We All Are Orphans

My Life

My Life

Lemony Snicket delivered the prime example of what critic Lenika Cruz called “postmodern literature for children” (Atlantic, October, 2014). The Baudelaire siblings, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny (a snappish baby with sharp teeth), endured thirteen volumes of misery in “A Series of Unfortunate Events” starting with a house fire that killed their parents. They managed to escape a sequence of unreliable relatives and wannabe guardians, depending instead on Violet’s inventiveness and Klaus’ reading habits to move toward independence. Our granddaughter outgrew them, but when they were her bedtime companions I heard enough to worry about. Among other things, postmodern literary works contain “a sense of alienation and fractured identity.” The bright child put it more succinctly: “I like to read about kids with difficult lives because of my difficult situation.” She is a victim of divorce, but agrees with the author Snicket (aka Daniel Handler), that whenever you are in trouble you head for the library.

There are lots of kids with serious problems populating kid lit these days. I heard another grueling adventure in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. At Camp Half-Blood, the abandoned boy learns he has a father, Zeus, for whom, with friends who also have roots in mythology, he sets out across the country to find the Lightning Bolt, fighting a multitude of monsters and even passing through Hades. I seem to recall they rode part of the way in a VW bus, but that may be from my own nightmarish memories.

Scary Thing 1

Scary Thing 1

Scary Thing 2

Scary Thing 2

Scary Thing 3

Scary Thing 3

 

What I now recognize is that heroic children in books have to be orphans, or nearly so. If they had helicopter parents, they would never have any dangerous fun. I was able to put this in perspective when I woke up the other day thinking about my own series under construction, in which Sophie George is a widow.

Sophie remembers her husband with dreamy affection but also annoyance. He liked to deep-sea fish, but never seemed to get the boat in condition early enough in the day to do so. She felt their home on the Gulf of Mexico was more trouble than it was worth so she sold it when he and his illusions passed away, then moved inland where she would never again have to scrape barnacles off the sea wall.

It is quite a surprise, then, for Sophie to feel an attraction to another man when she retires from her job as a librarian and starts to assist Detective Samuels with his more difficult crimes (SOPHIE REDESIGNED, 2010). In the rest of my series (not yet published), their romance gently twists in the wind rather to come to fruition. Having a sweetie is one thing; having to cook for him is another. You can’t just drive off or fly away to investigate hunches without explaining yourself.

I thought about this again last week as I read THE OXFORD INKLINGS by Colin Duriez. While most of the men in this literary group had female attachments, they were socially and intellectually independent of them, Oxford being what it is. The meetings in college rooms and in pubs to discuss their works in progress were never undermined by having to get home at a certain time. I suspect today’s dons do take their turns shopping at the supermarket, as their partners undoubtedly have equally demanding jobs, and I suspect it is thus much harder to find time to philosophize. Too bad. Tolkien and Lewis and their friends were much concerned with the battles between good and evil in their fiction and in their lives. Beneath the storm clouds of two world wars, they were questioning their faith, girding it with collegiality and respectful encouragement.

This experimental painting by Constable has a gold moon sjpwing through a cut-out in the canvas. Courtauld Gallery, London.

This experimental painting  has a gold moon showing through a cut-out in the canvas. Courtauld Gallery, London.

I think that is what the purpose of fiction writers might be in any decade for any audience, to tell stories based on confrontations with monsters. Children need constant reminders that they can handle them, and in our sunset years, when we still are hounded by self-doubts and fear of the unknown, we also are haunted by failures, disappointments, regrets, and unresolved resentments.

One hopes that by parading bad situations before readers of any age, they are reduced to size, and that the hands and minds that hold the book will feel more capable moving forward.

“Well-read people are less likely to be evil,” Snicket tells us. That’s nice to know as we approach the Pearly Gates.

Staircase at the Courtauld.

Staircase at the Courtauld.

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