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.
Scenes of pretty young women taking care of hirsuite beasts in front of the hearth is a common scene across fairytale. Below, an illustration for a Scandinavian tale. And because it is Scandinavian, the beast is translated into English as ‘troll’.
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.
The living person who thinks they are really dead is utilised in the comic book series House of Whispers, written by Nalo Hopkinson (a Jamaican-born Canadian author). Jamaica is very close to Haiti, and Hopkinson has clearly made use of ancestral belief in her original additions to the Sandman universe.
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.
More widely, we seem to have a bit of a thing for dangerous bears and pretty young virgins rubbed up together. I theorise this is because the bear symbolises brute masculinity, and the virginal young woman is peak femininity, and we traditionally like to see those particular outworkings in the same room.
In this case, I don’t think for a second that a veiled sexual reading of this fairy tale is the modern one; I suspect the inverse is true — bowdlerised versions of Snow White and Rose Red have tried (with only moderate success) to erase the sexual nature of a bear coming to visit maidens in their home. However, contemporary writers such as Margo Lanagan did bring the full force of bestiality back into it, where it actually always was.
The imaginative connection between women and bears goes way back into antiquity. The Roman/Greek goddess Diana/Artemis’s spirit animal was the bear. This character is goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, the Moon, and chastity.
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.
Some modern kids might not know what’s going on in the painting below, partly because children are more supervised these days and mostly advised against playing around train tracks.
Trains Are Masculine-coded Spaces
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 As 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.
Included in this symbolism: The idea that the past is the past, and it’s time to let the past go.
A train has a poor memory: it soon puts all behind it.
Ray Bradbury, “The Lake”.
Trains In Utopian Fantasy For Children
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.
Like motels, trains are a little bit like home, but not your home. They therefore fall into the uncanny valley of home, and we can’t help but think of all the other people who have been in our seat before us and after us.
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 Loneliness, Though Surrounded By People
The worst kind of loneliness is when you’re surrounded by people. On a crowded train, etiquette dictates we avoid others’ gaze, don’t speak unless necessary.
Trains Are Fast
Contemporary travellers won’t associate trains with speed. The bullet trains in Japan are pretty fast, but planes are always faster. Earlier audiences didn’t feel this way about trains at all. For them, over a fairly brief period of human history, trains were the epitome of speed.
The 1923 advertisement below is selling a super-fast Olivetti typewriter by comparing it to the speed of a train.
Trains As Symbols of Socioeconomic Class
There’s no better modern example of a train used to highlight social inequality than Snowpiercer, first a film, now a TV show.
Apart from trains, other forms of public transport push rich and poor people together onto the same small vessel, most notably planes and ships. This turns the vehicle of transportation into a microcosm of society.
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.
Trains can stand in for society, conveniently pushing rich and poor together, highlighting the divide.
TRAINS AS PORTAL TO LUXURY
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.
[Fairgrounds are] marvelous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune-tellers, and so forth.Foucault
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.
Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.
In many folktales, visitors to fairyland see magnificent palaces and comely people until they accidentally rub the fairy ointment on their eyes. Then fairyland is revealed as a charnel-house, grey and grim, with the fairies as the grinning dead.
Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things
The Utopian World is prevalent in contemporary children’s literature. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and settings which looked benign now look not so great. Something is wrong underneath. TV Tropes calls the snail under a leaf setting a False Utopia.
The ‘snail under the leaf’ describes a setting which:
emphasises the evil of the universe
and the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity.
‘The snail underneath the leaf’ setting is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.
Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of setting ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.) In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing.
In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.
What other kinds of stories feature a snail under the leaf setting?
As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the snail under the leaf setting looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the utopia which is no such thing.
Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to snail under the leaf settings.
Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic snail under the leaf setting:
Pines By Blake Crouch
The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)
A SHORT HISTORY OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS
The snail under the leaf setting is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:
There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.
This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over.The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’
But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia — one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman — the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.
A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin
The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern snail under the leaf setting is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place — it simply seemed so. In certain genres (like horror) we’ve been primed to expect a happy scene to at some point turn into a terrifying scene. This is why singing in cars while driving along highways scares me.
THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA
Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the snail under the leaf setting.
“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”
Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”
Mad Men, of course, is a snail under the leaf setting itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are a story under the leaf stories, set in mid-century American suburbs.
FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS
American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The snail under the leaf setting symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the snail under the leaf setting is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.
The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban snail under the leaf settings often feature houses made mainly of glass.
So if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know there’s an ugly, slimy little snail hiding right under the surface.
Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”
The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.
Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst — and so do we — because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface — because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.
This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no Minotaur opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)
Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted snail under the leaf setting because the town is not presented as a utopia at all — the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start — they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.
In defence of snails, not everyone finds them unpleasant. The artist below incorporates their beautiful structure into a highly detailed ornamental design.
If our sympathy for Ripley has deepened over time, so, perhaps, has our ambivalence about his author [Patricia Highsmith], though her literary star has, quite rightly, only risen in the decades since her death. One of the stranger details in Highsmith’s biography is the fact that she went through a phase in which she carried her pet snails with her to dinner parties in a large handbag (her 1957 novel, “Deep Water,” soon to be a film starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, features a scene in which snails crawl over the murderer’s hands, stately and sinister).
