Fox, Paula 1923-
Paula Fox 1923-
American children's writer and novelist.
For additional criticism on Fox's works, see Children's Literature Review, Volumes 1, 44.
Fox writes incisive stories of young people who are forced to deal with adversity. Instead of creating light, two-dimensional characters, Fox renders flawed young people who are in the process of journeying toward understanding and peace. Imperfect though they may be, her characters portray growth and human nature in a way that is familiar to the reader.
Fox was born in New York City to a Cuban mother and Irish father. Young and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of childrearing, Fox's parents temporarily surrendered their baby girl to a minister and his elderly mother, with whom she lived until age six. Over the course of her childhood, Fox lived in New York, California, and Cuba before finally returning to New York around age twelve.
Through her childhood and into her adult years, Fox never lost sight of her eventual goal to become an author. She made a living as a steel machinist and a punctuator in New York before making her way overseas. Her love of traveling led her to work in cities across Western Europe. Fox worked for a British news agency following World War II, allowing her to travel even more extensively.
In 1954 Fox and her first husband divorced, and she began attending classes at Columbia University, following which she taught for many years. As her children grew older and more independent, she finally found time to realize her dream of authorship. She began writing in earnest around the time she remarried in 1962, and four years later she published her first book, Maurice's Room (1966). Since then her books have been nominated for and have won many literary awards, including a Newbery Medal in 1974 for her young adult novel The Slave Dancer.
Fox's novel A Likely Place (1967) draws on every child's occasional wish to escape the trials of home and find someplace more peaceful. Lewis is a boy who wants a break from the constant advice adults give him. When he meets an elderly man in the park who is also escaping his family, they both learn something valuable from each other. How Many Miles to Babylon (1967) is set in New York City. The protagonist, a ten-year-old boy named James, longs for the simple and peaceful life that his mother tells him about in stories of Africa. When his mother disappears without warning to commit herself to a mental institution, James is left with relatives and dreams up a perception of his missing mother as an African queen, complete with regal clothing and trappings. When he meets her again, he realizes that an imperfect mother is better than an imaginary queen. The Stone-Faced Boy (1968) features a boy named Gus whose emotions are never expressed on his face. Despite various people's efforts, Gus remains "stone-faced," holding in all his emotions. People around him are unappreciative and cruel, with the exception of a younger sister and a great-aunt. From the aunt he receives a geode—a stone that looks plain on the outside but, when cracked open, reveals beautiful crystals. Serving as the main metaphor for the book, the stone remains uncracked at the end, but Gus is satisfied with the secret knowledge that he can crack it when he is ready. Fox won a Newbery Medal for The Slave Dancer, a its penetrating look at the life of a white boy made to play music on a slave ship in order for the slaves to be exercised by dancing. The One-Eyed Cat (1984) tells the story of Ned, a boy who ignores adults' warnings about his air rifle and secretly fires it into the yard. Believing he has hit something, Ned is ridden with guilt. The uncomfortable secret festers away until he is finally able to unburden himself by confiding in an elderly neighbor. In Lily and the Lost Boy (1987), Lily admires her older brother, Paul, and is jealous when a newcomer, Jack, begins to claim Paul's attention. However, over time Lily realizes that Jack's rough exterior belies the heart of a boy who has experienced much pain. When Jack's recklessness causes the death of another child, he runs away, and Lily, understanding his weaknesses and hurt, realizes that shis the one who must find him. Monkey Island (1991) is the story of Clay, a young homeless boy whose search for his missing mother is punctuated by foster families. The book offers a touching look at life from a homeless perspective, ending with the reuniting of the family. Elizabeth is the eleven-year-old main character of Western Wind (1993). She harbors bitterness toward her parents, whom she believes sent her to stay with her grandmother because they prefer her newborn brother. During the course of the story, Elizabeth begins to realize how remarkable a person her grandmother is. Eventually she stops focusing on herself and reaches out to help find a child missing from her grandmother's island community. With Amzat and His Brothers (1993), Fox retells three classic Italian folktales. As with most European folktales, good triumphs, simplicity ends up ruling over those who mock it, and cleverness saves lives. Perhaps the most widely reviewed of Fox's books in recent years is The Eagle Kite (1995), which tells the story of Liam, a boy who doesn't understand the separation of his parents. When his mother struggles to explain how his father contracted AIDS, Liam recalls a long-buried memory of his father in another man's embrace. Liam subsequently strives to come to terms with the truth about his father and deal with his father's imminent death. In Radiance Descending (1997), Paul is a boy who deals with resentment toward his younger brother who has Downs syndrome. Both anger and embarrassment plague him until he begins to gain an understanding of who his brother really is and what value he has as a person.
Critics have applauded Fox's books for their convincing characters and her perceptive approach to such difficult topics as family conflict and the awkwardness of the early teen years. While some have complained that many of Fox's characters do not fully realize a solution to the conflict by the end of the book, other critics have argued that Fox skillfully draws her characters toward the conclusion with evidence of growth to come. Fox's dry humor has been praised for cleverly tempering the heavy subjects that she probes. Critics appreciate the depth of Fox's work; her books appear to be simple on the surface but hold various levels of meaning. Christine McDonnell referred to The Stone-Faced Boy as a geode: "At first glance this is a simple realistic family story. But if you look carefully inside, you will find a beautifully crafted adventure—a satisfying quest, complete with magical mentor."
Fox won a Newbery Medal Award for The Slave Dancer in 1974 and the Hans Christian Anderson Award for Writing in 1978. The One-Eyed Cat became a Newbery Honor Book in 1985 and was also given the Christopher Award.
Maurice's Room (novel) 1966
A Likely Place (novel) 1967
How Many Miles to Babylon? (novel) 1967
The Stone-Faced Boy [with Alice Richter] (novel) 1968
Blowfish Live in the Sea [with Alice Richter] (novel) 1970
Western Coast (novel) 1973
The Slave Dancer (novel) 1974
The Widow's Children (novel) 1976
A Place Apart (novel) 1980
The One-Eyed Cat (novel) 1984
A Servant's Tale (novel) 1984
The Moonlight Man (novel) 1986
Lily and the Lost Boy (novel) 1987
Monkey Island (novel) 1991
Amzat and His Brothers: Three Italian Folktales (short stories) 1993
Western Wind (novel) 1993
The Eagle Kite (novel) 1995
Radiance Descending (novel) 1997
Borrowed Finery (novel) 2001
Paula Fox (speech date April 1979)
SOURCE: Fox, Paula. "Hans Christian Andersen Medal Acceptance." Horn Book Magazine 55, no. 2 (April 1979): 222-23.
[In the following speech, Fox accepts the Hans Christian Andersen Medal and discusses the similarities between writing for children and for adults.]
One morning, years ago when I was young, I was walking along the sea at a place called South Beach on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. At the edge of the waves, drying in the sunlight, was a small sealed bottle. Inside it I could see a written card, but the glass was too thick to make out what it said. I hurried home, and there with screwdriver and knife I extracted the cork and fished out the card. It was from the Department of the Interior of the United States Government. It told me that I had found a bottle launched some months earlier in an effort to determine the meanderings of certain ocean currents and that if I would fill in the appropriate places on the card with information as to exactly where I had found it and on what date, the Department would be grateful and, further, would be prompt in informing me where the bottle had been launched from originally. I filled in the information at once, went to the village post office to mail the card, and began to wait. Governments do not answer promptly, and it was a long wait, six weeks, as I remember it. During that time, I spent hours in the library studying the coastlines of the world in atlases, and I daydreamed incessantly about the extraordinary places from one of which my bottle had undoubtedly come.
When the Government answered at last, I tore open the letter and, at once, gasped with laughter and chagrin. Laughter at the folly of my own imaginings and chagrin at the truth. The bottle had been launched from South Beach on that very island where I was staying, and it had not left South Beach.
The astonishment which I so much wanted to feel those long years ago when I was waiting for news of that bottle, I now feel because of the news you have given me about my books, the news that currents unimagined by me have carried them so far.
With astonishment—and gratitude and delight—I thank the International Board on Books for Young People for awarding me the Hans Christian Andersen Medal.
We have all heard of the long argument about the difference between literature for children and literature for adults. And in the vast expansion in publishing for children that has taken place over the last century, we have all been affected, one way or another, by an elaboration of differences within the children's book world itself, controversies over age groups and age interests and age categories. What is often lost sight of in the din of contention is the universal power and endurance of a good story, a power expressed in a line I once read that speaks of "a tale which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner."
The power of a good story is the power of imagination. And great imagining, Goethe wrote, is the imagining of the truth, the effort to grasp truth through the imagination. It is the truth of life one finds in great stories.
It would be perverse and fatuous to claim that any five-year-old child would find Madame Bovary or Crime and Punishment interesting. But that a child's interest is not likely to be aroused by Emma Bovary or Raskolnikov does not confirm a general division between child and adult, only a particular one. A particular division is not the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter, I believe, is that the art of storytelling is, ultimately, the art of truth. In the imaginative effort that lies behind a good story, there is no difference between writing for children and for adults. And if what children have read, or have had read to them, has not condescended to them, has not given them meretricious uplift and vainglory at the expense of truthfulness, and has awakened their imagination, they may, later, want to know about Emma Bovary and Raskolnikov.
The Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tells of the poet Caedmon, an illiterate cowherd who lived in the seventh century. Caedmon did not have the gift of song, and in the evenings when the harp was handed round in the monastic farmstead where he labored, Caedmon would steal away to the stables, ashamed that he could not sing. One night in a dream, a stranger appeared to Caedmon and told him that he must sing. Caedmon asked, "But of what shall I sing?" And the stranger in his dream said, "Sing of the beginning of all created things."
That is the task for storytellers. That is what literature for children and adults is about, all created things.
Paula Fox (essay date January-February 1987)
SOURCE: Fox, Paula. "Other Places." Horn Book Magazine 63, no. 1 (January-February 1987): 21-7.
[In the following essay, Fox recounts some of her childhood experiences and discusses how children react to topics that are difficult for adults.]
My grandmother and I were obliged to live for several years in a very small apartment in a Long Island village which was, at that time, undergoing changes that would alter its village character forever, as the New York City commuting range extended further. I attended a public elementary school in the neighborhood. Every Saturday, I was allowed to go to the Inwood movie house, a mile or so from where we lived.
I don't remember the feature movies I saw there, only an inexhaustible serial called The Invisible Man, each of its episodes ending as the stocky actor who played the invisible man disappeared in sections, first his legs, then his arms, then his torso, until only his head remained floating above the furniture of a 1930s living room. When his head vanished, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat, it was time to go home.
If he disappeared from one place, I surmised, he must have been appearing in another. It was about that other place I mused as I walked home to the box where my grandmother and I lived, a place utterly and crushingly different from the Cuban plantation house where we had been before coming to the Long Island suburb.
I'm pretty sure I wanted to be that invisible man with his power to transfer himself where he wished simply by wrapping himself up in long lengths of some white material. I knew there was camera trickery involved, and I was not so credulous as to believe it was possible for solid flesh to be in two places at the same time. But despite that, the image on the screen held a powerful fascination for me, not dispelled by reason. I pondered it as though it were a riddle. Dimly I began to perceive that for a person to appear and disappear at will was a literal representation of something else. I began, in fact, to comprehend what an analogy was long before I had heard the word. After all, I may have said to myself, here I was walking along new sidewalks already crumbling, under limp-leafed trees, passing jerrybuilt new apartment houses in the hazy, humid summer air, yet in my mind I was running along a dirt road among fields of sugar cane under a vast tropical sky. And if that tropical landscape palled, I could go years back and find myself trudging up a long hill to a Victorian house overlooking the Hudson River on a winter day when the air crackled with cold. It was not lengths of material that made it possible to be in two places at once; it was memory.
Memory, books, and imagination. Stories took you to other places. Maxim Gorki wrote in Childhood (Cambridge), the first volume of his autobiography, that books made the world a larger place. There was a big public library in that Long Island village. Every week I came home with as many books as I could carry. And on Sundays, when most of my school friends stayed home and when the Inwood movie house was closed, I could read through the long afternoons. I could disappear from the constricted rooms of the apartment and appear in other places peopled with the stories, the imagination of writers, where a fierce convict changed the destiny of a bullied child, where a water rat and a mole picnicked on the banks of a stream, where an orphaned child led pirates to buried treasure, where a little girl drank a potion so magical she could shrink to a size that would allow her to enter an enchanted garden.
There was no television then, of course. But we did have a radio, and there were programs for children, "Mandrake the Magician," "Jack Armstrong," "The All-American Boy," "The Lone Ranger," "Fu Manchu," and many others I no longer remember. What resonating voices! What gongs, hooves of galloping horses, tooting of river boats, breaking of waves, foghorns, grinding villainous voices of rascals, clear, grand, if somewhat shallow voices of heroes and heroines, all—all invisible, yet more present, brought more to vivid life in the room where I listened than the images I see now on the television screen which occupy the space imagination once made boundless.
My grandmother told me stories, too, of her life in Spain before she was sent, at sixteen, to marry a man she had never seen. Some of her tales were comic, and some were tales of dread. My grandfather, a Spaniard from Asturias, owned a plantation far from Havana, and his young bride was plunged into a nineteenth-century colonial world that is now gone forever. It was her good fortune to come to care about this man in a marriage that had been arranged by an elderly relative of his, although like much good fortune, it didn't last very long. He died just after the end of the Spanish-American war, and her life was once again changed, violently this time, when she left the plantation, a large part of which had been burned to the ground, for the United States.
What I recall about her stories, told to me in fragments over the years I lived with her, was an underlying elegiac note, a puzzled mourning for the past. Every story, as concrete as the kitchen table where we sometimes sat, or in the living room where sunlight fell upon the floor through the rusted bars of a fire escape, had a subtext, and it is its melancholy note I now remember. Concrete stories, transcendental meanings—surface and depth.
But it was when my grandmother took me to see a play that I glimpsed the most dramatic instance of the double nature of life. She didn't speak English well, but she could read, and she must have seen a review of the play and thought it would be something I would like. We went to a Saturday matinee. The theater was small and beautiful. The play had been running on Broadway for some time. It was not a period, as I remember it, when there were special plays for children, anymore than there were special books for what we now call young adults. But because the play concerned itself with the misadventures of a high school student, many children were in the audience.
My grandmother had gotten us orchestra seats quite near the stage. I discovered that by leaning to either side I could see into the wings, see the actors prepare to leap from a waiting stillness into frantic activity on stage. But this view I caught of off-stage life seemed as dramatic to me, as much a part of theatrical illusion, as it did years later in London when, during an Old Vic production of King Lear, I saw a stagehand beating a huge sheet of tin to simulate the thunder on the heath.
The play was in the mode of the Andy Hardy movies of that period—a cartoon of teenage life. The hero was an inept, bumbling youth who was always being caught out in some mischief, drawing caricatures of a teacher, putting frogs in a girl's locker, failing all his courses, although in the end he triumphed over a brainy rival—intellect being considered a handicap then as it still is.
The climax of the play came when the youth got into a tangle with the school principal and was faced with expulsion. He cavorted and shrieked about the stage, making up in noise what was lacking in drama. The audience laughed and clapped at his predicament. I turned for a moment from the stage and noticed what I had not seen when my grandmother and I had sat down. In the seat next to mine was a small boy sitting next to an elderly woman in a uniform, a nurse perhaps. His legs stuck straight out, nearly touching the forestage. On each leg there was a metal brace as cruel looking as an animal trap. I knew at once, as any child would have known in those years, that he had had infantile paralysis. He was a small dark-haired boy. He had rested his chin on one clenched fist. Tears were streaming down his face.
As the school principal informed the youth sternly that he was to be expelled from school, he fell to his knees to plead for another chance, to promise he would be a model student from then on. The weeping of the small boy next to me grew more audible. I couldn't take my eyes from him. I don't recall much else about my first play. But although it has been fifty-two years since I sat in the theater, staring at that crippled child's profile, I recall his features distinctly. I remember how he tried to stifle his sobs, how he tried to cover his whole face with his hands, how the nurse put her arm around him and tried to comfort him.
I think that, where the audience saw only the antics of a clown, the little boy saw the misery of someone not only threatened with expulsion from school but expulsion from the human race—that he saw, in fact, the sadness of a person who can enter human society only as a fool because he feels no other way is open to him. Perhaps it was his illness, the shock of it, his banishment from what we choose to think of as the ordinary world of childhood, that had made him see differently, deeply, to discern suffering masked by silliness and self-caricature.
Is such deepening of consciousness only brought about by suffering? Some philosophers and many storytellers have thought so. But must we pose, against the alerted sensibilities suffering may bring, only a shallow cheerfulness? An inability or a disinclination to feel for others, even to feel for the self? Real life is more complex for such superficial oppositions. Is it conceivable that a human child does not, at some time or other, feel intimations of hardships, of conditions, of experiences far beyond the range of his or her own experience? I think not. Even in those child-rearing circumstances we have come to define as good—parental tenderness and interest, physical well-being, material comfort—is there not in any child an instinctive sense of the common vicissitudes, the afflictions, to which we are all susceptible?
I recently saw on television an ad for a children's blanket which, treated with some chemical, shines in the dark. "Make your child feel secure," said the television saleswoman cozily. Secure against what? The menace one so often detects in commercial offerings is, in some way, only a cruder form of a certain kind of psychological bullying: Be caring, sharing, loving—or else!
The paradox is that by our constant, obsessive concern with security, we imply ever more powerfully the dark forces against which security is supposed to guard us. We are afraid of the dark; the light of a chemically-treated security blanket only reveals its density. Would it not be wiser to acknowledge that our children feel, as we did when young, the uncertainties and alarms and confusion of being alive, of growing up?
The little boy with infantile paralysis had fallen right through the world of surfaces. Perhaps his grief was too great. Yet when the play was over, he clapped vigorously for the actors. I saw him struggle to his feet, smile up at his nurse, and hobble up the long aisle out of the theater. He was game. He had not been undone by his feelings for the play's poor fool. He had seen what was visible and what was invisible. I think now, looking back, that he had courage.
Recently I reread E. M. Forster's novel, A Room with a View (Random), and I came across a passage that struck me with great force. It was this:
She gave up trying to understand herself, and joined the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters—the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue.
It is, of course, much easier in the short run, for us to fall back on catchwords when we are gripped by fear, by confusion, by intimations of the chaos which can turn our lives upside down on any sunny morning. I think of a middle-aged woman I heard about who, when she learned her father was dying, said at once that death could be a very enriching experience. Before her heart or brain could be engaged by this enormous event, she had sped away from it, staking out a claim for enrichment before death could get the drop on her.
And I think of a girl I read about in a newspaper story about young cancer patients. She had had leukemia for some months, and during the long periods of treatment for it, she was quoted as saying to her parents, "Please, please don't know everything about what is happening to me. Please don't understand my feelings too quickly."
Even in small matters we often seem too impatient to allow ourselves to be puzzled. We rush to define events, anomalies, surprises of all sorts, before we begin to know what we feel and think about them. We write off whole continents of human mysteries with inane clichés, and, sometimes, we reduce a mysterious human person, standing right in front of us, to a heap of psychological platitudes. "The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase," wrote T. S. Eliot. And, too often, we use formulas to see by. They give off a dim light.
These formulas have come to express the only commonly held views we are supposed to share. But, as Randall Jarrell wrote in an essay, "The Taste of the Age," they have taken the place of a body of common knowledge that educated people—and many uneducated people—once had. "Fairy tales, myths, proverbs, history—the Bible and Shakespeare and Dickens, the Odyssey and Gulliver's Travels, " writes Jarrell, "often things that most of an audience (now) won't understand an allusion to, a joke about." Yet, he goes on to say, "These things were the ground on which the people of the past came together."
What is integral to the works on Jarrell's list is an apprehension of the peculiar and unique situation of being human. Part of being human is, as the Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, writes, to be able to bear, "that dramatic consciousness ever alive in our inmost being, and upon our feeling, like a murmuring counterpoint in our entrails, that we are only sure of insecurity."
Who was safer, I wonder, who more truly secure, at that play I saw long ago? The complacent, laughing audience who frantically applauded a mockery of adolescent suffering, or the weeping crippled child, who through his capacity to imagine, to feel, infused the play with meaning.
Children begin clear-eyed. Their vision is not clouded by sentimentality. They see the peculiarity of a thing, of a person. They see things we would rather they didn't see. They ask questions we either cannot answer or do not wish to answer. Yet we cannot bear their uncertainty and tell ourselves we must spare them it. So we hastily stop up their curiosity, their speculations, their first intimation of life's mystery with our formulas, a kind of mental spoon-feeding, about which Randall Jarrell, in the essay cited above, quotes E. M. Forster, who said: "The only thing we learn from spoon-feeding is the shape of the spoon." The contents of that spoon may change from period to period, but the impulse to shove it into a child's mouth does not seem to.
In the early years of the nineteenth century S. T. Coleridge spoke out against the formulas of his time. What he said seems to me as applicable now as it was then. He thought a good deal about writing and reading for children, and he writes in Biographia Literaria (Biblio):
Don't worry about the apparent terror and bloodshed in children's books, the real children's books. There is none there. It only represents the way in which little children, from generation to generation, learn in ways as painless as can be followed, the stern environment of life and death.
Paula Fox (essay date March 1995)
SOURCE: Fox, Paula. "A Respected Author Muses on Language's Power vs. Lingo and Labels." School Library Journal 41, no. 3 (March 1995): 122-26.
[In the following essay, Fox discusses how language, imagination, and life's mysteries play significant roles in her writing.]
Great stories give us metaphors that flash upon the mind the way lightning flashes upon the earth, illuminating for an instant an entire landscape that had been hidden in the dark.
In some sense all stories are metaphors. There is mystery in the way they make recognizable what we think we have not experienced.
Four hundred years ago, Edmund Spenser, the English poet, wrote: "The story of any man's real experience finds its startling parallel in that of everyone of us."
It is as though at the core of humanness, at least in young humans, there is a readiness for news not only from the world apprehended by the senses but from those other worlds reached through imagination.
In an essay on story, a contemporary writer, Carol Bly, has written:
The human mind recognizes a feeling only when it has words for it—which means someone else has conversed in it. When Conrad Aiken, in his story "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," tells the reader how much the boy loves his beautifully imagined inner life—the snow—we recognize the same love in our own inner life. If we hadn't had his story, and others like it, we might never recognize how dear we hold our private perception of the universe.
A writer gathers up all the seemingly random elements of life, stares into the roiling mass of feeling and thought that is at once the affliction and peculiar blessing of being human, and finds a design—that is, a story. If it is a good story, if it is after truth, it intimates what is beyond words. If it is a poor story, no matter how skilled its use of language, it is only words, and a reader senses in it an intrusive self-congratulation like that suggested by a Buddhist homily that tells of a man who pointed at the moon but wanted the onlooker to notice only his pointing finger.
