Archive for September, 2008

Bruchac, Joseph. Children of the Longhouse.  1996.  New York and London: Puffin, 1998.

It’s the late fifteenth century, pre-contact with Europeans, for a twin brother and sister who are members of the Mohawk branch of the Iroquois nation, and the novel alternately tells of what happens from his viewpoint and hers–in the long run, mostly, his, for the story is really mostly about him.  The novel is doggedly pedagogical.  Every step the characters take, every item of clothing they wear or object they use, is explained in detail in terms of its meaning and purpose in traditional aboriginal culture.  The bulk of the book is information of this sort, and the plot, as a result  is very slight.  Our hero, Ohkwa’ri, overhears some older boys planning a raid on a neighbouring nation–which would be against the will of the community, because these two nations have a peace treaty.  But the older boy is a thoughtless hothead out for personal glory, and he and his equally hopeless friends might cause a war.  So Ohkwa’ri does what is good for the community as a whole, and tells the leaders of the plan.  The older boys, now having been caused trouble, are out to get Ohkwa’ri.  Luckily, his sister Otsi:stia is a careful observer and focused on keeping her brother from harm, so she manages to keep the older boys from him when they plan to attack.  Later, the communal elders plan a ball game to brighten the spirits of an old man.  The old man asks that Ohkwa’ri be his delegate as a player for the Old Men (those married) against the Young Men (the team his enemies are on).   Ohkwa’ri scores a goal for the Old Men, then is nearly trapped by his enemies–until he is placed in the situation of saving their leader Grabber’s life, thus ending the rivalry and bringing the community back to order.

What’s most interesting here in terms of alternating narratives is that Grabber, Ohkwa’ri’s enemy, is not given one of the narratives–and perhaps even more so, that he is not the protagonist of the novel.  As a rebellious youth fretting under the strictures of a community that would repress him, he sounds more like a typical hero of fiction for young people than Ohkwa’ri does.  But he, the enemy of communal values, is the hero’s enemy here, and firmly in the background and unfocalized as what must be fought against rather than sympathized with (as, also, is the European enemy unfocalized and in the background of Smelcer’s The Trap).  The novel operates aggressively on the side of community–it’s not surprising that in the ball game Ohkwa’ri plays for the Old Men, because he’s clearly on their side, a youth wise enough not to entertain the typical passions of youth.   So here as in The Trap (and is this true of other novels about what happens inside aboriginal communities, as opposed to those about Aborginal/European conflicts?) the assumptions are all pro-communal, and against individual action that upsets communities and their traditional ways and values.

(Indeed, Children of the Longhouse is set up much like The Trap:  both novels offer two characters on the same side of a dispute and their differing points of view on that dispute because of their place in the culture–in one case, a generational split between old and young, and in the other, a gender split between male and female, important in terms of the traditional gender roles and duties of the culture.)  But here as in The Trap, the differences between the two alternating characters don’t seem all that significant–they share the same key values despite their apparent differences.)

That may be why Osti:stia tends to disappear from the novel for quite long stretches.  Bruchac doesn’t really seem to be all that interested in her, and when he is, it’s because she’s interested in her brother at that point, so that her narratives are actually mostly about him, too.  It’s a curiously non-alternating-narrative effect, for the novel is always about the one character even while announcing itself as being about two.

Osti:stia is not simply a representative of the duties of Iroquois women in traditional culture; she also seems to have exactly the character to pursue those duties without question–just as Ohkwa’ri has exactly the character to represent the best form of Iroquois manhood without question.   It’s this lack of questioning of what is good and true and right as their elders understand it that makes these characters appear rather like gender sterotypes–the good quiet female, the brave heroic male–and to me at least, less interesting as fictional protagonists than they might be.  I can see why Bruchac would have wanted to create role models for contempoary aboriginal children who succeed through their unquestioning cleavage to the old ways.  But wouldn’t a story line more like that of Ohkwa’ri’s enemy Grabber work better for young people in our time likely to know little and live little by the assumptions of the ancient past, and needing to see through the contemporary culture inevitably surrounding them to a new understanding and revival of old ways?  Wouldn’t that be less prone to seeming to support traditional gender biases?  And wouldn’t it at least be a little less, well, boring?


