The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (2008)

Magician's BookWell, friends, I’ve avoided it long enough. We need to talk about Narnia.

Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book, describes it this way:

In one of the most vivid memories from my childhood, . . . I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again. The place I longed to visit was Narnia.

That pretty much accords with my own experience. My fourth grade teacher (who was a huge Narnia fan) read the books aloud to us during after-lunch read-aloud time. (Do teachers even do that any more? If not, what a loss!)

Narnia Aslan's armyNarnia reepicheep feastI fell desperately in love with the fauns and the dryads, the waterfalls and green meadows and forests, the midnight dances, castles, feasts, and most of all the sense of emotional purpose. The dullness of public school, 1970’s fashion, barren southern California, ugly architecture in the newer parts of my town, and worst, peers who seemed to want nothing beyond this, made me despair for anything worth having in life. I would have disappeared into Narnia if I could.

 

 

What is it about Narnia that had this kind of effect on so many imaginative, bookish children? There are many, many fantasy books out there, but relatively few inspired the kind of urgent devotion that Narnia did.

And then, also, how did C.S. Lewis manage to create this and yet go so badly wrong? And more unnervingly, are those two things not a contradiction, but intimately intertwined? Was Lewis’s beautiful vision inextricable from–in some ways born from–his twisted authoritarian values and his fixation on suffering as noble?

Laura Miller explores these issues in The Magician’s Book, which I avoided reading until recently because I feel like way too much ink has been spilled about the Inklings, and about Lewis in particular — most of which seems to willfully miss what’s really going on. But Miller nails it. She and I differ on a few points. Her path to discovering she’d been betrayed by Narnia was very different from mine; and she gets a little too literary-analysis-woo-woo for me in a couple of places. But for the most part she is level-headed, insightful, and merciless.

I’ll have much more (perhaps too much more!) to say in future posts, but in the meantime I highly recommend The Magician’s Book for anyone who gets what I’m talking about in this post.

Enid Blyton! Oh noes!

Five on a Treasure Island 2Enid Blyton, an English author who dominated children’s reading material in the UK and Commonwealth countries for forty years, wrote a jaw-dropping 762 books. As you might guess, she was not deep or complex. She specialized in insipid tales for young children, with titles like The Adventures of Binkle and Flip, The Talking Teapot, Little Noddy Goes to Toyland, and Enid Blyton’s Happy Story Book.

She also wrote adventures for middle-grade children, formulaic mysteries with lots of kidnapping, spies, secret tunnels, and stolen documents, and flat characters who are often noxiously moralistic.

So I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to recommend Five on a Treasure Island (1942). It involves a ruined castle, a shipwreck rumored to contain gold, a treasure map, old dungeons, and being captured by bad guys. The titular four children plus their dog manage the whole operation themselves, only bringing in the police after they have marooned the bad guys.

The nice thing about reading books as a child is that you don’t yet know that clichés are clichés. Five on a Treasure Island shamelessly pulls out all the stops, and that’s its appeal for a reader not yet jaded by genre fiction.

This is the first of the Famous Five books, in which the children endlessly foil the plots of bad guys during their holidays. It’s hard to say if Five on a Treasure Island is the best of the series. Probably, whichever one a child reads first is the best for them forever after.

Freaky Friday is freaky (1972)

This book was really popular when I was a kid. We loved the premise: thirteen year old Annabel wakes up to find she has switched bodies with her mother, and has to make it through her mother’s day. The mother, in Annabel’s body, plays hookey from school and makes over her daughter’s life. Various complications occur with a neighbor boy named Boris who has trouble with his adenoids so it turns out his name has actually been “Morris” all this time (but the “beatloaf” he offers to make for dinner turns out to actually be . . . a beetloaf).

It’s the switching-places premise again, which is always fun (see my review of The Kellyhorns). Freaky Friday is based pretty directly on a 19th century adult novel, Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers, but it was the first exposure most of us in the ’70’s had to this idea, aside from a brief episode in The Horse and His Boy.