Anne Of Green Gables has a lot in common with modern YA stories aimed at young women.
THE INFLUENCE OF CINDERELLA
In real life, the character of Anne Shirley would be a lifelong social workers’ project. Her parents died of ‘the fever’ when she was an infant and since then she’s been pushed around from place to place. She has literally no one in her life who really cares for her. Children simply do not thrive when there is no one to care for them. This gives the beginning of the Green Gables saga more in common with a fairytale than realistic fiction.
THE INFLUENCE OF JANE AUSTEN
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, just shy of 100 years later. I’m in no doubt that L.M. Montgomery grew up reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables is the 1908 Canadian equivalent for slightly younger readers. However, Anne seems to be based on her child self.
Anne Shirley is basically an Elizabeth Bennett character.
In no particular order:
Diana Barry is Jane — each the sweet and beautiful confidante but ultimately too boring to ever exist as a main character in a novel. Both Jane and Diana are victims — in some ways — of their narrowly prescribed circumstances, being completely devoid of freedom. They do pretty much as they are told and they will have uneventful, reasonably happy but low-drama lives.
Lizzie is closer to her father just as Anne is closer to father figure Matthew Cuthbert at first.
Marilla is much kinder and less comical than Lady Catherine de Bourgh but fulfills some of the same story functions. For example, when Marilla cautions Gilbert Blythe that Anne is still very young this must plant the idea of courting her seriously in his mind, because that’s when he offers to escort her to her reading of The Highway Man. Likewise, it’s when Lady Catherine visits Lizzie at her home telling her that Darcy is already engaged to her sickly daughter that Elizabeth stubbornly refuses to say she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, despite rumours. Ironically, this outwardly event brings to consciousness her suppressed feeling that in fact she does like Darcy very much.
Suppressed affections for the most eligible boy in the village. Both Lizzie and Anne have romantic notions — Anne’s are a little more immature — and their ideas of romance actively stand in the way of them finding love until they overcome their fears.
These fears are thought to be borne of ‘pride‘. I find pridefulness quite an old-fashioned notion. I believe Lizzie and Anne suffered from anxiety, which I can well understand, living as fertile women in an age where sex and love was not discussed openly, but where women died during childbirth in every village, and if you didn’t pick your man wisely? Too bad, you were stuck with him. How could you pick wisely, though, when decorum wouldn’t let you spend any real time alone with him? To the early 1900s reader, however, ‘pridefulness’ as a female shortcoming was well understood, and made for a good psychological shortcoming. Bookish girls were often told not to bury their noses in study — Diana Barry is an example of a girl whose parents thought that way — and girls were expected to marry whether they wanted to or not. If they chose not to, they were called stubborn — and Marilla is an example of that, growing old and lonely in her twilight years as she gradually loses her eyesight. “If you don’t get married and have children you’ll live a lonely life,” readers are told. Pride as a psychological shortcoming is readily understood across cultures, and in Japan we see another quite different culture which nevertheless understands that pridefulness is something to be overcome. See for example Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a Japanese story through and through but echoing strong shades of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables nonetheless. Kiki is Anne, Tombo is Gilbert. (By the way, Anne of Green Gables is very popular in Japan. Japanese tourists make up a disproportionate number of tourists to Prince Edward Island each year.)
Unlike L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen was not under contract to write any more stories if Pride and Prejudice were to take off. Not true of Lucy Maud, who was forced to write an entire series about Anne under contract even though she didn’t seem to want to. I feel her instincts were right — there’s a good reason why Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and there’s a reason why the sequels to Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t sell as well. Both Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are complete stories in their own right. There are of course readers who love the entire Anne series, but others feel quite keenly that the rest of the series pales in comparison. I hesitate to use the word ‘formula’ because Anne of Green Gables, much less Pride and Prejudice, is far from ‘formulaic’, but there is a good reason why Anne of Green Gables works. (See Story Structure, below.)
For more on the similarities between P&P and Anne, see here.
THE INFLUENCE OF L.M. MONTGOMERY ON MODERN STORIES
For the younger set, throw in a bit of Anne of Green Gables and there’s an unlimited number of popular and enduring stories that can be made from the pieces:
Go a bit younger and the granddaughters of Anne Shirley are Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and Clementine. Mischievous, well-meaning, average looking, each of these heroines find themselves in regular scrapes when all they want to do is have fun.
Let these heroines enter adolescence and they will probably have something about their physical appearance they can’t stand. That Anne Shirley so hates her hair makes me think that maybe adolescent self-criticism predates the Mad Men era after all. That said, Anne Shirley had very good reason to hate her red hair. In the 1800s it was genuinely thought that girls with red hair (and green eyes) were — if not exactly witches — at least ‘wicked’. The word ‘wicked’ comes up several times in the book. This was thought to be an innate characteristic that went with red hair, and in fact the idea hasn’t died completely. One day it will seem as archaic as phrenology. Anne Shirley was deemed to have a temper on her because of her red hair, so every time she lost her temper, it was put down to her having red hair. If that isn’t a justifiable reason to be angry in the first place, I don’t know what is.
Young adult novels for girls will almost always have a romantic subplot if not romance as a main plot, and increasingly, middle grade fiction has a hint of romance too. (The boy and girl will probably start as enemies, end as sort-of-friends.) Romantic stories with drama as the wrapper tend to endure across generations and area also more respected by critics.