I’ve given my permission for a post I wrote recently on the Child_lit listserv to appear on Susan Thomsen’s Chicken Spaghetti blog. The post is about picture book texts and their relationship to poetry.

Smelcer, John.  The Trap.  New York: Henry Holt, 2006.

In alternating narratives, a grandfather and grandson in the cold winter of the Alaskan wilderness confront different kinds of traps.  The old man is your archetypal old Indian of book after book and movie after movie–a fairly placid and calm old man close to nature and full of the wisdom of age and of his people, who indeed represents that wisdom and that people generally in just being who he is.   (After reading about this kind of man so often, I find myself wondering about how old aboriginal men with excitable personalities or no sympathy with trees and wolves manage to live with themselves–or are there really none of them at all anywhere in North America?  Not one old aboriginal manic depressive or fussbudget?  Not one opera lover who hates hunting? not one who really isn’t all that swift?)

The old man is, of course, facing his death here, and does eventually die–as apparently he must, for as an allegorical representation of the old ways of his people, he must also or even primarily represent and personify their diminishing and extinction: see, for instance, Ketchum’s Where the Hawk Flies or Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth for other examples of the same conventional pattern.  His grandson is a little less archetypal and stereotypical.  He finds himself at odds with is community rather than merely representing it, in two different ways.  First, he looks backward and tries to preserve the old ways represented by his grandfather, and thus feels a connection to the grandfather that causes him to worry when his grandfather doesn’t return from his trap line.  Second, however, he looks outward, and is taking correspondence courses to prepare himself to leave this wild place and head off to college, civilization and, therefore, the white world and its values.  While the others in the village have adapted white machines and white ways, they represent a diluted and dangerous version of contemporary culture–they spend their time drinking too much and accomplishing too little.  And they have parted with the old wisdom represented by the grandfather as a result of that.  In both these ways, they represent a trap for our protagonist, Johnny Least-Weasel.  While that idea is fairly obvious throughout, Smelcer has Johnny make  it crystal clear towards the end:  “He thought about life in the village, how the place was like a trap, its sharp teeth forged from the fire of two worlds colliding” (169).

That symbolic trap, which Johnny is in the process of doing his best to escape, echoes the actual trap his grandfather catches himself in out on the trail.  The alternating narratives then act as variations of each other, one literal  and one symbolic story of being trapped, with resonances created in terms of the symbolic similarities of the two.   The grandfather’s actual trapping can be read as an allegory of the cultural trap that is working to capture his grandson, and indeed, his people.  As the book implies is true of his people, he has in old age lost some of his energy and quickness and awareness of danger, and so is more susceptible to the danger that has always been there (and so, his grandson–and young natives generally–must be on guard against the same loss of energy and awareness inflicting the village as a whole and his people as a whole).  The old man must use all his traditional wisdom and cunning and experience of nature and the trail to keep himself alive while trapped  (and so, too, must his grandson draw on the strengths of the past to confront to new problems of the present and not succumb to merely being trapped by them).

If all this was merely parallel, then the old man’s death at the end might suggest that his grandson’s ability to escape the dark forces encircling him is simply doomed.  But the novel doesn’t actually suggest that, for in deciding to go out and find his grandfather against the advice of less connected and more co-opted relatives, he signals a cleavage to traditional values and deep feelings that implies his ability to avoid the trap.  Just as his grandfather has revealed his true strength and courage in dealing with the real trap even while it kills him, Johnny reveals his in his own expedition into the wild in an attempt to retrieve and keep his grandfather and what he represents and what the others no longer value.  He will, presumably (for this is published as a novel for young people and its generic positioning implies an optimistic ending even if it doesn’t actually provide one) use what he knows of his tradition to confront and survive the dangers of the world outside.

As presumably, the author has, for the jacket tells me that Smelcer is of Ahtma Athabaskan Indian descent and has served as Executive Director of the Ahtma Tribe Heritage foundation as well as finding success in the white world on the faculty of a university creative writing program; and the novel itself uses “heritage” as cultural capital in the white world.  The novel melds the past and the contemporary in another way also, telling its made-up story but also introducing each chapter with what appear to be versions of native folk tales, so that it’s really alternating narratives in alternating chapters interrupted by yet another alternating narrative in italics at the beginning of each chapter; furthermore, there appear to be two separate stories told in these italicized sections over the course of the book, one introducing the grandfather’s sections and the other the grandson’s.  And they appear to be symbolic parable aobut those two characters.

