William Mayne’s Winter Quarters

Posted: July 31, 2008 in alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, variation, William Mayne

Mayne, William.  Winter Quarters.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.

The novel alternates between two children, a boy and a girl, as presented through an adult narrator telling about them in the third person (and often offering comments on and interpretations of them despite the focalization through them).  Both are children of travelling folk (carnival people–possibly gypsies, although that remains cloudy and they themselves don’t like the word).  The girl lives on the road, but the boy’s mother has left to live a more normal life married to a non-carny man.  The story begins as the carnies are denied their traditional winter quarters by a man who owns the land.  As a result, they need to find a former leader who got kicked out, fifty years ago (times don’t necessarily make sense, and in fact, the whole thing is quite bizarre: weird lifestyle, strange assumptions about what should be done, etc.).  The two focalizing protagonists have to change places (something to do with him being the child of his mother who has a bizarre “mother” relationship to the very old person they need to find, so that they trade lifestyles–he, the housed person, going off on the road on an adventure, she the road person, getting to live in his house and explore the details of just one place).
Both thus find themselves in the position of questioning the meaning of “home,” from opposite directions.  And because the directions are opposite, variation becomes a significant idea–differing versions of the same theme that combine to form a larger overall theme: how should we live, where should we live, who are we, etc..  Each finds something that helps to solve the mystery and the problem their people face–she a tomb buried under a sheep meadow that proves an ancient connection to a plot of land, he the old person they must find and recover back into the group.
(It’s interesting here that so much is about children learning about, and getting past the problems of the past, the things their parents and others made a mess of–as in, centrally,  the Harry Potter books; is this just a central assumed subject of children’s fiction, or more specific to British books?  The weight of a past one is in innocence, without history, separate from but must learn about and be joined to in order to move beyond? A sort of taking on of adult knowledge in order to change it?)
Much here, in any case, seems to be about children learning about and then righting the wrongs of their ancestors–and yet, the children are absolutely directed in their discoveries by adults, and hardly ever not in their control.  It’s as if they are being used by the adults even while the novel is pretending to present it as a matter of children solving the problems of adults.
About variation, in any case: because the central characters are a boy and a girl, the variations seem to suggest a thematic consideration of gender issues.  That happens especially because each gets what boys and girls traditionally want in children’s fiction–for her a settled home, for him an adventurous journey (tradtionally women stay, men go?).   And at the end, it’s not clear whether or not each opts for what they had in the first place, or adopts the more traditional gender lifestyle they’ve now experienced–which either challenges gender assumptions, since the girl may or may not choose the road and the boy a fixed home, or else very conservatively confirms their need to be as they always were; it’s a delicate balance.
As always with Mayne, this is clever, subtle, somewhat strange–despite its brilliance at capturing a sense of how children might actually think–something that makes his writing unlike most writing for children and perhaps less likely to be understandable by inexperienced readers, who may think that way but not know how to make sense of a description of it.
In an article on Mayne, John Stephens argues that Mayne is a “difficult” writer because he uses distancing techniques that invite analysis rather than empathy (101)–but does so by including metafictional passages that work to teach readers how to do this sort of reading–characters have to “read” a mystery in a way that models how readers might read the books.  Mayne does this, says Stephens, by focalizing much of the story through specific characters, and then commenting on them or allowing them to comment on each other to show how privileged and in need of interpretations their viewpoints are (103).  Stephens identifies Issy’s visit to the Hall of mirrors as a key metafictional passage.: the text is like a mirror maze, and seeing how Issy responds to the maze shows readewrs how to respond to Issy and the events of the novel.  (See Stephens, John. “Metafiction and Interpretation: William Mayne’s Salt River Times, Winter Quarters, and Drift.”  Children’s Literature 21 (1993): 101-117. )
In any case, in terms of alternating narratives, the main purposes here seem to the awareness of differing perceptions key to this kind of storytelling, and the use of thematic variations.

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