Dumplin is a 2018 young adult film based on the 2015 novel by Julie Murphy.
Willowdean (‘Dumplin’), the plus-size teenage daughter of a former beauty queen, signs up for her mom’s Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a protest that escalates when other contestants follow her footsteps, revolutionizing the pageant and their small Texas town.
Like Whip It!, Dumplin is set in a small Texas town in which the tradition of beauty pageantry, and the attendant ideology, divide women into those who subscribe to Pageantry Values and those who do not. Stories set in the world of beauty pageantry create conflict ripe for exploring themes such as:
What it means to be a woman
How women with completely different views can learn to get along in this world as true allies
Since the world of beauty pageantry is a heterotopia, the audience is more likely to identify with the character who is coming into this subculture as an outsider.
CHARACTERS OF DUMPLIN
Women tend to be presented as those who’ve taken the red pill and those who’ve taken the blue*. These days, borrowing from the language of religion, we say ‘woke’ versus ‘not woke’. But this division has been around for as long as the feminist movement has been around. There’s a scene in Six Feet Underwhen Clare tries getting an office job for a while. She complains about the mandatory nylon hose, and complains to a non-woke female co-worker that it’s not fair women have to wear such torturous items. The co-worker says, “Well the men have to wear ties,” as if ties and hose are equal in the comfort department. This interaction served to illuminate two very different types of women, who must nonetheless learn to get along.
* I bet you’re thinking of The Matrix, but don’t forget the idea originated in children’s literature, with Lewis Carroll.
The feminine divide is at its most fraught between mothers and their daughters, in which case a generation gap is also manifest. For this reason, the setting of a beauty pageant is often peopled by a mother who is big into pageantry and a daughter who is decidedly not.
Occasionally, as in Little Miss Sunshine, participation in a beauty pageant is driven wholly by the daughter, with the bemused, fish-out-of-water family along for the ride. However, Little Miss Sunshine is an atypical inversion on the norm.
The ‘rebel daughter’ character in this set-up will have a best friend who shares her basic values but who will also function in the story as the ally who challenges the girl’s views, encouraging her to examine the exact nature of her rebellion, and refining it in to something more manageable for existing among polite society. In Dumplin, the character of Ellen performs this function, and for a good portion of the film the girls are estranged.
Julie Murphy draws on personal experience to create the character of Willowdean (aka Dumplin), who is about halfway there in terms of accepting her body as it is, but has yet to jump the final hurdle. That ‘final hurdle’ is revealed in the Anagnorisis phase of the story, but at the beginning Murphy is good at setting Willowdean up as a fully-developed character:
Her psychological shortcoming is inevitable, after a childhood living in a society where her body is of an unacceptable size and shape. Willowdean does not have the confidence to live life to the fullest, with the ultimate test being ‘getting a hot boyfriend’.
Willowdean’s moral shortcoming is more pronounced in the book than on the screen, where saying this sort of thing out loud would seem even worse than putting it down on paper:
“Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse.I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size. Her eyes are to close together and her nose pinches up at the end. She wears puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way”.
In the film, Willowdean acknowledges to her best friend that she feels like a bad person, but she doesn’t want to call another fat girl ‘stupid’. In the film, there is no BMI difference between Willowdean and Millie — instead, Willowdean despises her for being ‘stupid’.
It says something terrible about our culture that despising someone for being stupid is more relatable than transferring your own body issues onto someone else. I mean, it’s terrible that there is a hierarchy of terribleness in our fictional characters. It’s quite possible that in ten years time, even this modification for the screenplay — from very fat to stupid — will look horribly outdated. (Well, we live in hope.)
On the other hand, the audience is fully encouraged to criticise Willowdean for thinking these things, and it is later revealed that Millie’s apparent stupidity is actually something else: Enforced Christian politeness and a people-pleasing attitude which overrides her own sense of autonomy.
Willowdean’s outer desire is to join the beauty pageant to teach her mother a lesson — that her pageant stuff is stupid and she’s a fool for being so heavily involved, and for living in the past, when she peaked as crowned winner back in 1991.
Below that conscious desire, Willowdean wants her mother to really see who she is, and to accept her for who she is without constantly asking her to change.
Society in general is another opposition, personified by groups of boys who point out her fatness in public, as if she didn’t already know.
Willowdean’s argument with her best friend goes into another aspect of fat politics — is a skinny (read: not fat) girl ever able to fully understand what it’s like to be fat? Can she ‘join the revolution’? I did like this storyline because it reminded me of my own high school experience. I do think that with sufficient listening and awareness that a skinny person can achieve a passable handle on fat politics. So I like how that relationship evolves, very much. I also like that Ellen seems, on the outside, to conform exactly to the dominant beauty ideal, yet as she explains to Willowdean in the car, she can never escape the constant criticism which is attendant with existing in a female body. Her boyfriend points out her pimples, for instance, and she goes numb. The closer a girl conforms to the beauty ideal, the more society picks on the tiniest imperfections.
When Willowdean finds her dead aunt’s entry form into the 1991 beauty pageant which she never entered, Willowdean takes this opportunity to honour her memory (and help with her own grieving process) by entering it herself as the first fat girl to do so.
There are various barriers to this, of course:
Persuading her mother to sign her entry form
Coming up with a ‘talent’ when she doesn’t have any
Finding a suitable fashion style
The plan takes Willowdean and her assortment of fellow rebels (not yet friends) on a mythic journey to a bar, where Willowdean is introduced to people her dead auntie once knew. Drag queens perform the songs of Dolly Parton. Because Drag Queens are transgressive in their fashion choice, outside the cultural norm, one of the drag queens takes Willowdean under his wing and performs the narrative function of a fairy godmother dressing Cinderella for her ball.
Meanwhile, Willowdean is being actively pursued by the hot guy she works with at the fast food restaurant — a guy who looks a lot older than Willowdean in the film, by the way. He sucks on a lollipop stick in the way bad boys more commonly suck on a cigarette, giving him comical, inverse cowboy cred. We conclude this boy is right for Willowdean because he, too, refuses to conform to the norm. (At least, I think it’s a lollipop stick?)
The anagnorisis and Battle phases of this story are inverted somewhat, or to put it another way, the Anagnorisis occurs in parts, taking place across several scenes around the Battle.
In a beauty pageant story, the big struggle is probably the beauty competition itself (or in Whip It, the beauty competition was replaced by a roller derby comp.)
Dumplin shares this in common with Pixar’s Brave. In both stories, the young heroine gives an impassioned, didactic speech to a crowded room, showing that she has had her Anagnorisis (most of it) before the Battle sequence has fully begun. In Dumplin, I’m talking about Willowdean’s onstage speech about loyalty, which she describes as the signifier of true friendship. (At its heart this is a “Who’s Your True Friends?” story.)
Here’s the important rule I’m noticing if you want to create a story in which the main character’s Anagnorisis comes BEFORE the Battle. (Because for the audience, this is an unexpected inversion.)
The main character may well get her Anagnorisis out of the way before she hits the Battle, newly steeled and ready to win (whatever winning means to her). But the Anagnorisis phase still requires SOMEONE to realise something.
In Dumplin, as well as in Brave, and in Lady Bird, we have a mother and daughter who both undergo a character arc. In effect, two characters each undergo their own Anagnorisis, their journeys interlinked.
In each of these stories, mother and daughter learn to get on better. In Brave and in Dumplin, this is partly achieved by the daughter literally taking on the mother’s care role, caring for her own mother.
In Brave, Merida looks after her mother in bear form, feeding her with berries and guiding her in human etiquette. We see that same sequence in Dumplin when Willowdean’s mother is unable to zip up her own dress. (This is a classic unmasking, by the way.) Willowdean reassures her own mother, then goes to find her ‘suitable’ clothes. Dressed in a costume which serves to take the mother out of her cloistered, judgemental and highly circumscribed world, Willowdean mouths encouragement to her unconfident mother. Mother-daughter emotional support has thus been inverted.
The dressing-room scene also finishes off Willowdean’s Anagnorisis sequence for the audience: Mother apologises for calling her Dumplin, but now Willowdean is fine with the moniker. “It’s just a word,” she says, signifying much more to the audience about her newfound body positive attitude.
Willowdean was always going to get the boy. We knew this from the beginning. Her self acceptance means that she’s now sufficiently confident to accept that a hot boy might genuinely want to date her. This is an old, conservative plot line but it’s still being used in 2018, straight out of fairytale princess narrative.
POP CULTURAL REFERENCES IN YOUNG ADULT STORIES
I’d like to say those two will be very happy together, but I hope he likes Dolly Parton. The problem for young adult authors: Which pop cultural references can I use? If I use things I really like myself, I’ll be accused of being hopelessly out of date. But if I use contemporary references, I’ll be accused of being trendy, and trends change so rapidly anyhow.
A lot of young adult authors get around this by creating a slightly eccentric interest for their main character which is deliberately and self-consciously retro. And for contemporary young adult readers, who may not know someone like Dolly Parton, there will be a scene in which a peer asks who on earth that person is.
That way, the young adult author gets to:
Make use of a cultural reference known to them
Avoid being accused of forced trendiness
Know in advance that this is a real icon — Dolly Parton isn’t ever going to be forgotten in the way some of today’s artists will be
Create an interesting eccentricity for their main character
I sense two main schools of body acceptance feminism in this cultural moment.
The first message is to embrace your body type by putting yourself out there. Activists demand to be noticed. Small, everyday actions such as taking a selfie of your culturally unacceptable body and uploading it to social media constitutes a small act of activism which, over the long term, with all body types doing this, will help to expand our cultural notion of physical diversity.
The other form of activism, as explained by Beauty Redefined, is to move beyond the very notion that physical body is a meaningful way to gauge one’s self worth. While loving your body is important, the focus here is very much on what the body can do rather than what it looks like. Under these ideas, one would never set foot in a beauty pageant because there’s no avoiding the fact that the emphasis of such an institution is still very much on the body — no matter what that body looks like.
Dumplin belongs to the first school of body acceptance. Julie Murphy wrote this series specifically to provide models of fat girls confidently entering spaces where there are not traditionally accepted. This is achieved with flamboyance.
In the meantime, new limitations of the inverse kind have popped up. It almost seems like now, if a woman is physically large, she is required to be flamboyant. Flamboyance is no longer a choice. There is now comedy which parodies the very message Julie Murphy worked hard to create in Dumplin — that fat girls shouldn’t hide.
One thing I’m confident saying — fat politics are changing so rapidlythat a book written three years ago will seem ideologically naive to a mainstream audience, if not outright offensive, even if its author is a self-described fat woman herself. In the week of Dumplin’s release on Netflix I have seen tweets to the effect of, “I don’t want anyone’s opinion on the Dumplin movie unless the reviewer is fat themselves”, which is a good indication that the politics of the body are some of the most important — and can be the most damaging — to a young adult audience.
I hope that some of Dumplin’s young adult audience will see themselves in these characters, and that this story’s transition to screen opens up many more interesting discussions.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier was not written with a young adult audience in mind, but class sets of the book found their way into English departments all over the world. Though this is not my favourite Cormier novel, it remains his best known. Heavy in symbolism and discussable themes, The Chocolate War also makes for a good case study in juxtaposition. The novel begins with a juxtaposition in the title — chocolate is sweet and comforting; war most certainly is not.
There are many resources for teaching and studying this book in a high school literature class. This blog focuses on the storytelling: What writing lessons can we take from this young adult story from 1974, banned and beloved in equal measure?
I feel readers deserve a content note about Robert Cormier novels, and about The Chocolate War in particular. This novel has been widely banned, but my reasons for the content note are probably different and girl readers in particular deserve this acknowledged: Cormier writes consistently from the male point of view and objectifies female characters as part of his commentary on how awful boys can be. Cormier never proved he could write well-rounded girls, to be fair. Even when he writes a female character (not in this book) she self objectifies or she is murdered or both. The Chocolate War contains implied rape of girls at the nearby girls’ high school. Archie, a psychopathic character, ‘usually manages to persuade one of them into his car’. He gives them a ride home ‘with detours’. The older I get the more icky I find this. Here’s my exact beef: Robert Cormier and many other writers who imply/describe sexual assault feel the need to include girls — otherwise absent in the story — in order to amplify the awfulness of a particular boy character. This is done for characterisation reasons, yet that’s not how sexual assault works in real life and I expect a bit of mimesis here. Despite his heterosexual orientation, a character as awful as Archie does not need to prey on the girls at a different school entirely. If ever there was a clear psychopath in young adult fiction, Archie is it.
Archie was always puzzled about whatever there was inside of him that enjoyed these performances — toying with kids, leading them on, humiliating them, finally.
Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War
There are plenty of boys he can pick on to assert his sexual dominance, without leaving his own school. My problem here is the extent to which writers are comfortable with the implication of male on female sexual assault, but can’t seem to even fathom male on male sexual assault. Written in the 1970s, going this far may not have even crossed Cormier’s mind, or maybe he self-edited, who knows. Archie carries out his own version of sexual assault on Emile, pretending to take a photo of him after finding him in the toilets masturbating. But it’s never implied that he does to the other boys as he does to the girls. And I don’t think his heterosexuality has anything to do with that. Archie’s 1970s pretend camera would be an actual camera in the 2010s. This kind of timelessness is why some schools continue to study The Chocolate War with modern teenagers, though I think the objectification and assault issue requires a discussion. Though uncomfortable to talk about, the problems with glossing over this aspect of Archie are two-fold:
As a culture we underestimate the rate of male on male sexual assault (important emphasis: rape is about power over others, not about orientation);
We become uncomfortably comfortable with the image of the assaulted female, to the extent where, as a culture, we have now learned to look the other way. To what extent is the male gaze designed to be titillating? Does it matter really if it’s not meant to be, and still is? At no point are readers encouraged to find descriptions of the boy characters titillating, regardless of the reader’s orientation.
These are not the exact reasons The Chocolate War has found infamy as a frequently banned book. This novel has been banned due to:
Frequency of sexual references
Detail included in the sexual scenes e.g. masturbation
Negative portrayal of the institution of school
Catholic schools in particular get a bad rap
But mostly? The issues in this book are so heavy they are difficult to discuss with 30 teenagers, some of whom will have been sexually assaulted themselves, some of whom will sexually assault/have already assaulted. I find it far easier to write about these issues on a blog than to manage a class discussion, and to have that discussion go in the right direction. When schools ban books, that’s sometimes a factor. The Chocolate War is one of those novels which requires the reader to bring their own morality to the table. We’re to look at these boys as an example of treating people badly. But what if some readers do not have morality to bring? What then?
Three Types of Young Adult Novels
Further to the banning, it’s important to note that Cormier did not intend The Chocolate War for a young adult audience. The reading age happens to be twelve, however. That seemed to be Cormier’s natural writing style.
The American Library Association classifies adolescent literature into three categories:
Books Written Specifically for Adolescents
Books Written for General Trade Market Which Have Adolescent Main Characters
General Books of Interest to Young Readers
The Chocolate War belongs to category two and was seen by many as a good text to study in schools.
THEMES IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR
There are many. Here’s a big one:
“Do I dare disturb the universe?”
from T.S. Eliot, in a poem he wrote in his early 20s.
At its heart, this question “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is about power. It serves as an apt metaphor for what adolescents often seek to know about themselves. Jerry Renault takes up this question in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974).
Jerry hangs in his school locker a poster of a man walking alone on a beach that bears the caption “Do I dare disturb the universe?”: “Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.” The Chocolate War explores the question of whether Jerry can disturb the universe—of what will happen to him if he dares assert his personal power. […]
In The Chocolate War Jerry Renault has power in agreeing to exist in harmony with the forces of oppression at Trinity High School, The Vigils and the teachers. He is defeated by novel’s end because he has chosen to break the contract and so be oppressed by the power structure. Foucault would say instead that rather than possessing a certain amount of power to begin with, Jerry actually exists in a chain of power, a chain that involves the selling of education as a commodity and that results in the commodification of the chocolates. Their sale is a means of production for the students. Jerry’s power in the situation is fluid: he both has and does not have power, depending on his relationship to the market forces at specific points in the novel’s time. When he overwhelms the market by providing a model for the other boys’ non-participation in the means of production, the market retaliates by attempting to obliterate him in a “war.”