This alternating narrative concerning aboriginals and, apparently, written by an aboriginal, is distinctly different from the novels on aboriginal topics by non-aborginals that I’m aware of.  In those there always seems to be one central aboriginal character and one central non-aborignal one, and the book is inevitably and always about disputes between them and an eventual resolution of the disputes in a friendship between them–a resolution and a friendship, that, in my experience, always involve some sort of surrender of aboriginal values or aboriginal land, sometimes in spite of a theoretical adoption of aboriginality for everybody.  Here, however, while the dispute is still between aboriginal values and white ones, both main characters represent more or less the same set of values as experienced by different generations, and both must confront the same enemy of white values.  It seems inherent in the structure of the alternating narrative novel that it be in some way about differences between two main characters and their eventual resolution; but here the difference are generational, about the past and the possibilities of its influence on the future, rather than being between two whole different and opposite ways of thinking and being.  It implies a quite different way of thinking about the white/indian issues, and with a quite different conclusion about how aboriginality can figure in the contemporary world in ways that work more positively for contemporary aboriginal people.  Aboriginality is neither dissipated nor absorbed into contemporary European-based culture here; it remains as a separate thread allowing a different and separate way of navigating the contemporary world.  And white values remain in the background in bnoth narratives as an ongoing enemy that will always need to be guarded against.

Ketchum, Liza.  Where the Great Hawk Flies.  New York: Clarion, 2005.

The two alternating narrators are two boys, one a blond-headed newcomer to a small Vermont community whose family suffered in an Indian raid during the revolutionary war a while back, the other a dark-haired son of an English man and a Pequot woman (with Mohegan blood also). who also, it turns out, suffered the same raid  As a result of the raid, Hiram, the blond boy, hates “Injuns,” calls Daniel, the other boy, that on first meeting him, and the two are instant enemies.  Furthermore, Hiram’s mother hates the idea of living next door to an Indian family; and the situation worsens when Hiram’s uncle shows up, an escaped prisoner and survivor of the Indian raid, quite deranged, and filled with loathing for Injuns also.  Daniel has a relative appear also–his grandfather, an old man who dresses in the traditional aboriginal way and dares to build himself and his grandchildren a tipi.

These two newly arrived relatives–extreme versions of the values and actions of their families–suggest a kind of contrapuntal symmetry.   Hiram’s uncle is clearly dangerous, his extreme prejudice clearly foolish–and the novel seems to suggest that the community’s decision to run him out of town is the only possibly correct way of dealing with him.  He must be expunged lest he poison their ability to be communal.  Interestingly, then, on a parallel path it seems that the Indian grandfather has to be expunged also.  He represents an even greater sensitivity to the world of nature and spirits than his daughter does–she is the Indian doctress everyone in the community comes to in need, and she manages to help them all–but he clearly represents old ways, building a wigwam, etc. and the theoretically sad element in the ending of the book is the grandfather’s death after doing what he can to help his daughter save Hiram’s mother and the two weak twins she has given birth to.  He seems to die of exhaustion, a long life necessarily and inevitably coming to an end.  but in the light of the parallels already established, and in the light of his representation as the most authentic aboriginal in the book, it seems that his leaving is as much mandated as the crazy uncle’s–that somehow he, too, in his extreme Indiannness, must be expunged so that the community can grow.   That community, a sort of prototype for the new nation it will soon be part of, can allow and embrace aboriginal practices and values–but not in their purest and separate form any more than they can accept racial prejudice.  They must be modified and practiced by others of non-aboriginal descent in order not to be too dangerous.  In other words: despite a history of being there first, aborginality is now just a culture equivalent to any of the other cultures in the American mix, and equally needing dilution and intermixing.  Furthermore, her represents Indianness–and he dies, as presumably, then, original Indianness has died also (and note: he thus becomes another dead Indian, another placing of true aboringality in a now-gone past, as in The Place at the Edge of the Earth. This has strong and to my mind clearly negative political implications that the author may or may not have been aware of.