Everyone's story matters. Each story is, one might say, a word in a larger story, the intimations of which can reach us in myriad ways, through religion and philosophy, or in a sudden tremor of sensibility that, for an instant, can penetrate the fog of our ignorance not only of why we are here, but where here is.
"Maybe we're here," wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke "only to say: house, bridge, well, gate, jug, olive-tree, window—at most, pillar, tower—but to say them, remember oh! to say them in a way that the things themselves never dreamed of existing so intensely."
Rilke's words make me think of the immense silence into which we hold up our small bundle of words, it is like the blue light of our small planet glimmering in the darkness all around.
The language of great poets and writers alludes to what we cannot speak. It enables us to question the surface of life.
Robert Louis Stevenson said there aren't enough words in Shakespeare to express the merest fraction of human experience in one hour. But, he wrote, "a particular thing once said in words is so definite and memorable that it makes us forget the absence of many which remain unexpressed, like a bright window in a distant view."
The urgency with which we describe our passages through life appears involuntary as though the impulse to record the journey is as powerful as the impulse to speak—a thing embedded in the genetic make-up of our species.
"To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday at 12 o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike and I began to cry simultaneously," so David Copperfield announces his birth.
When I first read that opening passage—after all, the simple statement of arrival anyone who has lived and anyone alive at this moment could make—I was 10, and I was electrified. I've since then read it to students, some very young, some old, and I've seen on most of their faces that startled attention that gripped me when I was a child.
It is downright and plain, but the stroke of art in it, I think, lies in the word believe. It is exactly the right word to convey David Copperfield's nature, and to suggest his destiny, which is to unfold in the hundreds of pages that follow. It is a humorous word in its context, faintly, in fact, disbelieving.
Recordkeeping began millennia before Charles Dickens was born, in cave paintings, in the list on shards of the pottery of vanished civilizations, in the accounts, journals, logs, and diaries discovered in those first written languages of which we have any knowledge. There is the unwritten library too, what used to be called the oral tradition, tales passed from generation to generation; generations that lived before the blind poet we call Homer told of wily Odysseus, Hector, the great warrior, the mischief of Paris, and Helen's beauty—a library that we must hope will endure long after our own time, long after the life and death of another blind poet, Jorge Luis Borges, who died in 1986, 2,700 years after Homer spoke his poem.
Poetry and imaginative literature are recordkeeping of all that animates what we name, variously, the soul, the psyche, spirit, mind, and heart. But words are not the things they name. They are things themselves, potent and galvanizing, that can arouse and disturb, provoke laughter or murder, and even instruct us as to their limitations when, after we think we have explained everything, we are confronted by existence itself.
Language can only point at reality like a mute gesturing frantically at the unnameable. Still, we are driven to speak, to try to understand, to try to penetrate mysteries, to interpret the not altogether reliable news we receive from our senses, to "get it." And in some fashion, if insufficiently, we can get it, such is the power of language.
But language is fragile, too, and always at risk. It is so much easier to resort to the day's catchwords, its jargon, when one is in the grip of fear and confusion, startled by the intimation of the chaos that can turn life upside down on any sunny morning.
There is a great affair now in this country about dialects, about their right to claim equal standing with the English that has dominated written and spoken discourse for centuries. Yet English itself is a dialect. It belongs to a Germanic subfamily of Indo-European whose vast range includes such disparate subfamilies as Arcadian Greek, Old Norse, Celtic, and far, far back, hieroglyphic Hittite. All languages are dialects, constantly in flux, shrinking or swelling, subject to the migrations and settlements and conflicts of human history. Years ago, among the many jobs I had in my youth, was one that involved reading South American and Mexican novels for a movie studio. I was paid $6 to $9 for each book, depending on its length, and I was obliged to summarize plots to present to producers who would judge whether or not they were movie material.
I was hired because I could speak Spanish. Or so I thought. What I discovered, after my first attempts at reading these works, was that what I spoke was Cuban, itself composed of dialects, with words absorbed from Africa and China, from native Carib, as well as the varied Latin-rooted Spanish, colored by idioms from all the provinces of Spain from which colonizers came to Cuba. For the novels of Chile and Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru, I needed Quechua, or at least some familiarity with a few of its 28 sub-groups. The job didn't last long, and I was careful after it to qualify what I meant when I said I could speak and read Spanish.
What interests me as a working writer are the ways in which we use language to elucidate reality or to falsify it in whatever dialect we claim as ours, and another way in which we don't use it for anything except as vocal padding around nothing at all, as in a brief exchange I overheard as I walked on the street behind two men.
"It's going to rain. You know what I'm saying?" asked one.
"I hear you," replied the other.
Then there are those dry-as-dust phrases that seduce speaker and listeners into thinking something important is actually being said, as in an interview of a sociologist on a radio program I listened to. The sociologist became so unhinged by his use of the phrase, "In terms of," that is seemed to take on physical properties, like a maze, from which he was unable to escape. At last he actually said, "in terms of … in terms of.…" There was a broken giggle, silence, then a burst of vapid music during which, I imagined, the sociologist was led away to rest for a while.
It is not hard to find words that have been so mauled that their original meanings have leaked out of them like air from punctured balloons, words, for example, like creative and concept, that are applied recklessly to all manner of human endeavor, and are used to characterize not only the effort involved in the deployment of armed rockets in space, but also the latest design in running shoes for the middle-aged jogger.
The French poet, Paul Verlaine, said 100 years ago, "When you hear the word concept, get up at once and leave the room."
It is the lingo of psychology and sociology, initially devoted to the exploration and explication of human community and behavior, that has made singular contributions to the disintegration of meaning in language.
I think of a middle-aged woman I knew who, when she learned her father was close to death, said at once that death could be a "very enriching experience." Before her emotions could be engaged by this momentous event in her life, she had sped away from it, staking out a claim for the enrichment of her own soul before the anguish of a death could get the drop on her.
Even in minor matters we are too impatient to permit ourselves to be as puzzled as, in truth, we are. We rush to define events before we begin to sense what we feel about them. We are astonished, then chagrined and frightened at the fluid, shifting nature of our own feelings. We refuse to put up with uncertainty. So we write off continents of human mysteries with feeble clichés; we reduce the living person standing right in front of us to a heap of sociological or psychological platitudes.
Of course we put names to things to help ourselves begin to understand them, and in the social sciences to establish reference points from which to construct theories about human behavior. But there is a counter-tendency. We also name them so as to dismiss them and rid ourselves of the hard work of reflection.
It appears to be the tendency of these disciplines to grow rigid in time if an opposing impulse does not come into play to break up the frozen mass of certainties.
The most cursory glance at changes in thinking about psychology over the last 50 years suggests we can only hypothesize about the nature of human personality. New information is always arriving. It may be, partly because we do not have the steadying forms of older cultures to fall back upon, that we are, as a nation, more open to the new. And it is a great thing not to be sealed into the tombs of the past, a great thing to resist the impulse to ransom openness in order to preserve dead tradition. But the danger is to hail what is new as absolute truth—until the next new comes along to displace it.
Nietzsche observed that everything absolute leads to pathology. A contemporary physicist, Dr. David Bohm writes that "most categories are so familiar to us that they are used almost unconsciously … it is possible for categories to become so fixed a part of the intellect that the mind finally becomes engaged in playing false to support them."
What I am thinking about is the deadening of language, an extreme alienation from living experience which manifests itself in words that have no resonance, a language of labels that numbs our sensibilities, our power to feel, and stifles our innate capacity to question, to turn things over in our minds and reflect upon them.
During the Vietnam War, the phrase body count entered American vocabulary. It is an ambiguous phrase, inorganic, even faintly sporting. It distanced us from the terrible reality of the dead and mutilated.
The language of labels is like money issued with nothing of intrinsic value behind it. And it is dangerous. George Orwell wrote that if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
A while ago I saw an appalling instance of language gone berserk in the words of a woman interviewed in the parking lot of a small office building in which a man had just shot seven people to death. Yes, she had seen it all, she told the television reporter, just as she was about to get into her car. For a moment she ducked out of camera range, then reappeared clasping in her arms her son, a boy of five or six. "He saw it all, too, and it was a real learning experience," she said.
Last fall, as schools were opening, a series of interviews brought another child and his mother before the camera. The mother smiled dotingly and ruefully as she confessed she had paid nearly $100 for the running shoes her eight-year-old was wearing to his first day in school. No, she replied to the reporter's question, she really couldn't afford them but felt she had to buy them. Whereupon the eight-year-old piped up, "You have to do what your peer group does," a non-thought he may have picked up from television, that great forum of shiftlessness and banality.
Why has the word indicate taken the place of said, as in "the journalist indicated the building had been bombed?" What is the gain? And consider "like" which has broken loose from hip talk, once its main province, and taken root in the daily language of observation and emotion, so involuntary as to seem a neurological tic. "I feel like sad," said a youth after the shooting murder of a classmate in a gun-and gang-beleaguered Brooklyn high school.
There is to me a significant shade of difference between sad, and like sad. Perhaps "like," meaningless and automatic, served to postpone, if only for a split second, the realization of a real death.
To say, I feel sad, is concrete. But as George Orwell observed in 1949, the whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.
I think of loving, caring, sharing, healing, the four new horsemen—or horsepeople—of a limp apocalypse. I think of the vast range of human emotion and need that is to be packaged by them, its paradoxes and contrarieties smoothed flat. I think of the way their deep meaning has been made meager by mindless use. They have become formulas. In a publisher's ad I saw in the New York Times, a plug for a murder mystery began, "lovingly written.…"
Picture, if you will, Macbeth and Othello, the Karamazov brothers, David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D'Urbevilles, Lady Chatterley, and even Scarlett O'Hara, in the waiting room of a contemporary therapist, desperate to discuss their problems of low self-esteem.
Self-esteem, its presence or absence, is to guarantee success or abysmal failure, as it seeks to explicate all human behavior, as though human beings have not waked in the mornings to do the daily drudgery of the world, made art and science, built up civilizations, and given charity and hope and love to each other in famine and war and pestilence, when they were half-mad with suffering and bewilderment.
Should we not honor and esteem the life in the self as well as the self in life?
In a book whose title I have forgotten, I recall reading that American English as it is routinely spoken—and apart from the often impenetrable jargon of specialists—consists of about 142 words, and that this number is shrinking rapidly. The world may end as T. S. Elliot intimated, not with a bang but with a whimper, at least the world of mind.
The rock-bottom significance of language, its organic nature, can be exemplified in the difference between the German of Goethe and Heine, and the German spoken in the concentration camps of World War II. The latter speech was totally barbarized to fit the circumstance.
While he was a prisoner of Auschwitz, the Italian-Jewish writer, Primo Levi, noted that the German infinitive, to eat, when applied to the feeding of prisoners, was rendered as fressen, which (in good German) is applied only to the feeding of animals. When violence is done to a people, it is preceded by violence done to and in language.
Last year, a representative of Louis Farrakan's Nation of Islam asserted during a speech he made at Kean College in New Jersey that Jews have stolen rubies, pearls, and diamonds from every country in the world, which, he said, explained the word, jewelry. He invented an etymology that incites to murder.
As we grow up, we learn to make distinctions between what we call real and what we call imaginary nearly always at the expense of the latter.
Yet it is imagination that brings us intimations of the elusive truth of being, of what Carl Jung called, "the terrible ambiguity of the moment."
Imagination is as stifled by obscure and ornate language as it is by psychological and sociological cant. And there are too many experts in those fields who believe there are answers to anything, and anything is defined by them as that for which they have answers.
I read the following statement in a newspaper column: "The youngest sibling in a family unit encouraged by her role models has begun to communicate interpersonally."
Is this illuminating about the onset of speech? Is there a way to communicate other than interpersonally? What is a role model? A person? A call to Central Casting? Is life a performance?
Recently I reread E. M. Forster's novel, A Room with a View, and this passage struck me:
She gave up trying to understand herself and joined the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catchwords. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters—the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their striving after virtue.
A sculptor acquaintance who teaches art at the Pratt Institute told me about a student in her class who announced, "I can't relate to him," when the sculptor began the semester with a lecture on Leonardo da Vinci. The student, adept at ideological bullying, went on to say, "da Vinci has no relevance for today's artists."
Used in such a manner, relevance can only be capricious, a thing that can change from month to month like fashion does, a powerful constraint on the effort to see beyond the immediate and opportune.
An implication underlying this phrase relate to is that what one doesn't recognize as directly pertaining to one's own life is, at best, of no interest and, at worst, menacing.
How are people to learn with an attitude that is so inimical to spiritual growth, to the spirit of inquiry that has wrung from our species its best thought and art?
"I can identify … I can't relate to.…" What is the consequence of these notions, if not their intent, but to consign to oblivion all that is unlike us? All that we are not habituated to?
The literature of imagination cannot survive such strictures as these. It is a paradox that in this most "now" atmosphere, where only the "new" is supposed to engage us, the opposite occurs. Novels must substantiate what we think we already know. How like the affliction borne by contemporary composers: If it isn't Mozart, if I can't whistle it, burn it!
The ungenerous, narrow ideas of relevance, of self-identification, must be reinvented. They perpetuate the provincialism of self. They banish the interesting from life.
When I was young, I and the people I knew read novels for the transforming experience of losing ourselves in a great story, and when it ended, turning our still dazzled eyes and attention to daily life, finding our lost selves returned to us, consoled and deepened.
It was the tail-end of the Depression. War was imminent. A person who had been to college was an oddity. We were poor. The circumstances of most of the people I knew were like mine: grim. Yet we read and exchanged books.
I still have a worn copy of Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald that may have been given to me, or else I pinched. And I remember with what inexpressible delight I found in Ode to a Nightingale by Keats, the very words of that title. I read the novel while I looked for miserable jobs and cheap places to live. I read The Idiot, too, and A Passage to India, and novels by D. H. Lawrence and Faulkner and Hemingway and O'Hara, and Tolstoy, and Chekhov's stories. I and the people I knew, as we scrounged to live, talked and talked about them.
For some of us, it was the way we began to learn about the world. The novel, unlike other art forms, contains things that are, in a sense, alien to it: science and history, religion, music, art, and above all, psychology.
"People in a novel need not be like real ones," Ortega y Gasset wrote. "It is enough they are possible."
What great novelists and poets try to imagine is truth. And truth is like the light that falls without prejudice or judgment, on the French Riviera of the '20s, 19th-century Russia, a mining town in England, the snows of Kilimanjaro, and the narrow dusty roads of a southern hamlet. The light fell, too, on me, on the people I knew, who were like beads from a broken string, rolling about the country, trying to find places where we could exist. Literature and poetry gathered us up.
Reading was healing. It went with love and caring. Books were shared.
Now we have arrived in a time where the summoning of imagination to put the self in another's place, that most fundamental function of writing, perhaps of human community itself, is under siege.
I heard an interview on National Public Radio in which the interviewer, a woman, asked a male novelist, in a disbelieving voice, "You're writing about a woman! From the inside? How fascinating!"
She may have been simply ignorant of all that literature has aspired to. I suspect not. I suspect her posture was disingenuous, dictated by the new truth squads among us who command writers to write only about their own genders and ethnicities and circumstances.
She had lost, or never attained that ordinary sense that it requires an imaginative leap over the fence of one's gender to understand the opposite sex, and that that leap is propelled by the same kind of imagination needed to understand anything.
The ideology of these truth squads sanctifies the differences between people, attributes only virtue to one group, only villainy to another. The squads have been always a part of the human community, ordering people about, telling them how to think, and in extreme instances, cutting out their tongues when they were displeased.
That fence I spoke about is turned into a metaphysical wall, impossible to scale. Even to try is an offense, or, as was suggested in the interview, peculiar.
People who claim that no one has the authority to write about them except themselves are really asserting that they are unimaginable.
I cannot conceive of a more devastating isolation than that suggested by the idea that I am unimaginable except to someone of the same sex and background, the same age and experience of life. That is—a clone of myself. What unutterable boredom!
There is no such clone. We are as individual as our thumbprints, a perception that ought not be confined to police stations. Writers have always known it. They have been obliged by the nature of their work to break through the arbitrary barriers erected by that tribalism that may be yet another original sin. Or so it would seem from its consequences today and throughout human history. Writers have been obliged to go against the sulk of passing ideologies, to reveal as great clowns do the underside of our nervous certainties, our crippling and murderous follies.
Hard and unremitting labor is what writing is. Yet it is in that labor that I feel the weight and force of life. That is its nettlesome reward.
It is not usually easy to convince people in writing courses just how much constant work is required of a writer.
Gene Tunney, a writer of the '40s said: "Writing is easy. You just sit there staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."
Sentimentality, as opposed to sentiment, is another enemy of writing. Sentimentality says: only feelings matter, thought doesn't matter; words don't matter.
That's like telling a pianist that it is of small consequence if you play B-flat instead of the C-sharp that is written on the score. It's the feeling that counts. Tell that to a musician. Tell a writer language doesn't matter.
Words, like notes, have tempo and color and innate sequence, and they are as elusive as will-o-the-wisps—the right words, that is, the ones we must struggle to find.
None of us, or very few, I think, are partial to slow, ruthless wearying effort. Yet there comes a time when you know that ruthless effort is what you must exert. There is no other way, and along that way you will find such limitations in yourself as to make you gasp with the knowledge of them. Yet, still, you work on. If you have done that for a long time, something will happen to you. You will succeed in becoming dogged. You will have become resolute about one thing—you go to your desk day after day, and you try to work. You give up the hope you can come to a conclusion about yourself as a writer. You give up conclusions.
A critic of the twenties, John Middleton Murry, wrote a definition of the writer's work:
A writer does not really come to conclusions about life, he discovers a quality in it. His emotions, reinforcing one another, gradually form in him a habit of emotion; certain kinds of objects and incidents impress him with a peculiar significance. This emotional bias or predilection is what I have ventured to call the writer's mode of experience; it is by virtue of this mysterious accumulation of past emotions that the writer … is able to accomplish the miracle of giving to the particular the weight and force of the universal.
My Spanish grandmother told me stories of her life in Spain before and after she was sent at the age of 16 to marry a man she had never seen. Some stories were comical, some were filled with dread. My grandfather, a man originally from Asturias, Spain, owned a plantation far from Havana. His very young bride was plunged into a 19th century colonial world that is now gone forever. He died just after the Spanish-American War. Her life was changed violently again when she left the plantation, most of which had been burned to the ground during the war, and came to the United States.
What I recall about her stories, told to me in fragments over the years I lived with her in a rather mean little suburb on Long Island, was an underlying elegiac note, a puzzled mourning for the past.
Every story, as substantial, as palpable as the kitchen table where we often sat, or as the tiny living room where sunlight fell upon a worn carpet through the rusted bars of a fire escape, had a subtext, and it was its melancholy note I can still hear. Concrete stories, transcendental meanings; surface and depth.
Writing is a struggle to understand the mystery of human life. Writers—real writers—do not claim the discovery of truth. What they attempt to arrest is that reality we embody so that they can bring it closer to the light of consciousness.
Stories reinvent the world so that we can look at it. Stories are those bright windows of Robert Louis Stevenson's, shining in the darkness that ever threatens to shroud them.
"It sometimes seems to me," Asturias Kafka begins a letter to his friend, Max Brod, "that the nature of art in general, the experience of art, is explicable solely in terms of making possible the exchange of truthful words from person to person."
Such a claim for language, for writing, that holds both writer and reader accountable to each other, reminds us that reading is the great answering art to the art of fiction.
The Greek word for reading means: recognition.
John Rowe Townsend (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: Townsend, John Rowe. "Paula Fox." In A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children, pp. 89-95. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1971.
[In the following essay, Townsend compares Fox to Meindert DeJong and Elenor Estes, finding several of Fox's titles to be of "striking quality."]
Paula Fox, like Meindert DeJong and Eleanor Estes, has usually made children from about seven to ten years old her main characters. But whereas one would say fairly confidently that DeJong and Mrs Estes have written for this age-group as well as about it, Paula Fox leaves everything in doubt. She has written both adult and children's novels, and she does not claim to understand what constitutes the difference between them. Like many other writers, she raises the question 'For whom?', and as with many other writers I can find no answer except 'For whom it may concern'.
Miss Fox's worlds are either sharp and precise or deliberately drifting and shadowy, and for English children whose ideas of American daily life are formed largely by television they may be difficult worlds in which to become acclimatized. The books have an air of newness: not merely the kind of contemporaneity which almost anyone can achieve but the newness that comes from looking at things with new eyes, feeling them in a new way.
Miss Fox is of a younger generation than DeJong and Mrs Estes. And whereas to them childhood is a mainly happy time that fits naturally into the family-life pattern of youth, middle age and old age, a recurrent theme of Paula Fox is that of noncommunication and lack of understanding between young and old. It is not the generation gap, exactly, but Miss Fox lives in the world we know at our nerve-ends, in which the old comfortable certainties can no longer be relied on.
The audience, and the writer's position in relation to it, seem indeed as fluid as everything else about Paula Fox's work. One has no sense that the writer, an adult, is here, in charge, handing it out, while the audience of children is there, duly taking it. If there is a message in the air it is probably for someone quite different. Miss Fox's first two books for children, Maurice's Room and A Likely Place, are not telling children anything except a story, but seem rather obviously to be saying something to parents: don't fuss the child, let him grow in his own way. The two books are humorous, even witty, but in a way that one would expect to appeal to children rather older than their heroes—who are eight and nine respectively—or to adults. And her best book, How Many Miles to Babylon?, whose hero is barely ten, is one of only two books specifically recommended for teenagers in an article by Nat Hentoff in The Atlantic for December 1967. The conventional wisdom is that children and teenagers don't want to read about those younger than themselves, and this generally appears to be true. But it could be that discussion on the question betrays a more fixed attitude than Paula Fox would adopt. Who says who is to read what; who says that grown-ups have all the wisdom anyway?
Maurice's Room (1966) is, in fact, a blessedly funny book; and as for readership, one can only try it on and see if the glove fits. Maurice at eight is dedicated to his collection of junk, which spills over everything. His parents feel he needs more constructive interests, and often discuss him with their friends.
Some visitors said that collections like Maurice's showed that a child would become a great scientist. Many great scientists had collected junk when they were eight years old. Other visitors said Maurice would outgrow his collection and become interested in other things, such as money or armies. Some suggested to the Henrys that they ought to buy Maurice a dog, or send him to music school so that his time might be spent more usefully.