Foucault even supplies the term “war repression schema” as a synonym for the “domination repression” model of power; he makes much of the notion that “power is war, a war continued by other means”. […]
The Chocolate War is the same sort of dark adolescent fantasy that Lord of the Flies is: when adolescents achieve total control, they become totally corrupt. Both novels are metaphors for the concept that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
[…] Anne Scott Macleod argues that what happens at Trinity is a microcosmic metaphor forAmerican politics. […]
Perry Nodelman interprets the chocolate war as a metaphor for the Vietnam War. […]
Jan Susina interprets The Vigils as the Mafia. […]
Cormier himself has identified big business as the central metaphor of the novel.
At the heart of all these interpretations is the recognition that The Chocolate War is a political novel. It is an investigation of social organisation and how individuals interact with that organisation. The novel communicates that institutions are more powerful than individuals, but that individuals who engage their own power can affect the shape of the institution. Cormier implies that as social organisations, institutions are not to be trusted. […]
When ideologies in YA novels focus specifically on government, they tend to convey to adolescents that they are better served by accepting than by rejecting the social institutions with which they must live. In that sense, the underlying agenda of many young adult novels is to indoctrinate adolescents into a measure of social acceptance.
Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature
But is The Chocolate War any more political than your typical young adult novel?
Few adolescent novels are as direct as Cormier’s are in addressing government as a form of social organization, although almost all adolescent novels are informed by ideologies that are political in nature. That is, all novels are influenced by their authors’ sociopolitical beliefs.
Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature
The Chocolate War is a story of irony and juxtaposition, which makes the title so apt. Examples from chapter one:
‘A terrible stillness’
‘Suddenly he loved that voice, “Show up tomorrow”.’
‘A strange happiness invaded him.’
And in chapter two we get all the ironies of Archie:
‘Archie the bastard. The bastard that Obie alternately hated and admired.’
Archie looks like an All-American Boy but it turns out he’s atheist, which is not very American at all, especially in 1974.
‘That’s what baffled everyone about Archie — his changes of mood, the way he could be a wise bastard one minute and a great guy the next’
Although Archie is really mean, he ‘disliked violence’.
Norman Stanton: ‘a blustering bragging character with wild red hair and eyelids matted with yellow crap’
Roland Goubert: The Goober. Juxtaposition: Very tall yet like a child.
Brother Leon: Can control a class but Archie sees vulnerabilities. Assistant Headmaster but in Archie’s eyes he is simply an errand boy for the head. Not worthy of respect. However, like Archie, this man has two juxtaposed sides to him. “In the classroom, Leon was another person altogether. Smirking, sarcastic. His thin, high voice venomous. He could hold your attention like a cobra. Instead of fangs, he used his teacher’s pointer, flicker out here, there, everywhere. He watched the class like a hawk, suspicious, searching out cheaters or daydreamers, probing for shortcomings in the students and then exploiting those shortcomings.’ This man will make a good shadow character for Archie.
Leon is an ambiguous character. In Chapter Six we see him carry out a cruel taunting on a student then tells the class he’s delivered a lesson. He hasn’t delivered a lesson without causing the boy in question grief, so is this similar to doing something really mean and then calling it ‘a joke’? Another juxtaposition.
‘Emile was a brute, which was kind of funny because he didn’t look like a brute. He wasn’t big or overly strong. … Wise guys usually sat in back. Emile didn’t. He chose seats near the front where he’d be in better position to harass the teacher.’
‘Emile, you’re a beautiful person’, says Archie, watching Emile steal fuel from a weaker kid’s car. But Emile never knows if Archie is serious or not — in fact, stealing fuel probably does count as beautiful in Archie’s eyes, because Emile can be useful to him. At the end of Chapter Six, Emile is ‘somehow disappointed’ that the owner of the vehicle hasn’t caught him stealing gas. This is a different kind of irony — an emotion the the audience wouldn’t expect in most people.
The sale of chocolates is such a cozy thing to do — this part of the plot could easily be used in a middle grade novel set in a genuine utopia. But here, the chocolate fundraiser is juxtaposed against the evil of the school.
Goober is the reflection character for Archie. Whereas Archie is delighted at chaos, Goober is utterly bewildered by it, not comfortable at all. We are set to root for Goober because he is such an underdog, but we are equally keen to see what Archie gets up to, because Archie is interesting. Without each other, this book would feel too pathetic or too mean. These boys balance each other out for the reader.
Jerry Renault is the Every Boy — most readers have not lost their mother to cancer, but we can empathise with him because we feel our lives would look like his if we did. Apart from the ghost of a dead mother, nothing much stands out about Jerry. He’s like the Jerry Seinfeld off Seinfeld actually — the characters around him are more individualised.
Among the teachers, too, we have a replica of the classroom, with the Brothers responding in contrasting ways to the same event. Brother Eugene is the grown up Goober — sensitive and emotional and vulnerable. Brother Leon understands Archie the best, though Archie does not have a sociopathic equivalent on staff, which is good for him. The teachers have power by virtue of being teachers, so Brother Leon is still a formidable opponent for Archie.
STORY WORLD OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR
The Chocolate War is an American novel with a USA setting.
Obie describes the school as ‘a lousy little high school like Trinity’. This is a Catholic school. The culture revolves around sport. Football is everything. It is clear from this that we’re talking about a boys’ high school, with its particular brand of hyper-masculinity. Boxing turns out to be other other big sport at Trinity — another dangerous, combative pastime.
The Trinity brothers wanted peace at any price, quiet on the campus, no broken bones.
This is a run-down school — the football field needs seeding and the bleachers need replacing. This needs to be a run-down school because if it were wealthy the need to sell all those chocolates wouldn’t be as dire.
Within this school we have something akin to the mafia:
The Vigils kept things under control. Without The Vigils, Trinity might have been torn apart like other schools had been, by demonstrations, protests, all that crap.
The school is populated with a variety of teachers, some good, some not so good. Brother Eugene: one of the good brothers who teach at Trinity. ‘A peaceful sort’. He exists to contrast with Brother Leon.
The Vigils meet in a small room behind the gym.
Obie works at the grocery store stacking shelves for a part-time job. A friend of the family owns the store, suggesting a cosy, small town where everyone knows everyone.
But this version of American suburbia is an snail under the leaf setting — underneath, things are rotten. Case in point: The Vigils. The gang headed by Archie. These boys run the town. Lead by Archie. President is another bastard called Carter. Obie is secretary and underdog.
For fun there’s the Teen-Age Canteen where the boys have the opportunity to meet girls, referred to as ‘broads’, because these boys objectify female characters as if they’re an entirely different species.
NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR
In a novel, even the unseen narrator can be considered a character. I feel the narrative voice is masculine, perhaps someone who knows these boys really well, a stand-in for a fellow student at the school. He talks about girls as if they are a different species: “The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.” (Not the way girls usually describe each other.) However, he is also closely emulating the voice of the characters themselves. ‘Close’ third person.
This close third person narrator reminds us occasionally that he is telling a story. Here, he lampshades some pretty obvious symbolism. Perhaps as he was writing even Cormier thought the cross symbolism felt a little heavy handed:
The shadows of the goalposts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes. That’s enough symbolism for one day, Obie told himself.
Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War
Cormier’s narrator is an all-knowing, misanthropic, pessimistic character who can zoom right into the psychologies of the characters as if he knows them better than they know themselves (he does), and that’s because he sees through their eyes. The narrator is one of them. However, The Chocolate War does not have the immediacy of voice common to most young adult novels. Most are written either in first person right after the events, or occasionally in third person right after the events. Perhaps because this was never meant for the young adult audience, Cormier’s narrator seems much older, as if he’s looking back in time as an unnamed student in this school, but with the psychological insight of a 40 year old man. The advantage of this kind of narrator is that his wisdom can fill in the gaps for an audience who has yet to give much thought to how social groups and dominance works. A teenage narrator would seem preternaturally gifted in psychology to believably write this stuff.
The Chocolate War does not ask the young adult reader to trust in the voice of a single speaker or to accept a single, unchallenged view of events. In alternating chapters we are given thirteen different characters’ perspectives on events. Within some chapters, especially chapters twenty-five and thirty-five, the reader gets multiple points of view. Although Jerry Renault’s views are those most frequently shared, they do not account for even one third of the book. Despite the fact that no adult’s thoughts are represented (we never see into Jerry’s father’s or Brother Leon’s or Brother Jacque’s thoughts, for instance), the book does not limit itself to a single adolescent’s view of the world. The reader develops a sense of a complicated world through the recognition of competing positions and perspectives that are quite different from each other despite their all being “young adult”.
The Chocolate War is not written in first-person address, though the narrator reports throughs from the position of the characters being portrayed. We are told, for instance, that “The Goober was beautiful when he ran”. We understand that Goober himself considers this to be true in contrast with the rest of his life, including the moment under narration in which he attempts a terrifying “assignment”. Here we see what Gerard Genette would call indirect address.
Mike Cadden, The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR
QUESTIONS AND REVELATIONS IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR
Cormier is a master of this technique:
If you have too many scenes that just set up questions and knock ’em down, then the story will seem plodding and episodic, and it won’t build a larger narrative. So you have to mix quick payoffs with longer mysteries. Usually the question that ends the scene is a practical one that’s instantly answered by the circumstances of the next. But you should keep your audience looking further ahead, breathlessly wondering how the events they’ve just witnessed will affect the rest of the story.
Matt Bird, The Secrets of Story
Cormier was a master of the question and revelation sequence. He makes readers work just the right amount before handing over the information. I started to make detailed notes on how Cormier was achieving this, but it soon got so complicated I gave up the task. Just know that this book looks simple at first read but is extremely intricately plotted, with set ups and pay-offs, perfect foreshadowing and expert subtleties. If I planned to write a book similar to this I would persevere with my detailed notes.
Our protagonist (in its original, Greek sense — the character who gets the story going) is Jerry Renault. We see him getting beaten up in the first scene, straight into ‘action’, in its most widely used sense.
Hey Coach, you pit on me, Jerry protested. Stop the spitting, coach. What he said aloud was, ‘I’m all right, coach,’ because he was a coward about stuff like that, thinking one thing and saying another, planning one thing and doing another — he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime.
Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War
He is not the right body type to be playing football. Too skinny. Ironically, this is his dream.
Chapter two flips to Obie.
Obie was bored. Worse than bored. He was disgusted. He was also tired.
There we have them — Obie’s main psychological shortcomings in the very first line. Cormier is masterful the way he combines unexpected emotions. We can imagine how someone would mistake disgust for boredom, though may not of thought of this before.
The alternating points of view establish that this is not a story about any one character or hero, but about a community. The community itself is the main character, and this community has a dark, seedy underbelly. Another story like this is Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. Another is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.
The boys in this story each has their own shortcoming, except for Archie, who demonstrates better than anyone in YA literature how psychopathy is an evolutionary advantage.
Archie is kingpin and has a very specific goal. It’s Archie’s goal which drives the story, making him the ‘main character’ in a sense. His aim is always to inflict as much psychological pain as possible on those around him.
Certain other boys desire the approval of Archie. Emile is another sociopath, though not quite as smart. I suspect circumstances have deprived him of empathy, whereas Archie seems ‘born evil’.
Goober just wants to be left alone to run.
Jerry doesn’t want anything at first but gets sucked into the drama and wants to passively aggressively claim some status for himself. He doesn’t have to do much to earn that — in fact, he has to do the opposite of something — nothing, so the little rebellions prove too tempting.
So in these characters we see the whole range of desire, from ‘leave me alone’ to ‘I’m going to turn this little community upside down.’
The coach is Renault’s first opponent, though it remains to be see whether he is an ally. Teachers can swing either way — in fiction as in real life, they can seem mean but actually have students’ best interests at heart. This coach is a stereotypical mean guy. He looks like ‘an old gangster’ and even has a movie-star scar on his cheek. ‘But a helluva coach, they said’. Turns out the meanest looking coach isn’t the most dangerous adult in the school.
Obie’s arch nemesis is Archie. Archie is depicted as an ‘all American boy’, with blonde hair blowing in the wind, sitting in the bleachers. ‘Archie turned and smiled at [Obie] benevolently, like a goddam kind passing out favours.’ Archie is soon set up as the main force of evil — the true, evil villain of the story. Even the title is drawn from him — minions must buy him Hersheys or else get on the wrong side of him.
There’s no true friendship in this novel. When a pecking order is being established it has to be constantly maintained. Everyone is everyone else’s opponent. Though it appears Goober and Jerry could have been friends, they weren’t for the entirety of the novel.
Each character has his own plan in an intricate big struggle for top of the hierarchy. The boys are each a different example of one way of going about gaining dominance within an institution. For instance: Jerry — passive aggressively, by refusing to do as asked, then getting a bit addicted to the adrenaline of rebellion and taking it further. Archie — like a sociopath, taking power from others, killing their spirits Goober — Just trying to get along unnoticed, manoeuvring around the power plays of others These characters are mirrored in the characters of the teachers.
The minor big struggles of the pranks and the refusal to sell lead up to the big fight — a literal big struggle scene which we suspect may have killed Jerry Renault. (You have to go back to the first sentence of the book to be sure, but it’s metaphorical — his spirit has been killed.) This fight has been set up by Archie to get Jerry back for refusing to start selling the chocolates again. He is pitted against Emile Janza, a strong physical opponent. Students can buy raffle tickets. They write on the tickets who gets to hit who and where. Things get out of hand when Emile loses control of himself.
Jerry is almost dead when he comes to some kind of understanding:
The knowledge, the knowledge: what he had discovered. Funny, how his mind was clear suddenly, apart from his body, floating above his body, floating above the pain. ‘It’ll be all right, Jerry.’ No, it won’t. He recognized Goober’s voice and it was important to share the discovery with Goober. He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. … They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.
The Chocolate War
When writing anagnorises: Make your character come to the absolute brink of (spiritual/actual) death before giving them their epiphany. Otherwise it won’t feel like they earned it.
Seelinger Trites makes use of the word ‘epiphany’ when describing the revelation that takes place in this novel, and points out that the anagnorisis experienced by Jerry in The Chocolate War is completely typical of young adult literature:
[The] intertextual question that lies at the heart of The Chocolate War — “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — is representative of an ethos that informs many adolescent novels. The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature form children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read…much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his immediate environment, usually represented by family and home.
Children’s literature often affirms the child’s sense of Self and her or his personal power. But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death. […]
In The Chocolate War, for example, Jerry Renault must negotiate his place within a family, in terms of a religion, and in his school.. Jerry’s epiphany is a recognition that social institutions are bigger and more powerful than individuals. The lesson he learns is a primary one in Young Adult literature.
Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature
YA literature reassures readers that the world is your oyster if only you can find the power within yourself to rise above it or up into it.
To help lead a character (and readers) towards a anagnorisis, authors often make use of a symbol which they return to again and again. In YA novels, it’s quite often photos. But it can just as easily be something else. In The Chocolate War, it’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prucock“. Jerry sees a poster with Do I Dare Disturb The Universe? (the inspiration for Seelinger Trite’s book on YA literature) every time he opens his locker.
This is a classic case of: The reader has the anagnorisis even if the character doesn’t. When the character doesn’t have any revelation, the author has to use recursive tricks like a photo, a line from a poem, a stamp on a hand (in The Changeover by Margaret Mahy) to ram home the message for readers.