The novel, then, becomes a story of how a multicultural community operates, and how it has to find balances between pure and distinct races and ethnicities on the one hand and pure and counter-productive prejudice on the other.   The boys, of course, can (and indeed in the realm of children’s fiction must) become friends–and they can do it primarily in terms of of how Hiram loses his prejudices and learns about and adopts Indian customs and values and objects–he gets kind of Indianized.  At the same time, Daniel is resisting some of his own Indianness–not wanting to become a powwaw (in touch with the spirits) like his grandfather or a healer like his mother, but he also loves the grandfather he sees as being significantly different from himself, and he too eventually learns to embrace the wigwam and other aspects of half of his background–although significantly, he resists other aspects of them.  Both boys then become ‘balanced” on these matters–accepting of and making use of aboriginal culture, but without total and absolute commitment to it.  it has been, in a sense, defanged, made less dangerous, and so now can become part of the new American communal mix.  in this way, our contemporary liberal humanist eclecticism (“I’m spiritual but not religious”) triumphs over what surely might have been more likely in the eighteenth century?

Am I being too harsh and critical about this?  I’d say I was if I hadn’t been finding these themes so often in children’s and young adult books about meetings between Aboriginal youths and European ones.  Part of my research on novels with alternating narratives has focussed on Canadian novels of that sort: books like Monica Hughes’ Log Jam, Welwyn Katz’s False Face, Kevin Major’s Blood Red Ochre, Martha Brooks’ Bone Dance, Greg Jackson Davis’s Digging for Philip, Joan Clark’s The Dream Carvers.  (I discuss these in “At Home on Native Land: A Non-Aboriginal Canadian Scholar Discusses Aboriginality and Property in Canadian Double-Focalized Novels for Young Adults,” a chapter in Home Words: Discourses of Children’s Literature in Canada , edited by my colleague Mavis Reimer and now available from Wilfred Laurier UP.)  The plots of these novels almost always involve disputes about who owns something–a plot of land, a traditional aboriginal artifact, etc., and that clearly resonates in terms of contemporary and ongoing disputes about native land claims in Canada.  And the novels almost always resolve the dispute by giving the disputed thing or place over to the care of anyone of any race or background who adopts what are presented as being aboriginal values–which usually are some version of a new-agey ecological spirituality about respect for the planet and all creatures on it, and a dislike for fatcat capitalists, factories and frozen entrees.  Usually this means that what is identified as having originally been aboriginal now actually belongs to people of European background who have adapted to the place by becoming sort of “aboriginal.”  Where the Great Hawk Flies is clearly doing a version of that, as at the end, after the grandfather dies and takes much of his wisdom and expertise in traditional ways with him, the boys and Daniel’s white father try to figure out from what’s left in their and Daniel’s mother’s fading memories how to make a traditional dugout canoe and so on.  They adopt and continue the existence of traditional aboriginality by adapting it to become part of their new multicultural milieu, which allows more than one culture by diluting all of them and now allowing pure versions of any of them in the new mix.

Something else happens here that also happens in so many books by non-aboriginal people about aboriginals–an identification of native characters with nature, animals, the earth, etc. which purports to represent their special strength and wisdom but also insists on making them different from (and as animal-like, in most traditional thinkng of all cultures, less human than) characters of European descent.  Here there are many references to a hawk that appears when anything important happens.  It turns out that a hawk appears to have guided both boys to hiding places during the earlier Indian raid, long before they knew each other or had the connection that becomes so important to the theme of the novel later.  And at the end, there’s a connection made between the hawk which appears again and the spirit of the dead grandfather.  He has become this natural protective spirit, the approving  spirit of the new multicultural world that’s blooming here.  As the key representative of traditional aboriginal culture, then, he signals an aboriginal and natural approval of lands being taken over and old ways either dying or being adapted to the new and primarily Eurocentric culture that Danial and Hiram in their coming together as friends represent.

A fascinating novel.