I also see the influence of Anne of Green Gables in a popular TV show such as Gilmore girls. Stars Hollow is a modern day American Avonlea. Both are genuine utopias. Apart from death — which happens in a romantic way — falling over in the middle of a field and passing swiftly — nothing really truly bad happens in Avonlea. Rory is smart and bookish like Anne, but overall more of the Diana character. The mother of Gilmore girls is feisty enough in her own right to provide some interest and conflict. Also like Gilmore girls, Rory has a bit of a rags to riches arc — she was never truly destitute, but because her grandparents are wealthy she is able to pursue her academic dreams.
SETTING OF ANNE OF GREEN GABLES
Often a measure of a novel’s success, in its depiction of a particular place, occurs when readers feel they know it, they recognize it, or, better yet, they want to visit. Such has been the case with the perennial favourite, Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, fans of Anne Shirley have sought out the small island in eastern Canada, keen to meet the character and tour the landscapes she made memorable—The Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood, Lover’s Lane, the Birch Path. Like the free-spirited Anne, who loves and names almost every tree and flower she encounters, they, too, want to know the place that had such an influence on her. For lovers of the Anne novels (Maud Montgomery wrote an additional seven for the series), much of the magic seems rooted in the very land Anne roamed.
Visitors to Prince Edward Island will find much to love in its natural beauty—a narrow strip of rolling hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with lush fields, quiet coves, and miles of white sand beaches. But its pastoral, timeless feel can’t quite explain its powerful draw. While the summers are mild, its winters are long, and two of the primary industries—fishing and agriculture—can be tough to pursue at any time of year. Yet tourism, the second most important, remains strong, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving every year to experience the same sites that were such a part of Anne Shirley’s adventures.
It is, in many ways, an odd phenomenon, a balancing act between the real and the fictional that Canada’s National Park Service, among others, helps sustain. In the town of Cavendish (“Avonlea” in the novels), in the house known as Green Gables, visitors can see the rooms where Anne and Matthew and Marilla slept; they can walk the same paths, cross the same streams and inhale the same fir-scented air. Along the way, they can relive some of Anne’s more memorable moments—scaring herself with Diana in the Haunted Woods, welcoming spring with her schoolmates on a mayflower picnic, accepting Gilbert’s offer of friendship on an evening stroll as the novel concludes. And yet these are all imagined events, superimposed on the PEI canvas—until one reads more about Montgomery’s life. There, in the pages of her journals, which were first made available to the public in 1985 (edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston), is where the real and the fictional intersect.
Anne of Green Gables is episodic in nature, but the character development of Anne (and Marilla and Matthew) is linear. I discuss the episodic/linear nature of Anne of Green Gables in Types Of Plots In Children’s Literature.
As each of these main underdog attributes is overcome, the next becomes an issue. The fact that Anne is a girl places the story firmly in its era — big budget stories are still being made where female characters have to prove themselves first (which usually involves being ‘feisty’, and making it among the boys on an adventure outside the home), but this generation of children is finally starting to see stories about girls whose femaleness is not something that makes them an underdog.
Anne needs to find someone to love her in order to find fulfilment. First she must find parental figures. Later, because old people die, she must find a romantic partner. Anne of Green Gables is a love story as well as a romance.
Anne of Green Gables is in some ways a very modern story. Whereas many 20th century films and books were about women waiting for men to save them, Anne Shirley works hard and we know she’d be just fine even without her Gilbert. Our culture has even reached the point where we get popular films such as Bridesmaids, about seriously flawed women (not even attractively flawed) who must get themselves ready for equal partnership before they can find love.
Like the perfect job interview (and the perfect kidlit heroine), each of Anne’s shortcomings has a flipside strength:
She is imaginative but prone to distraction. (I argue that Anne Shirley is an ADHD girl through and through.)
She is smart at school but also smart mouthed (audiences love, love, love a character who has the nerve to say what she thinks — it explains the cosiness of Doc Martin, too, popular with an older audience).
She appreciates all that is beautiful but remains toxically dissatisfied with her own lack thereof.
She is tenacious but stubborn. Her tenaciousness gets her far in academia but until she overcomes her stubbornness she won’t get far in love.
She is infectiously full of the joys of spring but immature.
Anne has neither the age nor wisdom to see what her real desires are. Though we as audience can see that her red hair should really be the least of her worries given her dire predicament at the start of the story, Anne gives her hair an undue amount of attention. When Marilla teaches her how to pray, Anne ‘asks humbly’ to:
Stay at Green Gables
Grow darker hair
Both requests indicate Anne’s deeper seated and far more serious need to be accepted and admired.
The lesson here is that main characters don’t necessarily know (or voice) what they want. But the audience must know.
On her journey Anne meets the full complement of both developed and flat allies, enemies, fake-enemies and fake-allies. The allies are famously described by Anne as kindred spirits.
Although at the beginning of the story Anne has no one and the whole world seems against her, as soon as she hits Avonlea strangers show various kindnesses. For example, there’s the station attendant who is charmed by her. I suspect Anne has always found comfort in the small kindnesses of strangers she meets along the way.