I’m just surprised none of us (not to mention the librarians) noticed how this book goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Annabel starts the day by vamping her own father, a situation that could easily have resulted in a morning quickie but thankfully the father is too tired and grumpy to take the bait. After everyone leaves she slouches around the house in a negligee and watches TV, and when Boris shows up she tries to vamp him. Apparently Annabel’s mother is a MILF because Boris likes it quite a lot.

Then she goes out and buys gin. While she’s out she sees her little brother lost on the streets of New York City because she (as the mother) forgot to pick him up from the school bus. So she tries to sneak away. She only takes him home with her because a crowd has gathered and he’s calling her “mommy.”

About two-thirds of the way through, it dawns on the alert reader that this book is supposed to be funny.

Meanwhile, the mother takes it upon herself to change everything about her daughter she doesn’t like, including cutting her hair (which Annabel has expressedly said she doesn’t want to do) and buying her all-new clothes without her consultation. When she returns she is so beautiful — this day was also coincidentally the day for Annabel to get her braces off — that Boris doesn’t recognize her and describes her as a “beautiful chick.” Annabel is so thrilled to have Boris’s attention that she’s glad her mother has turned her into someone she isn’t.

Oh, and the writing is just terrible.

Stuart Little (1945)

Though I be beaten to death by enraged fifth-grade teachers, I have to say it: Stuart Little is a terrible book.

First off, the premise — that Mrs. Little gave birth to a mouse — just doesn’t bear thinking about. But we’ll let that pass; we’ll pretend that White’s target audience in the 1940’s knew nothing about the facts of life.

More important, what is this book even about?

The first half is Stuart living life as a very small person, with clever uses of ordinary objects, like a cigar box held up by clothespins for a bed, and including a long interlude of Stuart sailing a toy boat on the pond in Central Park. (This kind of territory was already explored a bit by children’s novels like Ben and Me,1939, and The Little Grey Men, 1942, which incidentally includes the characters making use of a toy boat. But to give credit where it is due, Stuart Little was the first children’s novel to really explore the charms of this kind of thing. It has been taken up since by books like The Borrowers, 1952; The Rescuers, 1959; and The Littles, 1967.)

Then Stuart befriends a bird, and after a few more minor adventures the bird flies north and Stuart decides to follow, in a toy automobile. The second half of the book is about his adventures on the road, and we are given to understand that it is not just about finding the bird but about some ineffable longing of the soul.

Stuart takes a gig as a substitute teacher in a small town (the Superintendent of Schools is weirdly sitting by the side of the road depressed that he can’t find a substitute), which gives E.B. White a chance to display his contempt for modern education methods. White also has extremely bizarre ideas about how school children talk and think. One of them, when asked what’s important, says, “A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy.” If this isn’t an author manipulating his characters to make his own point, I don’t know what is.

In another town Stuart has a brief flirtation with a human teenage girl his own size (and again may I say, ew), but it doesn’t work out because his plans for showing off to her on their date get ruined and he’s not willing to consider doing anything else fun with her. So Stuart goes on his way.

And the book ends.

Rumor has it that White rushed the ending because he was worried about his health, but generations of adults have persisted in believing this is somehow profound.

The Dog Dies, Part IV: Conclusions

Part I –     – Part II –     – Part III

There are three basic problems with this kind of book. The first is their distorted moral vision: that life is gruesome and boys need to toughen up. These books may be beautifully written and of high literary quality (Bambi and The Red Pony qualify), but their vision of life, relationships, and emotions is so hopelessly out-of-date that there is no longer any value in making kids read them.

The second problem happens when the death or suffering of the animal is just badly written. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction talks about “sentimentality,” which is an attempt to affect the reader’s emotions with cliché or melodrama, as opposed to genuine emotion honestly earned. The death of Jack in By the Shores of Silver Lake is sentimentality: trite, manipulative, flat. Wilder was not a skilled writer — forgive me, but she wasn’t — and she was unable to do better than grasp at overused phrases and images to try to achieve her emotional effects.