In an article in called “I Didn’t Know There Were Cities in Africa! Challenging children’s — and adults’ — misperceptions about the African continent,” (Teaching Tolerance magazine, Number 34, Fall 2008, Brenda Randolph and Elizabeth DeMulder reveal a trap I’ve fallen into in my earlier discussion of Abela when they suggest an important way to challenge African stereotypes:  “Use the names of specific countries instead of just calling it ‘Africa.’ Just as it is unusual to use ‘Europe’ when referring to France or ‘North America’ when referring to Canada, avoid using ‘Africa’ to stand for individual African countries.”  The problem is that for most people in North America and Europe, “Africa” calls up exactly the stereotypical images of starving rural people, etc., that Doherty’s novel offers–which may be why I unconsciously ignored the name of the specific country Abela comes from and just identified her as from Africa.  So now I want acknowledge my error and note that Abela does in fact come from Tanzania.  Intriguingly, the back cover of my Andersen Press paperback reports, “Abela lives in an African village and has lost everything,” and never mentions Tanzania either.

Rice, Bebe Faas.  The Place at the Edge of the Earth.  New York: Clarion, 2002.

This is a very earnest book, and very determined to be wise and moral and cathartic; but in spite of (or maybe even because of) that, I find it very distressing.  It is trying so hard to be having the right kinds of tolerance for a repressed minority, and it fails so miserably.

The book consists of two alternating narratives: that of Jonah Flying Cloud, a new arrival at an Indian residential school in the eighteen eighties, and that of Jenny Muldoon, a young girl in our present who moves to the army post that once housed the school.  Jonah has died by the end of his first section, and appears as a ghostly presence after that: he has been unable to move on, and haunts Jenny’s bedroom as well as a few other places with key significance in his life.   She sense his presence and then, as she learns more about the school and about him as she researches a school project,  interacts with him–and finally she helps him to understand what his problem is, and creates a change in him that allows him to move on.

She can do that mostly because she sees her own situation as similar to his–and so she can teach him what hard experience has taught her herself.   Having lost a father and often moved, she has become prickly and isolated, unloved and unwanted.  She has needed to learn how to allow herself to be open to change, to others, etc.   She has thought that her lack of friends was because of their inadequacy or meannness or her general unloveableness, but learns that she just had to make herself more open–it was her fault, because she herself keeping herself isolated.  And so it turns out that  she can teach Jonah that he, too, is causing his own inability to move on.  She frees herself and then she frees him.

And yet again: she also meets a boy, not a ghost this time, whom she thinks of as particularly nasty, discovers that he, too has serious problems (an alcoholic mother that he needs to keep hidden), breaks through is veneer of toughness, and helps him to move onwards, to help himself and his family.  She is, indeed, a miracle worker–and both the boy in the past and the boy in the present acknowledge that volubly at various points, as do just about all the teachers, parents, librarians, and others adults she encounters throughout the book.

That’s actually the major problem here.  The ever-so-wise white girl manages singlehandedly to make up for what is clearly described as all the insensitivity and cruelty and ingrained racial prejudice Jonah and the other aboriginal children experienced in being removed from their homes and brought to the school back in the past.  She not only shows Jonah how to move on, she does so in ways that suggest that others, too, can move on, know this tragic history and in knowing it and acknowledging its awfulness, purge the pain it caused.  Somehow, the book implies, we readers need to know about all this so that we too can then stop worrying about, being constrained by it, and can move on past it.

Well, as far as I know, most of the white descendants of those who ran the residential schools aren’t all that worried about it–perhaps because of ignorance of what happened, but I suspect that a lot of contemporary Americans (and Canadians, too, although the subject is certainly more widely discussed in Canada), if they did know more about it, would be happy to hear that knowing is enough, and that they no longer need to feel guilty about it.  So the message of letting it all go seems to resonate more strongly in terms of contemporary North American aboriginal people, who are all too often accused by those of European backgrounds of revelling in their victimhood, refusing to move past what happened ever increasingly long ago.   Purposely, or not, the novel plays into a mainstream North American insistence on marginalizing aboriginals by denying the ongoing significance of the past history of oppression.

Or maybe I can’t really say that, because one of the distressing aspects of the book is the insistence on keeping aborginality firmly in the past.  There are no contemporary native people included as characters in the book, and no glimmer of a possibility that any native people even exist at all in the world Jenny. occupies.  The contemporary world is apparently all white, and the only aboriginals who appear prominently in the story of the past have all died by the time the novel finishes with its descriptions of that past.  Even more, so is their culture.  It’s significant that Jonah has wanted an eagle feather on his grave to help him move on, but Jenny provides him with something she says and he acknowledges is better–a military badge from her new stepfather’s collection that depicts an eagle, the replacement of a presumably dead culture’s symbol with one form the powerful living culture, the erasue of aboriginality by Americana.

