Roddy Doyle’s Wilderness

Posted: August 27, 2008 in alternating narratives, binary opposites, children's and young adult literature, gender, variation

Doyle, Roddy.  Wilderness.  New York: Arthur Levine-Scholastic, 2007.

The father of an Irish family has been married twice; the first wife left years ago and went to America, leaving a young daughter behind who is now a teenager, and has not seen her mother since she left.   The second wife is the mother of two rambunctious young boys.  The teenage girl has become rebellious and difficult, her mother is planning to visit for the first time, and there is so much tension in the house that the mother of the boys decides to take them on a dog-sledding trip in Finland to get them and her out of the way and make the situation less complicated.

Throughout, named but unnumbered sections mainly from the girl’s point of view alternate with numbered but unnamed sections describing what happens to the boys–usually from one or the other of their points of view but sometimes from others they interact with also.  So it’s really a case of alternating story focalizations rather than specifically alternating character focalizations–the events with the girls at the centre and then the events with the boys at the centre.  And once the trip begins, the boys and their sister are in two different places and interact with quite different sets of characters, so that, except for the family connection, which really on the surface doesn’t seem to be all that important, it’s almost like two quite different stories.  The family reunited happily a  the end, but not on account of any interaction once the two parts of it have separated.

But then there is still the family connection, and for readers (like me) with the habit of trying to figure out how everything in a novel all fits together, the obvious question arises about what these two apparently distinct stories have to do with each other.  I might have expected that somehow, the mother in Finland might need to return, or offer her stepdaughter help by phone, or that the father and the girl would realize their true allegiances and head off to Finland also, thus uniting the family and the two stories; but in fact that doesn’t happen.  The family reunites at the end, but only, it seems, because each of its separate halves have arrived at separate ways of solving their separate problems and can thus live together again.  So instead, the answer seems to lie in thinking about the two stories as variations–different ways of exploring the same or similar themes and situations.

Both plots involved children dealing with mother problems–but almost opposite problems.  The girl has has no connection with her mother, the boys live happily with theirs.  The girl stays home and has the adventure of her mothers return; the boys go away and have an adventure.  Their adventure involves their mother getting lost on a dogsled in the dark cold wilderness night, and their apparently frivolous and childish but, it turns out, very wise, decision to head out on another dogsled to find her and rescue her–which they manage to do.

So first of all, these two separate plots represent in one book the two most clichéd stories we like to tell for children: the girl’s story of staying at home and having adventures there, often involving new people in their lives, and the traditional boy’s story of going away to somewhere wild and triumphing over the wilderness and its denizens–Anne of Green Gables vs. Treasure Island. (I’m intrigued that that seems to duplicate the intentions N.M. Browne says she had for her Shadow Web in a comment to an earlier entry on this blog:  “I like alternating narratives for fairly practical reasons – I like to write books that appeal to both boys and girls so generally have a viewpoint character of each gender”  (see comment on “Shadow Web,”  July 11, 2008).  But Browne doesn’t give her boy and girl characters different sorts of stories that relate to gender stereotypes, as happens here.

Then, structurally and thematically, there stories operate variationally by offering intriguingly related reversals: the solitary and alienated girl as opposed to the always together (albeit competitive) and mostly happy boys; the mother who returns as opposed to the one who goes away and gets lost; the mother who wants to be allowed back in vs. the mom who wants to be back in but can’t manage it herself.  And in both cases, the children perform the rescue–find the mother or find the strength to accept the mother.  (That also suggests another variation:  one lost and isolated female gets rescued by children who comers for her, another gets rescued by (? or rescues?) a mother who comes for her. )

In addition, there are symbolic variational effects–the boys in the wilderness (and using “Wilderness” as a triumphal call) as opposed to the girl gone wild, become a kind of wild “terrorist” herself.  The social or communal or familial and the wild are a significant binary here. Also, the girl feels her aloneness as a matter of being cold (102)–her own private emotional form of the wilderness the boy’s’ mother enters.

The adventure story here, the boys’ story, focuses on action, and so seems simpler; the girl’s story told mostly in briefer sections, focus on feelings.  That also seems to confirm certain kinds of gender stereotypes and the conventions of writing for boys and for girls.  But it also might suggest that the boys more readily understandable story acts as a guide or a template for the more complex issues of the girl’s story–that telling a similar story twice might be a way of allowing inexperienced readers access to the more complex story?  That would make Wilderness an educational text–teaching young readers how to read and understand more.  But of course,  that would work better if the boys’ story were told first and the girl’s story after, as happens to the two stories told consecutively in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (see my article “Text as Teacher: The Beginning of Charlotte’s Web.”  Children’s Literature 13 (1985): 109-27).  So it’s probably safer just to say that the two stories interact with and throw light on each other.

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