And his parents, with the best intentions, get everything wrong. The dog they borrow to be a companion to Maurice is in fact a dreadful nuisance to him, yet Mother is soon convinced that 'Maurice and Patsy are inseparable'. An attempt to get Maurice to learn an instrument is disastrous. The beautiful sailboat that Mr Henry buys Maurice for his birthday is forgotten while Maurice and friend grope for some old bedsprings lying on the bottom of the pond. 'If I had known you wanted bedsprings instead of a beautiful three-foot sailing ketch, I would have gotten you bedsprings,' says poor Mr Henry in despair. Finally, Maurice's parents decide to move to the country, where they hope that everything will be different. And this time at least all is well, for although Maurice isn't terribly interested in the country as such, there is an old barn that already holds the nucleus of a promising new junk collection. It's an hilarious, subversive book, full of casual joys, as when Maurice's mother lets his uncle in at the front door:
'Well, Lily, how are you?'
'Fine, and you?'
'Fine, and your husband?'
'Fine, and Patsy?'
'Fine,' said Maurice to the hamster.
'And how is Maurice?' asked the uncle.
'Fine,' said his mother.
'He'll be delighted to see Patsy.'
'He surely will be delighted.'
But Maurice isn't.
Lewis, in A Likely Place (1967), is fussed by the grown-ups too, but is fortunately left by his parents in the charge of eccentric Miss Fitchlow, who goes in for yogurt and yoga, calls Lewis 'pal', and lets him off the lead. Which is just what he needed. It is a short, dry, subtle book; and if there is a lesson in it, then I suspect that, as in Maurice's Room, it is really a lesson for parents.
Paula Fox's reputation at the time of writing, however, rests largely on her third book, How Many Miles to Babylon? (1967). This is a longer novel of much greater depth and complexity. Its hero, James, is a small black boy living in Brooklyn, whose father has disappeared and whose mother has gone into a hospital, leaving him in the care of three elderly aunts. One day he walks out of school and goes to play by himself in an empty house. In his mind is a story that his mother has really gone to her own country across the seas and that he is secretly a prince. Three small boys, not much older than James but tougher, capture him and make him help them work their dog-stealing racket. James travels frightening miles with them on the back of a bicycle, goes to a deserted funhouse on Coney Island, sees the Atlantic. At night he frees the stolen dogs, runs away, gets home to the old aunts, and finds his mother there. She is back from the hospital; she is no princess and he no prince. 'Hello, Jimmy,' she says.
On the surface it is a straightforward story, with its strong plot about the fearful boy and the tough gang and the dogs and the juvenile racketeering. But there are strange undertones: the symbolic voyage, the 'other' story of James which is only hinted at. The action, although shadows are cast before and behind it in time, takes place within a day and a night. 'Can I get there by candlelight? Yes, and back again.' Both action and setting are almost dreamlike; the landscape an intimately-known landscape yet glimpsed as if in shifting mists. Everything is experienced through James; and James himself is wandering in a mist of illusion, though eventually compelled by what happens to grasp at rough reality. It is felt in every page, but never said in crude terms, that James is a member of a submerged race and class, and isolated even within that. He is not a sharply-drawn character, nor meant to be, for the reader will suffer with him rather than observe him from the outside; but the minor characters—the three old aunts, the three young racketeers—are clear in outline, defined by the words they speak.
In one sense the outcome of How Many Miles to Babylon? is plain. James has proved himself, has faced the actual world, found and accepted his actual mother. He has come through. But to say that is not enough. Illusion and reality, the symbolic and the actual, are not to be so neatly separated. There is much in the book that the mind cannot simply deal with and eject; much that stays around. The inner mystery is something to be carried about and wondered at from time to time rather than resolved.
The same might be said of The Stone-Faced Boy (1968), whose hero Gus—the middle child of five, about ten years old, timid, vulnerable, shut-off—goes out into the snow at night to free a stray dog from a trap. Gus, too, proves himself; finds the key that will help him to overcome his problems. But again this is not all. The Stone-Faced Boy is a winter's tale, with the quiet, real-yet-unreal feeling of a white landscape. There is a shiver in it, too; a ghostliness. The trap in which the dog is caught belongs to an old man, who takes Gus home to his cottage, full of the debris of the past, for a cup of tea with his equally old wife. And at one point the old man tells the old lady to show Gus how spry she is:
She made a strange little jump and then, holding her skirt out with her two hands, she did a little dance in front of the stove, smiling, wobbling slightly, kicking one foot out, then the other. Then she fell back softly into the rocker, like a feather coming to rest.
On the previous page we have heard that the old lady 'had a light, free laugh, and to Gus's surprise the sound reminded him of Serena'. Serena is his younger sister, aged about eight: nice, dreamy, imaginative. Gus feels it is impossible for Serena to get so old. (But of course she will.)
Of Miss Fox's remaining books for children, it seems to me that three are of rather limited interest. Dear Prosper (1968) is the first person story of a dog's life; it represents a literary genre of respectable antiquity, but in itself is quite ordinary. The King's Falcon (1969) is a slight, apparently allegorical fairytale about a king who seeks to be free of his kingdom. Hungry Fred, published in the same year, is a way-out picture-book about a boy who eats his way through the contents of the house, the house itself, and the back-yard, and is still hungry. Then he makes friends with a wild rabbit as big as himself. 'The rabbit leaned against Fred. Fred smiled. He felt full.' Adult readers aware of Miss Fox's preoccupations may guess what she is getting at; to children the book can only be baffling. And although one accepts that a picture-book, like a poem or story, does not have to be understood in literal terms in order to make its impact, there needs to be an imaginative power and unity which I do not find in Hungry Fred and which the artist, understandably, could not supply.
Portrait of Ivan (1969) is more substantial and to my mind more successful than any of these, although it does not have the mysterious depths of How Many Miles to Babylon? or The Stone-Faced Boy. It is a brief novel about a boy of eleven who leads a dull, lonely life, walled in by well-to-do, conventional, adult-dominated surroundings.
The walls around him begin to crack when he meets the painter Matt and the elderly reader-aloud Miss Manderby, and start collapsing rapidly as he potters about in a boat with a barefoot girl called Geneva. There is a key sentence to the understanding of one aspect of Paula Fox when Ivan realizes that in his life in the city
he was nearly always being taken to or from some place by an adult, in nearly every moment of his day he was holding onto a rope held at the other end by a grown-up person—a teacher or a bus driver, a housekeeper or a relative. But since he had met Matt, space had been growing all around him. It was frightening to let go of that rope, but it made him feel light and quick instead of heavy and slow.
Paula Fox is obviously much concerned with relationships between children and adults. She is conscious that in a complicated and changing society it is hard for the generations to live together satisfactorily. In her books the 'good' grown-ups are the flexible ones who appreciate the variousness of things and people, who do not think in terms of feeding a child into the production line and in due course drawing off an adult from the other end.
She is a very individual writer; and in view of this and an uncertainty about whom her books are trying to speak to, I would expect her to be a minority taste. I would not be nearly as confident of a child's liking Paula Fox as of his liking Meindert DeJong or Eleanor Estes. But the minority has its rights and is worth extending. Some of Miss Fox's books—most notably How Many Miles to Babylon? and The Stone-Faced Boy —are of striking quality and offer a kind of literary experience which is not too common in children's books. If they are read they will not be quickly forgotten.
Paula Fox Writes :
My career sounds like flap copy of the 1930s. The strangest, but not the worst, job I ever had was punctuating Italian madrigals of the fifteenth century. I assume my employer thought my guess was as good as his. I worked in Europe for a year, for Victor Gollancz, then as a string reporter for a news agency. I've taught school for seven years, sold two television plays, written two novels for grown-ups. I started writing late by most standards, I guess. Now I can't seem to stop.
I never think I'm writing for children, when I work. A story does not start for anyone, nor an idea, nor a feeling of an idea; but starts more for oneself … I think any story is a metaphor. It is not life. There is no way out but to pick a glove that conforms most to the hand. But the glove is never the hand, only a shape. And a child's hand is not an adult's. So, of course, I do write for children, or for adults. But the connection between them, the differences even, don't seem to me to be really relevant, only talking-points. What applies to good writing is, I think, absolute, whether for children or grown-ups, or the blind or the deaf or the thin or the fat … I am just starting another children's book and another novel—and I hope I shall remember which is which.
David Rees (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: Rees, David. "The Colour of Saying." In The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults by David Rees, pp. 114-26. Boston: The Horn Book Inc., 1980.
[In the following essay, Rees praises Fox for her superb use of rhythm and language.]
The distinction and beauty of the words she uses and her absolute command of subtlety and nuance in rhythms and sentence structure place Paula Fox above almost all other children's writers. Only Philippa Pearce can rival her in "the colour of saying," as Dylan Thomas put it in his poem, "Once it was the colour of saying." And if Tom's Midnight Garden is the outstanding children's book of the fifties and A Wizard of Earthsea is that of the sixties, then The Slave Dancer has a good claim to that title in the seventies. Recognition of her abilities has not been withheld; she is the recipient of the Newbery Medal and the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and her merits have often been acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic. So the critic approaches her work with some awe and some trepidation, hoping that he will not get bogged down in an excess of superlatives.
Her output, like that of Philippa Pearce, is small. Most of her writing for children dates from the years 1967-1970 when she produced five brief novels; they are no longer than novellas or long short stories, and one of them, A Likely Place, is only fifty pages. In the past nine years she has produced a volume of short stories and one full-length novel, The Slave Dancer. This reluctance to rush into print may well be wise: she seems to wish to publish only when she has something worth saying, for even if the themes of one book are looked at again in another, the approach is invariably different.
With the exception of The Slave Dancer, her novels are concerned with children who suffer from what one would call a deprivation of the imagination—whether they are stories set in derelict urban areas, such as How Many Miles to Babylon? or in beautiful houses in wide open rural spaces, as in The Stone-Faced Boy. For it isn't environment that usually stultifies in a Paula Fox story, it's adults: not the nasty malevolent figures we find in the work of Paul Zindel, but essentially well-meaning people who just cannot understand how their offspring can want to be different from themselves; who, set as they are in routines of work and house-cleaning and reaching the airport on time, have forgotten that any other way of life has attractiveness or validity. The father in Portrait of Ivan is a typical specimen. He expresses a kind of annoyed amazement that his son hasn't taken any photographs when he was on holiday: "What's the point," he says, "of going anywhere if you can't keep a record?" and then he adds, "Someday you may want to see where you've been. Then what will you do?" To which Ivan retorts "But I know where I was!" Places, Ivan's father thinks, are to be photographed, labeled, and recorded, not experienced and felt. When Ivan tells his teacher that he is going to Florida for a vacation, her only comment is:
Florida. Generally low and flat, many swamps, most extensive in south. Oranges, dairy products, cattle, tomatoes, grapefruit, tobacco, snap beans.
Textiles, paper, lumber, machinery. July mean temperature, 82.1 degrees Fahrenheit. Land area is 54,252 square miles.
This is strongly reminiscent of the way Bitzer has to define a horse in Dickens's Hard Times: Gradgrind and M'Choakumchild still ride high in our schools.
The central characters of her books are often withdrawn, uncommunicative, static people who apparently look at life as if through a glass; stone-faced like Gus, utterly passive like Ben. (Ben in Blowfish Live in the Sea is Gus of The Stone-Faced Boy eight years on.) It's significant, for instance, that Gus's first glimpse of his great-aunt is from outside the house; he watches her through a window, and it's interesting that Philippa Pearce, in A Dog So Small, took as her central character a similarly introverted boy who is also the third in a family of five children, the odd one out who retreats into a fantasy world inhabited by dogs rather than humans. The states of mind of Paula Fox's children are recorded in terse vivid sentences:
Eating dinner together had gotten to be like rowing a little boat around inside a live volcano.
(Blowfish Live in the Sea )
Everyone wanted to help Lewis. That's why he was thinking of running away.
(A Likely Place )
Looking at that car, thinking about his life in the city, Ivan realized that he was nearly always being taken to or from some place by an adult, that in nearly every moment of his day he was holding onto a rope held at the other end by a grown-up person …
(Portrait of Ivan )
Sometimes he imagined himself as tiny as one of Serena's bugs, running around on the inside of his own head, trying to poke out his mouth so that it would laugh.
(The Stone-Faced Boy )
And Gus, by being so emotionless in the face of adversity, has a new kind of trouble. "What had happened was that he was no longer shutting that imaginary door. It was shutting itself."
The author doesn't necessarily condone these attitudes. Ben's behavior, for instance, if understandable, is also seen as selfish. "'Human beings fill up the world with garbage,' he said in his distant I-have-nothing-to-do-with-it voice." And Ivan, seeking self-pitying sympathy, tells Matt and Miss Manderby that his mother died when he was very young—and is somewhat put out when they show no interest. The right kind of adult, Paula Fox seems to be saying, the adult who isn't obsessed with the clock or making money or keeping up a respectable appearance, can help these unfortunate children. There are a number of such people in her books, eccentric oddities, sometimes failures and drop-outs who look at life from a very personal and usually rather strange angle, but who are willing to give children space and time to grow imaginatively and find out who they really are. Great-aunt Hattie, Mr. Felix, Matt, Miss Manderby, Mr. Madruga, Miss Fitchlow … the list is long. "There is such a thing in the world as not wanting to do anything special," says Mr. Felix, with characteristic insight, in Blowfish Live in the Sea, as he tries to relieve Ben of the conventional pressures. But, ultimately, it is the children themselves who have to make the effort; there is no magic formula, no sure-fire recipe for happiness, that outsiders can give. So Ben decides to stay with his father and not return to his mother; Gus rescues Serena's dog unaided and grows up a little in doing so; Lewis finds that time in school can pass with surprising speed. This realization that they must cope with their own problems is summed up very well on the last page of The Stone-Faced Boy when Gus looks at the stone, the geode, which Great-aunt Hattie has given him, and he realizes it's a symbol of himself:
He knew how the stone would look inside, but he didn't choose to break it open yet. When he felt like it, he would take the hammer and tap the geode in such a way that it would break perfectly, in such a way that not one of the crystals inside would be broken.
Hope, a realization of an inner strength not previously recognized: that is how these books often end.
But what makes the novels of Paula Fox so completely individual is the quality of the writing and the curious way the plots work. At first sight, the story-lines seem thin and aimless, with the exception of How Many Miles to Babylon? which has a strong, almost conventional, tale of crooks outwitted—though the story is much less important than the state of mind of the central character, James. Nothing much occurs in The Stone-Faced Boy : a dog is lost and found; a great-aunt comes to stay. In Blowfish Live in the Sea the only events are a boy and a girl traveling to Boston to see the boy's father; they go out to dinner, and the girl returns to New York. In A Likely Place and Portrait of Ivan almost nothing at all happens; in the latter book in particular the reader may wonder when he is three-quarters of the way through what the point of it is, and feel bemused about where the author is taking him. Detail follows detail apparently without connection: things seen from a car window, menus, fragments of conversation, descriptions of furniture, anything, one imagines, which happens to be in the author's head at the time. But everything does fall into place eventually; these seemingly disparate bits of jigsaw add up to a complete picture—the portrait of Ivan—and it's only at the end that the reader can look back and see how and why. Miss Manderby, for instance, has no immediately recognizable function in the story; she contributes nothing apart from her conversation, but were she absent the whole experience of the book would be less rich, and one means of helping Ivan to grow would be removed.
How Many Miles to Babylon? is certainly not plotless; it is, Margery Fisher commented in Growing Point "something more than a sequence of events." Margot Hentoff said, in The New York Times Book Review, that it had "perhaps too dense a plot"—a rather severe judgment, for the story of delinquent children who steal dogs and claim a reward for having "found" them only exists to help James sort out other problems: the absence of his mother, his backwardness at school, having to live in one room with his three kindly but oppressive aunts. It is not a book about events of kidnap and rescue so much as an account of the outrage to the victim's feelings, the disorientation, the sensation of the whole known world splitting apart and being rendered meaningless. This is, of course, a major theme of The Slave Dancer; How Many Miles to Babylon? is almost a pilot run of the idea, to be worked out in much deeper fashion in the later book. But How Many Miles to Babylon? touches on things not dealt with elsewhere, the particular kind of deprivation, for example, that is experienced in overcrowded cities. Aunt Paul shouts, for instance, "I don't have sleep anymore. Sleep has left me!" Yet this is not a story of social realism making political points; the black ghetto is dealt with in so reticent a manner that color is scarcely commented on. James is a deprived child of any race anywhere.
It isn't the color of skin that interests Paula Fox so much as "the colour of saying," the putting down on paper of ideas in words that again and again seem to the reader to be individual, beautiful, and memorable. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in The Stone-Faced Boy, where the evocation of snowbound landscape, like the geode, perfectly mirrors the state of Gus's mind—frozen, locked in on itself; in fact, the achievement of fine balance between plot, background, imagery, and character makes The Stone-Faced Boy the best of these early stories. It has the quality of an extended prose-poem:
The sound of the wind was like a great sigh, or a softly spoken word he could not quite make out.
(This image is used again, in an entirely different context, in The Slave Dancer, but with equal impressiveness: "How strange it was to see another ship! A taut sail in the distance like an unknown word written across the vast expanse of the sky.")
All at once he realized the snow had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. There was no longer the sound of the snowflakes, and the wind dropped so that he could hear his feet breaking through the crust, making a noise like cotton tearing, and he thought of his mother tearing up old sheets to make cleaning rags.
And in the light from a small round window near the ceiling he saw dust motes floating. They seemed to give off a kind of sound, a kind of low note that midget bees might make. That was the sound of the past, and dust was its smell.
The child's growing realization of the significance of the past is a minor, but important, theme of the book, not only in Gus's developing sensitivity to the house he lives in "So many people had lived in the Oliver house! It didn't seem possible. Where had they all gone? What had become of them?"—but also in a new, if limited, awareness of the past in people, in Great-aunt Hattie and in the strange elderly couple he meets in the middle of the night: "She had a light, free laugh and to Gus's surprise the sound reminded him of Serena. But Serena would never get so old. How could anyone live so long?"
The power of the past as a thought-provoking and necessary presence in people's lives also occurs in Portrait of Ivan. The drawing room of the Crowns' mansion is "a darkened cavern in which massive carved overstuffed furniture sat in the gloom like monstrous toads";
the house looked haunted, but not by ghosts. Ivan felt as if they had walked into a private place where things were happening that had nothing to do with him and Matt, nothing to do with anyone at all. The night air, the silver streak of moonlight and the faint sound of water lapping the shore seemed to make one simple but unknown sound, as though some very large and unimaginable creature were breathing quietly to itself in the night.
It makes Ivan think in a way he was unable to think before. He sees Miss Manderby's cat and asks, "Did the cat see him as he saw himself?"—and when he says goodbye to Geneva he realizes "He had not thought anyone would ever be sorry to see him go. He had not ever thought about that at all." An interesting irony that only becomes apparent when one reads The Slave Dancer is the awful significance of houses like this—old Southern plantation mansions, built on the wealth of a society reliant on slave labor. In Portrait of Ivan it is picturesque and harmless:
The paint was scaling off; there was a yellow tinge to the wood, and a thick twining vine threw its purple-blossomed tendrils across the walls. A broken rocking chair leaned up against a column.
Matt's sole reason for being there is to make drawings of it because it is going to be pulled down; he's only interested because it is "the end of a certain kind of special Southern architecture." But in The Slave Dancer :
The wide porch of the house was empty. Not a leaf moved in the windless air. Then, all at once, a man on a black horse rode into view. He halted. The horse pawed the ground then flung up his head. At that, as though summoned by the horse, three black men ran to the rider and helped him dismount. They dashed before him up the steps to open the door while a fourth man led away the horse.
Suddenly one knows the meaning of what Ivan sensed and couldn't define, the "unknown sound, as though some very large and unimaginable creature were quietly breathing to itself in the night": that almost unimaginable society where people owned human souls. (It's interesting, too, that Philippa Pearce, in Tom's Midnight Garden and The Children of the House, also gives very different views of the past symbolized in old houses; one as in Portrait of Ivan, observed from the present day; the other, as in The Slave Dancer, seen as it really was.)
But not all Paula Fox's landscapes are beautiful old mansions and snow-filled fields. She is just as effective evoking the sordid realities of modern city life:
He was afraid of this street—the old brown houses were all shut up, boards nailed across the doors, windows all broken and nothing to see behind the windows except the dark rooms that always looked like night.
(How Many Miles to Babylon? )
In the bathroom, the toilet gurgled as though it were gargling. It had no seat at all. The sink was about as big as a cereal dish and there were lines of dirt in it like the tidal markings on a wharf.
(Blowfish Live in the Sea )
Yet the consequences of such surroundings are not all negative. James, in How Many Miles to Babylon?, is able to escape from his problems and think of his mother when he plays in a room in an old derelict house—there he can be alone and free from the nagging of his aunts—and Ben finds the squalor of Mr. Felix's hotel less important than finding Mr. Felix himself.
For Jessie, in The Slave Dancer, there is no escape. The slave ship is, whatever its size, always a prison; he even clings to his hammock "like a wounded crab clings to a bit of weed." The image of imprisonment is present right from the moment of kidnap—"I was tossed, then trussed, then lifted up and carried like a pig to market"—until the end of the book and beyond; there is no hopeful conclusion here, no release from bondage into the freedoms and choices of adulthood, for what happens to Jessie scars him forever. As a grown man he can say "We were out of the south, but it was not out of me," and for the rest of his life he cannot listen to music, a particularly unpleasant irony when one remembers that it was for his musical ability that he was kidnapped in the first place:
I would see once again as though they'd never ceased their dancing in my mind, black men and women and children lifting their tormented limbs in time to a reedy martial air, the dust rising from their joyless thumping, the sound of the fife finally drowned beneath the clanging of their chains.
The subject matter of The Slave Dancer is vast in scope and implication, making the preoccupations of Paula Fox's previous books seem quite small. It is a savage indictment of a whole society, intensely political in its overtones which ring down through the ages to the present day. After all, James in How Many Miles to Babylon? is quite possibly the descendant of a black slave. It's as if Paula Fox were saying to modern America, that is how it was; you're still having to pay for this appalling outrage: this is how it is. Nor can any British reader feel smug and say to himself that it's nothing to do with him; that it's a purely American affair. The parallel drawn in the book, through the character of Purvis, to the English treatment of the Irish, is all too uncomfortably accurate. In England we are still waiting for a novelist who can portray the horrors of 1798, or the Famine, or the Black and Tans, in terms that children can appreciate. It's an astonishing achievement that Paula Fox can use such terrifying, such adult, material as the slave trade and turn out a children's book that is something like perfection.