Finally, there is the questionable psychology that leads adults to believe that children, who do of course experience grief in their lives, will be helped by re-experiencing it in fiction. A quick count of the number of Newbery and other award winners on the list of Dead Dog books shows how prevalent this idea is. Adult critics sometimes make high-handed pronouncements about how children will be affected: “readers begin to understand the value of life, the ever-present possibility of death, and the need for self-reliance.” I see little evidence that Dead Dog stories have this kind of improving effect upon children.

It is also suspicious that the object lesson, which supposedly will help the child learn about grief, is so often an animal: a loyal and loving animal that cannot understand the reasons for its suffering. Could this possibly be because it enhances the melodrama? Even weirder, when an animal is the point-of-view character, then it is often the animal’s beloved smaller animal that suffers or dies. One cannot help suspecting that a certain kind of adult does not so much have an ear for literary quality as a taste for making children cry.

The Dog Dies, Part III

Part I –        – Part II

Oh look, there’s more. In today’s post we’ll cover Dead Dog books from the mid-’50’s through the ’70’s. In the final post I’ll have some general comments about WHAT THE HELL WERE THESE ADULTS THINKING.

Hurry Home Candy (1954, Meindert De Jong)
Puppy is abused by humans, runs away and suffers some more, finally finds a kind human who it learns to not be afraid of. A religious allegory. (De Jong was a Calvinist.) De Jong wrote several other books in this vein:

Along Came a Dog (1958): A stray dog is repeatedly driven away by a farmer, until he realizes it’s protecting the chickens. The dog’s favorite chicken is brutalized by the other chickens, and loses its feet to frostbite.

The Last Little Cat (1961): An unwanted kitten suffers until it finds a home where someone will love it.

A Horse Came Running (1970): Mark, son of midwestern farmers, has to fend for himself after a tornado. His favorite horse dies. Mark learns about being a man.

(De Jong is better known as the author of Wheel on the School, 1954, and The House of Sixty Fathers, 1956.)

Old Yeller (1956, Fred Gipson)
Travis, son of Texas farmers, gradually becomes attached to a stray dog that has come to stay. Old Yeller repeatedly saves family members from attacking bears, hogs, and other deadly threats. When he saves the family from a rabid wolf, Old Yeller is bitten, and Travis has to kill him. Travis gets a new puppy.

Island of the Blue Dolphins (1959, Scott O’Dell)
Based on a real event, a Nicoleño girl is accidentally abandoned on an island off the California coast when her people leave. Her younger brother is with her but he soon dies. She befriends a wild dog, who dies. She lives alone for almost 20 years, until she is found and brought to the mainland.

I have a particular grudge against this book, because it is set on one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, so the book was heavily pushed in schools in Santa Barbara, where I grew up.

Where the Red Fern Grows (1961, Wilson Rawls)
Billy, son of Ozark farmers, buys two coonhounds. Many raccoons meet grisly ends. Eventually the hounds fight a mountain lion to save Billy. One dog’s guts are torn out, and the other dog dies of grief. Billy learns about being a man.

 

The Incredible Journey (1961, Sheila Burnford)
Two dogs and a cat leave their pet-sitters to travel home, suffering over a long journey of hundreds of miles, because that’s what loyal animals do. Burnford had obviously read Lassie or Lad or both. Contrary to the rumors in my elementary school, this was not based on a true story. Dogs don’t actually do that.

Sounder (1969, William H. Armstrong)
An African-American boy (nobody has a name except the dog), son of share-croppers, loses his dog on the night his father is imprisoned. The boy searches for the dog, only finding the dog’s torn-off ear. The dog turns up, badly mangled. Then the boy searches for his father, only finding a kindly schoolteacher who offers to teach him to read. The father turns up, badly mangled. The father dies in a hunting accident. The dog dies of grief. The boy learns to read.

Julie of the Wolves (1972, Jean Craighead George)
Miyax/Julie, daughter of a traditional Eskimo hunter, ends up living in town in an arranged marriage after her father disappears. She runs away to live with wolves. Her favorite wolf is shot by a hunter from a plane. She finds out her father is still alive, but he has abandoned traditional ways and now hunts . . . from . . . planes . . .  She runs away again, but then her favorite bird dies of cold. She returns to human civilization.