I would like to point out that Jerry’s advice to Goober can be read two ways. It can sound like he’s saying, ‘buckle in, do what they tell you.’ But Seelinger Trites believes the message is yes, do disturb the universe:
Jerry’s final words in the novel echo the novel’s opening statement, “They murdered him.” His final lines are unspoken thoughts that he directs to his friend Goober: “Do whatever they wanted you to do…They tell you to do your own thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too…. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober. Although Jerry appears defeated and is even possibly dead by novel’s end, the book still answers the question affirmatively: yes, he can disturb the universe. In fact, he should disturb the universe. Doing so may be painful, but Jerry has affected other people with the choices he has made.
Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature
The events in this novel ring very true to me. They probably ring true to you, too. Weird things happen in schools. This viral thread about the bread reminds me of the incidents in The Chocolate War, though doesn’t end as darkly.
Bobby Kent was a bully–a steroid-pumped 20-year-old who dominated his peers in their comfortable, middle-class Ft. Lauderdale beach community through psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
But on a summer night in 1993, Bobby was lured to the edge of the Florida everglades with a promise of sex and drugs. . .and was never seen alive again. The tormentor had become the victim in a bizarre and brutal act of vengeance carried out with ruthless efficiency and cold-blooded premeditation by seven of his high school acquaintances–including his lifelong best friend–and instigated by one overweight, underloved teenager who believed her life would be perfect. . .if only Bobby Kent were dead.
BULLY is a riveting story of adolescent rage and bloody revenge–all the more harrowing and horrific because its true.
I Kill Giants is an American comic book written by Joe Kelly, illustrated byJ. M. Ken Niimura. The comic series is now ten years old. This post is about the 2017 film adaptation, directed by Anders Walter. The guy who wrote the comic also wrote the screenplay. I watched it on Netflix last night with my ten-year-old daughter and trust me when I say, this is a film for the tween-adolescent crowd — a reality which is always reflected in IMDb scores (which are not graded by ten year olds, and certainly not by ten-year-old girls). That’s why it gets a paltry 6.2.
I’m interested in this film regardless, because last week I happened to be reading Disturbing The Universe by Roberta Seelinger Trites, who takes the philosophy of Heidegger — particularly his concept of ‘Being-toward-death’ — and points out that this view of life/death is perfect to describe pretty much every young adult novel. (Or film, I’ll add.) I updated my Death In Children’s Literature post last week to reflect that lightbulb moment (thanks to Trites) and it just so happens I’ve spent the following Saturday evening watching the perfect example of a Heidegger YA movie. It’s like Joe Kelly read Heidegger (or Trites) before sitting down to compose I Kill Giants.
FTR, I don’t honestly believe that’s how creativity happens — these things are ‘in the air’. Storytellers absorb the ideas, reshuffle, re-vision, and (re-)produce old ideas using original character webs and new settings. I’ve done it myself. I can apply Heidegger’s philosophy to stuff I wrote before I’d even heard of the guy, let alone the concept. We’re all products of some big ur-Culture.
I’m especially interested by these concepts which are ‘in the air’, unnamed until someone names them — a philosopher, a literature professor, a writer in interview. It’s only then that patterns start to reveal themselves. Covert ideologies come to the fore — some of them hugely problematic. I have no major political beef with I Kill Giants; I’m interested in this children’s story because I am a reformed Goth it makes for an excellent primer in Heidegger and death. Buckle in.
What is Being-toward-death?
No point me re-inventing the wheel. This idea is as old as humanity itself — we can go back at least as far as Confucius. Hard to know what that guy actually said but apparently he once said, “We all have two lives, the second one starts when you realise you only have one.” This is another way of expression the developmental stage in which we realise, at a gut level, that we too are going to die.
Heidegger came later.
The Guardian Australia published a series on death back in 2009 (death hasn’t changed much since then — it’s still perfectly relevant). In Part 6, Simon Crichley wrote about Heidegger’s concept of death.
I would recommend that article before delving into the Wikipedia explanation of Heideggerian terminology. (You know it’s gotten serious when the name of the philosopher has been turned into an adjective.) There’s always the source material itself, of course, which I don’t plan to read.
If you prefer to listen, Episode 100 of the Philsophize This podcast is about Heidegger. (They transcribe their podcasts.) The next two are about Heidegger as well — the first one is about how he fits into the wider study of philosophy. His teacher was a pretty influential guy in his own right — a mathematician who turned into a philosopher. The teacher was all about certainty and truth, and how do you know what’s certain? He was right into cognitive biases, which we’re hearing a lot more of today in books such as Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me. Heidegger took issue with a lot of what his teacher said. Basically, Heidegger wanted to dig down further and define some very basic concepts which had been glossed over. In order to do this, he had to invent his own words — not because he was being a poser, but because of genuine linguistic holes.
Here’s my own work-in-progress bullet-point summary of Being-toward-death:
German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote a book which in English translates to Being and Time.
Heidegger contributed a number of different/related ideas to philosophy: Dasein (being), attitudes towards technology (‘Ready-to-hand’), a definition of the concept of ‘World’, and so on.
The one I’m interested in here is the concept of ‘Being-toward-death’. German loves capitalisation, so you can capitalise the ‘B’ in ‘Being-toward-death’ if you want. Or not, because it’s English too, now. (Minor grammatical point.) The German is Sein zum Tode.
In a nutshell: Being = time and time is finite. The reason Heidegger’s words are hyphenated is because you can’t have one without the other. There’s no ‘being’ without then dying and vice versa. (This applies to all of Heidegger’s terms which end up hyphenated in English.)
Until we understand that we’re all going to die, we are unable to appreciate the time we do have.
(Can you think of a subculture of people who think a lot about that? I can. Goths. The Goth is the ultimate Being-toward-death philosopher.)
In order to really understand the finitude of life (ie. death) Heidegger broke it down into four different little epiphanies:
Death is non-relational. When standing before death you cut off all relations to others. You can’t really understand death by seeing others die — you have to understand that you, yourself — yes, you — are also going to die. This has since been contested, notably by Edith Stein and Emmanuel Levinas. The fear of losing someone can be worse than the fear of dying yourself — because then you’re the one who has to deal with the grief and the mourning.
Death is certain. There’s no getting out of it. No matter how good you are, no matter how many brassicas you eat.
Death is indefinite. So, you’re definitely going to die, but you don’t know how long you’ve got left. We could die this afternoon, overnight in our sleep. It can happen ANY TIME.
Death is not to be ‘outstripped’. (That’s probably a bad translation.) What the hell does that mean? Death is important. It overshadows everything else. This is what Heidegger meant when he famously came out with this first-glance bullshite: death is the “possibility of impossibility”.
Once you get all that about death, then you are in a state of Being-toward-death. You are free to live authentically.
Being-toward-death in I Kill Giants
At first I Kill Giants reminded me of Donnie Darko for a slightly younger audience — an adolescent loner, who lives in a community, is battling something supernatural and ‘crazy’, which no one else can see — the giants who circle the island. She is completely preoccupied with this mission. The task of killing giants causes great anxiety but also gives Barbara a superiority complex. In a story of this variety, about the possible delusions of the ‘village crazy’, we can expect a big reveal. This kind of reveal is binary in essence for we learn one of the following:
Either the hero is proven right. This is what happens in Donnie Darko. Donnie was correct about the weird thing happening in his town. Everyone else is ignorant.
Or the hero is revealed to be legit crazy. This is what happens in I Kill Giants. I should be careful about use of the word ‘crazy’, except that’s the accusation levelled against Barbara within the setting, and the word contains all the baggage it’s meant to.
The audience and Barbara receive this revelation at the same time (unless you predicated it somehow — I suspected but couldn’t be sure). The guidance counsellor tells Barbara, “Your mother needs to see you.” Then we learn there’s a woman-in-the-attic plot mildly reminiscent of Jane Eyre — Barbara’s mother has been upstairs in bed (probably cancer) and Barbara has simply refused to see her. Instead, her giant killing activities are an unhealthy displacement activity — unhealthy because this activity is a genuine delusion which is affecting her life.
The giant is about as metaphorical as metaphors get: Even my ten-year-old got it, though didn’t know the word ‘metaphor’; the giant stands in for ‘fear of death’, and/or mental illness in all its different forms — perhaps depression, perhaps anxiety. Bad feelings, in any case. Anticipation of grief. Dread, in other words.
Barbara has not been dressed up as a Goth (the movement has kind of moved on), but she is the modern equivalent. Barb is a bit of a scene kid, has her own style designed to stand out, but at the same time hopes to be invisible. The rabbit ears, as she explains to the new girl, represent her spirit animal. She has no respect for authority — only ‘respect’ in the sense that teachers work hard. She doesn’t respect someone just because of their position. She treats her school psychologist badly. (This is her moral shortcoming.) But first, the setting.
Setting and Being-toward-death
To hammer home the metaphors for its adolescent audience, this story is set on an island. Islands can mean various things in story but the most obvious one is ‘isolation’. Even when surrounded by love ones, we all go into that dark night alone. Death is a supremely lonely experience. The specific island chosen in this story happens to be Long Island.
When Barbara is taken home to Sophia’s house and find herself upstairs, she becomes upset. Obviously, there’s all this symbolism to do with houses — I wrote a post on that too — and Barbara is not only forced to remember her mother sick in bed at her own home, but ‘upstairs’ is itself closer in altitude to our notion of Heaven.
What era is this set? Technology usually gives us a clue. Until the older sister’s smartphone rings, this story could happily exist in the Stranger Things universe, back in 1980. It helps that those big frame glasses have come back into fashion — our young protagonist wears 1980s frames which are actually very modern. But apart from that mobile phone, this story could actually be set in 1980. The story opens with a joke between squabbling brothers — one criticises the other’s hair. They both have the exact same hair — an out-dated — or perhaps timeless — cut similar to Moss’ in The I.T. Crowd. Barbara is into Dungeons and Dragons, which kicked off in the 1970s, and plays a starring role in Freaks and Geeks — this is the game that eventually unites the main Freak with the Geeks. Freaks and Geeks is set in 1980.
Because I Kill Giants feels like a 1980, 2017 combo, this makes it ‘vaguely contemporary’. But add in the folklore of the giants, and Barbara’s explanations of the giant ur-story, and now the storytellers have achieved ‘timeless’. What does Heidegger say about time? That’s pretty interesting. In order to understand the finality of death, we do need to understand the concept of eternity. In our modern culture (not all cultures are like this, by the way), we think of time in terms of present-past-future but Heidegger considered this a mistake. In order to understand the meaning of your own life (and death) you need to understand your place within eternity — how are you different from others of your generation? From someone living 10,000 years ago? In a story which deals with the concept of death, the storytellers will very often aim for that feeling of timelessness in the setting. I Kill Giants is an excellent example of that.
Then there’s the weather, which relates to season. The majority of the story takes place in a kind of in-between season — autumn? I’d have to watch it again to be sure it’s not set in spring. Autumn would be more in line with popular symbolism — ‘autumn years’ and all that, but it happens to be tornado season. The incoming tornado is a classic example of pathetic fallacy, and not more more can be said that Seelinger Trites hasn’t said already:
3 recurring patterns in YA literature
DEATH OCCURS ONSTAGE — Whereas in MG novels death tends to happen off stage, reported back by characters, YA novels make the death far more immediate. We’re often right there for the death.
DEATH IS UNTIMELY, VIOLENT AND UNNECESSARY — Whereas MG novels tend to kill off the elderly and parental figures, YA novels kill the young.
TRAGIC LOSS OF INNOCENCE — When the YA character first understands the finality of death, at first it seems really tragic. But before they came to their acceptance of death they were ready for a fall. They overcome tragic vulnerability, avert catastrophe and transform the tragedy of their own mortality into some level of triumph. In this way, the YA novel isn’t so different from The Little Match girl, who came to terms with death (okay, died) but everything was okay actually.
Character and Being-toward-death
Goth characters make good main characters in stories which explore the concept of Being-toward-death.
Barbara is a loner bordering on misanthropist. This is her presented as her main psychological shortcoming, as well as her moral shortcoming, because she’s not very nice to the new girl. She needs to learn to connect with people. This hooks into this idea that death is a lonely experience, or to use Heidegger’s terminology: non-relational. “When standing before death you cut off all relations to others.” Heidegger also wrote about how everyone is connected, in a Buddhist kind of way which he didn’t call Buddhist.
Addendum to that point: Barbara’s fear of death is fear of her mother’s death. In this respect, the philosophy of the storytellers is more in line with more modern critics who argue death of another can be as scary as death of yourself.
The anthropomorphised character of Grief (the giant) is massive because “Death is not to be outstripped.” Barbara does understand the enormity of Death at the beginning of the story — but the understanding is limited to her delusional self. She has yet to snap back into reality. This story wouldn’t have worked so well if she’d turned Death into, say, a fairy or a goblin. Giants are huge just as Death overshadows everything.
There are a number of separate Battle scenes in the big struggle sequence of I Kill Giants — as is pretty usual in storytelling. We have a big struggle between non-family peers (the bullies are basically the giant, too — Barbara has drawn inspo from the bully scenes*). There’s the conflict within the family, in which the older sister is trying to hold things together. The sister also provides a reflection character in which she shows her difficult emotion to others, but unlike Barbara the sister’s dealing with the real emotion, not with a fantasy. There’s the conflict with the kind and well-meaning adult who is an opponent simply because her goal is different (the school psychologist — who has a surprising amount of time to spare for Barbara, but hey, this is a fantasy school). Then there’s the Big Battle scene with the Big, Bad Baddie — the fantasy of the fight with the giant, who isn’t real, but for story purposes he is. All of these big struggle scenes are of course proxy for the main big struggle — the entirely internal, non-big struggle — Barbara’s refusal to see her mother… and to confront death.
There are several key scenes in which we see Barbara coming to terms with death: In one of the first she meets her psychologist’s baby and says, “He’s going to die. We’re all going to die!” Then she runs off like the little Goth that she is. That’s pretty much Heidegger, word-for-word. “Death is certain.” Barbara has at some point had that part of the Self-Revelation regarding death. Hey, it was a rough day.
Then there’s the part where the giant tells Barbara, “I haven’t come for your mother. I’ve come for you.” This is a major, on-the-page anagnorisis — an absolutely typical anagnorisis, content-wise, in an adolescent story about death: Your mother is going to die soonish, but you’re going to die, too. You won’t know when. I’ll be lurking here, waiting. The giant tells her that every living thing must die. This is a concept you won’t find in stories aimed at adults. As Roberta Seelinger Trites has pointed out, this is specific to the developmental stage of being adolescent.
Continuing down that line, for the typical adult viewer, I’d say the New Situation phase of this movie is a little — well, a lot — too hokey. For the bulk of the film Barbara is confronting all four stages of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death — literally a minute later, after a cut to a new school year, new, summery-lighting, we’re watching a completely different character in the same body, standing confidently in class telling everyone about her summer and how everything was great. A subsequent scene shows Barbara telling her psychologist that death is not to be feared. Perhaps this is true — it’s a very common ideology in story — but it’s okay for death to still be sad, right? We see melancholy in the final scene as Barbara sleeps in her mother’s now-empty bed, but the emotional flip after the anagnorisis phase is too heavily juxtaposed. Do characters need to change in a story? Yes, in a dramatic arc they do. The question is how much. Barbara has gone from fearing death to the point where she couldn’t live an authentic life (symbolised by residing in a fantasy world) to an almost mystical acceptance of death as a Good Thing. I’m not quite on board with that scope of change. I don’t buy it for one thing; the bigger problem is, I don’t even want that as an aspiration in a sympathetic character. Instead, Barbara has veered from one brand of crazy to another, and I don’t believe that was the intention.