The kidnapped child-narrator obviously helps the child reader, because it immediately places Jessie, in the reader's mind, in the same situation as the hapless blacks; How Many Miles to Babylon? also effectively used the idea of a double kidnap, one situation mirroring the other, for not only is James snatched from his surroundings, but so also are the unfortunate dogs. Jill Paton Walsh employed a similar method as an entrance to her material in The Emperor's Winding Sheet, although Vrethiki's capture is a less subtle device than Jessie's; it has a reasonably convincing motive, but it isn't central to the story, and Vrethiki is not therefore always the most suitable person to comment on events. Yet Jessie's sufferings never cease to be an oblique comment on the sufferings of the slaves, which we know, as we experience what he feels, are always worse than his. What they have to endure is not dwelt on at length in direct fashion; a few spare details are all that is necessary, and all that are given. If it were done differently, it could not be a novel for children, and what little we are told is in fact almost unbearable:
I heard groans, the shifting of shackles, the damp sliding whisper of sweating arms and legs as the slaves tried desperately to curl themselves even tighter. I did not know my eyes were shut until fingers brushed my cheeks. I saw a man's face not a foot from my own. I saw every line, every ridge, a small scar next to one eyebrow, the inflamed lids of his eyes. He was trying to force his knees closer to his chin, to gather himself up like a ball on top of the cask upon which he lived. I saw how ash-colored his knees were, how his swollen calves narrowed nearly to bone down where the shackles had cut his ankles, how the metal had cut red trails into his flesh.
Despite the nature of the subject matter, there is no unchanging emphasis on pain and horror; there is a quite remarkable variety of tone throughout the book. Patterns of emotion shift as the relationships between the characters develop and alter, as the weather improves or worsens. Jessie shares jokes and laughter with Purvis; becomes involved in trying to outwit the evil Ben Stout; once, as he looks at the sea, he feels happy. Attitudes to the slaves are not consistent; at one moment Jessie even hates them, seeing them as the sole reason for his being there—why he's been forcibly uprooted from his home and family. Then, just as it's impossible for us to understand the nature of a child-abuser until we see that a child has so exasperated the abuser that he hits out, so it is impossible for Jessie to comprehend the feelings of the crew toward the slaves until, briefly, he himself experiences similar emotions:
I hated their shuffling, their howling, their very suffering! I hated the way they spat out their food on the deck, the overflowing buckets, the emptying of which tried all my strength. I hated the foul stench that came from the holds no matter which way the wind blew, as though the ship itself were soaked with human excrement. I would have snatched the rope from Stout's hand and beaten them myself! Oh, God! I wished them all dead! Not to hear them! Not to smell them! Not to know of their existence!
This is ironically contrasted with a brief change in some of the sailors, who, in a good mood because the voyage is for the moment working out well, play with the slave children, giving them "extra water from their own slim rations and fashioning rough toys of wood to amuse them." But usually the men are pitiless; at best they "were silent, and avoided the holds as much as they could."
Ironies abound in this novel. It is an escaped slave who, in the end, saves Jessie's life after the ship is wrecked. The blacks, despite their predicament, have a dignity that rarely falters, and that makes the behavior of the captain and the mate seem worse than the instincts of the most savage animals. Jessie feels the nakedness of the slaves adds to their helplessness—"even if we had not been armed, our clothes and boots alone would have given us power"—though no amount of clothes and boots and arms can in the end save the crew from drowning when the ship is destroyed in a storm. The book consists of layers of meaning, of nuance within nuance, and only several readings can bring out the full richness of it.
And on its surface, like the ship on the surface of the sea, the prose, as in all of Paula Fox's work, dazzles and delights with its poetry:
For some time after the sun had set, the sky remained the color of rope. The ship lay steady on the glass-like surface of the water which was pricked, now and then, into small ripples when a sea-bird struck its surface. There was a smoky indistinct look to the Cuban shore. The birds disappeared, their last cries lingering in my ears the way strands of light cling briefly to the masts after the sun has vanished.
Or Jessie's amazement when he is informed that the ship is bound for Africa: "for all the calmness with which he said Africa, he might as well have said Royal Street. I felt like a bird caught in a room." This is as powerful in its terseness, its sense of being dumb-struck, as the moment when Esther Rudomin, in The Endless Steppe, is told something very similar: that she's in Siberia. There is a masterly use on every page of rhythm and cadence; the very essence of the way the sea shifts and slides, for example, is expressed in one sentence: "I heard from far off the great breathing of the sea, taken in, expelled."
One of the reasons for Paula Fox's pre-eminence is that she never underestimates the child's ability to absorb implication, suggestion, and analogy. Her material, with the exception of The Slave Dancer, is not unlike the territory of many contemporary American authors: children seeking a lost parent; children who are imaginatively and emotionally starved. But the way she constructs her plots and the way she uses the English language make her second to none. And in The Slave Dancer she has given us a masterpiece, the equal of which would be hard to find.
Connie S. Zitlow (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: Zitlow, Connie. "Paula Fox." In Writers for Young Adults edited by Ted Hipple, pp. 413-20. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997.
[In the following essay, Zitlow discusses Fox's writing in the context of her life.]
Books make life more interesting, according to Paula Fox. In her works, popular with readers and literary critics, she views life from a young person's perspective yet conveys understanding for adults. She often creates a quiet mood and pace, inviting readers to consider others' encounters with life's surprises and unexplained periods of loneliness. Her original stories stay in readers' minds because her artistry with dialogue, exactness for details, and masterful way with characterization give even her short novels remarkable density. Her writing is imaginative, perceptive, and beautifully crafted because she finds just the right words. "Words, like notes, have tempo and color and innate sequence, and they are as elusive as will-o-the-wisps" (p. 126), she writes in the March 1995 issue of School Library Journal.
Life can be looked at and understood better because stories make recognizable what readers may not have experienced, Fox says. "Great stories give us metaphors that flash upon the mind the way lightning flashes upon the earth, illuminating for an instant an entire landscape that had been hidden" (p. 122). When she and her grandmother saw many episodes of The Invisible Man, young Paula realized this story of a person who could disappear and reappear was a literal representation of how she could use memory and imagination to be in two places at once. It is this human capacity to imagine and feel that gives stories meaning. Fox writes to discover connections with herself and others, to explore her characters' feelings, and to find with each book, not answers, but deeper questions about life.
From Place to Place
Fox was born on 22 April 1923. As a child, she seldom saw her father, a traveling playwright and actor, and her mother. Her family moved from place to place, and she attended nine schools by the age of twelve. Maybe because she lived in many places as a child, she has written touching stories about young people in unfamiliar environments who feel alone, even while cared for by a loving adult. In some of her stories, the young person is only temporarily away from family, such as Emma in The Village by the Sea (1988) and Elizabeth in Western Wind (1993). Sometimes the young person is with one parent in an unfamiliar environment as is the case with Caroline in The Moonlight Man (1986) or Tory in A Place Apart (1980). Sometimes the child is in a familiar place with both parents, but the isolation is self-imposed, as in The Stone-Faced Boy (1968) and The One-Eyed Cat (1984).
For several years, Fox lived in New York's Hudson Valley with a minister and his invalid mother, an experience she used in The One-Eyed Cat. The minister was an avid reader and history buff who taught her to appreciate literature and inspired her to become a writer. When he accepted her suggestion for a sermon about a waterfall, she realized what had been implicit in every aspect of her life with him: words contain an energy capable of awakening imagination, thought, and emotion.
At age six, Fox left the minister's home to live in California for two years before going to her grandmother's sugar plantation in Cuba, where she quickly learned Spanish from fellow students in a one-room schoolhouse. Three years later, she and her grandmother, driven out by the revolution of 1933-1934, moved to a small apartment on Long Island.
There are interesting parallels between the lives and works of Fox and Gary Paulsen, another popular and critically acclaimed author of novels for young adults. The language in their stories is often poetic and evokes vivid sights and sounds in readers' minds. The places where Fox spent her childhood are different from where Paulsen lived. Both seldom saw their parents, were cared for by various adults, and amid life's confusion, they found freedom and stability in public libraries. For them, reading was everything. As young adults they both worked at numerous jobs. Fox worked for a steel company, a movie company, and a British news service in Paris and Warsaw. She also taught emotionally disturbed children and taught English to Spanish-speaking children. Although not intending to write an autobiography, she has written about the various places she lived as a child and adult. Lily and the Lost Boy (1987) is set in contemporary Greece, where she spent several months while her husband was writing there. In this story, surrounded by the places of Greek mythology, twelve-year-old Lily and her older brother Paul meet strange, enchanting, dangerous, and lonely Jack.
Stories and Places Apart
When Maurice's Room was published in 1966, Fox was celebrated as one of the finest new writers of children's literature. Her books for young adults have the same characteristics as this charming little book for children. Maurice does not tell the story, but the events are viewed from his perspective. The vivid descriptions of his room, overflowing with street junk or "treasures," such as hanging dried octopus, are funny and imaginative. It is his place, his world apart—a theme of many of her novels. Because of Fox's skill, the frustration of Maurice's parents is understandable but also ironic, as they try to get Maurice "interested in something." Another story, A Likely Place (1967), has the same natural, understated perception of how a youth thinks and acts, particularly when adults are demanding and overly protective.
James in How Many Miles to Babylon (1967) is loved by the aunts he lives with in Brooklyn, but he is isolated by a lonely childhood and an impoverished urban existence. A small bewildered victim of an almost overwhelming situation, "Jimmy" leaves school and walks into the hands of thugs. Praising the vivid sensations and atmosphere created by Fox, some reviewers also find the plot heavy; others claimed that its great impact is more important for young people with no knowledge of ghettos than for those who are familiar with the setting (see Children's Literature Review, 1976).
Many of Fox's protagonists who are withdrawn take a journey symbolic of their emotional development. The Stone-Faced Boy, "spare like the winter landscape of its setting," is a powerful short novel filled with "strong imagery, deep characterization, tension, pain, and also magic," Christine McConnell writes in "A Second Look: The Stone-Faced Boy " (p. 219). Shy Gus, the middle child of five, keeps a "stone-face" as a defense against his siblings' battering. Only his sister Serena, the animal lover, does not laugh about his fears. Gus's adventure begins during a snowstorm as strange Great-Aunt Hattie visits and Serena begs him to rescue her stray dog caught in a foxtrap. Later he laughs inside when Hattie recognizes the significance of his quest—the terrifying journey into the dark night. But he will decide when to break the dark, dull little geode stone with its own glow, which Hattie gave him.
Hattie's sense about what is behind Gus's mask is like Fox's insight about her young protagonists. As in many of her novels, the plot of The Stone-Faced Boy is believable but of minor interest. It is the characterizations and relationships, the vivid images and poetic language that make her work like "geodes." They might seem simple at first glance, but "nothing is exactly what it looks like," as Fox writes in Portrait of Ivan (1969), another quiet sensitive story of a boy's search for himself. A lonely, motherless boy whose father travels, Ivan is cared for by a sympathetic Haitian housekeeper.
Long-haired Ben in Blowfish Live in the Sea (1970) is eighteen, the beloved half-brother of twelve-year-old Carrie, who tells his story. She has an eye for detail, a sense of humor, and descriptions fitting her age. Ben, a college dropout, scribbles "blowfish live in the sea" everywhere to represent his disillusionment with his father who sent him a blowfish when Carrie was born, saying it came from the Amazon. In a rundown Boston hotel, Carrie and Ben find his father, an unreliable and pathetic alcoholic. Surprisingly, Ben stays to help with an old motel, his father's latest business venture. Blowfish Live in the Sea shows Fox's sensitivity about the relationships between young people and the adults who have failed them.
Fox begins her writing with a person, not an issue—except in The Slave Dancer (1973), her historical fiction that won the Newbery Medal. She had thought about and researched the slave trade for more than ten years before writing about it. In this story, as in her contemporary realistic works, she views a harsh and dangerous world with a young person's eyes and feelings. Not abandoned but kidnapped from his home in New Orleans in 1840, thirteen-year-old Jessie is taken aboard the Moonlight and forced to play his fife to "dance" the slaves. Jessie is sickened by the smells and sounds of the slaves' suffering in the ship's hold and the hatred and hypocrisy of the crew. At one point, he courageously defies the captain, refuses to play, and finally he and a slave boy escape. This book is Fox's most controversial work. Although some critics saw it as fair and humane, others saw it as racist, excusing the slave drivers as victims of circumstances. Even critics, however, praised her excellent writing. In her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, referring to her own "white childhood" when she never felt free from a dark condition, Fox said enslavers, not the enslaved, are debased by slavery.
Like The Slave Dancer, A Place Apart, which won the American Book Award, is written in the first person, a variation from most of Fox's works. Thirteen-year-old "Tory" Finch tries to understand life after her father dies suddenly. One day after moving with her mother from Boston, she meets Hugh who is flying a great scarlet kite. He is rich, condescending, exciting, and has also lost his father. With Hugh, Tory travels a little distance from herself, but she has to come to terms with his manipulation and her infatuation. He pushes her to write a play, then ignores her for the strange and timid Tom Kyle, who looks the way Tory feels: like he does not belong anywhere. Uncle Philip tells Tory she will have to find her place apart. She realizes life's happenings may be chance, but what one makes of life is not.
Ned's internal anguish in The One-Eyed Cat (1980) is different from Tory's. Responsible for the event that causes him to be alone, he must come to terms with a secret frozen around him. Eleven-year-old Ned is drawn to the attic where his father put his birthday present from Uncle Hilary—a forbidden rifle. Ironically, he thinks if he can shoot it once, he will forget about it. The gun, however, becomes a "splinter in his mind." He is tormented by the memory of a dark shadow and a gaunt, one-eyed cat he sees at Mr. Scully's. Did Ned shoot the cat or was the shadow something else? When asked this question at the 1990 Children's Literature Conference, Fox said, "I don't know, some things cannot be answered." The mood of this psychologically complex but quiet novel is like the large Victorian house on the Hudson River where Ned lives in 1935 with his minister father and mother, who has rheumatoid arthritis. Ned broods over his disobedience and lies. His rich interior monologue contrasts his inability to talk until he opens up to Mr. Scully, who is dying. One moonlit night at the Makepeace Mission, when he and his mother see the one-eyed cat with two kittens, Ned finally takes full responsibility for his act. After telling her, Ned, like the cat, is alive again.
Moon imagery appears in many Fox stories; even Carrie's dog in Blowfish is named "Moon." Jessie's coming of age occurs on the ship the Moonlight : Ned's self-determination begins in the moonlight; and Catherine Ames calls her elusive father the moonlight man. She, like Ben in Blowfish, must come to terms with a charming yet weak father who drinks too much and calls his orderly, former wife a daylight person. Catherine finally accepts her parents' twelve-year divorce when she realizes her "moon-light" father is an undependable man who transforms everything he touches. This story about a tenuous father-daughter relationship begins as Catherine waits twenty-one days before her father calls her to join him in Nova Scotia for a summer vacation filled with sunlight and darkness. Harry Ames, who hid from himself as much as from Catherine, finally admits there is nothing funny about the way people betray each other. Betrayal is a theme in many Fox novels.
Although Emma is not betrayed by her parents, she feels alone in The Village by the Sea. While her father has heart surgery, she stays on Long Island with kind Uncle Crispin and neurotic Aunt Bea. In spite of her uncle's warmth, it is difficult for Emma to be around her hateful aunt whose voice is "like a razor blade hidden in cotton." Emma's longing for home is lessened when, with her new friend Bertie, she creates a place apart, a miniature village built from beach treasures, to which Emma adds a tiny plastic deer from Bea's forbidden brandy bottle. This place of solace, however, is destroyed by the "sad bad old woman's" hot coal of envy (p. 146).
Using her own experience of being nearly homeless as a young woman and the plights of many others, Fox wrote Monkey Island (1991). Eleven-year-old Clay is suddenly abandoned by his father, who is desolate after losing his job, and then by his pregnant mother, who is emotionally unable to cope. Clay leaves their welfare hotel in New York and lives in a crate with two homeless men, young Buddy and old Calvin. There are moments of humor, along with desperation, as they run to escape the "stump people," who come with chains and bats yelling "Monkey Island! Where the monkeys live!" (p. 77). Like other Fox characters, Clay is frightened, alone, but extremely brave. Fortunately, he finds his mother, baby sister, and a place he can leave and come back to—a home.
Elizabeth's feeling of abandonment is more like Emma's than Clay's. Western Wind, like The Village by the Sea, begins as Elizabeth is "sent away" from home and ends as she returns with new understanding. She resents leaving her parents and baby brother to spend a month with her grandmother on a rustic island off the coast of Maine. Elizabeth thinks Gran, a painter, is a strange "encyclopedia of her own interests" (p. 10) but learns from her about intriguing places and poetry, which is "about the hidden and true life inside yourself,' about longing and hope and sorrow," she says (p. 11). Gran's father, like Fox's, was an actor. Her "mother didn't know what a child was" (p. 162). She was left with various people. One rainy night, as they search for strange lonely Aaron, Elizabeth finds out that Gran is dying of heart disease—which is the real reason she was sent there to stay with Gran. A great shaft of loss goes through Elizabeth when she thinks about Gran's legacy of family stories and beautiful drawings. "No one would ever see her exactly as Gran had" (p. 201).
Fox, one of few Americans to win the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, has written award-winning stories for over twenty years. Her 1995 novel, The Eagle Kite, as striking and sensitively told as those that preceded it, shows the suffering and anguish of the whole family when one person is dying of AIDS. Again, with spare yet elegant prose, she conveys universal struggles and feelings. Familiar Fox themes and motifs in this book include a seaside cottage as a place of reconciliation, a mean and angry aunt (as in The Village by the Sea ), a kite as a metaphor (as in A Place Apart ), and a sick parent (as in The One-Eyed Cat ).
Fox does not soften realities in The Eagle Kite, which is about truth, caring, and coming to terms with loss. Teenage Liam feels anger, fear, betrayal, and loneliness as he tries to cope with his father's illness, which is not the result of a blood transfusion as his mother said, nor is it cancer as Liam told his girlfriend. Buried for several years in Liam's memory is a scene on the beach—his father's embracing a young man. Another burning image in Liam's mind is the scarecrow-looking beggar with AIDS who sits across from their apartment. Healing for Liam begins one Thanksgiving, when he goes to the seaside where his father, with a face like an eagle, has gone to die. As time passes, Liam and his mother learn to love again, not the sick man who wrote, "My two dears. There's hardly anything left of me" (p. 114), but the spirit of the man they once knew. The slow working through of grief is reminiscent of Cynthia Rylant's Missing May. The suffering of the AIDS patient and the effect on the family compares to Alice Hoffman's At Risk.In The Eagle Kite, as in all Fox's stories, there is a wise and compassionate view of the complexities of human nature. Fortunately for her readers, she continues to grasp truth through her remarkable imagination.
A LIKELY PLACE (1967)
Ursula Adams (review date July 1997)
SOURCE: Adams, Ursula. Children's Book Review Service 25, no. 13 (July 1997): 151.
Paula Fox brings readers into the life of Lewis who wants to run away from all the adults who offer him constant advice. He meets Mr. Madruga, away from his homeland of Spain, who would like to escape the home shared with his daughter and son-in-law. The two meet in the park and find that by their meeting, they have learned something more about themselves. The touching story combines humorous elements while yielding an emotional impact.
Jennifer M. Brabander (review date 1997)
SOURCE: Brabander, Jennifer M. Horn Book Guide 8, no. 2 (fall 1997): 291.
Nine-year-old Lewis, tired of adults telling him how he feels, goes to the park and meets an elderly man who is tired of his son-in-law telling him how he feels. Together the two teach each other how to stand up for themselves. The brief, drily humorous tale has been reissued with Ardizzone's illustrations from the original edition published in 1967.
HOW MANY MILES TO BABYLON? (1967)
Lois R. Kuzners (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: Kuzners, Lois R. "The Fresh-Air Kids, or Some Contemporary Versions of Pastoral." Children's Literature: Annual of the Modern Language Association Division on Children 11, (1983): 156-68.
[In the following essay, Kuzners discusses aspects of traditional pastoral literature in Felice Holman's Slake's Limbo and Fox's How Many miles to Babylon? .]
Pastoral literature traditionally demonstrates the human need for the healing powers of the simple, rural, or rustic life, by contrasting that life with the complex, urban, or urbane one. Such traditional pastoral needs and contrasts can be seen not only in adult literature but also in children's literature, including contemporary books such as Jean George's Julie of the Wolves and Betsy Byars's The Midnight Fox and classics such as At the Back of the North Wind, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Heidi, and of course Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, seen by Empson as prototypically pastoral, with Alice as "swain."
Even the contemporary children's books that I examine here—Felice Holman's Slake's Limbo set in modern Manhattan and Paula Fox's How Many Miles to Babylon? set in modern Brooklyn—evoke pastoral contrasts within urban settings.1 The two books manage to arouse and satisfy our need for pastoral reconciliations in different ways: the first through a story of primitive survival that reaches back to seasonal myths promising pastoral rebirth, and the second through a story of a dangerous journey that echoes pastoral romance. Both books treat Manhattan and Brooklyn realistically yet avoid the bitter irony that usually pervades adult books in which protagonists seek pastoral healing in an urbanized world.
These urban novels—whose protagonists perhaps will never have the opportunity to visit the country except as fresh-air kids, temporarily breathing, as Holman says of her hero, "someone else's fresh air"—initially seem to vary in important ways from those children's books that are set primarily in wilderness or country.2 The two books considered here have buried the pastoral imagery deep within the psyches of the protagonists and similarly buried the pastoral plot of retreat and renewal deep within the structures of the novels themselves. When the pastoral imagery emerges from the individual psyche in dream and fantasy, it often does so in exaggerated and distorted forms. And it is the problem of the novel as a whole to bare the essential aspects of the pastoral plot itself, giving the protagonist an opportunity to turn pastoral dreams into an urban reality devoid of ironic overtones.
This process is clearest in Slake's Limbo, the strange and wonderful story of thirteen-year-old Aremis Slake, virtual orphan, who made his home for one hundred and twenty days of winter in a cave off the subway tracks under the Commodore Hotel, and who was there transformed from a "worthless lump" (p. 5) into a "vendor of papers, a custodian of a small thriving coffee shop and a discriminating scavenger. And he was also a hobbyist" (p. 73).
Slake's potentiality for transformation is first expressed in his propensity to dream, usually of "somewhere else. Anywhere else" (p. 4). But these dreams seem impotent and essentially debilitating in the context of tenement, street, and school: "Dreaming thus led him into lampposts, up to the ankles in puddles, up to the elbows in spilled things, sprawling down stairways while teachers scolded and classmates scoffed, pushing him down again as soon as he gained his feet" (p. 4). His fantasies are also distortions of pastoral images, turning natural, cyclical gardens into desperate illusions of eternal Gardens of Eden. So, though we may applaud, we also grimace at Slake's attempt to climb a tree in Central Park, to tie back on to it the last of the autumn leaves in order to fulfill "an old fantasy that this year the leaves would stay on the trees" (p. 10).