Okay, so the novel is very deliberately and consciously tryng to teach its audience about the horrors of the residential school story–Jenny’s research figures prominently, and it unveils racist horror after racist horror, including an ugly lynch mob that kills Jonah’s friend.  But while doing that, it does at least three things that suggest an unconcious racism:

1. It makes its white heroine into the perfect theoretically benevolent colonist, the wise person who can show the right and healing way to an aboriginal who cant figure it out for himself, poor dumb thing.

2.  It suggests that moving past the past is the way to healing, and that choosing to do that will make it happen.  Contemporary aboriginal people still faced with the horrific consequences of the European invasion might question the logic and likelihood of that ever really working.  But,

3. It erases the continuing existence of aboriginal people, and so erases the complexity of the ongoing problem. The solution to past mistreatment of aboriginal peoples is removing the only ones readers hear about out of this world altogether.

Beyond that, Jonah is presented, at least at the beginning of the book, as a sort of stiff, weirdly formal presence–a sort of almost inhuman noble savage stereotype.  He loosens up and seems more human as the book goes on, apparently because of his relationship with the wonderful Jenny, who succeeds in making him more like herself–more open to healing emotions, the book wants to suggests, but it also comes across as, less alien, i.e., less aboriginal as the book seems to understand aborginality.  Jonah (and all the other Indian characters) seem to be completely devoid of any sense of humour or irony, which to me in thel ight ofr my admittedly limited knowledge of North American native cultures seems distinctly unconvincing.  They’re too busy being noble and put upon to have much in the way of humanity.   There are also a number of ways in which the novelist specfically misrepresents the Lakota culture that Jonah supposedly came from; a discussion by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale on the Oyate website suggests what these are, and concludes, “Rice has written this book from a point of near total ignorance of Native lifeways and cosmologies, and has even gone so far as to do so in the first person. This is unacceptable.”

There’s also one other thing that intrigues me here.  The novel, as I’ve suggested, insists that the two stories of its two alternating narratives are variations of each other–that Jonah;s plight is parallel to or at least to be compared with and understood in terms of jenny’s (both are forceed to move to this new home, both lose contact with at leasto ne parent, both even have to deal with hotheaded angry friends).  The result is that the historical situation of an entire group of people is somehow subsumed in the personal and psychological.  Jonah’s plight, it seems, is his alone, and personal, even though it also somehow seems to be meant to stand for what ought to be done about this tragic history for everyone–the community Jenny now lives in needs to now about the lynching in its past so that it can move past it, too.  So the social and the communal are somehow absorbed into the personal, and what works for one person is offered as a solution to a communal history.  Pop psychology trumps historical consequence, and political action is never even considered as a possibility.

The Place at the Edge of the Earth is a perfect example of how so many novels for young people with alternating narratives subvert the possibilities that  alternating points of view offer for opening up alternative ways of understanding the world.  The novel appear to be dialogical–to offer two different but equal characters, narratives, and world views in an other-accepting dialogue with each other; but it is in fact thoroughly monological, constructed so that by the end, Jenny’s view becomes the one right one and the one right and proper solution to everyone’s problems.

This novel–that it was written at all by a non-aboriginal person willing to assume that she could understood a culture unfamiliar to her and wlling to make up details about it, and that it was published by a mainstream publishing house in support, as usual in books for young people,  of a supposed liberal tolerance–is a fascinating example of how a more or less unconsciously white hegemony preserves its power by a more or less unconsciously racist marginalizing and shutting-down of minority voices.  It preaches an old-fashioned kind of tolerance that is surprisingly uncomfortable with the ongoing possibilities of real difference and real marginalization, and that, despite its relatively recent publication date, is ongoing and all too familiar.

Myracle, Lauren.  ttyl. 2004.  New York:  Amulet, 2006.