*By the way, the bully scenes don’t strike me as especially realistic — these girls are too old to be engaging in slamming-against-locker, grab-around-the-throat, surround-on-the-beach type stuff. That’s not to say it never happens like that — this kind of bullying looks like something to an outsider, which is why it’s so appealing on screen, even when bullying has typically become far more covert and insidious by the developmental stage otherwise depicted.
Takeaway Points for Children’s Writers
My ten-year-old enjoyed I Kill Giants because despite the heavy subject matter — the grief around a dying mother — this story conforms more to middle grade fiction than to contemporary YA:
Death happens off the page. In YA it often happens right there in front of us.
Death happens to an older generation — the mother. In YA, death tends to happen to same-age peers; in MG, it’ll be a parent, grandparent or something the same age.
Before telling stories about death, what are our own feelings about it? What’s the end-game, emotionally? For our characters, for our young audience, for us? Helen Garner is an Australian author who writes for adults, but I like what she has to say about her novel The Spare Room: There are many ways of dealing with death. You’ll see every scenario play out in real life, and complete denial is one way of dealing with death. People do it every single day, folks. There are people who will die this afternoon, who should probably know they’re going to die, but they continue to deny it. And then they die. And that was okay, too. Where do you stand on that? Would that be an acceptable ideology in a children’s book? (If your answer is yes, you’d be breaking a long, established pattern!)
The invention of cameras was a boon for storytellers. Writers and film directors have this new narrative tool — in the shape of a camera — which allows them to play around with perspective, to use as a metaphor and as a way to explore death. (No kidding. Read on!)
THE CAMERA FIEND TROPE
Some characters use a camera. These characters love their camera. They’ll have the device with them everywhere they go and they’ll use it well, usually sticking it in the most unwelcome of places – they’ll take the most inane pictures they can, record everything they see or all of the above (maybe even at the risk of life or limb). Something embarrassing happens? They’ll snap a shot. Important plot event? They caught it on tape. You can always expect this character to wear their camera on their sleeve for any important or non-important moment that may arise, probably becoming uncomfortable without the object at near. It’s possible that they derive some kind of strange pleasure from watching people, though its best not to get into that.
Twelve-year-old Circa Monroe has a knack for restoring old photographs. It’s a skill she learned from her dad, who loves old pictures and putting fun digital twists on them. His altered “Shopt” photos look so real that they could fool nearly anybody, and Circa treasures the fun stories he makes up to explain each creation.
One day, her father receives a strange phone call requesting an urgent delivery, and he heads out into a storm. The unimaginable happens: a tornado, then a terrible accident. Just as Circa and her mom begin to pick up the pieces, a mysterious boy shows up on their doorstep, a boy called Miles who remembers nothing about his past. The only thing he has with him is the photograph that Circa’s dad intended to deliver on the day he died.
As Circa tries to help Miles recover his identity, she begins to notice something strange about the photos she and her father retouched-the digital flourishes added to the old photos seem to exist in real life. The mysteries of the Shopt photos and Miles’s past are intertwined, and in order to solve both, Circa will have to figure out what’s real and what’s an illusion.
Why have photography hobbyists become such a popular trope, especially in young adult novels?
Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, betwween acting and being acted upon.
Seelinger Trites works with the theory that death and narrative structure are linked.
[Many YA] novels employ photographing protagonists as metaphors for the relationship between power and agency. The metaphor of the camera bestowing upon the photographer a sense of empowerment based on the communicative abilities of photographs occurs often in literature.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
As examples, Seelinger Trites analyses the following:
A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry (1977)
Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (1991)
Spite Fences by Trudy Krisher (1994)
Now that cameras are ubiquitous, it’s no surprise photography has become increasingly common in stories for YA. More modern examples (created after Seelinger Trites wrote Disturbing The Universe):
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the viewpoint character makes experimental short movies — Lowry’s A Summer To Die sounds like it might have been the mother of Jesse Andrews’ novel. Both are about teenagers standing nearby as another teenager dies.
The Secret History Of Us by Jess Kirby — the viewpoint character has lost her memory in an accident. Photographic evidence helps her to work out the mystery of what happened to her and provokes the return of certain memories.
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw — a love story about a shy photographer and a girl who is slowly turning into glass.
Hold Still by Nina LaCour — photography is a means of expression for Caitlin, functioning kind of like a diary
Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan — When Blake snaps a picture of a street person for his photography homework, he never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom. The flash is especially metaphorical: “You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her.”
Seelinger Trites explains that photography has a specific function in YA, and the pattern is repeated. The camera is a ‘metaphorical representation for achieving agency’. When you’re on the snapping side of the camera you are no longer the object. You’re in control. You’re the one doing the observing, the judging. In a photography narrative, the main character becomes more and more aware of their own agency. That’s the character change.
Pictures are important not so much in and of themselves but for what they teach the adolescent, especially as they become repeated artifacts that allow the character to witness the same scene during several different points in her or his development.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
[The] need to recognize one’s own agency is a central pattern of adoleescent literature; we achieve adulthood more comfortably if we recognize that we have some control over the various subject positions we occupy than if we feel entirely like objects, pawns, in other people’s movements. But conversely, maturity also depends on our ability to maintain, when necessary, an object position, for we are all objects of the cultural forces that constantly shape us. Again, the relationship between subjecta nd object is a fluid one, but gaining an increased understanding of one’s power as an acting subject is inevitable during maturation.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
SUSAN SONTAG ON CAMERAS
In 1977, Susan Sontag produced a collection of essays On Photography. It’s pretty famous. Points especially relevant to YA:
In their ubiquity and passivity, photographs can become a source of aggression.
Cameras can create a sense of vicariousness that may also sanction the photographer’s nonintervention in painful issues.
For characters who take pictures instead of becoming involved, photography can become a source of complicity, a way to approve tacitly that which they may not otherwise be able to change.
Cameras serve to both empower and disempower adolescents’ agency.
CAMERAS IN MIDDLE GRADE FICTION
Until recently, regular kids didn’t have access to cameras. Now every adult carries a camera in their pocket and we give our older models to our kids. Kids take photos now. Perhaps this is part of the reason photography as a metaphor has come down into MG.
Though this novel wasn’t originally written for children, the camera plays a starring role in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, in which the town vagabond is entrusted with a camera which has been won — along with a lifetime’s supply of film — by the main character’s family. When I read this story I assumed the camera had been included for the sake of the plot, even though the setting is based on the author’s own grandparents’ farm, but as it turns out they really did win a lifetime’s supply of photos after the war, when film and development was very expensive. In Wolf Hollow Toby is a what TV Tropes refers to as a ‘camera fiend’.
The reason I assumed the camera was a plot device is because it’s a very good one. When a story is written using anything other than an omniscient viewpoint, a camera can offer insights and evidence concerning happenings outside the realm of the characters’ knowledge. In this MG novel, the camera isn’t really used as part of the main character’s change to someone with agency, but as part of the mystery plot. Mystery writers must come up with various ways their young characters can solve mysteries — talking to adults, keeping watch from the shadows and finding evidence such photos are common tricks.
CAMERA AS TRUTH-TELLER
It is generally assumed in story that the camera does not lie. While this has been true until recently, that’s changing. We’re yet to see many stories come through — at least for younger children — which make use of the fact that photos can be easily doctored by anyone with appropriate software. I predict ‘fake news’ as a huge theme in YA fiction in the coming years.
CAMERA AS SOURCE OF AGGRESSION
There are definitely camera as gun elements to Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, in which Toby is hunted as wolf while he in turn is only as dangerous as a camera, shooting nothing more than photos.
In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood also uses the camera as a stand-in for a gun. It’s handy that in English the word ‘shoot’ is used for both taking a photo and using a gun. Cameras are a recurring motif throughout Atwood’s work.
Note that when we say ‘camera as gun’ we are talking about the invasive nature of cameras. When you have a camera pushed into your face without your consent, and when the photos of you are seen by others without your consent, this is invasive.
It is a superstition of many Real Life religions and cultures that cameras and photography are harmful, with many believing that being photographed may steal their soul and taking great pains to avoid it (This is ostensibly the Soul Jar variant of the Phantom Zone Picture).
Absent from classic fairy tales: Cameras. Tales as collected by Grimm are not about self-reflection. Characters don’t grow. They exist as archetypes. Fairy tales are told by an unseen omniscient narrator, avoiding the more modern narrative tricks.
But there is a fairytale camera equivalent, I believe, and that is the mirror. When Snow White’s mother asks the mirror to educate her on the fairest in the land, she knows and we know that it is telling her the truth. (Mirrors aren’t known for their diplomacy, and nor are cameras.)
In Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman creates a fantasy world with a palimpsest of our real world — Oxford, Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin. Accordingly, he includes fantasy elements which are connected to real world technologies. Early in the story we see the Scholars — with Lyra hidden in the wardrobe — showing what Pullman calls ‘photograms‘ from an expedition to the North. These photograms are in black and white, in keeping with the olde worlde feel of Oxford and the patriarchal set up depicted. Some of the photos from the expedition have been developed using the normal emulsion, but some of them have been developed using ‘special emulsion’. This reveals a different landscape altogether — the Scholars and Lyra can now see a hidden city, existing in a world separate but connected from our own.
A photogram is not something entirely made up by Pullman. It is a picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. How do you take a photo without a camera, you might ask? By placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.
Later the word ‘photogram’ was used to refer to the earliest photographs. The word has now fallen out of use.
In fantasy, a variety of tools can be used for the purpose of seeing into a parallel, magical world. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Webb invents a ‘seeing stone’ which allows the main characters to see hobgoblins in the garden.
CAMERAS IN THE HORROR GENRE
The trope in which cameras reveal what the eye cannot see is used heavily in the horror genre. The camera which can see paranormal activity is a type of magical camera, reminiscent of the fairy tale magic mirror.
For instance, in the film Insidious, a medium and her crew come to a haunted house, and by putting different ‘magical’ filters on the camera they are able to see scary, ghostly creatures hovering behind the boy, getting closer and closer until finally they are right inside him, inhabiting his body.
In one shot we see a picture of the sympathetic father but through the lens of the camera we learn he has been possessed by this hideous creature:
Insidious is not a particularly original horror film but it does what it does very well, making an excellent job of evoking a nightmare. Once the father is in the other world — the world we’ve been shown glimpses of via the camera in the familiar world — there is no longer any need for the camera as such, but that doesn’t mean cameras are not of influence. As he wanders around the scary mansion he finds gothic and grotesque creatures who stand (almost perfectly) still, as if their photograph has been taken and now that’s all that’s left of them.
Here he examines a woman who stands completely still in the middle of ironing in a 1950s version of his living room, except when she blinks and scares the living daylights of both him and the audience.
CAMERA AS BOOKEND NARRATIVE
Though The Blair Witch Project is also a horror, it uses the camera differently. This film tells the story of characters who have been killed. We know at the beginning of the story that they are dead, which adds suspense and intrigue from the start. This lets us sit through the slightly unpleasant and somewhat boring experience of watching unedited footage as three film students pack for a hike in the woods, asking each other about film and equipment etc. The ‘unfound (and unedited) footage’ story provides the narrative reason why anyone knows what happened.
Thirteen is a 2003 feature length indie film which punches above its low-budget weight thanks to expert storytelling and characterisation. Director Catherine Hardwicke co-wrote the script with her erstwhile step-daughter Nikki Reed, who also stars as Evie Zamora. Hardwicke has known Nikki since Nikki was five.
At the time this film came out I was teaching at a girls’ high school and this film impressed me for its realism. The realism is terrifying, in fact. I taught girls who idolised the young heroes in this story, and one who had been burning herself with cigarettes hoping to ‘be just like’ Tracy. This is definitely a film that needs to be watched with parental commentary, but it should be watched anyhow. This is realism for many adolescent girls. The intense relationship between Evie and Tracy, one built on dominance as much as it is built on love, is highly recognisable. Not all teenage girls get into one of these relationships, but many do. As Rachel Simmons writes in her book Odd Girl Out (published around the time this film came out), a relationship dynamic like Tracy and Evie’s is preparingTracy for relationship abuse later, when she gets into a romantic relationship. Better she learn some basic lessons now, while her mother is there to protect her somewhat.
This is why young women should see this film. Better they process it from the other side of a screen.
LOGLINE OF THIRTEEN
Sometimes I wonder if thirteen is considered unlucky because being thirteen-years-old is so hard.
A thirteen-year-old girl’s relationship with her mother is put to the test as she discovers drugs, sex, and petty crime in the company of her cool but troubled best friend.
GENRE OF THIRTEEN
Hardwicke first intended to write comedy, but soon realised after talking with Nikki that she couldn’t make a single thing up more interesting than what was going on in teenage girls’ real lives, so the film turned into a harrowing drama. So there’s an interesting insight into how much a story can change between conception and final draft. Stories can leap from one genre to another.
The actors say that in the theatre at the Sundance screening they heard uncomfortable giggles throughout the film, especially at times of high intensity. They possibly got as many ‘giggles’ as they would have had they produced an actual comedy. Audiences are weird like that.
Thirteen is not a thriller — it is a straight drama. But the structure involves the coming off of a mask,which makes the structure similar to transgression comedies and also noir thrillers. For much of the movie, Tracy Freeland is acting as a pseudo-adult, ditching her mother who she still needs very much in favour of a girl who has not been so well protected from the world. How does Hardwicke wrap up this story? It’s a story chock full of conflict — arguments with Tracy’s mother, father, brother, teacher and former best friends. Therefore the ‘big struggle sequence’ needs something extra. In this case it’s the coming off of the mask. After rejection from Tracy’s mother, Evie Zamora outs Tracy to everyone as a thief, self-harmer, drug abuser and all-round evil person. While this portrait of her is not quite right either, it is in this scene that Tracy’s mother finally gets the full picture regarding what’s been going on with her daughter. The mask is finally off. In the outtake scene we see Tracy on a roundabout (a regression to childhood), emitting a primal scream. The torment of keeping up this facade of rebel has passed.
SETTING OF THIRTEEN
The story is set basically where it is shot — inevitably, since these are landmark places:
Hollywood is a great place to set a story like this. Hollywood is the epicentre of image over substance. Though this story could have been set in any small town in the Western world, by making these girls so proximal to all that glitters, the effect of the media on how they behave is crystal clear. The media influences the kids – there are glossed over eyes watching the kids, from the posters on the walls.
Mel’s house is a real house which Hardwicke rented for the duration of shooting. They decorated the place themselves. Holly Hunter was surprised that the water really runs, because she was more used to sets and props. In the story, Mel has given the best room to her daughter and kept the room with the crappy wooden panelling for herself. This is indicative of how Mel feels about her daughter. She wants the best for her. The chicken coop just happened to be there, but they decided chickens would fit Mel’s character as she is super thrifty.
Most of the film is steady cam. This is partly to do with the low budget and the need to film in some very tight spaces, such as the bathroom of a real house (as opposed to a set). The only scenes not shot with steady cam are the opening and closing scenes, done with a tripod. (And also the scene where Brady picks up Tracy on the street, in which the camera was put onto a shopping trolley.) The low-budget feel of steady cam obviously serves to make an environment more gritty. Hardwicke explains in the commentary how very rushed they all were. With no time to relax, this makes it through to the final cut, where the characters bring real energy and movement into the house.
The poster is Evie’s eyes on another woman’s face.
‘Beauty is Truth’ The camera lingers on this billboard, which despite the low budget filming is not part of the natural environment — this is a poster made by the filmmakers, using Evie’s eyes photoshopped onto a model’s face. This is ironic since the pursuit of beauty means dishonesty, and in the end doesn’t mean anything at all. As the movie progresses, this billboard appears elsewhere (e.g. the gas station), where it is covered in graffiti. Tracy’s view of Evie has been tarnished. Beauty does not run deep with Evie.