The ways in which well-meaning people have hoped to give him a brief taste of pastoral life are satirized in Slake's nightmare during his first night in his subway cave. He dreams that he is back as a terrified fresh-air child being chased by his "family's" pet pig (p. 22). Later, noticing a man helplessly caught in a subway rush, he is reminded of a trip to the beach, during which he first got sick in the bus and then was knocked over and nearly drowned by the surf (p. 78). A day at the shore, a fortnight in the country—neither was a healing experience.
Paralleling Slake's distorted pastoral fantasies and indicating their pervasive nature among urban dwellers are the distorted pastoral dreams of a subway driver, Willis Joe Whinny, who once saw a movie about Australian sheepherders and longed to become one, until he traded in his dream for the promise of a motorman's pension—in spite of the fact that Willis, unlike Slake, had country connections, a grandmother whom he used to visit in Iowa. She actually once had known a Montana sheepherder. By the time we meet Willis, his dream has resumed but has been distorted into an image of his subway passengers as soulless sheep whom he herds from station to station.
Throughout the book, the middle-aged Willis and the young Slake are moving toward each other as inevitably as Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Dublin, but we are most immediately aware of the contrast between the two. The first becomes more and more alienated from humanity in the distortion of his pastoral dream, becoming, as Holman says, not really the herder but simply the "lead sheep" (p. 88); the second becomes more human, more connected, more farsighted in establishing his underground home, changing from an "outlander in the city of his birth (and in the world)" (p. 4) to one who is "oddly in touch with the flow of the world" (p. 80).
The motif of renewal pervades the novel, but it is so realistically implemented, and renewal is so rarely elsewhere exclusively associated with the underground, that we may not initially recognize this motif as outlining a pastoral story of retreat and regrowth. It is not usual for us to accept a freshly cleaned public bathroom as an omen of a new life, nor are we accustomed to thinking of the recycling of urban waste as a basically pastoral image. Yet Slake's first business is the reselling of secondhand newspapers, and his first meal is the restaurant leftovers of a hurried businessman. By the time a cleaning woman to whom he talks daily gives him her son's old jacket, mended, and he makes for himself a pair of adequate glasses from among the many dropped lenses he has scavenged, we know that recycling applies to wasted human possibilities as well as to trash and garbage: we are witnessing an example of true urban renewal.
Holman continually pushes in the direction of the pastoral discovery and settlement theme by her similes: "He began to know the signs of the subway as a woodsman knows the wilderness" (p. 44), and "surely as any explorer who had first set foot anywhere—the Arctic, the Moon—Slake was certainly at least one of the few and only settlers in this piece of dark continent" (p. 98). Slake thus takes his pastoral place among frontiersmen.
Holman also pushes underground imagery back to its origins in nature myths. We have tended recently to associate the underground with death, hell, or insanity from which modern heroes are rarely able to emerge. Holman disassociates the underground from its hellish finality and reassociates it with the cyclical wintering place of Persephone from which she is annually reborn, albeit with struggle, into the arms of her earth mother. In these terms, the one hundred and twenty days that Slake spends underground clearly constitute a period of germination. He experiences anxiety that makes him actually sick when he discovers that his cave will probably be covered over in much-needed subway repairs, but his being pushed out of his underground home in the spring is as cyclically inevitable as his going down into it in the fall. When Slake lies ill upon the tracks, holding a sign that says "Stop," it is also inevitable that Willis will be driving the train that screeches to a halt a few feet from the fallen Slake. Willis himself reconnects with humanity, holding Slake "as he once held his new son and daughter" (p. 110). Mothered by the cleaning woman, Slake, the orphan, is in his rebirth fathered by the motorman.
If we now think of Slake's Limbo in terms of its relationship to children's literature in general, we see that, although the urban reality depicted in the book in some ways serves to mask the pastoral allusions, the very detailed and circumstantial nature of that reality also links it with certain emphases characteristic of children's novels, particularly those with rural settings.
The emphasis on practical means of survival in a new environment is particularly evident in this context. We are fascinated by Slake's stratagems for survival, his transformation from ineffectual dreamer to effective actor. The practical survivalist aspect of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, strong elements in their fascination for young and old alike, generally have been carried over into books more specifically directed toward the child reader.3 There seems to be an understanding on the part of writers and publishers of children's books, both classic and modern, that the more urban becomes the experience of the child-reader, the more fascinating become the details of feeding, clothing, and sheltering oneself. The relative simplicity, directness, and recent novelty of doing these things in a rural environment account for some part of the enormous popularity of Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, with its detailed description of processes of meeting basic needs, processes in which even the very young can participate in some capacity.
For older children, the idea of being able to survive alone becomes more attractive and tenable, although frighteningly formidable in modern times. Erik Erikson describes the seven-to-twelve-year stage of development as a period in which "industry" attempts to overcome "inferiority" and "the child becomes ready to handle the utensils, tools, and weapons used by the big people."4 How attractively reassuring it is to read about Karana in The Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie-Miyax in Julie of the Wolves who, forced to put into practice the ancient lore and skill of their peoples, are able to survive through the use of relatively simple tools (in contrast to the complex machinery of modern industrial society). Slake makes it look relatively simple, too—recycling the waste of this society in a way not unlike Mary Norton's Borrowers!
Over and over in children's books, we find practical details of living in a simpler society emphasized and fulsomely described, whether this society exists in rural fields, desert islands, or big woods. Sometimes in this existence, direct experience and experimentation are specifically contrasted to booklearning. This is certainly true in Slake's case since the newly alert Slake is, of course, playing hooky from school, in which he had wandered in a daze: he is Wordsworth's "growing boy" on whom "Shades of the prison house begin to close." Such a contrast also is surely part of the pastoral element in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice, one recalls, tries frantically to bring to mind some imperfectly mastered booklearning that would serve her underground, but only reasoning from experience and experimentation will get her into the garden she first glimpses. In A Wild Thing, a modern young-adult book that resembles Slake's Limbo in many interesting ways, Morag, a runaway who has been deemed retarded by the school system, is capable of learning to survive, at least temporarily, alone in the Highlands.
The simple order that Slake imposes on his daily life signifies an understanding and control of diurnal rhythm that is also characteristically emphasized in other children's books that partake of the pastoral. Eating, sleeping, and working begin to become meaningful activities—no longer imposed from above—once Mary Lennox gets into the secret garden. Morag, too, in A Wild Thing, experiences the need for meaningful orderly activity in her life, even if it is no longer dominated by the clock (or perhaps because it is not).
Moreover, we are not at all surprised in Slake's Limbo to discover, in keeping with a pastoral convention well honored in children's books, that Slake's growth underground includes the nurturing of an animal (that the creature should be a rat seems both inevitable and weirdly pastoral in the identification of child keepers with their animal charges). In adult traditional pastoral, of course, shepherds and shepherd-esses do not engage in much practical care of sheep. Shepherding simply seems to provide a leisure for the composition of poetry. But animals and birds do have symbolic functions there, especially in pastoral romance, where they serve as guides into the gardens and forest groves where the hero will experience whatever epiphanies he is meant to experience. The robin for whom Mary Lennox feels the first glimmerings of positive emotion functions not only initially to stimulate her nurturing instincts, but also as the traditional pastoral guide into the garden. In children's pastoral, animals require nurturing and provide companionship, serving in both roles as guides into the essential pastoral experience. The use of animals is even more true of How Many Miles to Babylon?, which will be discussed below, than of Slake's Limbo. It is certainly true of Tom's midnight fox in Byars's novel, the wolves and bird in Julie of the Wolves, the wild dogs, birds, and otters of The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and the nanny goat and kid of A Wild Thing.
Linked still further with developmental ideas of children's literature is the rite of passage suggestion in Slake's age, thirteen. Slake can be seen as having won his entrance into adulthood by the trial of his underground independence. The pastoral experience in children's books can often be seen as such a testing-ground for life in the wider world, presaging a reentry into society and into a larger maturity. As in Tom's return to the city after his experience with the midnight fox in the country, the protagonist often emerges not only wiser but often sadder. Some of this sadness clearly is related to a loss of innocence that marks the return from a pastoral world.
Be that as it may, Slake (who is not necessarily sadder, but certainly wiser) has won his independence as well as his right to society through his experience underground. After being briefly cosseted in the hospital and having his existence in the minds of others confirmed by the receipt of a card from Willis, Slake slips away at the suggestion that the "juvenile authorities" will step in to help him. We are once again reminded that, in literature if not in life, when orphans finally find their parents they usually no longer need them as parents, having found an identity that first incorporates and then transcends them. Indeed, the parents themselves are often in need of the help of their children: Slake rescues Willis as surely as Willis rescues Slake; James of How Many Miles to Babylon? calls his mother back to real life from a mental institution—facts that certainly contribute to the theme of pastoral healing in these two books.
The experience of James, the ten-year-old black protagonist in How Many Miles to Babylon?, shares these urban pastoral characteristics in a less pervasive and concentrated way, but the pattern of distortion and transformation of the pastoral through urban experience is similar. Although the three aunts who take care of virtually orphaned James are clearly more attentive and concerned than Slake's vaguely present aunt, James's life prior to the main experience of the book is just as fragmented, dream-dominated, and haunted by failure.
He has Willis's nostalgia for a pastoral life known by his ancestors and solicits stories from his aunt of country days gone by:
But James wanted to hear all about that—about the country store where you could buy everything from a pork chop to a hoe, about the long dirt roads where the soft dust slipped around your bare toes, about the black stove in the kitchen where pine wood burned all winter long.
His longing takes the form here of creation of imaginary "felicitous space," such as Slake finally creates for himself in the subway cave. The pastoral fantasy that he conjures up to make his tenement, street, and school existence tolerable is one in which we find fragments of traditional pastoral romances of the sort that Shakespeare used in The Winter's Tale: royal babies left to be brought up by rustics, their identity to be revealed only in the crisis of adolescence:
He was being guarded by those three old women so that no harm would come to him. His mother had gone across the ocean to their real country, and until she came back, no one was supposed to know who he really was. She had to fix everything.… He knew he was not the only prince. He knew there were others. When everything was all right, all the princes would come together in a great clearing, dressed in their long bright robes and their feathers, and after that everything would be different.
James's version of the pastoral romance is obviously derived from stories of African ancestry that James's mother had told him before his father left them and before she herself disappeared one night into a mental hospital. It is not much different from Geeder's fantasy about Zeely in Virginia Hamilton's Zeely. But James has started to act out his fantasies—when he finds a dime-store ring in the dirt, he is sure it is a sign from his mother that she will send for him soon. By the time we meet James, we can see that the fantasy has taken over even those parts of his life that are not particularly unpleasant. His teacher, though pastorally named Miss Meadowsweet and demonstrably concerned about him, is unable to reach him through his fog of daydreaming. He, like Slake, plays hooky, slipping away from the school to the basement of an old condemned brownstone, where he has worked out an elaborate ritual designed to bring home again his queenly mother. Urban reality breaks into his dance in front of a cardboard figure of Santa Claus left behind in the household debris; three young dognappers find him, make fun of his ring and ritual, and put his innocence to work for them in conning the dogowners.
James's experience is much more like the pastoral journey-return plot than is Slake's four-month sojourn in the underground. (Comparing their titles— Slake's Limbo and How Many Miles to Babylon? —confirms their respectively different emphases on stasis and movement.)5 After acquiring Gladys, a small white poodle with a red bow, Stick, Gino, and Blue force James to accompany them on their bicycles out to Coney Island, where they are already hiding another expensive dog in the funhouse. James's growing feeling of responsibility for Gladys, although he has hitherto been afraid of dogs (just as Slake had hitherto been afraid of rats) is a central part of his maturing experience, and, of course, a pastoral convention of animal companionship. When they first pick her up, he is annoyed by this responsibility—"With what he had on his mind why should he fuss about a dog?" (p. 56)—but by the time they arrive at Coney Island his concern about her overshadows his own anxiety:
James felt terrible about Gladys at the moment. She must be frightened and homesick. He felt he cared more about Gladys than anything in the world except his mother. The thought of his mother surprised him. He hadn't had a picture of her in his mind for awhile. Well, she couldn't help him now. He was completely alone.
The projection of his own fear onto Gladys, his immediate association of Gladys with his own mother, his ensuing feeling of responsibility for his own fate are all neatly tied together in this paragraph. Reality is overtaking fantasy.
Still another true pastoral image acts as a corrective to the old one. Arriving at Coney Island in the evening, James experiences the ocean for the first time; it is appropriately invigorating: "James felt almost hopeful, smelling the water, listening to the sound of the waves breaking" (p. 90). But he also learns something about the distorted nature of his fantasy: "No matter what he pretended, he knew she couldn't have gotten across the Atlantic Ocean" (p. 103).
Like Slake, James moves from dreaming incompetence to alert competence, and does it in a similarly incongruous place, not a subway cave but the Coney Island funhouse. Once upon a time, back in the classroom, James had been admonished by Miss Meadowsweet, who claimed that he was such a dreamer that he couldn't "find his way out of a paperbag" (p. 102). Yet, after they are locked in the funhouse by a passing security guard, it is James who, as a result of a previously aborted escape attempt, knows a possible way out behind the merry-go-round. When they crawl among the painted horses, Blue shouts, "Get those horses in the corral," reminding us of still another type of pastoral fantasy.
James's ultimate escape, after spending part of a tense night in the brownstone (during which we acquire some sympathy for his young exploiters as well) seems sure. We also expect him to fulfill his responsibility to Gladys by taking her home first—which he does at the expense of a long and frightening walk. James has earned the name "Prince," which the boys have begun to call him, in earnest before the long journey is over.
His return to his own tenement is also celebrated by his aunts and neighbors in the traditional heroic way: "We thought you was dead" (p. 113). "He's back. Look! He came back" (p. 115). And, of course, his mother is there waiting for him, brought back from her "funhouse" by his ordeal. Again, the Persephone myth of the return from a trip to hell and back into the arms of a parent is invoked, at a number of different levels. And again, by the time he finds his parent, he is as ready to help his parent as his parent is to help him. James enters the room and walks toward his bed:
A small woman was sitting on it.… She was hardly bigger than Gino.
James stood still. But where were her long white robes? Her long black hair? Where were her servants, her crown? …
Why, she was hardly any bigger than he was!.…
How could she be his mother?
The process of role reversal can begin even at the age of ten, but his mother still has the power and responsibility, in this case, of granting him the birthright of his own identity:
He thought, who am I? I'm not a prince. How can I be a prince? Who am I?
As though she had read his mind and heard his question, his mother held out her hand.
"Hello, Jimmy," she said.
Slake and James are both heroes, not anti-heroes. The city is not the end of them. Take away their fresh air, lock them in the funhouse, and yet they have the internal strength to make it anyway. If there is an irony in these endings, it is not a bitter one but a gentle irony—and the joke is on the cosmos, not the protagonists.
And what is this strength inside? It's the same strength of which pastoral dreams are made, albeit at first distorted. It is no mere chance that our heroes are at first incompetent, bumbling dreamers. James has a moment early in his captivity by the boys when he realizes the power of his own mind:
They hadn't known what he had been laughing about, James realized. They couldn't tell what he was really thinking. They could make him go where they wanted and they could search him. But they couldn't get inside his head where his thoughts were. Maybe he'd have a great thought that would show him how he could get home.
James gets home. Again, Slake's Limbo carries out this theme in a more encompassing way. Holman shows us that she is concerned with the concept of the human soul when Willis's country grandmother tells him an anecdote about the Montana sheepherder who, when she complained that he smelled like his sheep, replied: "'The only difference between me and a sheep, ma'am, is that I've got a soul.'" (p. 37). Willis is about to lose his soul in distorted fantasies. Slake has a soul that is developing; it appears, as it does in much traditional literature, in the metaphor of a bird. The bird first gnaws our hero from within and then, being freed, becomes a talisman and a leader. From the beginning of the story, and even after his rebirth, Slake felt hunger combined with anxiety, and then anxiety alone, as if a bird had settled in his gut and was pecking him from within. In the hospital, he feels a release from this bird, as if he has finally coughed it up. And then, when he leaves the hospital, he envisions it soaring above him toward the rooftops and wants to follow where it leads him. The last words of the novel, as upbeat as James's mother's greeting, are, "Slake did not know exactly where he was going, but the general direction was up" (p. 117).
I should reemphasize that the concern here with baring both the pastoral skeleton and the soul has largely ignored the very interesting urban flesh with which both are clothed. This depiction of the city is not only interesting but extremely realistic. These are urban novels written by urban writers who know New York, in all its terror, its shabbiness, and its wit, very well indeed. They are also writers who clearly, consciously play with specific types of settings—the underground subway, the Coney Island funhouse—that, in adult literature, have served as metaphors for the disturbed minds of anti-heroes, beginning with Dostoevski's narrator in Notes from Underground. Such settings are, in adult literature, permeated with bitter irony.
This bitter irony, which neither Holman nor Fox evokes, is not particularly suitable for a child audience, but it has certainly not been avoided entirely in pastoral books for children or young adults such as Julie of the Wolves and A Wild Thing, where the female protagonists learn pastoral skills to no seeming, lasting avail in the modern world.6 Holman and Fox, however, seem determined to confirm the value of the pastoral dream in an urban reality and to assert the possibility of realizing it, even when growing up poor and / or black in a polluted city that has already obviously defeated many adults. It is a message that is conveyed not just by the relative triumph of the protagonists, but by the assertion that the young protagonist can redeem some of these defeated (or corrupted) adults, as Slake, in some way, saves Willis, and James, in some way, saves his mother. In classic children's pastoral, as in pastoral romance, the old can be redeemed by the young, as is Colin's father by Colin and Mary, and Heidi's grandfather by Heidi. Part of the irony of Julie of the Wolves and A Wild Thing comes from the fact that neither Julie nor Morag can influence the old, who may, or do, respectively destroy them.
Both Slake and James move from distortions of their pastoral needs into living out, within an urban context, true pastoral adventures of primitive survival or dangerous journeys—seemingly to redeem some adults along with themselves. Holman and Fox know that both children and adults are haunted by such frightening questions as "Where has all the fresh air gone?" Yet these authors also seem to say that we still must breathe and can even be in spired.
- Felice Holman, Slake's Limbo (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974) and Paula Fox, How Many Miles to Babylon? (New York: David White and Co., 1967). Future references will be cited parenthetically in the text.
- "Fresh-air kids" refers to recipients of charitable funds and services designed to get city kids into country summer camps and suburban home-stays.
- The didacticism that dogged the heels of Rousseau's émile (which found Robinson Crusoe the one acceptable book) was in favor of giving children a wealth of practical details of an everyday life close to nature, as in works such as Thomas Day's History of Sandford and Merton (1783-89) in which pastoral Sandford, a farmer's son, is always favorably compared to aristocratic young Merton.
- See Erik H. Erikson's Childhood and Society, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1963), chapter 7, especially pp. 258-61.
- The title of Fox's book is specifically related to the journey motif in the nursery rhyme, "How Many Miles to Babylon?" But the Biblical Babylon is an urban image associated with destruction in the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Daniel. It is, in addition, the place where Daniel and his righteous companions barely escape martyrdom. Babylon is also part of the apocalyptical imagery of Revelations. It is hard to believe that Fox was not aware of these associations, although she refrains from specifically evoking them. In the same vein, it seems probable also that Holman was aware of the theological associations with Limbo, that portion of Hell to which helpless unfortunates such as unbaptized babies are sent to await Judgment Day.
- In a previous paper on "The Female Pastoral Journey in Julie of the Wolves and A Wild Thing, " delivered at the MMLA Convention in Indianapolis, November 1979, I examine these two books about runaway girls as pastoral variants of Joseph Campbell's "monomyth." I argue that the issues of both feminism and environmentalism are invoked yet handled differently in the two books, and I briefly explore a link between these issues as postulated by Dorothy Dinnerstein in The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper and Row, 1957). These two issues, I contend, lend a bitter irony to both books.
Anita Moss (essay date fall 1985)
SOURCE: Moss, Anita. "Varieties of Children's Metafiction." Studies in the Literary Imagination 18, no. 2 (fall 1985): 79-92.
[In the following excerpt, Moss explores Fox's use of narrative as a coping mechanism for her main character in How Many Miles to Babylon? .]
Many novelists have been acutely concerned with the process of creating narrative and with the narrative forms of ordinary life which are embedded throughout fiction. The nature of narrative itself often becomes the real concern in novels and stories. So too, many children's writers have created stories about the making of stories. Why characters tell stories and how they tell them, as well as to whom, become major themes in Paula Fox's How Many Miles to Babylon? , Natalie Babbitt's Knee-Knock Rise (1971), Charles Dickens' A Holiday Romance (1868), and E. Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899). To a greater or lesser extent all of these books may be considered as "metafictions," works in which the imagined process by which the story is created becomes the central focus of the book. This metafictional quality is implicit in the first two works and explicit in the last two, as both A Holiday Romance and The Story of the Treasure Seekers actually feature fictional child authors as narrators.
How stories within stories interlace to form an over-arching structure; how characters function as both tellers and listeners; how children's writers choose to end their stories; and how they conceive of the process of storytelling itself through their fictional child authors are literary issues which recent narrative theory has addressed in significant ways. Paula Fox is deeply interested in how her protagonist, James, uses story to endure emotional trauma, learns to tell stories to an audience other than himself, and thus somehow comes to terms with the unremittingly grim realities of his life. Natalie Babbitt reveals her fascination with the abuses of narrative and with the nature of endings in Knee-Knock Rise. Finally Charles Dickens and E. Nesbit have created rare examples of children's metafiction, in which fictional child authors must struggle with difficult narrative and rhetorical choices as they create their stories. In the case of both the Dickens and Nesbit books, the investigation into the nature of narrative raises important questions about the specific nature of children's writers—adults who must somehow address child readers. Both Dickens and Nesbit are concerned with creating a new kind of children's story, different in mode and manner from pious Victorian children's literature.
Fox calls attention to the nature of narrative and examines its effect upon ten-year-old James, the hero of How Many Miles to Babylon? A ten-year-old black child who lives in one room with three aged aunts in a tough New York ghetto, James is happiest when either telling a story or listening to one. His engagement with story in fact becomes the only way that he can endure the rather harshly realistic story of poverty, abandonment, and kidnapping which his author creates for him. The stories within stories in the novel become a significant way whereby Fox shapes her fiction and achieves a satisfying sense of closure at the end. When James returns from his ordeal with the dog-napping street kids, Stick, Blue, and Gino, he is able at last to connect inner and outer story when he tells his neighbors his adventure.
In James' neighborhood most of the stories are sad; even the beginnings are sad, probably the reason why these stories are seldom finished. As Mr. Hedge remarks to James, "I've gotta story that'd wring your heart.… They broke my wheel. The man backed up his big ugly car right into my wheel. Smashed it.…"1 James does not hear the end or Mr. Hedge's story, nor does he expect to: "Stories were always beginning in his building, loud stories that filled up the halls with shouting and then fizzled out like damp firecrackers" (p. 4).