The flattest enemies are the women who abuse Anne by requiring her to look after their many children, all the while psychologically abusing her. First we have Mrs Hammond; next we have the prospect of the local Mrs Bluitt, whose very name suggests Anne would not be happy. As a side note, revisiting the story again as an adult, especially as we face the prospect of re-entering a world in which men control the fertility of women, I have more sympathy for Mrs Hammond as a victim. The 1980s miniseries starring Megan Follows almost encourages the viewer to read Mrs Hammond as lesbian, about to move in with her possessive, shoulder-rubbing female friend as she accuses Anne of basically killing the husband herself, with her failure to deliver lunch on time. What if Mrs Hammond was gay? What if she never wanted any children at all, but was stuck with all those twins? In a pre-contraceptive age, Mrs Hammond is arguably as much as a victim as Anne Shirley.
Marilla is an opponent who turns into Anne’s firmest ally by the end of the book.
Miss Shirley is a Miss Honey archetype (used by Roald Dahl in Matilda), an ally in every way.
Soon a pattern emerges — Anne is universally liked by good people, even if those people are crotchety on the surface. Diana’s auntie is the best example of that. Anne is a bit of a travelling angel trope, though rather than leaving town for good, she is pulled away to complete different parts of her life’s journey, returning every now and then.
In any love story, the desire and opponent are the same person. This is specific to love stories. So, Gilbert Blythe is both desired and an opponent. Same for Marilla, actually, because this is a story about a girl falling in love with her (substitute) parents.
There is a romantic triangle in Anne of Green Gables, since it is clear from the start that Diana Barry admires Gilbert Blythe. But because readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the first character they see, we are all rooting for Anne and Gilbert, even though Diana probably ‘deserves’ him more, if you think about it. We can see Diana isn’t quite smart (or educated) enough for Gilbert though, who is obviously more interested in fiery women like Anne. How does Montgomery manage readers to the point where we don’t end up mad and frustrated at Anne for her stubborn resistance to Gilbert? Diana realizes Gilbert isn’t her destiny. After a conversation with Anne near the end of the book, we are left with the impression that while Diana will pursue Gilbert if Anne doesn’t want him, she’ll happily give him over to Anne.
Josie Pye is a different matter — Josie is that snobby, girly character found in most popular books for girls — a girl who thinks she’s better than other people (the worst thing a girl can possibly be). Josie is rich but not academically inclined. She is well-dressed and confident and sees Anne as her rival, setting up a rivalry even before Anne has noticed she exists. This ensures the audience dislikes Josie Pye. Josie is not all that interested in Gilbert — she is mostly keen to deprive Anne of him.
Anne’s childlike, episodic adventures at Avonlea culminate in a ‘near drowning’ (which is no such thing), but the suggestion of death is there. A common storytelling technique in middle grade is to have another character come to the rescue of your protagonist. In this case it’s not a true rescue, more of a farce, as if acted upon a stage (where Anne often imagines herself, in fact). The rule here is that your main character still has to help themselves when it comes the character arc. They can be helped out in some sticky plot situation, but ultimately, change is up to them.
By the way, is there a deeper meaning to Anne’s obsession with The Lady of Shalott? Since it occurs at a climactic moment, I suggest there is. Doomed to view life through reflections, the Lady’s life is a mere shadow with no experiences of her own. Like The Lady of Shalott, Anne is inclined to live vicariously via women whose lives she has invented inside her head. This is the very thing preventing her pursuing anything in real life with Gilbert, right there in front of her.
Anne’s obsession with Tennyson’s poem isn’t really helping her get over her red hair issues, because it encourages us to focus on form over substance. The leak in the boat symbolises her psychological shortcoming — it will be her undoing — she needs the love of Gilbert to teach her she is in fact worthy in her own right. Signfiicantly, Gilbert has said he prefers brains over beauty anyway.
Anne learns that she truly belongs to Avonlea, even if she started out as an unwanted orphan. She has won numerous people over and spurred their own character arc (especially that of Marilla and Matthew, but also that of Rachel Lynde, Diana Barry’s mother and the crotchety old maid aunt*).
*As a side note, why is Diana’s old maid aunt so much richer than Diana’s natal family? My own guess is that Diana’s extended family is aristocratic by heritage, but perhaps the father made some bad investments and they have since lost most of it, which is why the aunt is the only one still able to pay for Diana’s music lessons. In this sense, Diana is very much like Jane Bennett — not only docile and beautiful and kind but also in a financially precarious position unless she marries well — and she will be expected to marry well in order to haul the financially failing family back into Prince Edward Island’s gentry class.
The Romantic Subplot
When Gilbert reveals that he and Anne tied for first in the Queens exam it is clear to Anne, seemingly for the first time, that they are true equals. This will eventually lead to a full-blown romance and marriage, but not in this first book.
After the death of Matthew we are left with Anne and Marilla together — Anne wants the best for Marilla and Marilla wants the best for Anne (college). These two goals will continue to butt heads and we’re not quite sure exactly what happiness will look like for these two, but when Gilbert offers to walk Anne home we know those two are going to end up together and we know for sure that Anne is going to look after Marilla in her old age.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a Studio Ghibli film released in 1989. This film was always popular in Japan but — though it’s hard to remember now — Studio Ghibli films didn’t take off in the West until 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke.