At one point, Tracy is upset that her mother’s friend’s little girl is sleeping in her bed with the dog, and to make matters worse she has wet the bed. I have heard it said that when you’re poor, your bed is really important to you as your own space. When everything else is chaos, the bed can function as a respite, so to have that space invaded feels terrible.
The three main characters, Tracy, Mel and Evie, are established as soon as possible:
Often, the opening sequence is ‘the whole story in a nutshell’. In the opening scene of Thirteen, two girls sit on their bed, high, asking the other to hit them. The hitting symbolises the destructiveness of the friendship, and the fact that they’re high shows that this is a temporary, volatile time in their lives. Once Tracy gets through adolescence, her life will never be this intense again. At least, not in the same way.
The mother, Mel, is established as a kind, open-house, trendy woman who needs a strong community around her even at her own expense. (She is an addict.) Tracy shares a poem with Mel and Mel calls Tracy ‘baby’ as a term of endearment. This shows their closeness, but the poem is ‘really heavy’ and ‘scares me a little bit’. This is the inciting incident. Something between them has changed. In fact, this story opens in medias res. A lot has happened in Tracy’s life before this moment where she decides to ‘Break Bad’. (Tracy is the teenage girl equivalent of Walter White.) This history is conveyed mostly via the return of Brady, and Tracy’s negative reaction to a guy who appears pretty chill to us, the newcomers. By the way, Holly Hunter had to sign onto this film with much lower pay than usual. Before she agreed to it, she said Mel’s character had to be more fleshed out. Hardwicke spent a day or two rewriting Mel, and then Holly Hunter agreed to play her. This was probably a great call on Hunter’s part, because now we have a double reversal plot, like Lady Bird, in which both mother and daughter grow. The complexity of this mother puts a lot of YA novel mothers to shame. I feel we need more complex YA mothers in general.
At middle school, Evie Zamora saunters past. The other girls gossip about Evie Zamora’s scar but Tracy sticks up for Evie. Notice the girls have heard that Evie saved her little brother in a fire, whereas Tracy tells Mel her cousin’s boyfriend ‘put things inside me and pushed me into a fire’ much later. The audience never knows the truth about Evie Zamora, though we are given a clue at one point: The newspaper article Mel has in her hand when the girls come out in their boas and stickers confirms that some of what Evie said is true. (It’s subtle.)
Also in that scene:
“Is that my belt, Evie?”
Evie has no boundaries, because she has had her own invaded.
Evie is a girl full of contradictions, and we can never know girls like this as outsiders. For now we know that Evie is a popular girl who relies on her sexuality to win approval and love — a huge psychological shortcoming that Tracy, in her naivety, cannot yet see. This is Tracy’s shortcoming.
For obvious reasons, most films that feature underage sex star older actors — Carey Mulligan, playing 16 and 17 in An Education, was in her early 20s; Bel Powley, playing 15 in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was too. While there’s a logistical and moral logic to casting adults to play young people in explicit scenes, these choices distort our sense of what teenagers actually look like. (Films like Thirteen, and more recently Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, are notable exceptions.)
At school she is teased for her cabbage patch clothes, obviously influenced by her hippie mother. (Similar to Marcus in About A Boy.) When Tracy refuses to be called ‘baby’ she throws away her girl clothes. Something has switched over in her, something to do with Evie Zamora. Trying to do the right thing, Mel takes Tracy shopping at a traveling market type place where she is friends with the vendor. (She is friends with everybody. Tracy must want to be like her mother, one some level, just gets it really ass backwards.)
Tracy is happy with these clothes for now, but will soon learn that even cooler hippie clothes are not impressive to Evie Zamora. She wants to embody Evie. This will mean becoming her symbolic twin.
Tracy wants Evie in a primal kind of way. The way Tracy falls for Evie is very much like a romantic date. The highs and lows will be just as intense. The director calls the initial scene between Evie and Tracy ‘the shoot out scene’. Did Evie give Tracy the wrong number, or has the number been cut off? This is also unclear, though when Tracy invites herself shopping anyway it’s clear Evie didn’t care whether she turned up or not. By the way, the lack of clarity around details like this, and about Evie’s true backstory, is an excellent example of how writers don’t need to cover everything, tying the story up with a bow. Evie is more intriguing because we never know her. A girl like Evie is never entirely knowable, anyhow. When Evie is mysterious to the audience, we understand how enticing and mysterious she is to Tracy.
What does Mel want? Compared to earlier times in her past (we are told she is an addict) she’s doing really well. She has a house, fully booked hairdressing clients who come to the house and who are also her friends, an honour roll daughter and a nice house. Her shortcoming is the addict boyfriend, who is actually pretty cool apart from the fact he’s an addict, so we can empathise with her there. She wants her family life to continue as it is, but with the addition of a lover of her own. Unfortunately by this point, the only men interested in Mel are themselves addicts.
What does Evie want? Evie wants two things. She wants a stable home life but she also wants power. The two things are connected: If she can control people’s reactions to her she feels in control, despite living most of her life out of control.
Like a romance, Evie and Tracy are each other’s main opponents. Tracy stands in the way of Evie moving in with fantasy-mom Mel (or so she perceives). Evie stands in the way of Tracy finding a genuine boyfriend, genuine friends and a mellow home life.
Brady is also an opponent, disrupting Tracy’s home life from wayback. Interestingly, those flashbacks of Brady getting high in front of Tracy were added in later, after Hardwicke realised Jeremy Sisto had played the guy too likeably. There had to be a better reason why Tracy felt negatively towards him, and the audience needed to see it for ourselves. There’s also the flashback of Brady having sex with Mel in front of Tracy, through those symbolically glassed walls of the house, which would have been pretty harrowing.
Tracy plans to be just like Evie — dress like Evie, act like Evie. Then she will be as popular as Evie, and her entire life will change for the better.
When Evie realises Tracy’s mother is pretty cool (and easily manipulated) she plans to persuade Mel to let her move in with her. She plans to keep Tracy exactly where she wants her, and also plans to control the emotional tone of the household. This is a remarkably interesting and complex bit of characterisation and is masterfully pulled off.
Mel turns a blind eye to Tracy’s minor teenage transgressions, because she thinks they’re only minor. But when she gets a fuller picture she plans to get rid of Evie from her household by taking Evie back to her cousin’s. Unfortunately that in itself doesn’t fix things for Tracy, and in fact makes things temporarily worse. (It is by pure good fortune that Evie moves out of the area entirely.)
In some stories it’s hard to pick the battle, because every scene feels like a version on a fight. Thirteen is one of those films. The Battle Scene is the one where the hero comes close to death, either actually or symbolically. The big big struggle scene in Thirteen is the hardest to watch — the four women sit in Mel’s living room. Over the course of this scene the group dynamics flip entirely. At first the mother figures are on side with each other, reasonably parenting the out-of-control daughters. Evie tries to get Tracy onside, all the while sacrificing her to the wolves by creating a false narrative of Tracy as the bad influence. By the end of this scene, Brooke and Evie are fighting as one team, against Tracy and Mel. Brooke accuses Tracy of being really cruel. “Right now you’re a really bad influence. You cheat, you lie, you steal.”
This brings Tracy and Mel back together, completing the character arc into the character equivalent of a home-away-home story (though Tracy never went on a geographical journey). Mother and daughter are close again.
Visually, in line with big struggle scenes, there’s a lot of shots around doors in this movie – going through doors, shutting doors, slamming doors, barging in through doors. The mother can be in the very next room but kids create their own worlds. All they need is a door. They made sure to include a scene where Mel closes the door on Tracy, even though it’s mostly Tracy closing the door on Mel.
The big struggle scene is challenging for writers, because there’s only so much conflict the audience can take, and only so many ways to depict a big struggle. Where a main character is fighting with a range of different characters, the writer/director goes out of their way to mix up the tone, venue and nature of the big struggle scenes. There’s usually an actual physical tousle thrown in there somewhere, too. Interestingly, the physical tousle may not be directly related to the actual ‘fight’. In Hud, for instance, there’s a pig wrestling event, which provides visual interest in a series of big struggle scenes, but the pigs have nothing to do with the big struggle — the pigs are not opponents.
In Thirteen, Hardwicke includes a physical tousle between the shouting matches — in the living room between Tracy and Mason. This is the first of a series of big big struggles with each of the characters in turn. How else does she mix up the big struggle scenes?
There’s a class big struggle of words between Tracy and her mother, which starts with discovery of the piercings.
In the driveway, the Dad who has no time for his own kids rolls his eyes at this stoner boyfriend, but he is useless in his own way. However, nobody in this film is acted unsympathetically. We get the sense everyone has their own backstory, justifying their actions. Brady arrives back, barefoot, bearing a gift for Mel just like Evie did. Perhaps Evie has a sixth sense about how to win Mel over. She is an emotionally intelligent kid, in many ways.
Brady is not a verbal guy, handing Mel the chicken without words. I only noticed his laconic nature when it was pointed out — the actor has very few lines, communicating mostly via body language. The gift of the toy chicken works. Brady wins Mel over, despite having been out on a bender. Mel is a pushover, which is exactly the reason why she lets her daughter become entangled with Evie Zamora in the first place. This is a wordless big struggle, which goes against audience expectation. Would Mel have accepted him back so easily had he turned up full of excuses?
The movie is punctuated at regular intervals with Tracy cutting herself in the bathroom. This is Tracy battling with herself.
Mel knows how to comfort people when they are at their lowest. This is her special strength. She is a nurturer, and now she nurtures her own daughter. The audience sees — and hopefully Tracy does too — that her mother has her back, no matter how terrible she can be.
In contrast, Brooke has no revelation about Evie. Evie can do no wrong in Brooke’s deluded eyes. Brooke is emotionally impacted by the snide comment Tracy makes about her plastic surgery (a sore point with her), and is therefore unable to see Evie for who she is.
Even the minor character Brooke has had her own off-screen anagnorisis. Brooke walks out, saying she’s taking Evie to Ojai (a small town in California which is not Hollywood). Brooke has probably realised that her acting and modelling prospects are over, coinciding with the plastic surgery that didn’t make her young again, as she had promised. Brooke’s wish to be young again is brought sharply into focus by the two girls who really are young, and for whom things are far from perfect, despite their youth and their beauty.
The colour comes back into the film after a series of montages showing Mel sleeping in the same bed as Tracy. Tracy wakes up to white light, then fades into a scene where Tracy swings on a roundabout – childlike – and lets out a primal, cathartic scream. She is free of Evie and now knows that her mother has her back, even when she’s at her worst.
Though Evie has left town, life isn’t going to be all roses for Tracy from here on. There is a real mess of a social situation that Evie has left behind:
Evie set Tracy up with another girl’s boyfriend, and this girl has already threatened to beat Tracy up.
Tracy’s relationship with her brother can’t ever be so innocent again, as she has seen the side of him that objectifies girls (unless that girl happens to be his sister).
Tracy’s real father shows no interest (or capacity) to be a father to Tracy and her brother, which she will continue to resent.
Mel’s junkie boyfriend looks set to continue on his benders, invading the home with his addictions. As long as he’s around Mel is vulnerable to her addiction in her own right.
Lois Lowry is an American children’s author, best known for The Giver.The Woods At The End Of Autumn Street is an upper middle grade novel set in WW2 America.
The following biographical information feels relevant to The Woods At The End of Autumn Street:
Born in 1937, that makes Lois Lowry the same era/age as Liz in Autumn Street. The details of the era therefore ring true, from the racial and playground gender segregation to the freedom afforded young children, allowed to enter the woods.
Lois’s sister Helen, three years older than her, died in 1963 at the age of 28 of cancer. A number of Lois Lowry’s books feature death, e.g. A Summer To Die, Number The Stars and this one.
Lowry’s father was a career military officer – an Army dentist – whose work moved the family all over the United States and to many parts of the world. Autumn Street is set during WW2, and the children have been moved to a new place. Moving to a new place is something Lois Lowry herself would be highly familiar with.
The book opens with a self-contained first chapter, meaning it could almost stand alone as a short story or vignette. The characters are ghosts and float above Autumn Street in Pennsylvania, bordering woods as if from a fairytale.
The reader wonders, why are all these people dead? Why is the narrator, and only the narrator, alive? We already know the narrator is an old woman.
It was a long time ago.
The first person narrator opens with a nostalgic warning to young readers, that you never know the ending of things. This is something we really can’t feel first hand while we’re still young. We know this is a feminine voice because she compares her grandfather’s lawn to a skirt.
“No account” is the catch phrase used by our two main characters, who have heard the phrase but don’t know how to use it properly. They use it as an attributive adjective. Readers love a tagline to hold onto. Repetition of a catch phrase is a dialogue trick. In this case it provides humour and it also conveys naivety — a naivety that the children will grow out of by the end of the story.
Our main character/first person narrator is revealed as a girl who notices things, who appreciates beauty and loves to paint. As the story progresses we’ll see that she is equally down-to-Earth — the kind of girl who wipes her hand on her nose then licks her hand, because she ‘wants to know what it tastes like’.
Because chapter one is so ethereal, chapter two functions to ground the reader firmly in setting. What’s going on? Why have the children been sent for a year to live with their grandparents? We quickly learn that Pearl Harbour just happened, the narrator was four years old when WW2 began, and that she is naïve. Though looking back, the narrator has full understanding. Juxtaposed against the war preparations – the cousin injured in hospital, the father getting his uniform ready, is the fact that our narrator is a gifted painter. This gift influences the way she writes, because of the way she sees. (Already observed in chapter one.) Also juxtaposed against the big, world events are the minutiae of a six year old’s life – the fact that the school milk is disgusting to her, and that she has to wear a French beret, which marks her out as different.
We don’t know the name of our narrator until the beginning of chapter three: Elizabeth. The first scene told to us is the last scene she remembers with her mother before leaving their old house. After a scene break the reader is transported to the grandparents’ house on Autumn Street, with no segue about getting there by train, or whatever. This is how memories link together, too, and allows the reader to remember events the way Liz does – vignettes with no strong connector between them.
While the adults around her are no doubt worried about the war, Liz’s fears are to do with the story from the doctor’s daughter, the nine year old with the pet turtle. Liz is terrified to think that the turtle will grow as large as the dining table and eat people.
The huge house with all the rooms and the manicured lawn and staff is the archetypal cold house, where Liz does not feel nurtured or safe. She gets any nurturing she needs from the cook and housekeeper, not from her own mother or grandmother.
Liz confides her fears to her big sister Jess in the dark. In naïve, childlike fashion, Liz thinks that if mother gives birth to a boy then that means father must die in the war, in a causation chain. This is from overhearing adults say that babies born during a war are boys, to serve as replacement for the lost men. Liz also says that she would like to be the boy of the family. She can just wear boy clothes and cut her hair short. By the age of six most children have a strong sense that their gender is immutable, so Liz is an unusually gender fluid six year old girl. In this way, Liz is an unreliable narrator. However, as an older woman narrator she is plenty reliable, because she’s giving the reader enough information to connect the dots for ourselves. The ironic distance between the perception of young Liz and the knowing older Liz provides interest.
There is a scene with ‘Japanese beetles’, first a save the cat moment as Liz helps them onto a leaf. But then she accidentally squashes one in her fist. Frightened by her own failures and grief stricken, she runs into the house.
It is revealed to Liz and the reader that grandmother is cold towards the girls because she is not their mother’s real mother – she is a step-mother, who only came into the house when Liz’s mother was 19. This cold woman contrasts with the maternal and warm Tatie, who runs the household.
A baby boy is born in the middle of the night.
This chapter explores Liz’s simplistic understanding of prayer. She has concluded it doesn’t work because she doesn’t get everything she prays for. She considers God another person in the room who must not be interrupted, and who probably has a short attention span. But she does pray, to assuage her own anxieties.