In the shabby and cramped room, rendered ghostly and strange by the flickering television set, James lives with three great aunts. Aunt Grace tells him "awful warning" stories about the dire actions of truant officers if he does not go to school. But James likes Aunt Paul's tales about the three aunts' childhood in the rural South—long ago, far-away stories about the regular and dependable rhythms of farm life that connect James to his family's past and to nature as well. He can repeat the story himself like a comforting litany: "On Mondays we washed … On Tuesday we ironed. On Wednesdays we scrubbed the floor with potash.…"(p.6). Aunt Althea, how ever, discourages stories about the past. She is far more interested in the story of James's future. From the surging details of ghetto life and the serene scenes from his family's past, James gathers narrative materials. Going downstairs, he hears fragments of conversation "like pieces of string he could tie together"(p. 7).
James's ability to piece together stories helps him to endure both emotional pain and boredom: "He was a good walker. He had discovered that if he told himself stories, he could cover a lot of ground without noticing how much time it took" (p. 19). Listening to his inner stories also intensifies and clarifies James's experience. Each time he tells himself a story, he can "remember more clearly what things had felt like and tasted like, how they had looked … whether they had really happened or not" (p. 23).
Standing squarely in the midst of unrelenting gray pavement and surrounded by images of waste—the skeleton of a car, heaps of junk, and wasted people, James knows the sad story of his father's abandonment. Haunted by the vision of his mother standing by the window and sadly whispering, "Gone, gone, gone …, " James realizes that his mother had to go into the hospital. But this is one sad story which James cannot bear. Because his author has created a story too harsh for him to endure, he counters it with an inner story of wish-fulfillment. Like Scheherazade, James's very survival depends upon the story he can tell, one which he can also listen to, one that he desperately needs to believe: "James had discovered another story hidden just beneath it. It was different from the first, but if he felt it, wasn't it true?" (p. 25).
James imagines that he is a prince in disguise, left by his regal mother with three old aunts. His mother had gone to Africa to prepare a place for him, "to fix everything." And she would return and take him there, dressed in feathers and robes.
Situated in an unendurable present, James must imagine stories from the past and from the future. Although the story he imagines is not literally true, it is nevertheless a fantasy which ultimately contributes to his identity and security. When the right time comes, James will be able to let go of the fantasy and to tell another that integrates the actual conditions of his life with his wishes and dreams. This dreamlike fantasy, inspired by a magical ruby ring and enacted in the basement of an abandoned building, allows James to come to terms with the history of his race and to right the wrongs of the people who "had been made to march for days and weeks through the wild forests, with their hands chained and their necks in ropes, until they came to a river where they were put in boats that carried them across the water" (p. 27).
The sad story of the captured Africans is significantly the only story his mother had ever told James. Aunt Paul's story, then, connects him with the past of his family, while his mother's story puts him in touch with the social history of his race. Both of these tales exert a moral, social, and psychological force upon James and help him to shape an identity for himself, a life story he can bear to tell himself and to tell others. His central problem is to connect his fantasy identity which restores him both to his true mother and to his true homeland with the setting and situation of his actual existence. The narrative materials he needs to revise his story come to him when his ritual in the deserted house is interrupted by Stick, Blue, and Gino.
Stick and Blue inject their own vivid elements into James's story. They call him a "dwarf" and refer to the mysterious figure on the wall as a "cardboard Sandy Claus." Inventive abusers of narrative, Stick and Blue tell imaginative lies in the interest of perpetuating their dog-napping scam. To protect his inner story from these tough boys, James experiments with new forms of narrative: he must make secret plans; he must learn to lie inventively; and he learns to select details for withholding from his listener. James also learns that he cannot escape from all problems by telling himself stories: "He wished he could make a story out of what was happening to him right now—pretend he was just walking home to his Aunts, to his bed in the corner.…"(p. 43). James's fake ruby ring becomes an evocative emblem of James's failed attempts at narrative: "The ring! In his pocket, it was magic, but lying in the dusty corner, it was just what Stick had called it, a candy-box ring, good for nothing" (p. 44). Likewise James's fantasy about his mother's preparing an African kingdom for her son James, the Prince, loses its rich and resonant luster outside the dark shelter of the damp basement. James's terrifying adventure with Stick, Blue, and Gino force James to revise his visionary "song of himself." At the same time, the dangerous encounter provides him with enlarged narrative possibilities. First these new characters inspire him to perceive reality through arresting figurative language: "Gino's eyes looked like holes burnt in oilcloth" (p. 59). And "Everytime Gino spoke it was as if a door with a rusty hinge was swinging in the wind" (p. 34).
More significantly, James encounters a new and exciting setting. On his adventure to Coney Island, he sees the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. The ocean's vastness overwhelms him and causes James to question his cherished story: "How could she have taken enough food to last her? As for her getting her own boat, no little rowboat could get all the way to the other beach on the other side" (p. 72-3). As a storyteller, James must thus come to grips with the necessity for narrative plausibility.
As James revises the story of his mother's African journey, he apprehends a truer sense of her emotional situation. She is not a regal African queen preparing a home for her son. Her actual story is closer to her own tale about the captured Africans. Weighed down by poverty and responsibilities she cannot handle and abandoned by her husband, James's mother had collapsed in a corner, succumbed to a nervous breakdown, and entered a hospital. When James looks out over the Atlantic Ocean, he thinks "of it rolling all the way to Africa and breaking into waves on another beach" (p. 72). As he contemplates her journey, he thinks, "It was terrible to think of his mother out there in the black night bobbing around on top of that water, by herself" (p. 73). The revised story which James imagines provides him with a vivid symbol of his mother's lost emotional state; she is indeed temporarily at sea in the black abyss of a nervous collapse.
Exploring these new possibilities for story enlarges James's sympathies not only for his lost mother but also for the kidnapped dogs. Lost in the darkness of a "crazy funhouse in the middle of the night, he felt he cared more about Gladys than anything in the world—except his mother" (p. 81).
When James rescues the dogs and runs away from Stick, Blue, and Gino, he heads home, trying to invent a story convincing enough to tell his aunts, recognizing at last, "No story was good enough. He would have to tell them what had really happened" (p. 114). When he arrives at home amid the joyous reception of the entire tenement, James narrates the story of his adventure:
"They wouldn't let me go," said James as loud as he could. He looked up the stairwell where all the people were, dressed in their nightclothes, leaning over the railing, looking down, "They made me ride for miles. I went to Coney. I saw the Atlantic Ocean. They stole dogs. Listen, all of you. They kept watch on me. But I got away even though there were three of them."
In the new story of his life, James does not function as both teller and listener. James, the teller, addresses an audience deeply interested in his story. Moreover, he does not function as a passive character waiting for his mother to solve the problems. He has used his powers of invention to solve his own problems. In his new story he conceives of himself as the resourceful and successful hero of a dangerous adventure, one who saves both himself and the helpless homesick dogs.
In the final scene of the novel James must revise his story still further. He had pictured his mother as a tall and regal queen with long black hair in white robes. In reality she is a tiny woman with short hair in a dark dress. Looking at her, he thinks, "Why she was hardly any bigger than he was! How could she be his mother?" (p. 117). He also thinks, "Who am I? I'm not a prince. How can I be a prince? Who am I?" (p. 117). As if she had heard his thoughts, his mother speaks to him, "'Hello, Jimmy,' she said" (p. 117).
In pronouncing James's true name, his mother helps him to find the best of all possible endings for a children's story—reunion with one's mother, a safe return home, and a sure sense of identity. James's story, however, does not merely end. The novel achieves what narrative theorists refer to as "closure;" as one critic expresses the notion, "the sense that nothing necessary has been omitted from a work."2 In How Many Miles to Babylon? this sense of closure is achieved through a process described by Marianna Torgovnick as "circularity."3 That is, the ending of the novel clearly resembles the beginning: James is at home with Aunt Grace, Aunt Paul, and Aunt Althea. Once again the family gathers around a boy who tells a story. In the beginning, however, one significant character was missing. The mother's presence at the end achieves the effect of circularity, but it also suggests an "open" ending. The reader has a sense that James has acquired the skill to revise his story in the future.
- Paula Fox, How Many Miles to Babylon? (Scaresdale: Bradbury Press, 1967), p. 4. Subsequent quotations will be taken from this edition and page numbers cited parenthetically in the text.
- David Richter, Fable's End: Completeness and Closure in Rhetrocial Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).
- Mariana Torgovnick, Closure in the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 13. Torgovnick presents several geometrical terms to describe endings. In "circularity" the ending clearly recalls the beginning. In "parallelism," the grouping of characters, language, or situation refers to several significant scenes within the work. "Incompletion" denotes that one or more elements is omitted to achieve either circular of parallel closure. When a new topic is introducted so that the work "opens out" (E. M. Forester's term), Torgovnick calls it a "tangential" ending.
THE STONE-FACED BOY (1968)
Christine McDonnell (essay date April 1984)
SOURCE: McDonnell, Christine. "A Second Look: The Stone-Faced Boy. " Horn Book Magazine 60, no. 2 (April 1984): 219-22.
[In the following essay, McDonnell praises The Stone-Faced Boy for its combination of simplicity and complexity, calling it a "beautifully crafted adventure."]
Winner of the Newbery medal for The Slave Dancer and of the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1978, Paula Fox is well known as one of America's most talented writers for children and young adults. The Stone-Faced Boy, published in 1968, is one of her earlier books, yet it demonstrates fully both the clarity of her insight and the graceful power of her prose. It is a short novel, filled with strong imagery, deep characterization, tension, pain, and also magic. It is spare, like the winter landscape of its setting, and clearly defined, like the single day and night of the story's duration.
At the center of the book are Gus, the boy described in the title, and his quest, a solitary adventure that requires both loyalty and courage. Like all true quests it is an inward as well as an outward journey, and the real goal is self-knowledge. Much of the power of the novel comes from the characterization. Paula Fox has the ability to create a character by pinpointing details so specific and believable that a full-blown, unique personality springs to the reader's mind. Of all the characters in the story Gus is developed most thoroughly. He is a complicated, fragile boy, the middle child in a family of five, "squeezed" between an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister. He is overwhelmed by his family: "There were too many rooms in the house, too many doors and closets and stair steps, and leaking faucets. There were too many animals.… But there were, especially, too many brothers and sisters."
Fox brings these brothers and sisters to life in brief, vivid flashes. Simon, the youngest, "called everybody 'dum-dum' and then smashed them with his toy broom." Everyone but Gus is able to avoid Simon's broom; Gus "never ducked in time." Zack, the older brother, occasionally condescends to play cards with Gus but always ends up impatient, calling him creep or stupid. His older sister Rachel "was so old and pretended to be so grown-up that she could hardly bring herself to speak to Gus." She makes candy for herself every weekend and sits near her mirror with her hair in curlers. "Her brains must be dented by now from the continuing pressure of those curlers," Gus thinks to himself.
It is only his younger sister Serena that Gus feels any affinity for. Serena is an animal lover, always bringing home stray cats and dogs, insects, toads, snakes. Serena's warmth and her capacity for imagination connects her to Gus. She does not laugh when he asks her if all the water in the world will flood up and out of the well in the orchard. Instead, she answers, "'We'll put the cover on it.'" Being afraid of the well is only one of Gus's fears. Gus does not take the world for granted—to him it is not a safe place. He worries about falling off the planet and believes his older sister when she declares in a moment of contrived dramatics that the world will end.
Paula Fox describes Gus with images of containment, imprisonment. Stone-face is a nickname that he has had since the first grade, four years ago. "It was as though he shut a door. He could even hear the little click of the lock. Right after the click, he knew his face was without expression." At first this ability was an advantage, protecting him from ridicule or embarrassment. "But now Gus had a new kind of trouble. The stone face seemed to have stuck. It stayed with him all the time.… What had happened was that he was no longer shutting that imaginary door. It was shutting itself." Gus's problem is intensified by his isolation; there is no one he can tell about his imprisonment. And the problem seems insoluble until the appearance of mysterious Great-aunt Hattie who, in the spirit of Mary Poppins and of all fairy godmothers, arrives out of nowhere.
As a character Great-aunt Hattie balances the boy in a direct, symmetrical way. Just as he is connected to images of containment, she is associated with images of openness:
"I like rooms with large windows … windows that reach from ceiling to floor. I like doors which open wide to the outdoors. I like marble floors and ceilings that look like white frosted wedding cakes, but not clutter, I hate clutter. I like my little Italian palazzo because when I open a window there, the sky comes right into the room."
Great-aunt Hattie arrives unexpectedly and uninvited on a January day and stays for one night only. She drives a red 1926 Stutz Bearcat, smokes cigars, and doctors her coffee with liquid from a silver flask. Her identity is never confirmed. Mr. Oliver, Gus's father, has seen her only once before—at a distance, when he was a boy, and he does not know how she found him after all these years. But he says, "'After all, who else could she be?'" His question goes unanswered. She could be anyone.
Great-aunt Hattie provides the central metaphor for the book. She gives Gus a geode, "a dark, dull little stone with its own glow"—a perfect image for Gus. Like the crystals inside the geode his feelings are shut inside him. But Great-aunt Hattie knows they are there, and she also knows that he is keeping them in.
She had guessed something private about him, something that was different from the usual comments that everyone in the Oliver family and his teachers and classmates made. He hadn't thought anyone would know that he was trying to keep from smiling or frowning. Perhaps, though, she didn't know that he also had the opposite problem of trying to make his face show something.
While the rest of the family ignores Gus, Great-aunt Hattie acknowledges him. She notices his mannerisms and his fears. It is Serena who sends Gus out into the cold, frozen night to find her lost dog, but it is Great-aunt Hattie who bears witness to his ordeal and his achievement. When he returns at dawn, having braved the dark, scary night and saved the dog, Gus finds his family at the kitchen table. Their reaction to his absence is chilling. Gus has imagined them to be anxious and upset; instead, he finds them unconcerned. Only Great-aunt Hattie confirms his courage and his success.
"You must have been scared. How many times did you think of simply turning around and coming home and making up a story for Serena? … But you didn't come back without the dog.… You didn't make up a story for Serena. Don't forget it. I won't."
Most magical of all, in this moment of recognition she makes Gus laugh inside. He can barely keep it in. Even though he covers his mouth, he has felt the laughter.
When Great-aunt Hattie drives off at dawn, she leaves Gus holding the geode. The story does not end with an easy release of feeling; this would be too simple. It ends, instead, with Gus gaining control. He stops Simon from hitting him with the broom and then refuses to let Zack crack open the geode. The geode remains whole, its "'crystal palace'" safe inside. Gus puts it back in his pocket.
He knew how the stone would look inside, but he didn't choose to break it open yet. When he felt like it, he would take the hammer and tap the geode in such a way that it would break perfectly, in such a way that not one of the crystals inside would be broken. But until then, until he wanted to, no one would touch it.
The metaphor continues until the very last page. Gus still has the protection of his stone face. And inside, his "'crystal palace'" of emotion is intact and safe; he will not risk it in the harsh and hostile emotional setting of his family. But when the time is right, when he chooses to, he will reveal these inner feelings, and not one will be broken.
The Stone-Faced Boy is short and simply told. It is a marvel of uncontrived unity: the snowy January landscape; the silent boy with frozen feelings; the geode, strong but fragile, its beauty locked inside. It is also wonderfully balanced: the confident, eccentric old lady and the terrified, isolated little boy; the strong realism of Gus's emotional illness and the hints of magic and mystery in the great-aunt. The novel itself is like a geode. At first glance it is a simple, realistic family story. But if you look carefully inside, you will find a beautifully crafted adventure—a satisfying quest, complete with a magical mentor. Like the geode the story has a clear luminescence, "its own glow."
THE WESTERN COAST (1972)
Carolyn Riley (review date 1 October 1972)
SOURCE: Riley, Caroline. Best Sellers 32, no. 13 (1 October 1972): 296-97.
Reading The Western Coast, one is reminded of the socio-psychological sensibility of Joan Didion or Grace Paley and one sees in the prose the fine sure hand of Doris Lessing. But Paula Fox has that pure talent for fiction which, though it suggests other excellent writers at every turning, emerges complete in itself, endowing her fiction with its own discrete energy.
The Western Coast is a bildungsroman of the best sort. The novel is a chronicle of Annie Gianfala's effort (sometimes passive, sometimes wrenchingly conscious) to grow—not up, but down, "to the small patch of earth [she'd] marked out as [her] own." It is the "marking out" that is the story here, the effort to define one's place of being and the resources behind one's responses to a frightening and complex environment. In the beginning, Annie sees herself "among people who saw the world she hastened through so nervously, so uncomprehendingly, having meanings, categories, explanations that made it possible for them to know where their next thought was coming from," while "in her closet of terrors, Annie picked up words in the dark, hoping they would not turn out to be serpents." As Annie's friend shrewdly warned: "What one is afraid of becomes one's only real life." Annie still thought that "there's a world of grown-ups somewhere—a place, a way of being, a message, that will reveal the nature of things." And "somewhere in the back of her mind hung pale abstractions, motionless as painted clouds, God, orderliness of meals, gravity of mien, classroom papers, one's name neatly written on the upper-right-hand corner, families grouped around the dining table, the elders teaching the young, undying love, music of the spirit, not of the kisses and deaths of movie stars." Hence it is Annie's job, just as it is everyone's, to reconcile the abstractions and real world, the grownups and herself, her idea of marriage and her own peculiar relationship with her husband, the notion of orderly meals and the hunger pains in her gut, and on and on. Annie's struggle is, of course, everyone's struggle—that of finding a personal equilibrium in a world of disparity between real and ideal. Paula Fox's genius, then, is her ability to present for our recognition a quality of life which hovers, unarticulated, on the edges of our minds.
Annie herself, however, has perhaps more to be afraid of than most—sickness, suicide, homelessness, poverty, Communism, war. And it is the very plethora of fearsome surroundings that demonstrates Miss Fox's only weakness as a novelist. Anxious to provide Annie with sufficient numbers of mirrors and indices with which to identify and measure her own emergent sensibility, she has over-appointed Annie's living room and thereby burdened her novelistic method with overtransparency.
But in the end, Miss Fox has achieved for Annie a perfect sense of conclusion, real in that no "answers" have been found, no "ending" defined. Annie has moved into a kind of maturity in which she looks clear-eyed at "ordinary life" with "its ordinary powerful truths," not with any particular "knowledge," but rather with a "way of knowing," a stance, a resolution—in sum, an identity. Paula Fox (unbeknownst to the author of the dreary and untantalizing jacket copy) is a wonderfully able novelist—certainly one to watch for future work but, more important, a writer who has already made a significant contribution to contemporary fiction.
THE SLAVE DANCER (1973)
Hamida Bosmajian (essay date winter 1983)
SOURCE: Bosmajian, Hamida. "Nightmares of History—The Outer Limits of Children's Literature." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8, no. 4 (winter 1983): 20-2.
[In the following essay, Bosmajian asserts that novels dealing with historical tragedy can be therapeutic if introduced to children within the correct context.]
In the last two decades the ironic mode—the depiction of the human condition as limited by realistic historical time and space—has made definite encroachments on children's literature, particularly in stories about familial or social trauma. Though reviewers often question if works about child abuse, family disintegration, sex, violence, drug addiction, and prejudice can still be called children's fiction, perceptive adults would agree that such works can both have therapeutic value for young victims and raise the consciousness of youngsters whose environment is stable. There is, however, another category of the ironic mode in young people's literature: literature about historical trauma.
The nightmare of history is de-creation by adults, a nightmare that always includes children, be they enslaved Africans, Nazi holocaust victims, or survivors of Hiroshima. Historical trauma is a collective inundation of a culture; it affects the life, not just of the individual or the small group, but of the entire social order, its past, present, and future. The reader of literature about such traumas can no longer comfortably apply us/them dichotomies, for this literature universalizes moral problems, choices, and consequences. The image of the child in such literature, as recalled by a survivorwitness, is often a devastating ethical challenge, for children have often been singled out to suffer special brutalities.
We are loathe to shape our collective sin and guilt through the genre of children's literature. Perhaps we fear that to depict the children within the nightmare of history will both taint our own image of innocence and deny young readers trust in the future we shape; for is not children's literature a seduction of children into our symbolic structures and values? Yet children have lived and do live in historical time and voice their concerns today about the next possible nightmare—global nuclear war.
Three works that confront the themes and horizons of historical trauma in children's literature are Paula Fox's The Slave Dancer, Hans Peter Richter's Friedrich, and Toshi Maruki's Hiroshima No Pika. In my discussion I will point out how the three cardinal sins of Western civilization—the enslavement of Africans, anti-Semitism and the holocaust, and the atom bomb as apocalypse—affect the child characters in these stories, and how they might influence the young reader's reaction to our civilization's discontents, crimes, and guilts. I contend that if such literary works are shared within a context where youngsters can voice their concerns and where adults are ready to engage in dialogue rather than diatribe, rationalization, and assuagement, they cannot but be therapeutic. They define and thereby set limits to the anxieties of young readers.
In each narrative the main character is a victim-survivor. In The Slave Dancer and Friedrich the narrator writes a confession because he witnessed and participated in historical crimes. Seven-year-old Mii in Hiroshima No Pika is a portrait ostensibly intended for the pre-analytical reader. The impact of her story, told in the third person, comes through the great simplicity of the text and its powerful illustrations.
The Slave Dancer seems removed in time for some young readers, who have read it as an adventure story comparable to Treasure Island, but others are moved by the suffering depicted and find in this fiction an historical understanding of the oppression of black people. They can identify with the ethical problems of thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier, who is kidnapped in New Orleans in 1840 and commanded to play his fife for the dancing of the slaves on board The Moonlight. Even though this book won the Newbery Award, Fox received negative criticisms, especially for her portrayal of blacks and Jessie's reactions to them. Yet when we compare The Slave Dancer with autobiographical accounts of concentration camp survivors, we find that Fox is accurate in depicting the psychology of human beings in extreme situations. Her fictional autobiography springs from Jessie's need to confess, for he finds no relief when he confesses to a runaway slave, and when Jessie tries to share his feelings with his mother, she cries, "I can't hear it! I can't bear it!" Jessie then decides that he will "do nothing that was connected ever so faintly with the importing and sale and use of slaves." He soon discovers, however, that everything he "considered bore, somewhere along the way, the imprint of black hands." Even after writing his confession, he finds no relief from his memory of the nightmare of history.