BASED ON A POPULAR JAPANESE CHILDREN’S BOOK
Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a novel published in 1985 by Eiko Kadono. Kiki’s Delivery Service is Kadono’s best known work. Like L. Frank Baum, she really only had this one big hit and wrote lesser known sequels which are lesser known. (There are 6 in the series altogether.) As of 2017, Kadono is 81 years old.
Hayao Miyazaki is 76. The film therefore has the combined sensibilities of a Japanese pair of artists born around the time of the World Wars. This affects both the setting and the sentiment.
“Just follow your heart and keep smiling,” advises the mother before Kiki sets off. This feels like not only a distinctly Japanese thing to say, but also an especially feminine aspiration, though probably applied to everyone in Japan born after the war.
Visby is a town on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. It’s known for its well-preserved town wall, a medieval fortification incorporating defensive towers. The town’s many churches include the grand, centuries-old St. Mary’s Cathedral and the medieval ruins of St. Nicolai and St. Karin. The main square, Stora Torget, has cobblestone streets lined with cafes and restaurants.
Where are these Miyazaki films set? Not in Japan but not in Europe, either. The utopian setting of Kiki’s Delivery Service (and several of the other Studio Ghibli films) has the trains, the hilly suburbs and the closeness of the sea but also has the cobbled streets and nooks and crannies of somewhere like Barcelona, with intratext on the signs looking a lot like English with a few flourishes reminiscent of kanji. We are to believe this is another world, a world where magic exists unobtrusively in the real world of the story.
[Studio Ghibli] shot 80 rolls of film in Stockholm and Visby, gathering location images as inspiration for the scenes in Koriko. For the most part, Koriko is composed of images of Stockholm. A side street in Stockholm’s old city, Gamla Stan, is one model. Sweden was the first foreign country Miyazaki ever visited.
Fictional Koriko is, however, much larger than Visby and features buildings and shops with the look of Stockholm.
The original Japanese title (both book and film) means ‘Witch’s Delivery Service’ which was personalised for the English film adaptation. I suspect this is because Western children have a slightly different set of expectations surrounding the witch trope. In the West, witches are the opponents and they are often genuinely scary and dangerous. This is a utopian story, and although Kiki is a witch, there’s not much witchy about her apart from her ability to fly on a broom. She is first and foremost a regular girl.
That said, Japanese mythology is not short on witches, oh far from it. But the scary woman Western children associate with the word ‘witch’ has most often got the word ‘baba’ in it (which loosely translates as ‘old hag’). For instance:
The amazake-babaa, who asks for sweet sake (mirin) and brings disease
The mikaribaba who has one eye — she visits your home and borrows sieves and also human eyes!
The Onibaba — a demonic hag from Adachigahara
Others are more benign and strangely specific:
Hikeshibaba extinguishes lanterns
Sunakake Baba sprinkles sand about
Also, I feel the creators did intend the Western version of the witch. At one point there is lampshading about why the crows are attacking her. Gigi points out that crows used to be witches’ allies. Kiki points out that “That was a long time ago!”
EPISODIC STRUCTURE IN KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
The subtitle of Kiki’s Delivery Service means something like ‘Various Leapings’. This is an adventure story where Kiki undergoes a single, sustained character arc but it is also somewhat episodic, like Anne of Green Gables and other middle grade books for/starring girls.
Each delivery — and they tend to go a bit wrong — turns into an episode. I imagine these formed chapters in the original book. This affects pacing, of course, because the audience needs to see something’s at stake, and drama must escalate until the denouement. Eventually the ticking clock is used to amp up the tension — Kiki must make a delivery before Tombo comes to pick her up for the party at 6 o’clock. She doesn’t make it, and the audience is invited to share in Kiki’s pain.
MAGIC REALISM IN KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
Magical realism, in other words. We first see Kiki as she prepares to take off for her one year stint away from home. Via backstory delivered by an old woman (the grandmother?) talking to the mother we learn that witches must spend a year away from home as part of their training. It’s tradition. Kiki is 13 — a transition age in literature as well as in life — and must wait for the right winds and a full moon before taking off. There’s something almost Amish about this tradition and, like many documentaries about Amish communities, we are left with a feeling of hygge.
A GENUINE UTOPIA
The entire homestead is hygge, with healthy vines growing up the sides of a thatched roof house, and a vibrant, healthy garden. This is the dream house as described by Gaston Bachelard, with Kiki’s bedroom on the top floor — a gabled ceiling adding to the cosiness.
It’s the sort of film which inspires diorama enthusiasts to make scenes such as this:
You can even buy wall art like this:
DESIRE AND WEAKNESS
Kiki’s desire line is introduced right away as she rushes inside to tell her mother she’s leaving, having listened to the weather.
Next we get a small insight into her psychological shortcoming — she gazes at herself in a full-length mirror and is disappointed in her dress. Kiki is shown to be overly concerned about the colour of her black dress. This will be her downfall. Modern believers in the nurture theory will also note with interest that the father treats his 13 year old daughter like a toddler — partly for old time’s sake, throwing her up in the air — but also calls her his ‘princess’ (at least in the English dub). Kiki has been nurtured in a way that makes her fussy about clothes.
Kiki also has a practical shortcoming — she isn’t that great at flying. This is a great shortcoming to have as it allows for plenty of nail-biting scenes as she loses control of her stick. It’s made even worse when the mother insists she take the old broom rather than the one she’s been practising on.