Tatie’s grandson Charles comes to stay while his mother goes away with a man for a holiday. Charles and Liz are only six. The reader can see what different backgrounds they have – Liz is White, Charles is Black. Liz has the privilege of knowing how to read already, but Charles is more worldly, knowing what ‘drunk’ is and how to get drunk. The reader is never told that Charles is Black and that he is poor. We are given more than enough to deduce.
When Lowry emphasises how quickly these two make friends she emphasises how divisions between adults are socially constructed, and at peak danger, these constructs lead adults into war.
The episodic story structure of the novel is now clear, or perhaps it’s building slowly to something. Liz cadges her grandfather’s autograph book and asks everyone to sign it, for no reason other than fun. But she can’t let go of the fact that Tatie, her favourite person in the house, won’t sign it. Her mother tells her that Tatie has never been to school and therefore cannot write. Liz is banned from annoying Tatie about it. Liz won’t let it go – she clasps Tatie’s hand around the pencil and guides her into writing her own name, which Tatie admits doesn’t look too bad. But for her insolence she is carted up to bed before her normal time.
In a turn for the dark present in all of us, even in innocent children, Charles and Liz plot to (gently) stab one of the seven year old twins next door, justified because Noah killed a cat. This is an interesting flip on the Save The Cat trick. Our heroes want to exact revenge on a budding psychopath, possibly in the hope that he won’t do anything like that again, though equally likely because they feel a sense of injustice if Noah goes unpunished.
Plans are thwarted when it turns out Noah is inside with serious pneumonia. If this were a WW1 story I’d suspect pneumonia resultant from the ‘Spanish’ flu, but this is WW2. It must have been a different virus, or bacterial infection.
While waiting, Charles and Liz cut a worm in half. They don’t mean to kill it – they have heard they’ll end up with two worms. This scene stands in for the big struggle scene we’ve been hoping for (not hoping for?) between Charles, Liz and Noah. Noah’s not-evil twin emerges instead, and the children happily accept him. One evil twin, one good twin is kind of symbolic of the sides during the war. Two people can look the same in every way, but because of minor differences (place of birth), one can seem evil while the other benign. Significantly, the twins’ father is German and has been taken away by the authorities.
By the end of the chapter, Noah has died. “But we must remember, Noah was a dreadful child,” grandmother reminds everyone. This is how we see casualties of war when they are on the other side. A shame, perhaps, that they have died, but somehow justice has been restored.
The ducklings are an interesting addition to this chapter. Noah and Nathaniel each own a duckling, given to them at Easter. As the ducklings grew, they followed the brothers everywhere. Noah was cruel to his duckling but it followed him anyway, having bonded with him. This is symbolic of how we are all subject to our circumstances. If Liz had been born German, she’d be on the other side, and she wouldn’t question it.Like a duckling, she’d just follow her masters.
Liz feels that she was a little responsible for Noah’s death, wishing harm upon him, planning to gently stab him with that knife. Charles and Liz do the only thing they can think of to make amends, and that is to bury the knife the same way Noah was buried. Grandmother’s suggestion is to go to Confession, but Liz has a touch and go relationship with God.
Charles has obviously had a realization – he didn’t know until now that children can die. They’ve both been disabused of this notion, and this is not going to help Liz with her anxieties.
Chapter nine is a single scene, much shorter than the previous chapter, which is an entire sequence of events leading up to Noah’s death as well as the aftermath.
Jess and Liz sit on the porch doing embroidery. Liz wishes she were a boy. She has it in her head that boys are brave, because they are boys. The adult reader knows that this is because the braveness and strength of men was emphasised during the wars, as a tactic to get men to sign up and fight fearlessly, sacrificing their lives.
They talk about the local kook, Ferdie Gossett. Liz makes up a backstory for him. The reason he hangs around kids staring must be because he lost a child, because she knows children can die now, like Noah.
Liz also says she’s too scared to go into the woods at the end of Autumn Street. Because of the title, we know a visit into the woods is imminent.
Liz and Charles visit the two great aunties, though it’s not clear whether they are blood relations. Upon quizzing Charles to see if he can read, the aunties decide to perform a Shakespeare play for him. They let him ride on the mechanical chair that goes up the stairs, though Lowry does not say whether either or both of them is incapacitated. I associate this heavily with the horror genre after seeing horror films with stairlift chairs in them. At the end of Charles’ lovely visit, Liz is clearly jealous and she calls him the n-word.
Grandfather suggests a bonfire, which is over all too quickly as it always is. When the bonfire is over Grandfather doesn’t feel good. He has a stroke. Now the bonfire is imbued with extra meaning – life itself (as we know it) is over all too quickly.
Liz focuses on the double meaning of ‘stroke’. There’s the medical condition, then there’s the ‘stroke’ of midnight. Liz associates death with the passing of time. Death (and life) is starting to take shape for her. She is slowly learning that everything must end. She has already learnt that children can die at any time. Now her beloved grandfather is severely compromised, restricted to a wheelchair.
This has brought out a maternal side in Grandmother, which Liz never knew she had.
This is where the mystery of the story kicks in. When writing a novel length work it’s often necessary to add a mystery to avoid a flagging middle.
Lillian, young girl about town, casually explains that spies are everywhere. Liz and Charles get it into their heads that the twins’ German father wasn’t taken away at all – he’s up in the attic with a direct line to Hitler. This works well because the first half of the book has set Liz up as a fantasist who often puts two and two together to make five.
So Liz and Charles break into the house next door to see for themselves.
Here we have a great example of setting as character:
Even empty rooms are populated with the presence of those recently there. I thought that I could smell the thin flowery scent of the cologne Mrs Hoffman sometimes wore; and I could almost hear the soft laughter of Nathaniel as he played.
They don’t find anything. In superior position, the reader knows that Mr Hoffman is a victim of the war, not part of it.
Summer has ended now and Liz has started at the local school, described as a Gothic building. Charles has to go to his own school, because this is in the days of racial segregation. This means Liz and Charles have to end their friendship, each of them declaring they don’t like girls/boys, but they make an exception for each other. This shows how ridiculous the gendered socialisation of kids is.
Liz makes a new friend, Louise. Liz really likes being at Louise’s house. She invites Louise’s mother to make friends with her own mother. We get a brief possible flashback. Liz’s mother might remember Louise’s mother, but then again she may not. This feels nostalgic to an adult reader in a way that probably doesn’t to a child reader – adults know that distant memory works like that. Things that seem so important at the time are soon such distant memories.
In this quiet chapter Liz realises a few things. She understands that the aunties are her real grandmother’s sisters. She learns what romantic love looks like (a little) and declares to her mother that she loves Charles. This again touches on the racial divide of that era when Liz’s mother says that things don’t always work out.
This chapter is about sickness and infirmity. Ferdie Gossett is mentioned. He’s been vacant and wandering since an earlier war. Until this moment Liz didn’t know that there had been any earlier wars. To her, this one big world event going on right now was the be-all and end-all. She is starting to learn her own place in history.
Her grandfather’s missing teeth disturb her, in contrast with Charles’s missing baby teeth, which do not. Age juxtaposed with youth.
It is here that Liz has a anagnorisis:
It was all a kind of pretending. It explained why Great-aunt Philippa, whatever her private feelings were, could flutter her hand with her years old diamond ring, could say that she thought of Grandmother as a sister, and could smile. [inserts a list of events from the story] it was a kind of pretending composed of pride, of the pain of powerlessness, of need – and fear of need – and it came from caring: from caring so much that you were fearful for your own self, and how alone you were, or might someday be.
This is a variety of anagnorisis which can really only come from a much older, extradiegetic narrator. If this were written by Liz looking back from, say, eleven years of age, there’s no way she would have been able to string all those thoughts together. This is the sort of understanding that comes only after decades of reflection. Therefore, when choosing your point of view, take into consideration the nature of your character’s anagnorisis.
Is it something pretty small and specific, in the scheme of things? Or is it deep and meaningful, like this? If so, you’ll probably need to spell it out in a paragraph of two like the one above. In that case, you’ll need either a viewpoint character who is not the young person, or you’ll need your autodiegetic narrator to be much older at time of writing.
As I expected from the title, the children must enter the woods, those fairytale woods where danger lurks. Liz has caught a cold, so goes home, but Charles never comes back.
He is found dead.
In the woods. In the woods. I heard them say that, and I heard Tatie’s low cry. I had known that the danger was in the woods. Charles had known. We hadn’t understood the form of the danger, had imagined it to be turtles, caves, or even the red-headed boy who licked lustily at the dripping from his own nose. But it was none of those.
Charles has been killed by Ferdie Gossett, ‘himself a victim’. The message here: Even those who kill have been somehow damaged themselves.
Charles has been killed by a knife. Earlier in the story, Liz and Charles buried a knife, meaning to do harm to another boy, but ultimately not doing so. While this foreshadowing seems a bit too neat, it does work in this story, underlining the message that life and death is pretty random, and at certain times in history, life and death has seemed easy-come, easy-go.
It is a handy writer’s trick to combine Liz’s bereavement with her own delirium from her sickness. Months pass in this state and when she comes out the other side, she is older and things have changed. Though it took place in a bed, Liz has been through her own big struggle and faced death.
It’s interesting that in the final chapter the character of Grandmother is redeemed. Grandmother has been to Charles’s funeral, the only White woman there, and cried. Tatie tells Liz not to be so hard on her grandmother.
This is interesting as a reveal because the narrator writes this with the benefit of hindsight, and could easily have written Grandmother more sympathetically from the start.
The story ends in spring, in contrast with the naming of ‘Autumn street’. An entire year has passed, showing that this is a circular, feminine plot shape. It is common for books starring girls to follow the seasons.
Note the style and tone of the final chapter, which mirrors the dreamlike tone of the opening chapter. This tone, which book ends the narrative, helps to give closure. It is a dreamlike, wistful tone with emphasis on scenery and nostalgia.
Children’s literature is at the vanguard of change; ‘children are the future’ and all that. For children, ‘popular’ means something different.
A NEW DEFINITION OF POPULAR
My daughter is a Sims fan. As I ambled past the PC she announced that she’d discovered how to become popular on Sims 3. Since she’s a little too young to be playing Sims without occasional parental input, I ask, “What does that mean?”
“Well, it means you get to do things like change the names of shops and you can fire people and stuff like that.”
For more on what popular means in the Sims world, it’s all on their Wiki:
Sims with the Popularity Aspiration desire flocks of friends and killer parties, so if they aren’t on the phone, practicing politics, or dancin’ the night away, they probably should be. Their Aspiration Meters will fill with every friend, fair-weather or not, and allow them to live long and famous lives.
“Hmm,” I say. “Sounds like popular people are not nice people.” (See what I did there?)
“Yeah,” she agreed.
Before walking off, I asked my nine-year-old to tell me what she thinks ‘popular’ means. She thought for a moment and gave me a great, denotative definition: “Lots of people know you.” Given the state of politics right now, and who has been elected to make big decisions, I’d say this definition is the better one.
I mean in contrast with the Google definition: ‘liked or admired by many people or by a particular person or group.’ Young people know — partly through the stories we tell them, I’m sure — that ‘popular’ has nothing to do with being liked or admired. The warm connotations of nice and good and admired have been lost, and the dictionaries are yet to catch up.
In children’s stories, the opposite message is by far more common: Popular people are horrible. Again and again, the popular kids are depicted as:
unaware of their privilege
These attributes are in line with the Mean Girls definition of popularity.
THE FUNCTION OF POPULAR KIDS IN A CAST OF CHARACTERS
In the character web of a high school story, the popular group are most often pitted against the geeky group. It is rare to get a story from the point of view of someone inside the popular group, though in the case of Mean Girls we do have someone coming in briefly from the outside, soon to leave. Most stories with popular cliques are commenting on them from the outside. However, we do have very popular (haha) series about cliques of popular girls, most notably the Gossip Girl series and Pretty Little Liars. Even the titles (gossip and liars) clue readers in on how we should feel about these characters. They are great for fiction however, as they are interesting.
‘Feeling like an outsider’ is so common in coming-of-age stories, it can probably be considered a universal emotion of adolescence. The existence of the popular group serves another good function, apart from one of pure opposition — the very existence of a Popular Group makes all of us feel like we will never really fit in, because of who we inherently are.
The morals of the popular group are frowned upon, which also offers opportunity to everyone else to evaluate where their own morals are.
Fictional popular kids are therefore stock characters — to be feared, yes, but also to be laughed at.
(In real life, the genuinely popular kids have completely different attributes. They are friendly, easy to get along with, co-operative and socially mature for their age.)
The thing is, Daria sort of represents the last phase of life where one can get away with acting like they don’t care. In high school, not caring is actually sort of an asset – popularity is determined by forces far beyond our control, so if you can get away with not worrying about parties you are or aren’t invited to or who’s asking you to what dance, that’s probably for the best.
The emphasis in the First Golden Age [of children’s literature] was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what has been termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, being ill, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I Say Goodbye, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and many more.
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones wasn’t just influential on the subgenre of YA known derisively as ‘sick-lit’, but which continues to prove super popular with the 2017 release of John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down. It has now been a full sociological decade (15 years) sinceThe Lovely Bones was published. As Sophie Masson writes in an article in the latest edition of The Looking Glass:
In the last fifteen years, fiction set in or about the afterlife has become a popular and critically acclaimed sub-genre within contemporary speculative fiction for young adults especially, but not only, in English language publishing. These narratives, where the main characters die at the beginning of the story and find themselves in an alien world, the world beyond death, have developed into a fertile ground for imaginative and intellectual challenge and discovery, as a means both to depict the ultimate culture shock and a challenging exploration of otherness and alienation.
I highly recommend a read Sophie Masson’s article as it’s free to access. The following are my own takeaway points.
Writers and thinkers have always been exploring the afterlife. Afterlife stories can be divided into their own subcategories. For example, there’s a related subgenre of Grim Reaper plots. An example of the grim reaper plot is On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony. On a Pale Horse is a fantasy novel from 1983. A feckless young man is about to shoot himself when the Grim Reaper appears. He kills the Grim Reaper instead, and then has to take the Grim Reaper’s place. However, this seems quite different from the modern afterlife story kickstarted by Alice Sebold.
Here’s something to bear in mind about YA readers: these days (in Australia, at least) more young people believe in an afterlife than believe in god. Readers will happily accept it.
FEATURES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION
Modern YA afterlife stories are a subgenre of paranormal YA fiction, which can include vampires, fairies, trolls and so on
The afterlife story is kind of like a portal story
They are usually but not always set in a fantasy setting
This afterlife world is a ‘liminal’ space, not the final end point. They are not the absolute territories of Heaven/Hell, but more closely resemble Purgatory/Limbo
The idea of Purgatory in these novels isn’t linked to religion — it’s there for the narrative
There’s still much mundane detail about the real world — what characters are eating, how much money they have. However there tends to be little mention of class.
The afterlife world might be a ghostly copy of the real place on Earth. The landscapes and townscapes of the afterworlds are more solid than the portals but are prone to unexpected changes and reversals which makes it hard for characters to carry out their quests
Characters in the afterlife tend to be unable to taste food
The genre blend is most commonly fantasy adventure
Rich narrative and prose styles
High sales as well as critical acclaim
Absence of moral judgement
The main characters of modern afterlife YA have either died violently or after illness, which links this genre to the wider sick-lit movement.
There may well be monsters to defeat. These may be supernatural beings. These monsters and beings are often transformed by their encounters with the newly dead young characters.
There is probably a romantic subplot.
There’s fancy terminology to describe narration which takes place outside the world of the story: extradiegetic. (It helps to know that ‘diegetic’ refers to something that occurs within a setting: ‘Inside-universe’.) Extradiegetic basically means ‘out-of-universe’. By making a character dead, that character is outside the main world of the story. There are other ways authors can create extradiegetic characters. For instance, they can create an elderly person looking back on an earlier part of their life. However, if you’re doing this, you’re probably not writing YA.