Jessie's trauma is especially focused in the central chapter "Nicholas Spark Walks on Water." Here we see the chaos and rigidity of the life of victims and victimizers in the concentrated space of The Moonlight. The crew is unable to tolerate any human impulse toward the captive blacks. In Jessie's memory the captives are, with one exception, an undifferentiated mass, and the crew members are fixed into specific stereotypes. Mass and stereotype prevent Jessie from identifying himself with either. When the slaves are pulled from the hold after a few days at sea, their trauma has deprived them of will: "The adults ate mournfully, the food dribbling from their lips as though their spirits were too low to keep their jaws firm." (pp. 86-87) Nevertheless, their very helplessness is a threat to Jessie, who reacts with self-defensive aggression: "I hated the slaves! I hated their shuffling, their howling, their very suffering … ! I hated the foul stench that came from the holds …, as though the ship were soaked with human excrement. I would have snatched the rope from Spark's hand and beaten them myself! Oh, God! I wished them all dead!" (p. 91).
Jessie's feelings are very much comparable to those of Tadeusz Borowski in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. He, too, is outraged at the victims: "I am simply furious with these people—furious because I must be there because of them. I feel no pity. I am not sorry that they are going to the gas chamber. Damn them all … I could throw myself at them and beat them with my fists." The Moonlight and the camp are images of the anus mundi, a world of sin and waste whose stench will stay with Jessie or Tadeusz for the rest of their lives. Jessie is so frightened by his hate for the blacks that he refuses to play his fife. A severe beating is to be his punishment, and as he steps to the railing to receive his blows, he notes, "The sea was blue today." Borowski observes: "The sky grows translucent and opens high above our heads." From slave ship and camp human cries rise high into the indifferent universe.
Jessie tries "to get used to it" and develops the inmate's characteristic split consciousness. He cooperates, sees, pretends not to see, and develops a contrasting vision: "I found a kind of freedom in my mind. I found how to be in another place." Reality, however, bears down on him when a black, whom Spark gratuitously tortured, attacks the sailor and is flogged to unconsciousness. Jessie escapes into the kitchen only to find the cook picking "worms out of a piece of crusted beef," a microcosm of ship and crew. The enraged Spark shoots the black and is himself bound and thrown overboard for having deprived the captain of profit. Before he drowns, he seems to take three steps on water, a grotesque parody of Christ. In keeping with the ironic mode, Fox often inverts the religious value of images. Jessie's name reminds us of the child as savior, now lost in a totally fallen world. The shape of the slave ship is like that of a cathedral nave (navis) and the harmony of the cosmic spheres becomes in Jessie's memory and last words "a joyless thumping, the sound of the fife finally drowned beneath the clanging of their chains."
Both the point of view of the novel and the circumstances of history make it impossible to name the slaves. Only after the shipwreck can Jessie exchange names with Ras, the sole black survivor. In Hans Peter Richter's Friedrich, however, it is the narrator and his family who remain nameless, for this narrator cannot even experience the memory of guilt—he has implicated himself too much. There is safety in remaining nameless, and the anonymity adds a universality of guilt to the story, which could be the story of many a German family. The victims here are named, as if to rescue them from the vast anonymity of the millions who were murdered.
Friedrich is the story of the friendship between two boys during the time of the Third Reich, but Richter does not show a child being led to the gas chamber. There has been no depiction of the final solution in a book written for children, though there are many accounts, poems, and drawings by children who were in the camps. As of now the ultimate extremity is censored by adult writers as too horrible to depict. Because writing is as therapeutic for the writer as reading can be for the reader, the writer, especially of children's literature, may even be afraid of subliminally expressing aggression against children.
Friedrich Schneider and his parents, who live in isolation in their urban apartment, believe that they are accepted as Germans, and are thus caught in the "illusion of reprieve." When the narrator's father, a Nazi for expediency's sake, advises Herr Schneider to flee Germany, Schneider cannot imagine slavery and injustice, much less pitiless murder in twentieth-century Germany: "Perhaps we will put an end to our wandering by not seeking flight any more, by learning to suffer, by staying where we are." Bettelheim's criticism in Surviving of Anne Frank's family for wanting to maintain the status quo is corroborated in Richter's book. The author's emphasis is always on individual human suffering resulting from human choices. He reveals graphically the ransacking of the Schneiders' apartment, the death of Frau Schneider, and the arrest of Herr Schneider by the Gestapo.
Present or not, the Schneiders will always be the focus in the narrator's world, even as his consciousness splits, objectifies conflicting worlds, and finally allows itself no reflection. Caught in the historical moment he becomes a member of the Jungvolk, yet still maintains his friendship with Friedrich. Awareness of otherness begins harmlessly enough when the narrator's mother notes while bathing both boys: "Well, Fritzchen! You look like a little Jew." The word Jew will be repeated with increasing vehemence on placards, on park benches, and in speeches and songs of the Nazis. Still, the narrator tries to get an eager Friedrich into a Jungvolk meeting, where Friedrich is made to say, "The Jews are our Affliction." Occasionally there is a humane teacher or righteous judge, but anti-Semitic myths turn more and more into gruesome reality. During the famous night of broken glass, the narrator finds it "strangely exhilarating" to be drawn into the crowd. Almost accidentally he picks up a hammer, almost casually he breaks a glass pane; then he immerses himself in an orgy of vandalism, until spent, tired, and disgusted, he walks home to find that the Schneiders' apartment, too, has been demolished. His tears come too late.
While Friedrich grows in moral courage and self-awareness, the narrator is infantilized by the totalitarian system, in which ego and superego identify with the state. At the end he can no longer express his feelings for Friedrich. After Friedrich is refused entry into the shelter and dies during the air raid, the narrator can only clutch "the thorny rosebush" in front of the apartment house to let physical pain somehow replace the anguish he dare not express. The Nazi landlord notes, "His luck that he died this way," implying the other end that would have been likely for Friedrich. The book ends with this "lucky" death and only Richter's chronology at the end shows that the Third Reich collapsed on May 8, 1945. Richter wants to show the young reader that we do make choices and even have the choice to give up our freedom to choose until there is no choice left.
While choice is severely curtailed in Hiroshima No Pika, the book's last sentence, spoken by Mii's mother, presents the ultimate choice: "It can't happen again … if no one drops the bomb." Maruki decided to create the picture book after she listened to the spontaneous testimony about Hiroshima by a woman who came to see her picture exhibition about the atomic bomb. Her story is about a mother and daughter whose emotions and reflections are indirectly expressed through textual and pictorial images that are appropriate for a pre-school book. Japanese readers are likely to respond quite differently from American readers, the latter's heritage being that of perpetrator of this historical nightmare. Furthermore, the last sentence is more likely to be interpreted positively by Japanese, who view human beings as basically good whereas our tradition defines us as fallen and out of tune with nature and, therefore, more likely to drop the bomb.
Maruki's evocation of the sudden intrusion of "Little Boy," on August 6, 1945, into the life of ordinary people creates neither the apocalyptic myths nor the survival fantasies Ira Cherms discusses in "Mythologies of Nuclear War." The bomb drops while the family breakfasts. Mii's mother resolutely leaps into the flames to rescue her husband, bandages him with her obi, and carries him on her back out of the house and toward the river. At the same time she is always concerned about Mii, as fire and water constantly threaten to engulf the family. Mii sees heaps of dead and wounded, but the image that remains most in her consciousness is that of "a swallow. Its wings were burned, and it couldn't fly. Hop … hop.…"The harbinger of spring has been denied and will forever become part of Mii's sorrow.
After reaching the relative safety of an island, Mii and her parents fall asleep for four days. When mother and daughter return to Hiroshima, they find "A burnt out wasteland stretched before them as far as the eye could see." In contrast to the firestorm, distinct pieces of rubble fill the field of vision where mother and daughter stand in an aura of relatedness. But the book does not end with a consolation: Mii's father dies of radiation sickness, and radiation keeps Mii from further growth, a fierce parody of the small child's secret wish. Mii will always be her mother's little girl since that fateful August day. "Sometimes Mii complains that her head itches, and her mother parts her hair, sees something shiny, and pulls it out of her scalp with a pair of tweezers. It's a sliver of glass, imbedded when the bomb went off years ago, that has worked its way to the surface." Mother and daughter do not dwell on their trauma, but those splinters are a shockingly novel image of memories that cannot be repressed.
Annually, mother and daughter express their emotions and memories through a communal ritual as Mii, along with others, mourns the dead by setting lanterns adrift in the seven rivers of Hiroshima to float to the sea. She marks one lantern "father" and the other "swallow" as her mother watches sadly. Maruki's final picture expresses serenity as brightly clad mourners set afloat warm-colored lanterns with their flames contained, spiritual symbols without the threat of conflagration. This picture also complements the last sentence, in that fire must be contained, and that can only happen if no one drops the bomb.
These three books do not project survival fantasies onto the nightmare of history, for each survivor-victim receives lasting physical, moral, or psychological damage. Each of the three child characters is denied wholeness through the process of individuation. We, who live in the fearful symmetry of the world of experience, would like our children to sing songs of innocence, but it is difficult to delude children who have intimations of nuclear war. By breaking with the convictions of children's literature, these stories open spaces or blanks for the young readers' thoughts. Young readers will fill the blanks and appropriate the text in ways not necessarily acceptable to adults. Yet, the damage will not come from books, for these books impress order on historical chaos. Stories that we hear or read are stories that can be told. While on the outer limits of children's literature, these books, too, share the subversiveness of children's literature written by adults. Through them we communicate to the child our suffering, sins, and guilts. A child character is central in each, and bears much of the burden, as a young scapegoat whose consciousness and conscience is to awaken to what our civilization lacked. Do we still expect children to redeem us even after we dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima?
THE MOONLIGHT MAN (1986)
Horn Book Magazine (review date May-June 1986)
SOURCE: Horn Book Magazine 62, no. 3 (May-June 1986): 330-31.
With The Moonlight Man, Paula Fox has crafted the story of a fifteen-year-old girl coming to terms with the emotions of a divorce that happened twelve years before and of a relationship with a father who has been an elusive but romantic figure in her life. Catherine has been anticipating this summer and her first long visit with her father since she was three years old. The day for her to be called for at her boarding school has come and gone with no message from her father. For twenty-one days she coaxes and argues the headmistress into allowing her to wait for him. Just as she has given up hope, a phone call from her father instructs her to come to a small town in Nova Scotia where he has rented a cottage for them by the sea. As soon as she is with him, her unhappiness with him slips away. He has an ability to use words and charm to win her over as if he is weaving a magic spell. For him, spending the intimate time with his daughter, whom he has kept at arm's length until now, is like shining the harshest daylight on the mirage with which he shrouds his failures. Catherine sees him as "a juggler keeping a lot of objects going at the same time … while remaining hidden behind them." In hiding from her, he also hides from himself. His beguiling ways and his excessive drinking are his way of "escaping from reason and obligation." He deprecates his former wife with her certainty and neat, orderly life as a daylight woman, and Catherine realizes how much he is a moonlight person: insubstantial and undependable, yet able to transform everything he touches. As their days together pass, Catherine alternates between seeing him as an aging, frightened, and weak man and someone who draws her irresistibly to him. "He was running all over her, drowning her in language. Still, she felt better. How did he do it?" Recovering from her anger after his final drunken binge, Catherine is able to look at his weakness with some pity and understanding. Although she can accept and love him as he is, for her, her parents' divorce is at last final.
Judith Sheriff (review date August-October 1986)
SOURCE: Sheriff, Judith. Voice of Youth Advocates 9, nos. 3-4 (August-October 1986): 142.
Twelve years after her parents' divorce, 15-year-old Catherine Ames has the opportunity for a seven-week visit with her father, with whom she has had only brief visits since the divorce. Her 50-year-old father, however, is three weeks late picking her up at her Montreal boarding school. Finally, just as both Catherine and the headmistress agree that Catherine's mother must be contacted, her father calls, full of apologies, and arranges for Catherine to meet him in Nova Scotia. Catherine, so very eager to be close to her father, immediately forgives and travels to join him. Within two days Mr. Ames and friends are drunk and Catherine takes care of them. Soon she discovers that the vacation was instigated by her stepmother: "She said—if you never got a close look at me, you'd be wondering about me all your life." And Catherine does wonder. Why does her father, a writer with two novels to his credit, earn his living by writing travel guides? Why does he live so much in a literary and alcoholic fog rather than in touch with the real world and his own daughter? Why his abrupt mood changes, his chauvinism, his lies and broken promises? But despite all the questions, the answer to which she only partly understands, it is a good visit in that Catherine really does come to know this stranger. Two days before their vacation is over, Mr. Ames again gets very drunk, precipitating a very honest and very painful quarrel.
As in Fox's Newbery Honor book, The One-Eyed Cat, the story is not so much about what happens as it is about what the characters perceive about the events and their own actions. Fox's characters have great depth, and Catherine especially is notable for her realistic, yet ambiguous, feelings for her father. Her father's alcoholism is not treated in clinical detail but with great emotional sensitivity. When Catherine returns to her mother's home in New York, she realizes how glad she is to be there—and how glad she will also be to return to school: they all, indeed, do have lives elsewhere. In short, this is another artistic beauty, and surely another award winner from the talented Ms. Fox.
LILY AND THE LOST BOY (1987)
Diane Manuel (review date 2 October 1987)
SOURCE: Manuel, Diane. Christian Science Monitor 79, no. 217 (2 October 1987): B4.
Newbery Medalist Paula Fox, author of The Slave Dancer, Blowfish Live in the Sea, and The Stone-Faced Boy, is known for her sensitive portrayals of youngsters' often conflicting emotions.
In her first book for Orchard, Lily and the Lost Boy, Fox explores the jealousies that can crop up between an older brother and adoring younger sister, and also the idealistic tenderness that can rise above sibling rivalries. In the process she comes up with a strong story of tested friendship and compassion.
The setting is the Greek island of Thasos, where wild thyme blooms in the hills and fresh-caught octopus is hung to dry on clotheslines. Eleven-year-old Lily Corey and her 13-year-old brother, Paul, become fellow explorers for three months one spring while their professor father is on sabbatical. They dig for shards and coins at the local acropolis, and Paul even allows Lily to read aloud to him from her book of Greek myths.
Enter Jack Hemmings, a troubled American teen-ager who reminds Lily of "an engine racing, with no place to go." As Paul gradually turns his back on his family to spend more time with Jack, the tension builds. It culminates in a tragic evening that ends with the accidental death of a young Greek child.
It's grim ground in many ways, but author Fox balances the anxious moments with overflowing images of place and time—of weathered fishermen in sturdy calques, of mandolin-like bouzouki music floating up from the village wharf, of ancient amphitheaters filled with today's applause.
Mary K. Chelton (review date February 1998)
SOURCE: Chelton, Mary K. Voice of Youth Advocates 20, no. 6 (February 1998): 279-80.
In Paula Fox's Lily and the Lost Boy, Lily, 12, and her 14 year old brother Paul are living on the small Greek island of Thasos where their father has taken the family with him while he's on sabbatical from his teaching job in Massachusetts. He's picked Thasos as a temporary home because not many English-speaking tourists visit and he's determined to learn as much about Greece and the Greeks as he can first hand.
Both children seem to love the island, are progressing well in Greek and are happy with each other's company for the first time in several years. As the day to day frustrations begin to die down and the Coreys become more attuned to the pace of the island, it begins to be almost a paradise except, as Lily says, for the vipers.
Then one morning as the children are visiting the Acropolis, they see a strange boy about Paul's age. Excited and curious Paul goes over to meet him, but Lily feels herself drawing away. Once met, Jack Hemmings, an American living with his father further up the island begins to draw Paul in and Lily watches their new-found closeness drift away. At first she's angry with Jack, but as she watches and listens, as she sees Paul closing his family out and turning to Jack, she begins to wonder. Why is Jack never with his father? Why does his mother pay money to keep him away? Why do the islanders dislike Mr. Hemmings in spite of their admiration for his dancing?
Jack begins to spend more and more time with the Coreys and in spite of his ideas, things that drag Paul into delinquent situations, Lily starts to feel how much pain Jack carries. Finally Jack's recklessness takes the life of another child and after he runs away Lily feels that she must be the one to find him. Their return to Thasos makes her even more aware of his loneliness, but there's little she can do to help him. And finally, as the Coreys leave the island, Jack and Mr. Hemmings stand at the quay and watch, more separated together than they ever were apart.
This is a warm, poignant story that shows life in both its simplicity and its complexity. It paints a beautiful picture of village life in Greece, shows the goodness of life itself, but offers no easy solutions to the difficulties of living.
MONKEY ISLAND (1991)
Ellen Fader (review date September-October 1991)
SOURCE: Fader, Ellen. Horn Book Magazine 67, no. 5 (September-October 1991): 596-97.
Eleven-year-old Clay Garrity [Monkey Island ] awakens in the welfare hotel where he and his pregnant mother have lived for the last month to find his mother gone. His search for her leads him to a nearby park, where he becomes part of an encampment of homeless people, but a bout with pneumonia brings Clay's situation to the attention of the social service agencies, which place him with a foster family while they continue the quest for his absent mother. Although he is well cared for in the foster home, Clay especially misses the two homeless men who had become his surrogate family and who had helped him survive. He repeatedly visits the park until he meets up with one of the men, who has taken significant steps to better his life. In a poignant and promising ending, Clay, his new baby sister, and his mother, who now has a job, move into their own apartment. They have hope that Clay's father, who had deserted them after becoming depressed and defeated about his inability to find a job, will eventually reappear. Fox's story is neither an indictment of society nor a vehicle to proffer solutions for a growing national problem. It is instead an emotionally powerful story of one family's travail, one child's anxiety and fear, and the people who help that child until he and his mother are reunited. These are characters readers will understand and care about; Clay's universal struggle with the issue of what constitutes a home, his bewilderment over his abandonment by both his parents, and his ambivalence at his reunion with his mother are expertly and honestly played out. The novel individualizes the problems of homeless people and puts faces on those whom society has made faceless; readers' perceptions will be changed after reading the masterfully crafted Monkey Island.
WESTERN WIND (1993)
Betsy Hearne (review date September 1993)
SOURCE: Hearne, Betsy. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 47, no. 1 (September 1993): 9-10.
Eleven-year-old Elizabeth Benedict believes the reason she's being sent to spend August with her grandmother in a primitive Maine island cottage is the newly born brother on whom her parents lavish attention. In Western Wind, Paula Fox uses an isolated situation, as she has done before, to delve into a child's deepening awareness—here, of her grandmother's value as a person, a painter, and an elder facing death with dignity. Through interactions stripped bare by a simplified life devoid of electronic distractions or electric conveniences, the two characters replace their formal connection with an affectionate respect that contrasts ironically with the one other family on the island, who comprise an odd mix of overprotection and underestimation of each other. Elizabeth, her grandmother, and the vulnerable young island boy whom Elizabeth rescues in more ways than one, are fine portrayals of individualistic independence at different stages of a life spectrum. Always spare, Fox's style especially suits this taut narrative, into which she slips similes that are frequent but consciously plain to suit the setting: a bay is "like a tray holding bits of land on its metal-blue surface"; "the family is really like a small country"; "birds swooped and rose like torn strips of paper"; Elizabeth sees "a yellow bar of sunshine like the light at the bottom of a closed door" or stifles "a laugh that was rising in her throat like a bubble in a bottle" or watches interest fading from someone's face "like light dimming in a room." These are primarily visual images—almost cubist like some of Gran's paintings—but they become less decorative than inherent to plot and pace, as when Elizabeth realizes that the cottage room seems "beautiful, almost like a person she had begun to love" or when the supporting posts in the same room, which "had suggested trees or columns to Elizabeth, now looked like the stout wooden bars of a cage" around the island family fearful of having lost their little boy. It's seductive to start quoting a good writer, but perhaps Fox summarizes her own book best: "Make it up," orders the boy in soliciting Elizabeth to play his imaginative game. "You just need a little bit of a thing to start a story. Pretty soon, there's everything!"
Ilene Cooper (review date 15 October 1993)
SOURCE: Cooper, Ilene. Booklist 90, no. 4 (15 October 1993): 432.
Fox's work can be like a piece of fine lace. You admire its beauty and the delicate craftsmanship that went into its making, but you don't always know what to do with it. And sometimes you just get tired of so much lace.
This is true of her latest novel, Western Wind, in which 11-year-old Elizabeth is sent to Pring Island off the coast of Maine to spend a month with her grandmother, a painter. Elizabeth doesn't want to go. The island has no indoor plumbing, no electricity, and just one other family. But mostly Elizabeth is hurt because she thinks her parents have sent her away so that they can spend time with her new baby brother—alone. Up to this point, Elizabeth is a recognizable 11-year-old kid: self-centered, afraid of being abandoned, utterly dependent on contemporary creature comforts. Yet in no time, Elizabeth is transformed. While Gran paints, Elizabeth combs the island, getting acquainted with nature. Suddenly she can only think in similes: the sky has "streaks of red as thin as paper cuts"; the path is "narrow as a snake, faint as a tracing"; the wind presses like "a great flat hand"—and that's all in the space of two pages. Elizabeth becomes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, junior version, and we are immediately suspicious that Fox has usurped Elizabeth's voice for her own.
In order to inject a bit of action into this largely meditative story, Fox gives us the Herkimers, the other family on the island, and their wild son, Aaron, whom Elizabeth befriends. He's the sort of boy who says things like, "If you got really scared and started screaming, I'd go mad! I'd have to part the waters and escape to the mainland."
Perhaps it is because Aaron is so alive while Gran is so obviously failing that the scenes between Elizabeth and Aaron have the most energy. There is a fascinating tug between Elizabeth's fear of people spurning her and Aaron's wish to reject others, until he finally does run away. Here's where Fox is at her best and most real in the story: examining the fear children feel when they think they're not wanted, juxtaposed against their intense desire to break familial chains and run free.
Most problematic is the ending. Gran has a stroke, and Elizabeth must get her to a hospital. Though her parents knew Gran was seriously ill when they sent Elizabeth to the island, and though the adults debated back and forth, in the end they decided it would be too hard on Elizabeth if she were aware that her grandmother was dying. Elizabeth, though angry at first, concurs. She might not have seen the summer's magic if she had known what could go wrong. Perhaps the hours the two have spent sharing stories have been worth it to Elizabeth, but can one really believe she'd be sent to such a remote locale with a sick old woman in the first place?
Even if you don't mind tripping over reality in a few places, it's still hard to envision that large numbers of children will be drawn to this rather ethereal book, especially with a dust jacket featuring a chair and some patchwork pillows, a painting that would look lovely on someone's wall but won't do much to enhance the book's popularity. Certainly, some will say that popularity isn't the issue. Just as we admire the lacemaker's way of intertwining threads, we admire Fox's ability to weave the subtleties of her theme into a work that, overall, is certainly well crafted. But to be appreciated, a piece of lace must be seen and a novel must be read. Who will read this seems at best uncertain.
Karen Hartman (review date December 1993)
SOURCE: Hartman, Karen. Voice of Youth Advocates 16, no. 5 (December 1993): 290.