AN ODYSSEAN MYTHICAL STRUCTURE
There are three main types of mythic structures and Kiki is of the Odyssean kind, in which a hero (in this case a little girl rather than the usual man) leaves home, encounters a variety of characters, learns more about herself then returns home (or finds a new one). It’s a structure as old as the hills, and popular with audiences worldwide. This explains why this Japanese story is popular with other audiences.
THE CHARACTERS KIKI MEETS ON HER JOURNEY
A shortcoming of the Odyssean structure is that — at least to this modern viewer — it can feel like one damn opponent after another. Then, of course, there’s the big big struggle. It gets a bit ho-hum. Here’s the other thing: in a utopian children’s story there can’t really be any genuine opponents. What have we got instead?
The first opponent is a classic dynamic in a girls’s story — Kiki encounters the snooty, slightly older witch who rejects Kiki as being from the country.
This is swiftly followed by the weather, which the radio said was going to be perfect but turns into a storm. (Later in the story we have a heavy rain — the kind of rain that a Japanese audience is used to, as it rains like that every June during ‘rainy season’.)
The cows who lick Kiki’s foot at first might be angry but turn out to be benign (and humorous). By the way, this is a classic fairy tale trope — hiding in a haycart to escape. A maiden escapes her psychopathic groom in the Bluebeard tale collected by the Grimms — “The Castle Of Murder”. Obviously, this children’s tale is a lot more benign than that.
When Kiki reaches Koriko the townspeople are not friendly. They haven’t seen a witch in many years and don’t know what to make of her. They don’t flat out reject her, either. The overall hostile feeling is symbolised by the policeman, who tells her to be careful flying her broom otherwise it’s a traffic violation.
Tombo — making use of dramatic irony — is instantly attracted to Kiki but Kiki’s main psychological shortcoming comes to the fore and she rejects him as some sort of enemy. Tombo is actually an ally, but a romantic opponent. Middle grade stories often have a romantic subplot — this one is mirrored by the romance betwen Gigi and the white cat next to the bread shop. The ‘romance’ is based on the shared interest of flying, and is really just a deep friendship. The two will only get together after they have been shown to be equals.
It is only after making Kiki suffer through all of this opposition that she gets a lucky break and meets the pregnant owner of a bread shop who takes Kiki under her wing as a not-quite-mother figure (the mythical mentor, to use Joseph Campbell’s terminology). Asono is in danger of becoming a bit too ingratiating, telling Tombo not to phone back (even though Kiki secretly wants him to), but we find out in a subsequent scene that in fact Asono has Kiki’s number — she orchestrates them getting together in the end.
Asono’s husband is a huge, strong man who doesn’t say a word and at first we might wonder if he is an opponent. We first see him from Kiki’s viewpoint as she tries to exit the outhouse one morning. Here’s a bit of Japanese culture worth mentioning: In Japan (with women, for sure), when you’re in the toilet cubicle you are anonymous. No talking to your friends between stalls in malls or any of that business. Don’t try to talk to someone who’s sitting on the can. This scene with Kiki makes more sense if you understand it’s embarrassing for a girl to be seen by a man exiting a toilet. (Girls don’t poop, or something.) However, we soon see this guy wink at Gigi, showing off about how well he can spin buns on a tray. He makes that sign for Kiki’s business — a beautiful creation made of glazed bread. This is a laconic giant with a heart of gold.
Some of the delivery recipients are nice; others are haughty. There is a direct correlation between rich, ostentatious houses and haughty, ungrateful people — another moral lesson. The dopey dog turns out to be an unwitting ally — and a great comic character. (Both horror baddies and comical characters are robotic, acting as if they’re not allowed to deviate from some script. When the big dog delivers Gigi safely outside it’s because he’s been told to and he has no real choice.)
Kiki’s confidante turns out to be a slightly older woman, living on her own, sketching by day. She is more confident than Kiki, both sexually and otherwise. She doesn’t appear to be so friendly at first, making Kiki wait while she finishes her sketch before Kiki can finish her mission. But sometimes people who are not overly friendly turn out to be the best of friends (in romantic plots as well as in friendship ones). It is indeed this older friend who leads Kiki to have her own anagnorisis. After a speech about needing inspiration in order to create, Kiki says, “Maybe I have to find my own inspiration.” There we have it, the character arc. Now she just needs to make good with Tombo.
The snobby, well-dressed girls are mostly opponents inside Kiki’s imagination, as she feels she is not as pretty as they are. Also, they are spending time with Tombo. She wishes she were them, in some ways.
Tombo is probably a nickname, because in Japanese it means ‘dragonfly’. Dragonflies are a common sight in a Japanese summer and if you watch a lot of anime you’ll already have noticed that for a Japanese audience the dragonfly is strongly associated with summer, and laidback atmospheres.
The dragonfly has the most impressive flying mechanics found in all of nature, and human technology has not yet been able to replicate its ability to duck and dive — the tombo has the most exquisite control.
GIGI THE CAT
The cat character serves three main purposes:
His sardonic tone moderates what might otherwise be a saccharine story.
