Sunday, March 27, 2011

A good book on children's literature and ... Dorothy Day

I'm reading a good book on children's literature called American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood by Gail Schmunk Murray (1998).

What interests me about children's literature is the lifelong impact it has on readers: In other words, that it's formative. It colors how we view the world. As Murray argues, it's also conservative. Such literature is written by adults who have typically wanted to inculcate children with whatever they consider the prevailing "good" morality of their time period, be it Christian sentiment in the 19th century or acceptance of minorities in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I would add too, that because it is imagined by adults who, inevitably, transmit the values of their own era--essentially the era before the birth of the child reader--children who internalize these values are carrying forward and conserving older values. If they express these values as adults, they are expressing the values of their grandparents' generation, though, of course, influenced by the experiences and values of their own lives.

Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s, was much influenced by the 19th century novels she read as a child. Two that impressed her were Wide, Wide World and Queechy by Susan Warner, both huge best sellers before the Civil War and an influence on a generation of literature to come. In these novels, which are sentimental by today's standards, young orphan girls survive in a cruel world through faith in God, patience, innocence, kindness, forgiveness and self sacrifice. Although these novels were written from an evangelical Christian perspective, Day was able to carry their values into the Catholic Worker movement. Along with other books, they gave her an inspiration and a touchstone. The Catholic Worker hospitality houses required huge amounts of patience, kindness and self sacrifice. They also ignited the popular imagination: the CW hospitality house movement spread quickly.

Books like Queechy and Wide, Wide World remind me of Shirley Temple films of the 1930s, often featuring Temple as a brave, innocent and virtuous orphan girl who makes her way in a cruel world. It interests me that such Victorian motifs carried into the 1930s, a time of great suffering, and that they manifested in both films and the Catholic Worker movement. One could argue that the compassion imagined in the 19th century is in many ways realized in the 20th century, especially during the New Deal of the 1930s, as many of the people who grew up reading 19th- century children's literature came of age. And it's surely possible that children's book like the Little House series, which, as Murray points out, promoted self help and implicitly critiqued government programs, have influenced the politics of our era in an individualist direction.

Questions that arise for me include: What values did I imbibe and have I carried forward as a child reading children's literature in the 1960s and early 70s? What values are today's young adults carrying forward? What impact have they had and will they have on how our society is structured?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Persimmon cake and Jane Austen

Our persimmons are now "well-frosted"--or at least, somewhat frosted--and so I picked some. I've discovered they're best when they turn bright orange, almost the color of a cherry tomato, and are beginning to shrivel.

When I'd gathered enough, I whipped them into a pulp in the food processor and made a persimmon cake from a recipe I found on the Web.

I served it at the Quaker Writing group meeting this evening. It was the color and texture of an English plum pudding, a moist, dense cake. The "tasters" --aka the writing group--liked it. I was glad.

I was informed that you can frost persimmons by picking them and putting them in the freezer. Now why didn't I think of that? I was also told that November and December are more the months for persimmons, but we have had a cold snap recently.

In any case, the golden and orange persimmon globes are colorful and pretty in the tree. People in Barnesville with persimmon experience tell me I should try an actual persimmon pudding. Maybe I will.

This is all the more thrilling for me as I am reading a book now called Jane Austen and Food. After her father died, according to this book, Jane and her mother and her sister Cassandra lived in a "cottage" called Chawton, with a big garden surrounded by high walls. They grew pears and greengages and many other fruits (and vegetables) and made their own jams, jellies and preserves. So as I baked with persimmons, I liked thinking that Jane Austen would have done the same.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ambiguity in Nancy Drew

In Girl Sleuths, Bobby Ann Mason uses the following quote from The Mystery at Lilac Inn to illustrate Nancy's association with the color blue:
“The driver, a pretty girl of perhaps 16, attractive in a frock that either by accident or design, exactly matched the blue of her automobile, smiled whimsically.” (p.1, original version)

The use of blue was interesting but I was stunned by the phrase "either by accident or design." Either/or! From the very first page of this book, we're confronted with mystery, ambiguity, forks in the road. Which is it? Is it accident that Nancy's "frock" matches her car or is "design?" And what are we to make of this mysterious Mona Lisa smile, this whimsical smile, that apparently results from being hungry and reading a sign for chicken dinners?

When I first went looking for this quote, I mistakenly picked up The Password to Larkspur Lane. (Larkspurs, Lilacs ...) I was perplexed I couldn't find the quote I sought. What I did see was the following: "If this were 2,000 years ago ...." Not fact, but supposition, followed by plants "that waved their blue plumes as if saying: 'Choose me! Choose me!'" Three short paragraphs into the book and we read two "ifs:" we are in the world of supposition, possibility and, with the imagined cries of the flowers, choice.