A Day No Pigs Would Die (1972, Robert Newton Peck)
Robert, son of Vermont Shaker farmers, is given a piglet, which he names and raises. Absurdly gruesome scenes of farm life ensue. Robert’s father kills the pig. The father dies. Robert learns about being a man.

(Peck has claimed the book is based on his own childhood, but many of the details about Shaker life and animal husbandry are incorrect.)

Stone Fox (1980, John Reynold Gardiner)
Willy, grandson of a Wyoming potato farmer, enters a dogsled race with his beloved dog Searchlight, determined to win the prize money so that his ailing grandfather can pay the tax collector. Near the finish line, Searchlight dies of heart failure, because she’s been trying so hard. Because that’s what loyal animals do. Willy carries Searchlight in his arms over the finish line. (Bonus: the titular Stone Fox, a silent, grim, Native American dog-racer, refuses to pass Willy or to let anyone else pass him as he carries Searchlight over the finish line. Because that’s what Native Americans do for white boys.)

Stay tuned for the post-mortem!

The Dog Dies, Part II: Charlotte’s Web

Part I

Charlotte’s Web (1952, E. B. White)

Fern, daughter of Maine farmers, won’t let her father kill the smallest piglet. Instead she adopts it, names it Wilbur, and feeds it from a baby bottle. But Fern doesn’t get to keep Wilbur; instead he goes to her uncle’s farm to be raised for slaughter. Fern visits, has lovely rural experiences, and spends time with her beloved pig, who is going to be slaughtered.

Wilbur, a fully sentient being capable of understanding his fate, finds out what is going to happen to him. (This scene is played for laughs.) The barn-spider Charlotte, Wilbur’s friend and substitute mother, saves him by turning him into a local celebrity. Fern, Wilbur’s real mother-figure, abandons him because she is Growing Up and Discovering Boys. (She is eight.)

Charlotte dies. Alone. Surrounded by trash.

Wilbur is saved because he is special, the only one of his species who deserves to live. He lives out the rest of his days in a piggy death-camp, with the humans coming to lovingly scratch his ears with the smell of bacon on their breath.

Look, I know I’m going to catch hell for this one. Everyone loves Charlotte’s Web; but it’s a fake. E.B. White wanted to have it both ways. He wanted his world of anthropomorphized animals, in the vein of Wind in the Willows or even Bambi — a world with its own internal coherence, where both joy and horror are as real for these animals as they are for us. But he also wanted his slice of rural Americana, with barns and haylofts and the simple pleasures of chores, where raising animals for meat is part of the fabric of life.

White, born and bred urbanite, staff writer for that most urban and urbane of magazines The New Yorker, had a hobby farm in Maine. He liked to have emotional experiences at the birthing of baby animals, and craft reverential prose about the smell of barns, but between his New Yorker deadlines and his poor health it is pretty certain that he didn’t do the hard labor. His disconnect from real farm life can be seen in the first few pages of Charlotte’s Web, when Fern tries to wrestle an axe away from her father — a scene to horrify to any child raised to respect sharp tools.

More Dead Dogs (deer, pigs, etc.) in Part III

The Dog Dies, Part I

“Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down.”   – Gordon Korman, No More Dead Dogs

This is such a cliché, there is even a list on the Goodreads website called “The dog dies . . . a cautionary list.” Everyone knows this trope, and most people hate it, having been traumatized by one “classic” or another in childhood. But let’s stroll down the rogues gallery anyway.

Bob, Son of Battle (1898, Alfred Ollivant)

David, son of a nasty Cumbrian shepherd, is torn between his nasty father with his nasty dog Red Wull, and the good honorable neighbor with his good honorable dog, Bob. Dogs have vicious dog-fights and humans have drunken brawls. David learns about being a man. The story climaxes with a doggie blood-bath. Bizarrely, The New York Review of Books chose this for re-publication as part of its Children’s Collection.

