Lois Lowry is an American children’s author, best known for The Giver. The Woods At The End Of Autumn 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 battle 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 self-revelation:
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 self-revelation 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 self-revelation.
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 battle 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.