the team because other members are afraid of contracting HIV. Instead of countering this ignorance, Will retreats, and the issue is dropped, with only a few utterances of protest from Aunt Fay. The novel becomes something of a treatise about a generation of children who have been cast aside by their parents; with its compelling premises and Molly’s fragile but tautly convincing voice, it will be seized upon by Peck’s fans, but may leave them longing for more.