Falter Tom and the Water Boy (1959)

Maurice Duggan was an important figure in New Zealand’s mid-century literary scene, known mostly for short stories. Falter Tom and the Water Boy was his one children’s novel.

Falter Tom is an old sailor, nick-named for his game leg (Duggan himself lost a leg in early adulthood), who lives in a cabin in a small town by the sea. He knows people well enough to say hello to and he tells the local boys tall tales of life at sea, but nobody really knows him.

One day he encounters a “water boy” by the shore, a beautiful pale-green figure with copper colored hair, who appears to be an adolescent but is in fact ageless. Falter Tom learns from him how to live and breathe in the water. The two travel the oceans together for a year, at the end of which Falter Tom must decide whether to return home to his life on land or stay in the ocean forever. He choses eternal life with the water boy, and the two swim away together joyfully.

This book has good moments, such as when Falter Tom must look for an amulet that is “a part of a fish and a piece of gold kept for luck.” He finds an old whale tooth pendant set in gold that he used to wear, but worries that it won’t work because a whale isn’t a fish. It turns out to be a splendid choice, though, since whales spend their life in the sea. But in between the interesting bits there is far too much description. The writing is beautiful, but things just move along too slow.

Maurice Duggan, 1961

This is also, from a certain perspective, a rather sad book, because it reads like it was written by a closeted gay man. (Maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s usual for straight male authors to write about running away forever to an idyllic life with a beautiful young man.)

Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946)

T.H. White is best known for his retelling of the King Arthur legend in The Once and Future King, a compilation of three novels including The Sword in the Stone.

Mistress Masham’s Repose concerns the orphaned heiress to a crumbling estate, being raised by a horrible governess with the collusion of her equally horrible sidekick the vicar. One day exploring a neglected and overgrown lake on the grounds, she discovers the Lilliputians, descendants of the ones from Gullivers Travels.

But White did not just borrow Swift’s creations, he wrote a book of biting satire in the vein of Swift. (I think people underestimate how much White did the same thing in Once and Future King. It is as much a satire on British society as it is a story about King Arthur.) The only problem is, satire is lost on children. Also like Once and Future King, there is some endless cataloguing of plants and wildlife; White was a bit of a naturalist, and he couldn’t resist.

Unlike many of the books on the “Literary Greats Try to Write for Children” list that make for bad children’s fare, this one makes a pretty good book for adults. I remember it on my parents’ bookshelves along with archie & mehitabel, Chas Addams’ Drawn and Quartered, The Annotated Alice, The Thirteen Clocks, The Rescuers, and other erudite but playful books of the early-to-mid 20th century. (Yes, The Rescuers was originally for an adult audience.) Mistress Masham’s Repose has, however, been re-released as part of the NYT children’s collection, so it is now firmly understood to be For Children.

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 Little Prince (1943)

There is something amounting to a trend of adult literary authors who put out a single book for children. It’s a bit like a ballet dancer getting on a unicycle; the results can be hard to watch.

Let’s start with The Little Prince.

* * * * * * *

Saint-Exupery was a French aristocrat and an aviator in the early days of flying, who pushed the dangerous boundaries of navigation with minimal instruments in north Africa, and once nearly died in the desert after a crash. He became one of France’s literary elite with his adult works Night Flight and Wind, Sand, and Stars. These are neither cheerful nor big on plot. They are about death and loneliness, and the sere beauty of sky and desert.

Living in North America after the invasion of France, he wrote a children’s book at the suggestion of his editor’s wife. I had to look this up because I was not convinced The Little Prince had been intended for children at all. It’s short, it mentions childhood (the prince, though in a child’s body, hardly counts as a child character), it has a talking animal, and it has illustrations. That’s the extent of its resemblance to a children’s book. It is neither cheerful nor big on plot. It is about death and loneliness, and the sere beauty of sky and desert.

* * * * * * *

Look, I do get it, why people want to like these books. People who care about children, and literature, and children’s literature, want to offer an entry into the more sophisticated pleasures of language and narrative.

The trouble is, when adults just reach for the examples they themselves have been told are “great,” and then tell children how to feel about them, adults and children alike lose their authentic connection to the art of language-craft. The child who affects appreciation for The Little Prince because it garners praise from teachers is no closer to the heart of literature than a child with a genuine enthusiasm for Pippi Longstocking.

Stay tuned for howlers by Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, Upton Sinclair, Ted Hughes, and more.

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