Lad: A Dog (1919, Albert Payson Terhune)

Lad, a collie, is noble, brave, loyal, and intelligent. He saves babies from snake bites, heroically takes blame for things he didn’t do, fights bad dogs and bad humans, rescues straying sheep, and finds his way home over long distances when lost. Nothing is more important than obeying and protecting his master, and he suffers in proud silence, because he is noble.

Terhune wrote a number of other books about collies with titles like My Friend the Dog; The Heart of a Dog; The Faith of a Collie; Collie to the Rescue; and A Dog Named Chips. It is almost certainly he who is being satirized with the fictional book My Pal Shep, in Korman’s No More Dead Dogs (though Korman may also have had in mind later books  by other authors like Champ: Gallant Collie, and My Dog Skip).

Shasta of the Wolves (1919, Olaf Baker)

In this racist piece of tripe and cheap knock-off of The Jungle Book, an abandoned Native American baby named Shasta is adopted by wolves. (Shasta is actually the name of west coast tribe, not an individual given name.) Wild animals viciously attack each other. An eagle murders one of Shasta’s wolf-cub brothers, so Shasta murders the eagle’s babies in revenge. When Shasta temporarily rejoins human society, he is captured by an enemy tribe, and is rescued by his wolf friends in a wolf-and-human blood-bath. Apparently someone thought well enough of this book to model the title of Julie of the Wolves after it.

Bambi: A Life in the Woods (1923, Felix Salten, English translation 1928)

This is another book that is nothing like the Disney movie (even though Bambi’s mother does die in the movie).

Bambi, a fawn, learns about life in the forest. Hunters slaughter lots of animals, and animals murder each other. Bambi and the other fawns worship the emotionally-unavailable stags. An old stag mocks Bambi for having emotions. Bambi’s mother is shot to death. Bambi grows up to be an emotionally-unavailable stag.

The Red Pony (1933, John Steinbeck)

To be fair, this was not originally written for children, but it is now regularly inflicted on children.

Jody, son of California ranchers, is given a pony. The pony gets sick, and dies due to Jody’s carelessness. Next, an old man takes an old horse from the ranch and rides away into the mountains to die, saving Jody’s father the trouble of burying the horse. Then one of the ranch horses becomes pregnant and Jody will get the foal. The birth goes wrong and a ranch hand kills the mare to extract the foal. Jody learns about being a man.

The Yearling (1938, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings)

Jody, son of Florida farmers, adopts a fawn. The fawn grows up and eats the family’s crops, and will have to be killed. Jody refuses to shoot the deer, so his mother shoots and wounds it, and Jody has to finish the job. Jody learns about being a man.

 

By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939, Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Laura, daughter of upper mid-west farmers, sees that the family’s loyal bull-dog Jack is old and weary and not happy that the wagon is being prepared for another trip west. Laura has been neglecting Jack, so she airs and smooths his bed the way she used to. That night Jack dies. He will never again sniff the morning air, et cetera, et cetera. Laura learns about being an adult.

(In reality, there was no one dog that stayed with the family for so long, and there is no account of a beloved dog dying in the original non-fiction manuscript. This episode was created especially for the children’s book version.)

Lassie Come-Home (1940, Eric Knight)

Joe, son of a Yorkshire coal-miner, discovers his parents have sold his beloved collie because the family needs money. The loyal Lassie keeps running back to him, and the family is accused of having trained her as a “come-home” dog who will run back so it can be repeatedly sold. The new owner takes her far away to Scotland, but Lassie makes her way home, suffering over a long journey of hundreds of miles, because that’s what loyal animals do.

Stay tuned for Part II! There’s plenty more!

 

The Little House Books: A Historical Slap Upside the Head

In honor of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award being renamed, I’m moving my discussion of the Little House books forward in the queue.

Original covers of the first three Little House books

 

There is a whole genre of semi-autobiographical books reflecting back on the era between the Civil War and WWI. (More on this in another post.) The giant of the genre, of course, is the Little House series, but they weren’t the first. The real progenitor is the now-neglected Newbery Honor book, The Jumping Off Place. Noteworthy here is that Jumping Off Place was about South Dakota homesteading, and was published in 1929. It probably suggested to Wilder that her own story might be marketable.