The romantic subplot, which is mirrored by Kiki and Tombo
Symbolically, Gigi is Kiki’s inner voice. We hear via Gigi what Kiki is really thinking even as she tries to remain upbeat and ‘keeping on smiling’, as advised by her witch mother. This explains why Kiki loses the ability to understand Gigi. She has lost a part of herself, in turmoil, unable to express her liking for Tombo, hindered by her own pride (a psychological shortcoming reminiscent of Pride And Prejudice*, in fact).
*Also like in a Jane Austen novel, the heavy rain gives Kiki a cold, which sends her to her (psychological death) bed.
WORK HARD IN ORDER TO FIND YOURSELF
This is the particularly Japanese principle underlying Kiki’s Delivery Service, one which Hayao Miyazaki must like, because he used it in Spirited Away (after pulling himself out of ‘retirement’ to make it… This says something about Miyazaki’s work ethic).
Kiki helps out at every opportunity. She lends a hand in the bakery, she goes above and beyond to help the old woman cook a herring pot pie for her ungrateful granddaughter, and she will go to the ends of the earth before disappointing someone by failing to make a delivery, even when the rewards are little.
This is closely related to the Japanese concept of omotenashi, which basically means ‘hospitality’, but goes much further than that. It refers to the specifically Japanese virtue of paying such close attention to your guest that they want for nothing, all the while expecting nothing in return. (I guess this is related to a Buddhist aspiration to be neither overly happy nor overly sad however things turn out.)
THE SYMBOLISM OF FLIGHT
Flight is very popular in children’s stories and most fantasy will include a spell in the air, through whatever means. In fact, the closer you look, the more likely you will conclude that a successful utopia requires flight.
Here, flight obviously represents freedom. But as in all symbols, the ability to fly can also be symbolic of ‘failure to fly’, or failure to take advantage of one’s freedom. (If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.)
THE FINAL BIG STRUGGLE
There are a number of battles, culminating in Kiki’s rescuing Tombo as he hangs suspended from the dirigible, which crashes into the clock tower.
This is a welcome girl friendly message — not many Hollywood children’s films star girls, and girl stars don’t often come to the rescue of boys. In Tombo we also have a bit of a ‘manic pixie dream girl’, which is also a change for a Western audience.
The rescue scene follows a ‘riding bitch’ scene which Miyazaki seems to have a penchant for; you know, the bit where the girl gets on the back of a bike and the boy leads the way.
These two scenes combined show us that Tombo and Kiki are equals — they both love flying, each have a lot more to learn about it, each find themselves in perilous situations occasionally, and if only Kiki can admit to herself that she likes Tombo, they’re equally cheerful and fun.
This is perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most analysed, of the English country gardens in children’s literature.
Below is an illustration by the wonderful Inga Moore, also well-known for her illustrations of Wind In The Willows. Though Inga Moore is a modern illustrator, her style has a classical style which you might almost expect to have been published with the originals.
Inga Moore is unexpectedly Australian, though these very English landscapes make more sense once you learn she was born and in and moved back to England.
Mr McGregor’s Garden is the most perfect vegetable and flower garden ever seen — its vague topography makes it one’s idea of what an old-fashioned country garden should be. The interesting adventures that Peter Rabbit had there have, at first sight, a familiar moral basis of filial obedience, but that is not what one remembers them for; it is the rural magic, the delicate beauty of the pictures, the few words, precise and perfect, that describe them, and the idealised view of the longed-for North Country of Beatrix Potter’s childhood holidays to which she eventually returned.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Blount continues: The work of Alison Uttley has many of the same strains as Beatrix Potter. There is the same Northern countryside, populated exclusively by small animals living their lives in holes, burrows and tiny houses. These books were published from 1929 onwards.
fire from wood
water from the well
candles made of rushes
a village community
a magic truce is observed at all times: no predators, no marauders, Wise Owl does not catch mice, the Rat only steals a few provisions and makes up for it by giving unexpected presents.
sometimes the animals talk in baby language
even the adult characters have childlike qualities
female adults are old enough to keep house and cook but young enough to enjoy games, tricks and picnics.
At Jonathan Rabbit’s school lessons are about flowers and nursery rhymes.
elements of folklore and animal fairy tale — the animals have magic that humans have lost
There’s a nearby woodland which might be based on Shere or Finchingfield or Tunbridge Wells but with tiny ‘doll’s house improvements which make this kind of art so satisfying’.
There are no humans in these animal garden utopias because if humans were to appear, the illusion of magic would be gone for the reader. In Potter’s A Tale Of Two Bad Mice, there must be a human who plays with the doll house, but the story isn’t about when the human is there.
The Enormous Turnip
A garden always has the potential for surprises. If left alone, pumpkins and other root vegetables can grow huge. The gardener’s concern is, ‘What’s happening right outside, under the earth?’ Especially in earlier times when homegrown food was essential as a measure against starvation, this concern would’ve been much more.
A classic tale such as The Enormous Turnip is about that mindset.
Here we see another English country garden illustrated by John Dyke for Ladybird. (Dyke also illustrated the Pigwig series.) There is a painter by the same name.
The English country garden includes robins, two beam fences, gates with cross bars, stone walls, undulating hills in the background and basic equipment like rakes, shovels and watering cans.
In an English country garden it is neither too bright nor too overcast, but just right for working up a light sweat.