This novel purports to be the transcripts of IM conversations among three 10th grade girls, who are best friends.  I say “purports” because, when I picked it up, I thought I’d be undergoing an experience in linguistic strangeness.  I’ve never IMed, and I understood it used a whole special jargon of short forms–as the title implies (I had to look it up to find out it means “talk to you later”). But it turned out i was wrong–apart from a few cute IM terms here and there, most of the conversation is written out in complete grammatical sentences–and accurately spelled, too, except for one conversation in which one of the girls has had a drink.  It’s hard to believe these three young girl could be such perfect typists–but I guess you have to sacrifice verisimilitude for comprehensibility.

The novel doesn’t really qualify as an example of alternating narratives, because the conversations it reports all involve the girls interacting, usually in pairs and sometimes in a chatroom all together.  In some ways it works more like a play than a novel, except that unlike a theatre audience, readers know only what the girls write and have little evidence in the way of facial expressions, etc., to help make their actual feelings or meanings clear.  In this way, the IMs recorded here are accurately like the real ones on the internet.  They purport to represent real people and feelings, but readers are mostly left with the need to trust; the writings may not represent real feelings, or even the actual writers that they purport to emerge from.

ttyl plays around with that ability to misrepresent and the resulting feelings of readerly insecurity now and then.  There’s one place where one of the girls pretends to be her own mother to successfully freak out the friend with whom she’s sharing confidences, and there another where one of the girls worries about how “real” they may or may not be:  “it made me start wondering how much other ppl r just images they made up, like maybe ppl lie about all kinds of things–how would we ever know?” (68).  There’s also, not often but every now and then, reminders that these IMs are not the whole story–that these girls have also interacted at school or on their phones, or even that they are simultaneously having IM conversations with other friends that readers don’t get in on.  If this is the truth about them and their relationships, it;s only the partial truth.

Nevertheless, the overall effect seems to subvert the possibilities for uncertainty.  What emerges for readers is a very clear sense of who these girls are.  They all agree on each other’s inherent characteristics, for instance, and so apparently, as they report, do their parents and other friends, so despite claims to uncertainty there is no question about who they really are and what really matters to them.  And readers who notice such things can fairly easily see that they are all in parallel situations, that each of the three have allowed another person not in the group to manipulate them and try to take advantage of them, in ways that they need to see through and move beyond–something they each eventually do with the help of the other two.   One falls for a boy who is playing around with another girl at the same time, one gets involved with a fairly young and religious-minded teacher who nevertheless seems willing to take sexual advantage of her, and the third wants to be friends with an in-group girl who happily takes advantage of her.   This is so obviously thematic and schematic that it’s hard to feel any uncertainty about it–the book is ever so clearly about characters who are readily understood, who accurately understand each other, and whom readers who are paying attention can have little doubt about understanding.

It interesting, then, that almost all books that represent writing by characters and especially written exchanges between character, play on questions of truth–but that often in writing for young people as happens here, the possibilities of uncertainty tend to be subverted by the structural and thematic conventions of the genre.  As in P.J. Peterson and Ivy Ruckman’s rob& and to some extent in Chris Anastassiades and Sam Carroll’s Noah and Saskia, which also both involve computer conversations, where people hold back information but turn out to be nice trustworthy people nevertheless, their writing accurately representing their sincerity despite the distortions of factual truth, etc. in it.  Writing is a way to lie but also, paradoxically  and more importantly, an expression of inner truth, a soul laid bare.   There’s an optimism about that that leads to the happy endings we expect of children’s and YA fiction.

The other thing that a book like this makes clear is how questions of truthfulness are key to the whole phenomenon of alternating narratives, which centrally has to do with revealing through comparison how different people represent themselves differently to themselves and each other.  All texts with alternating narratives, then, and especially those involving alternating focalizations through the points of view of different characters (as tends to happen even in IM conversations), have the potential to turn into versions of Rashomon.

Kerry Mallan discusses ttyl in “Space, Power and Knowledge: The Regulatory Fictions of Online Communities” International Research in Children’s Literature 1.1 (Jul 2008): 66-81, available online.  Mallan says, “This paper extends Donna Haraway’s notion of ‘regulatory fictions’ to young people’s participation in online communities. I argue that online communities produce a range of discursive practices and expectations, which attempt to constitute young people in particular ways. By combining recent empirical work on young people’s participation in online communities with the representation of Internet culture in young adult literature, this paper examines how participation, both real and represented, involves young people in a negotiation of complex networks of space, power, and knowledge. The discussion highlights how these networks are shaped by regulatory practices, protocols, and politics. The paper posits that new technologies are contributing to the emergence of a new social paradigm, one that offers young people possibilities for construction of multiple identities and social networks. The empirical work derives from a current Australian Research Council grant. The primary texts examined are Destroying Avalon (2006) by Kate McCaffrey and ttyl (2004) by Lauren Myracle.”