Some time around 1929-30, when she was in her ’60’s, Wilder started writing the story of her childhood. Her first manuscript was a non-fictional account called Pioneer Girl (now available in it’s original form, annotated by the South Dakota State Historical Society). It went through several rounds of editing, and then was reworked by Wilder and her daughter for the children’s market. The comparison between original and final versions is instructive.

First, let’s back up and look at the larger historical picture. The experience that Wilder was writing about — the white settlement of Minnesota and the Dakotas in the late 1800’s — was not really westward expansion. Already at this time, Americanized California was booming and modernizing: the University of California had been founded, San Francisco had cable cars and Golden Gate Park, and Santa Barbara was a vacation resort for the rich. The two coasts were connected by the transcontinental railroad and the telegraph. Yellowstone, 600 miles west of the Ingalls’ furthest settling place, was a National Park. So this wave of settlement was not pioneering. It was what you might call “infill,” in a region that was already considered flyover country.

San Francisco, 1885

Further, this settlement was not a grass-roots movement driven by a spirit of adventure (though individual settlers may have bought into that romanticized vision); it was incentivized by the government. These were people who, while celebrating their independent spirit, were also singing a popular song with a chorus of “Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.”

The settlers followed the railroads, built houses and stores where the railroad company had “platted” towns every few miles, and tried to farm — often unsuccessfully, because they didn’t understand the ecosystem — on land that the government had maneuvered them onto. It should have been obvious that this was not succeeding: towns that were only ten or fifteen years old were seen as worn out. But it took another century for the idea to get serious traction, that this artificial, subsidized “pioneering” was a long-term failure (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_Commons).

Railroad construction, Dakota Territory, late 1800’s

In this context, we can consider the ways that Wilder’s books stray from the truth. These stories were not merely fictionalized in a benign sense (for example, the recurring characters of Mr. Edwards and Nellie Olsen were fabricated for narrative continuity, which is perfectly acceptable literary license), but seriously distorted what the Ingalls’ life was like.

Chief Hard Rope, Osage chief at that time of the Ingalls’ illegal residency

To begin with a rather important falsehood, LAURA INGALLS NEVER LIVED IN THE BIG WOODS. The Ingalls’ property was several miles south in more settled territory, quite close to the the nearest town and less than a mile from a school, which Laura and Mary attended. (Successive editors moved the family closer and closer to the woods, until the final version placed them actually in it.) In fact, Laura spent virtually all of her childhood in towns or on their outskirts, notably Walnut Grove MN, Burr Oak IA, and De Smet SD. The two exceptions were the Ingalls family joining a rush of illegal squatting on the Osage Diminished Indian Reserve in Kansas when Laura was a toddler (Little House on the Prairie); and a half-year spent at railroad construction sites in the Dakota Territory (By the Shores of Silver Lake). This half-year consisted first of Charles Ingalls working an office job for the railroad company, and then the family wintering in a company building at the future location of De Smet, eating heartily from abandoned(?) company provisions, until other settlers arrived in the spring.

The real life Charles and Caroline Ingalls

But while the books downplay the settlers’ real dependence on society, they also downplay how destabilizing it was to be removed from the larger culture. These settler towns were communities where the justice of the peace might have only a grade-school education; the minister might be an embezzler; the principal of the high school might be a 16-year-old boy; and the doctor might be supplying whiskey to a town full of recovering alcoholics. All these and more occur in Wilder’s original manuscript, along with domestic abuse, public violence, serial killers, vigilante justice, mental illness, poverty, and despair. Even Pa Ingalls showed a dishonest streak. (Incidentally, almost none of Laura’s idolization of Pa comes through in the original manuscript. Again and again, help, companionship, and words of wisdom that actually came from various women, were reassigned to Pa in the finished books. Hat-tip to the editors of Pioneer Girl for drawing my attention to this point.)