“I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”
Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is a British picture book written and illustrated by Mary Rayner in 1977. The story is part fairytale, part 1977 modernity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Rayner was born in 1933 in Mandalay, Burma of British parents. She was 8 years old when Japanese troops invaded Burma. Her mother and two siblings walked over the mountains into India. Her father had joined the army and was killed.
After the war, the Rayner family returned to the UK from India.
The sense of a family pulling together in dire circumstances is conveyed, though comically, in this story.
The illustrations are very much of England.
That’s because after a degree in English in England, Mary Rayner joined the publishing industry. Her first book was The Witch-Finder in 1976. This one came the year after, along with Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out. She wrote and illustrated the pig books for her own three children, though by the time she’d finished them they’d themselves grown too old for them.
All of her children grew up to be writers themselves.
SETTING OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY
This is very much a fairytale world, borrowing elements from:
The depiction of the village is very much a fairytale one, and decidedly English.
Whoosh Ice Creams
I wonder if British English readers will know what a Whoosh ice cream is? I certainly can’t find out from my Internet research, though I thought it might be an abbreviation of the Whoosh! Cecil flavour. Apparently that is chocolate ice cream with salted caramel and cashews, but I doubt that’s what’s intended here because when the pigs finally get their whooshes they’re holding a rainbow coloured ice block type of thing.
(I believe the Whoosh! Cecil is American anyway, but even in 1977, English children were very much influenced by American culture. We see that in the second scene in fact, where all the brothers and sisters are playing cowboys and Indians.)
Apparent Utopia of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady
This is an snail under the leaf setting, in which everything looks homely and safe but in fact a child can be abducted by a stranger at any time. Fairytale worlds have always had the function of scaring children about strangers, and neglecting the cover the more sobering fact that adults most likely to hurt you are those you love and trust.
In any fairytale land you need a forest right next to the village/town. We have one here, and that’s where the wolf drives off to. It doesn’t matter for the purposes of a fairytale that there have been no forests in England since 1086 at the latest.
It’s interesting that Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady opens with the mother pig scrubbing the floor because she is not the main character. We see her overleaf very much not coping with her ten children — she has her head buried in her hands. Most mothers in picture books are coping very nicely, in their aprons and clean, middle class homes, so it’s interesting to see this variation of motherhood. I wonder why the author decided to open with the mother — perhaps she’s saying that while the mother is busy with housework the children will get up to mischief.
The main character of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is Garth. He wants an ice cream. Not only does he want an ice cream, he wants an upgraded ice cream. While all the siblings are happy with whooshes, Garth hopes there will be enough change to buy himself a double cone with flakes coming out of it. This is obviously the luxury choice of the setting. At first it looks as if Garth is punished for being so greedy. But he gets his upgraded cone in the end, because the mother feels sorry for him after his ordeal. It is therefore left to the young reader to decide if being greedy was all worth it.
There is a problem with the plot in my opinion: It is decided that Garth, alone, will go to the ice-cream truck and get 10 ice creams for his brothers and sisters. But there is no way in hell a person with hands let alone a pig with hoofs could carry back the ice creams alone. Haha. This is what Hitchcock would have called a refrigerator moment.
While a good measure of suspended disbelief is necessary to enjoy picture books, this is one step too far. In real life I’m guessing children will be familiar with the difficulties of carrying multiple ice creams without help, and there is no good reason why several of the little pigs wouldn’t go along to help Garth. It’s necessary for the plot, however; Garth is vulnerable precisely because he is alone.
Perhaps the wolf really is a female wolf — she remains ungendered. But the evil wolf dressing up as ‘grandma’ obviously has its roots in Little Red Riding Hood. I believe therefore that most readers will read the wolf as male underneath. (In cases where a female is revealed to be a male, this is playing on an instinctive human fear of mistaking something for something else. This trope continues today and is damaging to the trans community. See Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl.)
Just as happens in Dr Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, this story makes use of symbolic crossroads. When the ice cream trail runs out at the crossroads, the pigs are forced to change their plan from ‘following the trail’ to actively searching for Garth.
Meanwhile, in the van, Garth hears the wolf singing about chops and realises someone’s not quite right.
Even an abducted and therefore quite helpless child character must not be passive. We enjoy watching Garth try to get himself out of this difficulty of partly his own making. (If he hadn’t been so greedy about counting the money to see if he could upgrade his ice cream he might have noticed, as well all did, that the ice cream vendor was a wolf.)
There is a fairly lengthy action scene in which the reader enjoys seeing the wolf try to control a bicycle built for ten as it careens downhill. This eventually ends with him being thrown into the river.
Next there is a shot to Garth inside the van, realising he’s in trouble. The van breaks down. Garth breaks free.
In this comic tale there is no groundbreaking soulsearching revelation. Instead, the pigs — who live in fairytale land, after all — realise that they still haven’t had their ice creams, and that they can just go up the hill and get some for themselves now that the evil wolf has been taken care of.
All is fair in this story, because the mother points out that she’s already paid for them, after all. (There’ll be no promotion of thievery in picture books, thanks very much.)
It’s fitting that the final image we see is of the wolf’s old straw hat, caught in the branches which hang into the river.
In stories, hats have a special significance of denoting power or otherwise. A father will give his son a baseball cap, for instance, or a king will give a prince his crown to symbolise a transfer of power. Without the hat as disguise, the wolf is now rendered completely powerless. We can extrapolate from this image that he won’t be bothering this village again.