In Western Wind, eleven-year-old Elizabeth Benedict is angry and hurt. She thinks her parents, caught up in the excitement of a new baby, are sending her to visit her grandmother in Maine to get her out of the way. Gran, an artist, summers on a small island inhabited only by herself and the dysfunctional Herkimer family. Elizabeth has no time for Mr. and Mrs. Herkimer or their sullen fourteen-year-old daughter, but she is drawn to their son Aaron, a small boy Gran describes as a strange child whose parents are "awfully nervous about him."
Elizabeth slowly learns to enjoy the isolation and beauty of the island, the primitive living conditions, her Gran's stories of the past, and the company of Aaron. Elizabeth often takes Aaron with her on her walks around the island, and she seems to understand and tolerate his behavior much better than his own family. It isn't until Aaron is lost and Gran and Elizabeth help the Herkimers hunt for him that Elizabeth finds out the truth about why she was sent to spend a month with her grandmother. The strain of hunting for Aaron is too much for Gran, she becomes very ill and sends Elizabeth for help. Mr. Herkimer calls the Coast Guard and then tells Elizabeth the truth—her grandmother has serious heart problems. Gran ends up in the hospital and Elizabeth realizes her parents sent her to Maine because Gran is dying. Elizabeth learns to accept and love her new brother, and she learns just how special her Gran was—a woman who shared her memories and who gave Elizabeth unconditional love. Fox has written a heartwarming story for middle school readers. Readers will relate to Elizabeth's confusion about her parents' intentions and her feelings for a rather eccentric grandmother.
Horn Book Magazine (review date March-April 1994)
SOURCE: Horn Book Magazine 70, no. 2 (March-April 1994): 198-99.
In Western Wind, Elizabeth feels she has been exiled from her home in Massachusetts to spend the summer with her grandmother on a tiny island off the Maine coast. Since the birth of a baby brother, which Elizabeth declares is "disgusting" at her parents' advanced ages, Elizabeth has felt replaced and unwanted. Reluctantly, she finds herself at her grandmother's primitive cottage, where she must spend a summer with paintings, poetry, and a rather unfathomable old woman. Gradually Elizabeth comes to appreciate her grandmother, and as she observes the Herkimers, the only other family on the island, she learns about the different kinds of family love. She develops a friendship with Aaron, the young, over-protected boy in the Herkimer family, and when Aaron runs away in the middle of a terrible storm, Elizabeth and her grandmother join the frantic search. Though Elizabeth finds the terrified boy, her grandmother collapses from the strain, and Elizabeth belatedly learns that her grandmother is very ill. She then realizes that the summer was arranged not to send her away, but to give her important time with her grandmother before her death. Western Wind is a quiet story of relationships and character. Elizabeth and Aaron both grow through their friendship and their exposure to another, different family. By the end of her month on the island Elizabeth has learned a great deal more about both her grandmother and herself. The small summer island is another central character in the book—moody, stark, bewitching, and integral to the events as they unfold. Fox's beautiful prose gives a rich dimension to the story about the struggle to adjust to change within a family and within oneself.
Junior Bookshelf (review date October 1994)
SOURCE: Junior Bookshelf 58, no. 5 (October 1994): 180.
In Paula Fox's Western Wind, Elizabeth goes under protest to spend a month with her grandmother on a lonely island in Penobscot Bay. She would have preferred the cycling holiday she had planned with her friend. Moreover she suspects that she is being sent out of the way while her parents gloat over her new baby brother. It is not a good start to a holiday. During the month however Elizabeth learns to respect and love her Gran, to see beauty in a landscape which is 'a pile of rocks and gull guano', and even to tolerate the Herkimers, the family with whom Gran shares the island. Physical action is limited by the surroundings, but there is much to think about on Pring where 'the most ordinary things you never thought about … had to be learned'. Gran is a good teacher, although 'unpredictable and ungrandmotherly', and she eases the eleven-year-old into this strange way of life with discretion but not without sharpness. 'Life', says Gran, 'is all getting used to what you're not used to.' Elizabeth, left to her own devices when Gran works (she is a painter), is drawn into involvement with Aaron, the Herkimer's hyperactive son, a little boy who is intelligent and impulsive and who 'says whatever he thinks', rather as Elizabeth does. It is Aaron who injects drama into the quiet round of island days by escaping from the suffocation of his parents' care, and the subsequent panic precipitates a crisis in which Gran becomes the central figure.
I read this exquisite book through a second time, and two readings are not enough to reveal all its richness of observation, its humanity, its understanding or to savour the supreme rightness of its language. These qualities bring the book closer to Elizabeth Coatsworth and Patricia MacLachlan than to the rest of Paula Fox's work. Not only in the setting is this a New England novel. Young British readers will, I hope, find their way to the quiet heart of the story and to the wisdom in which the meaning of life and death are discussed and disclosed. They will also, I am sure, enjoy the humour which enables Elizabeth to relish the awfulness of the Herkimers, especially the mother, a woman who wears her pearls with a swimsuit and pours out 'a dose of self-congratulation every twenty minutes', while she comes to understand the circumstances which have made them as they are. Into these 120 pages Paula Fox packs a lifetime of thought and understanding, and expresses it in words which, without any affectation of artifice, have the unchangeable directness of poetry.
In what has been so far a good year this is, for me, the best book of 1994 and I do not expect to see it bettered.
AMZAT AND HIS BROTHERS: THREE ITALIAN TALES REMEMBERED BY FLORIANO VECCHI (1993)
Connie C. Rockman (review date July 1993)
SOURCE: Rockman, Connie C. School Library Journal 39, no. 7 (July 1993): 90-1.
Fox retells three Italian folktales [in Amzat and His Brothers ] that were told to her by a friend who heard them from his grandfather when he was a child growing up in a pre-World War II Italian village. The tales are variations of familiar stories: "Mezgalten," for example, contains elements of "The Brementown Musicians" and "The Wolf and the Kids." Acts of violence may disturb some adults, as in the title story when Amzat and his wife trick his brothers into murdering their wives and then cause the drowning of the brothers. The third story shows the prejudice of villagers toward a woman and her son because of their habit of never bathing and the dull wits of the son. While the woman and son end their days living in a palace (and eventually learning the art of bathing), and the worst of their tormentors end up poorly, the depiction of the heckling is harsh. The people in these stories seem to be more rooted in real life than the usual archetypal folktale characters. A good welcome, but this isn't the one. McCully's pen-and-ink sketches add little.
Horn Book Magazine (review date July-August 1993)
SOURCE: Horn Book Magazine 69, no. 4 (July-August 1993): 468-69.
Explaining in her preface how these stories have come down to her "as a kind of unwritten library that is passed from generation to generation," Paula Fox has added her own distinctive voice before sending them on their evolutionary way. In the first tale of Amzat and His Brothers, clever Amzat and his wife foil his greedy brothers' schemes to cheat him out of his property. The second story is a variation of "The Bremen Town Musicians," in which a rooster, ewe, donkey, cat, and dog band together to kill a wolf who has tormented them. And in the final story, this one in the noodlehead tradition, the author introduces Olimpia and her simpleton son Cucol, for whom a thought was a "beautiful cloud of meaning that he liked to study for a long time." Hounded out of their home by their neighbors, they go off into the woods, where through a series of slapstick misadventures they end up with an enormous bag of gold. Mother and son live out the rest of their days in wealth and luxury, while those villagers who had been the cause of their exile are reduced to living in the hovel that the two had abandoned. Paula Fox has retained the darker elements that are as much a part of folktales in their original forms as the humor. Justice is imposed with harsh and obliterating finality. Amzat's revenge on his brothers results not only in their deaths but in the death of an innocent shepherd as well. Emily McCully's drawings, with their heavy deep brown lines and animated characters, pick up both aspects of these intriguing tales.
THE EAGLE KITE (1995)
Roger Sutton (review date March 1995)
SOURCE: Sutton, Roger. Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books 48, no. 7 (March 1995): 234-35.
When Liam's mother Katherine tells him that his father Philip contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion [in Eagle Kite ], Liam knows she's lying. He knows from his school sex ed classes that such a risk has become near-impossible, but he also suddenly remembers, "clearer every moment like a photograph negative in a developing tank," the time three years ago when he saw his father secretly embrace a young man on the beach near the family's summer cottage. Now Philip has moved back to that cottage, leaving Liam and Katherine in New York with many secrets between them. This is a tough portrait of a family in crisis, each member struggling between love and the betrayals of that love, lying to themselves and each other about what is really going on. But while Fox must be commended for avoiding didacticism or sentimentality, she seems reluctant to tackle either her subject or story head on, substituting metaphor for emotional engagement. Too much is outlined or off-stage, with past events and memories rendered in a pluperfect tense that has a distancing effect ("During the year he'd been away, Liam had had no desire to see him at all"). The best scenes are those where Liam visits Philip at the cottage and confronts him ("You killed our family") only to be answered in equable manner ("Nobody is killed except me"). Even here, though, the conversations often turn fuzzy and ponderous about time and light-years, and readers are likely to get lost in the ambiguities. When Liam asks, in a conversation that had, we think, been about Philip's now-dead lover Geoff, "Can you say how it was? What it was?," we're not sure what he's asking; when Philip answers, "It breaks over you like a huge wave. You go under. Some people swim out of the wave. I couldn't," we don't know what to think. What is "it"? Love? Betrayal? Homosexuality? The book gets better and clearer in its last third. Philip's death scene is written with compassion and a restraint that never turns into remove; here Fox reveals her gift for showing, in brief and simple language, the ways people discover each other and themselves.
Nancy Vasilakis (review date fall 1995)
SOURCE: Vasilakis, Nancy. Horn Book Guide 6, no. 2 (fall 1995): 309-10.
In The Eagle Kite: A Novel, Liam's discovery that his father is dying of AIDS brings to the surface a long-repressed memory of a past summer when he saw him on the beach in another man's embrace. The evolution of the teenager's emotions from voiceless anger and an abiding sense of loss to acceptance and love—a journey paralleled by his mother—is described with painstaking honesty and beauty. The novel is one that will be hard for teens to come to terms with but well worth the effort.
Language Arts (review date April 1996)
SOURCE: Language Arts 73, no. 4 (April 1996): 266-67.
Liam's father is dying of AIDS, and no one will speak the truth. Liam and his mother talk of cancer with their friends; Aunt Mary doesn't even tell Liam's grandfather that his son is sick. Liam's mother tells him that his father contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, but Liam knows better. He remembers the young man he saw on the beach with his father, but he won't tell his mother. Finally, when Liam goes to visit his father in the cabin he has rented, he meets Sig, the old woman who is caring for his dying father, and for the first time someone speaks openly and honestly about his father's disease. Only then does Liam begin to realize the necessity of talking to all those around him. Paula Fox has written a gripping book full of loneliness and pain that ultimately speaks directly about the importance of opening our hearts to those we love.
Gail Radley (review date fall 1999)
SOURCE: Radley, Gail. ALAN Review 27, no. 1 (fall 1999): 14-16.
As a society, we have become distanced from the realities of certain stages of life. Once, children grew up close to older relatives. Farm life allowed children to witness death as a natural part of life. Now children and teens are often raised in cities and suburbs, far from extended family. Literature is one means of enabling them to examine and cope with their world. But how effective is young adult literature in portraying death? Among the few available studies of the portrayal of death, some criticize adolescent literature as unrealistic. Moore and Mae (1987), for example, state that death—that "unmentionable" subject of contemporary culture is portrayed for dramatic effect and often without accompanying reactions that children may experience (61).…
Perhaps because of the increased realism in YAL generally, it is possible to find a variety of accurate, helpful models for coping with death in YA books. Three examples of YA novels in which death is addressed are Angel Johnson's Toning the Sweep (1993), Paula Fox's The Eagle Kite (1995), and Cynthia Rylant's Missing May (1992).…
Liam, of The Eagle Kite, by Paula Fox (1995),.…is set adrift to seek out information on his own. His mother can barely choke out the words that his father is desperately ill due to tainted blood received in an operation. Later, she calls it cancer. Daddy must explain to Liam that he has AIDS.
Liam reacts first with the shocked numbness, a sort of denial, that commonly strikes, and insulates, those just delivered devastating news. Typically, he suppressed the emotions that came: "Liam wanted to cry out loud. But there were no words for what he felt" (Fox 13). His adjustment is complicated by his realization that his parents have distorted the facts and left much unsaid. This separates him from them when he needs them most, virtually eliminating them as sources of comfort and understanding. Liam knows that blood transfusions have been made safe. He recalls an odd memory of his father holding a young man on the beach. And he overhears his parents' arguments and endures their silences, realizing "[t]hey're enemies" (17). Because of the stigma of AIDS, Liam finds himself lying to his friends, thus cutting himself off from further potential support and adding to the guilt his anger has already aroused.
Liam's natural disinclination to admit that he needs support is compounded by his anger and disillusionment. Yet, in another way, the anger helps carry Liam through. Glass notes the following: Expressions of anger can give adolescents a feeling of power which counteracts their emotions of fright and helplessness (157).
Daddy moves to a rented cabin. For two months there is no contact and then Liam and his mother begin monthly visits. Finally, Liam decides to visit on his own, taking little more than his anger. Anger helps him get past the vision of Daddy's "thinness, the flesh barely covering his bones, that made Liam's heart grip his chest" (Fox 37). It also allows him to shirt his thought from the closeness he's enjoyed with his father and thus the pain of loss. When the anger finally boils into a stormy outburst, the way is cleared for Liam to receive a bit of the help he has warded off. Daddy advises Liam to let his mother know that he has discovered the truth surrounding his father's illness. For now, Liam rejects the idea, but he has passed a milestone:
The realization of his father's physical suffering entered his consciousness. Until that moment, everything about him … had been simply more proof of his father's responsibility for the misery he had caused Liam and his mother.
Now Liam is able to feel compassion for his father. Instead of delivering barbed jibes, Liam begins to really talk with his father—and listen. "Liam supposed he had thought being grownup meant doing whatever you wanted to do" (77). Now he begins to understand something of adult vulnerability and fallibility. The increased maturity Liam displays is one of the coping strategies noted by Harvey and Dowd (146). It signals his move into what they describe as the "middle stage" of grief, a time marked by depression and readjustment (148). With their closeness re-emerging during this time, Liam samples some of the interconnectedness that buoyed Emily during her distress. His father's Christmas present to him—a short wave radio to link him with the rest of the world—underscores the need for interconnection.
By the time death comes, Liam is fully there for his father and has already accomplished much of his grief work. Though there will surely be days of sorrow—and perhaps anger—ahead, Liam's first reaction to the death is relief:
The year was gone, lifted from his back like a boulder he had been carrying. He wanted to leave Springton at once … School was little more than a week away. He had things to do.
This response marks his strong desire to let go of mourning and thoughts of death and to operate in the world of the living. Liam has grown and changed through his ordeal; because of his growth, he is able to offer effective support to others. When his feeble grandfather calls for information about his son, Liam gives him the truth. He also tells his mother he knows how his father contracted AIDS, opening the way for greater closeness with her.
RADIANCE DESCENDING (1997)
Hazel Rochman (review 1 September 1997)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Booklist 94, no. 1 (1 September 1997): 124.
Radiance Descending : From Betsy Byars' Summer of the Swans to Jan Slepian's Risk N' Roses, there's a strong tradition in children's books of the young person for whom a mentally disabled sibling is a painful embarrassment. Paul's younger brother, Jacob, has Down syndrome. From the moment his mother brings the baby home from the hospital, Paul tries to pretend that Jacob is not there. He practices not thinking about the big "booby." He becomes an overachiever at school. Never does he mention his "retard" brother to his friends. He is furious when his parents insist he walk Jacob to the doctor once a week; then, to his astonishment, he discovers that Jacob is part of a whole welcoming neighborhood. There is too much metaphor patched on to the story (a stained-glass window makes Jacob glow in radiant light; Paul's wise grandfather takes him to see the classic Italian circus film La Strada and talks to Paul about pity in love). What children will understand is Paul's fury of displacement, rejection, denial, and shame. It is Fox's triumph that we feel not only the physicalness of Jacob's clumsy, noisy mess but also his innocence and fragility and yearning.
Cyrisse Jaffee (review date September 1997)
SOURCE: Jaffee, Cyrisse. School Library Journal 43, (September 1997): 216.
Radiance Descending a story about living with a sibling who has Down's syndrome has an odd, unfinished feel to it. Fox's impressionistic writing shines in places, but her attempt to convey the inner feelings of 11-year-old Paul, who resents his younger brother's disability, results in a moody, uneven story that is never fully resolved. Paul hates the fact that Jacob gets so much attention. Unable to get past his feelings of jealousy and rage, he expresses himself by small acts of unkindness and by refusing to enjoy Jacob's obvious love of life. Even Paul's close relationship with his grandfather fails to bring him the solace and comfort he craves. His parents seem fairly oblivious to their son's feelings and continue to expect him to behave like a loving brother. Giving Paul the responsibility of taking his brother to the doctor is presented as an opportunity for the older boy to change his attitude, but his very slight change of heart (a begrudging acceptance of his obligation) is unconvincing and unsatisfying. Although no doubt realistic in portraying Paul's feelings, the book is too one-sided and too slow-moving to make it either good therapy or a good read.
Joanna Rudge Long (review date September-October 1997)
SOURCE: Long, Joanna Rudge. Horn Book Magazine 73, (September-October 1997): 569-70.
In Radiance Descending like a tongue obsessed with an aching tooth, Paul is consumed by his aversion to his younger brother Jacob, who has Down syndrome. The depth of Paul's antipathy is startling, since his parents seem exemplary—patient, caring, unfailingly cheerful—while a sympathetic grandfather gives Paul extra attention. Still, he's absorbed in his own negativism for seven uneasy years. As Paul grows older, he forms new strategies for coping with his anger. Substituting denial for jealousy, he trains himself never to think about Jacob. At first, the causes of Paul's disaffection are hidden as much from the reader as from the boy himself. Yet, from the very beginning, the author spins these causes into every turn of a story that spirals ever closer to the truth. It's not just that the attention Jacob necessarily receives makes Paul feel "invisible," or that Paul is neither asked nor willing to share in Jacob's care. This sensitive, conscientious child senses the falseness behind his parents' well-intentioned facade (they, too, really have mixed feelings about Jacob), and, grasping for a truer explanation of what is going on in his family, he weaves his own web of half-truths. The author's focus never wavers. Radiance Descending is an accumulation of revealing moments in the evolution of a believable, intricately woven estrangement, each incident recounted in spare, telling prose. Despite its effulgent title, which refers to the concluding epiphany when Paul is finally able to perceive Jacob's humanity, the story is quiet, inward-looking. Even the ending is understated: Paul merely accepts a small gesture of affection—he lets his brother tweak his nose—and Jacob's touch is "as light as two falling snowflakes." The book captures, with unusual empathy, the conflicting emotions that can trouble even an essentially good family—one striving scrupulously to do its best.
Edward Sullivan (review date February 1998)
SOURCE: Sullivan, Edward. Voice of Youth Advocates 20, no. 6 (February 1998): 385.
Eleven-year-old Paul is totally consumed with the hateful jealousy he feels toward his younger brother Jacob, who has Down Syndrome. He resents the attention Jacob gets from their parents. This resentment is somewhat startling because Paul's parents really do not lavish attention on Jacob at Paul's expense, but they are oblivious to Paul's feelings and expect him to be a loving brother. Paul's sympathetic grandfather partially recognizes Paul's resentment and goes out of his way to pay extra attention to him, but Paul finds no solace in that. Absorbed by his anger and resentment, he further disaffects himself from Jacob as he grows older. When Paul is given the responsibility to take Jacob to the doctor, Paul slowly begins to recognize the humanity in his brother, which leads to an epiphany in the last chapter, in which Paul finally feels a connection.
My only quarrel with this novel, aside from the title, is its brevity. Paul's epiphany ends the story on a promising but uncertain note. After all of Paul's emotional turmoil, one hopes for more of a sense of closure. This lack of resolution, however, is consistent with the raw realism Fox gives the rest of the story. Like the lives of those who read this story, Paul's is open-ended and uncertain.
This is a quiet, introspective novel told with great eloquence. Fox's every word is chosen with care, and every sentence masterfully crafted. Paul's emotional conflicts are believable and real. Readers, particularly those with siblings, will empathize with Paul's feelings. This is not a novel that will have a wide readership, but there are readers out there who will find this story as moving and touching as I did.
BORROWED FINERY (2001)
Publishers Weekly (review date 9 July 2001)
SOURCE: Publishers Weekly 248, no. 28 (9 July 2001): 54.
Newbery Award-winning novelist Fox (A Servant's Tale ) lived a rather accidental, devastating childhood. Her Jazz Age parents dropped her at an orphanage shortly after her birth in 1923, from which she was rescued by a kindly clergyman and passed along, as in a "fire brigade," to various "rescuers"—odd relatives or her parents' drinking buddies, mostly. Her scriptwriter daddy, a happy drunk, cared but was careless. Mom, on the other hand, with her "cold radiant smile," was openly rejecting. Her occasional reluctant meetings with Fox felt "as if we were being continually introduced to each other." No small wonder, then, that at age 21, Fox surrendered her own daughter for adoption. This could have been another Mommy Dearest, except that Fox is elegantly understated, relying on well-chosen detail and striking images to tell her tale. A nasty auntie crochets in "colors that suggested mud or blood or urine" and keeps her work in a sack with handles like "copperhead snakes." Her mother's one contribution to her education is teaching her solitaire. A childhood beau walks "lurching to the side like the knight's move in chess." Visiting her dying mother, Fox can't bear to use a toilet her mother might have used, and flees outdoors to use a tree. It would all be unbearably melancholic (a la Jean Rhys), except that Fox survives. The hard-won truths of her youth form the basis for the sensitive focus on family dynamics that characterizes her children's fiction—notably Blowfish Live in the Sea. Fox deserves a comeback, even if this slim memoir is too tragic for popular taste.
Fox, Paula. Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, edited by Doris De Montreville and Elizabeth Crawford, pp. 135-36. New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1978.
Fox give a brief biographical sketch.
Fox, Paula. "Some Thoughts on Imagination In Children's Literature." In Celebrating Children's Books: Essays on Children's Literature in Honor of Zena Sutherland edited by Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye, pp. 24-34. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1981.
Fox stresses the importance of imagination.
Fox, Paul, and Cathie Mercier. "One Human Heart: a Conversation Between Paula Fox, and Cathie Mercier." In Innocence and Experience: Essays & Conversations on Children's Literature edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire, pp. 250-58. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, 1987.
Fox discusses her approach to writing.
Additional coverage of Fox's life and career is contained in the following sources: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 3, 37; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 3, 8; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 1, 44; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 20, 36, 62, 105; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 8, 121; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 52; Junior Discovering Authors ; Literature Resource Center ; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Novels for Students, Vol. 12; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers ; Something about the Author, Vols. 17, 60, 120; and Writers for Young Adults.