An extradiegetic character is closer to the audience than they are to the other characters within the story, because an audience (in narratology terms) is also extradiegetic. The audience exists outside the world of the story. (We are ‘extradiegetic narratees’, to be exact.) Therefore, a story with a dead narrator can achieve emotional closeness with the reader. This sounds counterintuitive at first — you’d think a dead person would be hard to relate to!
THE ADVANTAGE OF A DEAD NARRATOR
There’s a very good reason: The thing that marks YA out from adult fiction is its immediacy of voice. The narrator hasn’t aged much before their story is told. But when the narrator is full on dead, that character is afforded omniscience and wisdom which would otherwise feel unnatural, while maintaining the immediacy.
Many stories for young people are about displacement and feeling like you’re ‘the other’. That’s because you’re trying to find your place at this age. By being dead, the main character is very much The Other.
If there’s a romantic subplot, it’s the job of the author to keep two lovers apart for the duration of the adventure. Making one of them dead is a really efficient way to keep two characters apart. Or, they may both be dead but of vastly different Earthly ages. Or, the afterlife might be kinder to one than the other.
OTHER EXAMPLES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION
The authors of these works are themselves from diverse backgrounds.
The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) — the narrator of Brazilian author Machado de Assis’ novel dedicates his memoir to “the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse.”
How The Dead Live by Will Self
My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk — published the same year as The Lovely Bones and begins, “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.”
Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (sort of)
Everlost by Neal Shusterman and sequels
A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
More than This by Patrick Ness
Afterworld by Lynnette Lounsbury
Ferryman by Claire mcFall
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
The Afterlife by Gary Soto
When We Wakeby Karen Healey
Me and Death: An Afterlife Adventure by Richard Scrimger
Memor: le monde d’apres by Kinga Wyrzykowska
The Ghost Squad by Sophie Masson
If I Stayby Gayle Forman — First person narrator Mia dies in a car crash then follows her friends and family as a kind of ghost, watching their reaction and writing about her life before she died.
I Stop Somewhere by T.E. Carter was pitched as Asking For It meets The Lovely Bones. The narrative viewpoint comes from The Lovely Bones — the main character is basically wandering around telling what happened before she died.
An earlier outlier and not really connected to anything that has come since: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. In this story:
This is a story about brotherly love in a Narnia-like world.
Two brothers die at the beginning.
They find themselves in the afterlife world of Nangiyala, a place of campfires and sagas.
The brothers have no trouble fitting into the new world.
They are happy to be there.
There’s no mention of the grieving mother left behind.
It’s possible to die again in this afterlife world.
THE AFTERLIFE IN WIDER POP CULTURE
Futility by Morgan Robertson (1898) — a fictional account of the Titanic disaster which was written 14 years before the Titanic sank. Futility tells the story of the world’s biggest ocean liner and how, on its maiden voyage, on a freezing April night, it strikes an iceberg and sinks, carrying its cargo of fabulously wealthy passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. It was penned by a struggling sci-fi writer named Morgan Robertson. The name of his fictional doomed passenger ship? The Titan.
Sunset Boulevard, classic film (American) — the man lying face down in a pool turns out to be none other than William Holden, whose voiceover narrates his story and who is indeed dead.
The Returned, a French series called Les Revants (and all the other franchises based on this storyline)
The Glitch (Australian)
PROBLEMS WITH AFTERLIFE FICTION
It’s not hard to find people who dislike dead narrators. But why?
It can feel like the author cheated — ‘a little too easy, a little too glib’.
In Peter Selgin’s words, it requires suspension of all four laws of thermodynamics. Some readers are fans of mimesis, so this won’t suit them.
THE AFTERLIFE IN ADULT FICTION
Specialists in young adult literature have noticed over the decades that literary trends start with YA and work their way ‘up’ into adult fiction. As they expected, The Lovely Bones influenced adult fiction which is coming through now, a decade later. Take Lincoln in the Bardo for instance, an experimental novel by George Saunders. The ‘bardo’ refers to an intermediate space between life and rebirth. Though this book wins a Man Booker Prize and is hailed as ‘experimental’, it also owes a lot to less critically celebrated trends which started a decade ago in YA.
In Saunders’s conception, the “ghosts” that inhabit the bardo are “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive” and are threatened by permanent entrapment in the liminal space.They are unaware that they have died, referring to the space as their “hospital-yard” and to their coffins as “sick-boxes”.
Might we count The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak as afterlife fiction?
This book takes the dead narrator concept a step farther, with the Grim Reaper himself narrating, though some would argue that his “Death” is nothing but Omniscience wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe.
There are historical notes in the back of The River Between Us but unless you’ve been through the American education system and already know quite a bit about the Civil War and the history of New Orleans, I’d recommend flipping to that first.
Starts in St Louis, South Illinois. The family lives on Maryland Avenue in the West End. See: Maryland Avenue today. (Peck tends to center his stories in Illinois, and most often in Southern Illinois.)
Cars are a big deal to a young boy because unlike today you don’t see them any old where. “It was a big thing to drive a car out of town.” They’re not yet very reliable so preparation for a long trip is important. For example, cracking a raw egg into the radiator so it would hard-boil and seal any leaks. Fuel is to be strapped onto the car itself because there aren’t many fuel stations around yet. Only the upper middle class can afford them (hence the narrator is the son of a doctor). You have to crank it up and the windshield isn’t up for city driving. There are a lot of flat tyres — four in one day is not unusual.
Baseball is important. The local team is called The Browns (and was only later the Baltimore Orioles).
World War I is raging across Europe. Americans know it’s just a matter of time before they get caught up in it. They anticipate restrictions on travel once that happens.
‘The War’ just as often refers to the Civil War
Grand Tower is a ghost town. There never was much to it but showed some progress after the Civil War, with a saddle factor, cigar plant, gun shops, brick works. There’s a hill called Devil’s Backbone. (These days it’s a park.)
The grandparents’ house is like going back in time, with the metonym of a black iron range standing for the earlier era.
The American Civil War started in 1861 and lasted until 1865. The war officially began April 12 in Charleston. The big struggle at Port Sumter marked a turning point in the Civil War, when secessionists started to lose. Until then, escaped slaves could be sold back to the south.
Food is lacking in variety, especially in the winter. Mother makes a dish called ‘scrapple’ made from cornmeal and shredded pork off the neck bones. You slice of bits of it to fry in lard. For a fancy occasion you might fry it in butter.
Coffee is expensive and a luxury but the family drinks sassafras tea. (Root beer is made from the root of this tree.) These days it’s thought to be carcinogenic to drink it regularly.
In Southern Illinois the town was divided between north and south sympathies. By law black people aren’t even allowed in the state, although ‘everyone ignores this’. The fact that the law exists speaks to the levels of racism.
People commonly keep a sick drawer (to put medicines etc.) and a ‘death drawer’ (where they keep a sheet and clothes to be buried in). Very morbid sounding to the modern reader, but evidence that death is on people’s minds a lot more than it is today. People expected death, but at any moment.
After the Battle of Bull Run, this little town is ‘solid’ for the North. (Anti-slavery, with President Lincoln.)
Louisiana and New Orleans developed a ‘three caste’ system from the Caribbean. Mixed-parentage people were recognized as a distinct group, neither “White” nor “Black”. The history of slavery in Louisiana is a bit different. Under Spanish rule almost 2,000 slaves were freed. Most of them ‘self-purchased’ or were purchased by black relatives. Some were freed by lovers or fathers. With dwindling numbers of slaves to do the work, the numbers were augmented by mixed-race refugees from Haiti. They were called libres. Many were light-skinned. They were generally artisans and tradesmen. A few even became wealthy planters and slaveowners themselves. Under Spanish rule these gens du couleur formed militia companies and sometimes helped recapture runaway slaves. That’s how a three-caste system came about.
STORYTELLING TECHNIQUE IN THE RIVER BETWEEN US
Howard writes in first person, an elderly adult looking back on his early life. This is apparent from the first sentence: “They don’t make them like that anymore.”
Chapter two switches from the grandson as a young man to his great aunt, Tilly.
The narration has metafictional elements such as, “If life was a storybook, that would have been the night Noah left us for the war.” Peck is obviously conscious of the need to avoid tying up the narrative in too neat of a package — ironically, that would read like a contrived, made-up story and pull us out of realism. In this way, metafictive elements in narration can sometimes add to the realism of a story rather than detract from it.
CAST OF CHARACTERS IN THE RIVER BETWEEN US
WRAPPER STORY CHARACTERS
Howard Leland Hutchings
15 years old in 1916, so born just before the turn of the century. Published in 2003, the narrator would hypothetically be 104 at time of publication.
Younger brothers, twins, five years old: Raymond and Earl
Has grown up ‘thinking the whole world is paved’
Howard’s Father, Doctor William Hutchings Jnr
Father is a doctor, never seen without a necktie.
Works long hours — a 6 and a half day week
Self-made man (Bill Gates would disagree. Bill Gates refuses to call himself a self-made man in acknowledgement of his own privilege. Likewise, this son of a doctor had white middle class male privilege). That said, his own father was not rich. Doctors in poor towns were paid in fish and vegetables often.
Originally from Grand Tower on the other side of the Mississippi River
Lived through the Civil War
Howard’s Mother, Mrs Hutchings
Born and raised in St Louis
Does not like her husband’s family
Does not go on the trip, is not part of the story.
CIVIL WAR STORY CHARACTERS
Grandpa William Hutchings Snr
“Waxy with age, trapped by years in his chair but alive behind his eyes”
Tilly Hutchings (nee Pruitt)
In 1916 she is a little old lady who wears an apron, wrinkled like a walnut
Youthful movements and build
Tilly’s mother takes in Delphine Duval and her companion Calinda
In 1861 she is 15 years old, which makes her 70 in the framing story.
She will later marry William Hutchings (the town doctor) and give birth to Howard’s father.
Grandma Tilly’s twin brother
Missing an arm by his 70th birthday.
Although Delphine initially comes across as a Blanche Dubois type, her strength amazes and inspires everyone when the war begins to take its toll. Even the twins’ mother blossoms from Delphine’s proximity (“She put some starch in my spine,” Tilly’s mother says). These relationships cement and then reverberate throughout the novel. A showboat’s arrival on the Mississippi, and Tilly and Delphine’s trip to the big strugglefront in search of Noah, occasion further revelations about Delphine and Calinda’s background as well as fascinating details of the complex New Orleans society.
Smells of lavender, violet eyes, associated with the colour purple
French. “Her accent came and went.”
Has says she has a rich aunt in St Louis but it is later revealed that there is no aunt.
By the end of chapter four it’s clear she’s a fantasist who, like Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker and Richard Peck’s own Molly Moberly in Strays Like Us, has grand delusions about where she comes from and who her female relatives are.
Also like Molly Moberly’s real grandmother, she has taken to her bed in her old age.
From New Orleans, Louisiana
Says her grandmother one of Les Sirenes — beauties who fled the slaves’ uprising on the island of Saint-Domingue years and years ago. Grandmother took her mother to Cuba then New Orleans. Father is Monsieur Jules Duval
She cannot marry white men because there’s a Spanish and French law against it. However New Orleans customs are different — instead of marrying these women the white men set them up in houses. Daughters are brought up by their mothers and expects to find a white gentleman of her own under a similar arrangement. These women are called quadroons.
“We free people live on a kind of island, lapped by a sea of slavery.”
Younger sister of Tilly who hallucinates. She sees ghosts of the past as well as visions of the future.
In 1861 she is 12 but looks 10
Wispy hair (to match her visions)
Keeps chickens — her wispy hair is somewhat ‘feathery’ itself
Died of diphtheria after the Civil War at the age of 17
Delphine’s black companion (free person of colour)
‘Her eyes trust no one’
Has the same eyes as Delphine (the first hint that they are half-sisters)
Not just in skin colour — Calinda is in other ways the mirror reflection of Delphine. “While Delphine would starve in a pantry, Calinda would thrive in a wilderness.”
As well as being the reflection character for Delphine, she is also a companion for Cass. Cass looks like a ‘scrawny, pale reflection of Calinda, including the tignon, tied in a tidy knot’.
Makes money by making pralines and selling them to passengers on passing ships.
Calinda wears a tignon because in 1786 a law was passed which required black women to cover their hair. Intended to keep black women in their place, it was also a fashion statement for black women themselves. Today it is worn as a celebration of Afro-American culture.
Calinda and Cass together lend a touch of fabulism to the text, with their ability to predict the future and sense the past.
TREATMENT OF VIOLENT CONTENT IN A STORY FOR YOUNG READERS
Without graphic description, Peck does not shy away from the horrors of war, nor how it divided the families and friends of Grand Tower. Peck’s finely tuned writing makes plausible the ways in which these characters come together, putting their human concerns ahead of their political interest.
This is a story within a story: The road trip in the present world of the story and the stories told about Howard’s father’s childhood.
Who is the main character? Well, this is two stories really but the story as told by Tilly is the main one. The wrapper exists for the function of connecting these people to modern readers: Peck is emphasising that this story happened only three or four generations ago (which is actually terrifying in today’s political climate).
In fact this is a story within a story within a story. This is Howard narrating Tilly narrating the love story of Delphine and her twin brother Noah. But it is also the mythical journey Tilly herself makes to locate her brother after he’s gone off to war. Who is the main character? To answer that question, “Who changes the most, not in circumstance but in psychological growth?” That would be Noah and Tilly both. Richard Peck has made them twins to provide both a male and female experience of one bit of the Civil War.
The Seceshs are the villains in this story — the ‘monster’ stand in — the overriding fearsome opponent. But in this particular setting, a purple area, there are plenty of locals who are fighting against the Yankees and the women who visit the house to cast judgement on harboring the girls from New Orleans provide a more local opponent, given faces.
Noah’s mother does not want him to fight, providing the well-meaning opponent. The mother shows herself to be a fairly despicable mother to Tilly, though, when she falls into a heap and tells her she only cares about the brother, not her. This mother is a completely different kind of mother-opponent to each twin.
In a more stereotypical story, Delphine would be an opponent to Tilly. There are many stories about girls — one rich, one poor — pitted against each other as opponents, but Peck has created a more nuanced frilly girl in Delphine by letting her add to the Pruitts’ life with the introduction of different foods and nice things.
At this point the story switches back to that of Howard. He realises the reason for the visit — Great Aunt Delphine is dying. We learn Cass is dead and buried, in an overgrown graveyard. She died of diphtheria a year after the war.
This tells us that the war’s casualties included more than just men dying heroically in big struggle. With war there is always a lot of other death too — for unromantic reasons such as this.
Another revelation: Noah is Dr Williams’ father, not the old Dr Hutchings. Great Aunt Delphine is actually Howard’s grandmother, not his great aunt, in a revelation similar to the one used in Strays Like Us.
We learn that Calinda had to leave town because her skin was too dark to stay. We don’t know what happened to her — symbolic of how there is nothing in the historical records about what happened to the Quadroom women of New Orleans after the Civil War.
The rest of the family stays in the White town and has lived here in this big house together all these decades. Old Mr Pruitt is buried in the graveyard though not next to Cass. Old Mrs Pruitt was buried in the river.
I had expected Delphine would have married Noah but we learn they never married. Peck does this to let the character of Delphine retain her tradition of never marrying a white man (even though the law itself was passed by white men).
Howard is allowed to drive the car some of the way home. Howard, too, is now a man because he knows his own family history. Howard’s father tells Howard he’ll be joining the war if it begins. The reader knows it did begin, so we can extrapolate that Dr Hutchings went off to war.
Howard mentions a ‘daughter with giant violet eyes’, a detail so specific we might imagine Howard does have such a daughter and that’s who he’s telling this family history to.