Both openings point to depths and mysteries in Nancy herself that make her a more interesting character. Does Nancy plan her frocks to match her car? What about Nancy we don't know? Is she more calculating than we may believe, more in control of the aesthetics of her environment than she might let on? Or it mere chance that her dress matches her car? Is her "whimisical" smile because of hunger or a nod to the way she's put one over on us? The text leaves us hanging ... or more precisely, puts the burden on us to look for "clues" in the text to tease out our own conclusions.

In the Password to Larkspar Lane, we find Nancy and Hannah Gruen in a domestic, pedestrian and typically female endeavor: cutting flowers from a backyard garden for a flower show. Yet the text lifts it into another, more mysterious realm. Nancy is not just an everyday girl in the midwest. She connects herself to a larger story, a history that goes back 2,000 years to ancient Greece, a place that evokes wisdom and mystery. The text also subverts Nancy's feminine activity. She's the actor, the chooser, the "male" figure in this scene. She has the power over the passive flowers, who can only say "Choose me!" It's she who walks among the contestants in this beauty pageant, making decisions and taking action: "Snip!"

How is this similar to Jane Austen?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Book about children's literature

I've been reading three books on children's literature--with a hat tip to Ellen Moody at WomenWritersoftheWorld for recommending them--Bobby Ann Mason's Girl Sleuth, Good Girl Messages by Deborah O'Keefe and Catching Them Young: Political Ideas in Children's Fiction by Bob Dixon.

In Girl Sleuth: On the Trail of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Cherry Ames, published in 1975, Mason first discusses the classism and sexism inherent in the Honeybunch series and Bobbesey Twin books, then moves on to analyze the mixed messages girls receive from series such as Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton. She points particularly to the classist assumptions in Nancy Drew: Nancy is a well-to-do, blond-haired, blue-eyed WASP girl who expects and receives privileges because of her class. This is obviously true to an extent, but Mason overstates the case and I would like, in a future blog or blogs to examine the intersection of class and sex in Nancy Drew. Do we unfairly tar young female characters who behave assertively and independently with the brush of "class privilege?" Do we use accusations of classist behavior to further oppress women who act boldly? Is Nancy Drew truly unconscious of her class privilege? Unamibivalent about it? Should women who happen belong to an elite class not use their power?

Mason also sees Nancy Drew as dependent on her father, both financially and as the person who "saves" her from danger. Again, I think the waters are much murkier. Of course, Nancy relies on her father's income. But is that all there is to it?

Mason also opened me the amazing ambiguities and possibilities in the Nancy Drew text that are out there in plain sight. She doesn't focus on this at all--or seem to notice it--but she chose a quote that made it all pop out for me. More on this later too ... and it's connection to Jane Austen.

I have a question: two of the three books I'm reading about children's literature were written in the 1970s (O'Keefe's book, however, was published in 2000). Is that because not much analysis has been written since then? Are there other books that standout that we should know about?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Nancy Drew: Unbearable Lightness of being

In Nancy's Mysterious Letter, Nancy rushes to the defense of her loyal postman, Ira Dixon, when his mailbag is stolen from her porch two days from his retirement.

In this time before Social Security, George, Nancy's boyish chum, is amazed that the mailman can retire! "Fancy a letter carrier retiring! I didn't know they were paid enough to save up a fortune!'

Nancy explains that the postman's perfect record has earned him a pension and, plus, he has received a small inheritance.

But when the mailbag is stolen, the mailman's pension is forfeited and Nancy goes with him to visit his superior to plead his case.

She holds her head high and walks into the postal supervisor's office fearlessly, a contrast to Dixon's frightened, bowed shoulders.

Nancy then confronts the angry supervisor, Mr. Cutter, who turns crimson, shouts and bangs his fist on his desk when he hears the news. He also blames Nancy.

Although her cheeks burn "with an angry flush" at Cutter's rudeness, she handles the encounter with hauteur and composure: "Really, you don't have to shout at me. I'm not deaf and I am aware of all you say."

Cutter, however, continues to blast her, castigating her, then jeering at her as "Miss Wise Lady from Know-it-All." Dixon, cowed by Cutter's intimidating tactics, puts up an arm as if to protect Nancy, "but Nancy was fully capable of taking her own part. She was not in the least ruffled by the postmaster's rudeness." She continues to try to get back to the rational point, which is to try to find the thief who stole the mail pouch.