This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that the remake was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, Carrie is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.
PREMISE OF CARRIE
A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)
SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF CARRIE
Your own powers can be the end of you.
I don’t believe the designing principle of this film is its main strength. Instead it makes an emotional promise: Watch this film and you will be thrilled and entertained. It possibly aims to sadden. (I don’t feel saddened by this remake.)
It also makes an intellectual promise to a modern audience: Watch this and you’ll learn of a different, slightly off-kilter world than this.
Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a safe space to explore. Carrie was notable for being one of the few to broach the topic of menstruation which, 40 years later, is still somewhat taboo. There is nowhere near as much menstruation in children’s literature as there are girls dealing with it in real life, outside a few standout books from authors such as Judy Blume.
GENRE BLEND OF CARRIE
The horror genre is one of the most highly symbolic forms (along with Westerns and science fiction). The origin of the horror in this story comes from demonic forces. Another example of this kind of horror is The Exorcist. Other horrors might come from whatever lies beyond death (Dracula) or from humans daring to fool around with nature (Frankenstein). Those are the big three.
Interestingly, the genre of the 1976 adaptation is simply ‘horror’ according to IMDb. This remake must have been aiming for a bit more character development with the addition of ‘drama’.
The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives. Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.
— Howard Suber
I don’t think Carrie manages to deal with family matters in any serious way. The mother is not a rounded character. This feels all horror, not much drama.
The Female Gothic
Stephen King’s Carrie is a descendent of the Female Gothic, invented by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte.
Following a Gothic Bildungsroman-esque plot, the Female Gothic allowed its readers to graduate from adolescence to maturity along with its heroine.
The readers of these novels didn’t lead very thrilling lives — many restrictions — this was their outlet
The Female Gothic is about the suppression of female sexuality, or challenges the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture.
The natural cause of terror is not the supernatural, but rather female disability and societal horrors: rape, incest and the threatening control of the male antagonist.
The female protagonists pursued in these texts are often caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape, delivering higher degrees of horror.
The end result, however, is the explained supernatural, rather than terrors familiar to women such as rape or incest, or the expected ghosts or haunted castles.(For example, the female protagonist will think there’s a ghost in the dungeon but when she gets down there it’s actually a real man wanting to rape her.)
In Stephen King’s variety of the Female Gothic, we have an out-and-out evil boy pulling strings behind the scenes, but female characters feature as all shades of good/bad.
STORYWORLD OF CARRIE
Many horror films could correctly be called “supernatural films” but this might reveal more than we care to acknowledge about the religious origins of so much horror.
— Howard Suber
She was alone with Momma’s angry God.
The blue light glared on a picture of a huge and bearded Yahweh who was casting screaming multitudes of humans down through cloudy depths into an abyss of fire. Below them, black horrid figures struggled through the flames of perdition while the Black Man wat on a huge flame-colored throne with a trident in one hand. His body was that of a man, but he had a spiked tail and the head of a jackal.
— Stephen King, Carrie
The setting of Carrie is very recognisable as our own but King includes supernatural elements.
Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people. A prom, always held after dark, provides the perfect reason for a night journey.
Stephen King writes what some have called ‘supernatural realism’. We might call it ‘magical realism‘ but I think ‘supernatural realism’ is a better descriptor. Carrie is set in the real world but there are supernatural elements. Carrie has the power of telekinesis and might be an ancestor of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in a sense. This is a world in which anything could happen.
The film is set in the USA in a mainly white suburban town in Maine called Chamberlain but the film is shot in Ontario. Here’s the house. Note that the creators of the remake decided to keep a general 1970s vibe in the setting — it’s also fitting that Carrie’s mother would have little money and therefore have to drive a car from that era. The original novel starts in 1966 and the main events happen 1979.
She continued to walk down the street toward the small white house with the blue shutters. The familiar hate-love-dread feeling was churning inside her. Ivy had crawled up the wests side of the bungalow (they always called it the bungalow because the White house sounded like a political joke and Momma said all politicians were crooks and sinners who would eventually give the country over to the Godless Reds who would put all the believers of Jesus—even the Catholics—up against the wall), and the ivy was picturesque, she knew it was, but sometimes she hated it. Sometimes, like now, the ivy looked like a grotesque giant hand ridged with great veins which had sprung up out of the ground to grip the building. She approached it with dragging feet.
Deaths In Schools
By the 1970s there had already been enough mass executions in American schools due to gun violence for the fear of a blood bath at a prom to be based upon a real, deep-seated fear. There have been many more school shootings since then. Unfortunately the terror of Carrie’s loner rampage still feels all too real.
King wrote the novel as epistolary, using a combination of letters, news clippings, magazine articles, and passages from books. Sometimes when an epistolary story is adapted for screen some of that form is maintained, often with use of a storyteller narrator (the person who wrote the letters). But because I hadn’t read the book before watching the movie it was a bit of a surprise to find it was an epistolary novel. There’s nothing left of that. The reason for the epistolary form must have been to create a sense of realism for the reader.
The desire to be known, to be seen, and to be powerful in your own sphere is a common desire in both real people and in the fictional realm. This particular desire seems to be having a moment in the West. The promotional material for the Carrie reboot reminds me very much of the posters which came out for Breaking Badaround the same time. Carrie and Walter White have the same psychological need.
Carrie’s problem is that she is an out-and-out social outcast. High schools are a great arena to show social exclusion — Vince Vaughn even sent Walter White back to school and made him the butt of some teenagers’ jokes in the pilot episode as they mock him washing cars — there’s something about mockery you get at school that stays with you your whole life, even when you engage your logical adult brain and realise your high school opponents had their own issues which had nothing to do with you.
The epistolary form of King’s novel allows for a variety of opinions on Carrie, leaving the reader with no ‘true’ impression of what she really looked like (and consequently, who she really was.) Described by the narrator as ugly, fat and blemished, she is described later as ‘pretty’. Carrie herself considers herself repulsive, especially her face, covered in blackheads and clusters of pimples. These various accounts of Carrie add to the gossipy, unreliable nature of the retelling:
Carrie’s psychological shortcoming is that she needs to belong somewhere. She is totally alone in the world. Like any teenager (or adult), she wants to fit in.
Found written repeatedly on one page of a Ewen Consolidated High School notebook owned by Carrie White:
Everybody’s guessed/that baby can’t be blessed/’til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest….
— Stephen King, Carrie
In this movie adaptation she has been homeschooled until very recently, which is how the screenwriters get around the weird fact that Carrie doesn’t know what periods are. It’s hard for a modern audience to believe a 16 year old girl could not know anything about that. Stephen King had to lampshade that one quite heavily in his 1976 novel, especially since in the novel Carrie has been attending school all along.
Psychological overlay is an element connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. In Carrie’s case, Carrie’s menstruation is connected to everyone’s general fear of blood. Blood symbolism can be seen throughout the film, culminating famously in the big struggle scene.
Does Carrie have a moral shortcoming? Is she treating others badly? A fairytale victim character like this doesn’t need to show us that she is a fully rounded human being with flaws — Carrie is not a normal human being anyhow. She’s kind of the second coming, perhaps from the devil. In the films, at least, Carrie does not demonstrate any moral shortcomings. She is a Gothic Good Girl. (The virginal character in a Female Gothic.)
King has used a number of character archetypes from the gothic novel to create his setting:
Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (Carrie)
Older, foolish woman (Mrs White)
Tyrant/villain (Chris and her boyfriend)
Bandits/ruffians (the cast of school girls who mock Carrie rather than standing up for her)
Clergy – always weak, usually evil (not present in the film adaptation — the clergy is the invisible force behind the uber-Christian Mrs White). In the novel we do have a modified ‘clergy’ stand-in in the form of Mr P. P. Bliss:
Mr. P.P. Bliss, who had written this hymn and others seemingly without number, was one of Momma’s shining examples of God at work upon the face of the earth. He had been a sailor and a sinner (two terms that were synonymous in Momma’s lexicon), a great blasphemer, a laugher in the face of the Almighty. Then a great storm had come up at sea, the boat had threatened to capsize, and Mr. P. P. Bliss had gotten down on his sin-sickly knees with a vision of Hell yawning beneath the ocean floor to receive him, and he had prayed to God. M. P.P. Bliss promised God that if He saved him, he would dedicate the rest of his life to Him. The storm, of course, cleared immediately.
Brightly beams our Father’s mercy From his lighthouse evermore But to us he gives the keeping Of the lights along the shore
All of Mr. P. P. Bliss’s hymns had a seagoing flavour to them.
Stephen King, Carrie
The watchful eye of the clergy is symbolised by the picture The Unseen Guest:
She walked up the hall and put her coat in the closet. A luminous picture above the coat hooks limned a ghostly Jesus hovering grimly over a family seated at the kitchen table. Beneath was the caption (also luminous): The Unseen Guest
— Stephen King, Carrie
On the other hand, the teachers at the school might be seen as the modern equivalent of the Gothic clergy, in charge of the virgin’s life, seeking counsel.
Carrie’s mother might as well be a mythical monster or a fairytale witch. The (semi) realistic setting allows us to read her as a woman with mental health challenges but her archetype predates such knowledge. American Gothic novels in particular tend to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters and carry that theme throughout the novel. In his novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Charles Brockden Brown writes about two characters who slowly become more and more deranged as the novel progresses. King’s novel The Shining is also about Descent Into Madness. Non-King examples include Sunset Boulevard, Black Swan, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Apocalypse Now.
What Carrie lacks in complexity, Stephen King makes up for in his web of her opponents. In Carrie’s classmates we see all shades of bullying, from the out-and-out evil, dark-haired girl (Chris Hargensen) to the blonde* girl who wants to do the right thing but ends up making Carrie’s life worse (Sue Snell). Even the teacher (Miss Desjardin) has excellent intentions but inadvertently makes Carrie’s life worse by setting in action the suspension of Chris Hargensen, who because of this plots the blood in a bucket incident.
*In the novel Sue has dark hair.
King apparently wrote this book inspired by catty bitches he knew from school and from teaching high school. So I don’t kid myself that King is particularly sympathetic to the teenage girl at this point in his writing career. But in contrast to the ‘women are catty bitches’ reading, King turns Chris into a bullied victim herself. Her boyfriend is truly bad; if she hadn’t had sex with him he planned to rape her; later, he does in fact rape her.
but it had all begun to slip out of her hands, and it made her uneasy. If she had not given in willingly on Monday, he would have taken her by force.
Chris is punished, partly for her willingness to have sex, partly for her short skirt and also, partly, for being really mean to people.
There are lots of people—mostly men—who aren’t surprised that I asked Tommy to take Carrie to the Spring Ball. They are surprised that he did it, though, which shows you that the male mind expects very little in the way of altruism from its fellows.
Here King is kinder on men.
Carrying the pails back to the trunk, his mind made a dim, symbolic connection. Pig blood. That was good. Chris was right. It was really good. It made everything solidify.
Pig blood for a pig.
The bad boys are playing a different, more basic game. The menstruation connection is from the girls; the boys think they’re simply insulting Carrie by comparing her to an animal.
As we get to know the opponents and what they are capable of, we are also introduced to a mystery: What is the exact nature of Carrie’s newfound superpower?
Revelation is important in any story containing a mystery. (TV writers call them ‘reveals’.) But a story doesn’t have to be ‘mystery’ or ‘detective’ genre to contain a mystery element. Part of this story’s dynamic is to have Carrie find out/realise something that’s been true (latent) for some time: That she is a witch, and has inherited her powers from her grandmother. The story’s momentum comes from the finding out, and during the big struggle sequence we will see the full extent of Carrie’s superpowers.
Much Gothic literature also includes a mystery of some kind. For instance, Jane Eyre has his first wife in the attic. Rebecca’s new husband Maxim went and killed his first wife in a re-telling of Bluebeard. Notice that these Gothic mystery novels are also named after the female leads.
King’s novel tells us near the beginning that Carrie has the powers of telekinesis, so the mystery there is in waiting to see how she’s going to use it.
“Wait. Just wait. Let me talk. You want me to ask Carrie White to the Spring Ball. Okay, I got that. But there’s a couple of things I don’t understand.” “Name them.” She leaned forward. “First, what good would it do?” And second, what makes you think she’d say yes if I asked her?” “Not say yes! Why–” She floundred. “You’re… everybody likes you and–“ “We both know Carrie’s got no reason to care much for people that everybody likes.” “She’d go with you.” “Why?” Pressed, she looked defiant and proud at the same time. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. She’s got a crush. Like half the girls at Ewen.” He rolled his eyes. “Well, I’m just telling you,” Sue said defensively. “She won’t be able to say no.” “Suppose I believe you,” he said. “What about the other thing?” “You mean what good will it do? Why… it’ll bring her out of her shell, of course. Make her…” She trailed off.” “A part of things? Come on, Suze. You don’t believe that bullshit.” “All right,” she said. “Maybe I don’t. But maybe I still think I’ve got something to make up for.”
In King’s story it’s not Carrie who has the plan. In fact, Carrie is a co-star at best. Despite the character of Carrie carrying the title of the work, and huge images of the actress emblazoned across the posters, the person who undergoes the character arc is Sue Snell who, like the majority of empathetic readers following along, wants to do something to help the outcast underdog. However, we don’t see quite enough of Sue in this film adaptation to rightly call her the main character. Both these girls are the stars — mirror images of each other in many ways:
Carrie is an outcast/Sue is popular
Carrie is lacking in confidence/Sue is full of confidence
Sue has Tommy for a boyfriend/Carrie goes to the ball with him but knows he is very much not her boyfriend
Carrie starts the book with blood between her thighs/the book ends with blood between Sue’s
It is Sue who comes up with The Plan that sets the plot in motion. She will offer her popular boyfriend to Carrie as a companion to the ball. This is of course a condescending gesture and Carrie can see right through it — the only way any girl would offer her boyfriend to another girl for an important life event like this is because she knows she’s no competition whatsoever. However, the plan works. It is undermined by Chris and her pig-killing guy friends.
In the book, Stephen King puts the entire big struggle sequence into a section called ‘Part Two’. It comprises almost half of the book.
The sequence beginning with the bucket of blood on Carrie’s head. The blood in the bucket sequence is of course the set piece of this film and even if you forget every other scene, this is the bit which eventually enters pop culture. In fact, you probably know this scene even without ever watching the film or reading the book. Part of what makes this so successful is the build up, in which we see Chris as a puppeteer, literally pulling the strings (but of the bucket) from above, as a symbol of omniscient evil against good. (Her own abusive boyfriend is using Chris as his puppet, and also as his non-consenting sex doll.)
Structurally speaking, I’m guessing this is the part which could have posed the biggest hurdle for the writer(s). Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise. The problem is, with Carrie’s anger-fuelled telekinesis, Carrie is all powerful. She can stop an oncoming car and murder people without even touching them. This superpower means the opponent is fully at her mercy. Sure, the revenge is sweet to watch, but when a character is so much more powerful than their opponent this makes for a boring blood bath.
To create a satisfying big struggle sequence, King gave Carrie two separate big struggles, one after the other with a quiet moment in the middle:
The big struggle on stage against everyone at school
The big struggle against her mother, who has been proven to be a formidable monster and who stabs her quietly in the back.
Interestingly, we are shown the new situation before we’re shown Sue’s anagnorisis. Usually it’s not that way around. We know that she is pregnant with a girl and from the court scene we know that most of her friends are dead. We can extrapolate that Sue will give birth to a girl, and we might even wonder if Carrie has done something to that girl to imbue her with witchy superpowers, in the style of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
This isn’t how the book ends. Somewhere else, a woman called Amelia Jenks is pregnant with a baby who turns out to have witch powers. It is implied that Tommy gets Sue pregnant, but the final scene is bookended with blood — Sue gets her period (which may actually be a miscarriage).