When the police come in, Nancy bestows a "scornful glance" on Cutter before proceeding with her story.

The detectives realize it is THE Nancy Drew they are facing, the daughter of Carson Drew, the respected attorney, and the young woman who has bested them more than once in solving cases. They become more courteous but no less friendly, for "her youth and composure nettled them not a little."

Nancy doesn't care.

At the end of the conference, Nancy pointedly refuses Cutter's outstretched hand as he tries to make amends for having offended the daughter of Carson Drew. As she walks into the "thronged" corridor, clerks and carriers hastily move aside, watching, as Nancy passes "with the composure of a queen."

This remarkable scene reverses gender stereotypes. Here, Nancy stays calm, cool and rational while Cutter, the older male supervisor, reacts emotionally and irrationally to the news of the theft. Here, we meet a Nancy who can be fearless, haughty, relentlessly self-assured and icily angry. The only female in a scene thronged with males, she makes every one of them squirm. She reduces all of them to jellyfish, knows it and doesn't care. She refuses to do anything that might be expected to protect the male ego. She doesn't try to be nice or apologetic or vulnerable. She doesn't need any help. All of Cutter's tactics from shouting and threatening to attempted belittlement--typical male methods of intimidation--fail completely with Nancy. From beginning to end, she dominates.

No wonder girls and women love her. And no wonder she's too hot for Hollywood to handle. No wonder she has to be reduced to the wacky, zany screwball heroine of the 1930s flicks or the postmodern self-parody of the 2007 movie. Can you imagine filming the above scene in Mysterious Letter as written? It would be too blinding, too brilliant, too glaringly assertive for men to handle. Only the bitch to be humiliated could be given such a moment. But that's not Nancy! Nancy behaves as a fully actualized human AND triumphs! Oh we love her, we love her!

Beyond that, we know that it's injustice--glaring, harsh, cruel injustice or the kind of petty, irrational injustice perpetrated against Ira Dixon--that engenders this uncompromising ice goddess Nancy. We know --as the men in this scene do not--that this is not the totality of our heroine, who is also kind and gentle, laughing and fun loving, joyful and generous. With her chums, with us, if not with them. Again, stereotypes are reversed. Nancy is not all sweetness and light with men, savage with other women. Au contraire.

This Nancy stretches back to Jane Fairfax in Jane Austen's Emma and forward to the Donna Parker we saw yesterday, who flames with unbridled fury at being expected to diminish herself to build up a man. But does it stretch to today?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Donna Parker: That Spitfire!

Ah Donna. Our 1950s teenage gal with a flip who stared in seven books, each with a mystery twist, has been characterized on Wikipedia as follows;

"Calm, loyal and understanding, Donna is prone to worry about events outside her control. She is quick to help people and very polite."

Well, yeah, calm and very polite ... sometimes. At other times--fairly frequent times -- she can exhibit a firecracker outrage similar to Nancy Drew's. For example, in Donna Parker: Mystery at Arawak, Donna gives her friend Teddy a dressing down when he accuses her of making him look like a fool with her competency:

“Donna felt the blood rise to her face: ‘So I was supposed to do a poor job to make you look better? I never heard of anything so stupid!’ … She was just furious. Imagine Teddy stopping her for a conversation like that! She hoped she would never see him again.”

That's some calm and polite.

You go girl!

So my question: can you think of other instances when supposed "demure" girl characters show their spirit? I think I'll write about memorable outrage in Nancy Drew tomorrow ....

Friday, September 18, 2009

On Donna


"But the girl who captured my heart completely was -- and always will be -- Donna Parker. Anytime I see one of those brightly painted cardboard covers at yard sales or Salvation Army book collections, I snatch it immediately. Remember good ol' Donna? She never had to face the kind of death-defying mysteries that Nancy or even Trixie confronted, but she had her share of adventures. Pretty, sweet and good-hearted, she nevertheless had killer nerves and lots of courage -- hot stuff for a girl like me, growing up in a single-mom household in the poor part of town. As Jessica Zafra recently wrote in her book Tw7sted, We can never be truly safe; we can only be brave. Donna Parker took that to heart and was among the bravest girl heroines.

I thought of her as I read through Cara Black's latest Aimee Leduc mystery, Murder in the Rue de Paradis. The stylish, hip, and I-eat-nails-for-breakfast Aimee is basically Donna Parker all grown up -- self-assured, witty, smart and a smart ass, a risk-taker (sometimes a reckless one), but with that streak of vulnerability that's both endearing and endlessly frustrating. Yeah, that's my girl."