Nelson, Blake.  Gender Blender.  2006.  New York: Delacorte, 2007.

As the back cover suggests, “something FREAKY happens”–more or less as it once did in Mary Rodgers’s Freaky Friday, except this time the two characters who switch bodies are a middle school boy and girl.   It’s played mostly for laughs, as the two then have to deal with the unexpected embarrassments of a different sort of body–he gets her first period, she has to deal with peeing standing up and getting an erection.

Because mostly what they feel about the bodies they find themselves in is panic, I sense a kind of subtle body-hatred here.  The boy has a crush on another girl whose breasts he admires, but he doesn’t express any apparent interest in fondling his own once he has them, or in exploring the geography of his vagina or whatever–and the girl is horrified by the idea, suggested by him, that she might masturbate to get rid of her embarrassing erection, which she experiences purely as embarrassment, with no sense of bodily tension or pleasure. It’s something she looks at (in horror) but appears not to actually feel.   I realize that these kinds of silences are mandated by the censorious nature of books for young people–but in this particular case, when the focus is so intensely on body experiences and obvious actions and reactions are simply not mentioned at all, it does seem most peculiar indeed.   A boy’s only response to the knowledge of being in a girl’s body is horror, and so it goes for her in the opposite direction.  Aren’t bodies a horrible thing to have to deal with?

The point of all this is clearly to make points about how boys and girls need to understand each other better, and, I assume, how they ought to avoid gender stereotypes.  But what’s most noteworthy is exactly how much the book depends on gender stereotypes–i.e., completely.  These two are almost binarily oppositional representatives of their genders are they are most stereotypically understood in popular culture.   He is sporty, larger, physically active, reckless, messy (pockets full of junk, unconcerned about his appearance), egocentric, competitive, not very clean, kind of dumb at school and not really concerned about it, and unable to express emotions or talk about them with his male friends.  She is a gymnast but dainty, tidy, careful, a Type A striver with excellent grades and with a need to please her parents and others, concerned with clothes and fashion, and with a supportive group of female friends to discuss her feelings with.  Gender stereotypes R Us.

Readers have to accept these stereotypes, it seems,  in order for the characters to experience something so totally different and so obviously germane to the question of gender that they can learn from it.  Rather than being about the shallowness of gender stereotypes then, it’s about their absolute truthfulness and, I suppose, the danger of acting without respect for what’s so utterly alien, inevitably different from and opposite to yourself.  The book confirms the alienness of ourselves to each other as males and females even while seeming to make a plea for understanding and tolerance.   In a supposedly funny ending, the two, back in their own bodies and having agreed to be friends, end up immediately in a divisive squabble and have to pull back.  The war of the sexes, it seems, is ongoing and utterly unavoidable, because boys will be boys and girls will be girls.  So much for the transcendence of stereotypes.

Furthermore, there is little about either of these characters that doesn’t merely confirm the stereotypical–so there can’t possibly be any point made about getting past gender stereotypes to see the individual they disguise.  Here, get rid of the conventional characteristics and there’s nothing left–there isn’t really any individual to find.  (It’s true that she can play ball well enough, and have enough drive, to make him the pitcher on the A team, and he makes it clear to her parents that her life is too full of planned activities, but that seems merely to confirm the stereotypical qualities of their genders rather than challenge them.)

In a class report at the end, The girl reports she learned that boys can be lonely because they have to be tough and hide their feelings, and the boy reports he learned that girls have to be responsible and think of others first.  So the stereotypes are confirmed yet once more.   And there is nowhere in the book a sensitive, artistic, or communally-minded boy, or a messy, emotion-hiding girl. The alternating narratives allow, as usual, an exploration of difference, and end up with, perhaps not so usual, a confirmation of it.

In addition to being rather infuriating on the subject of gender differences, the book offers an explanation for how these two get switched that opens up another area of intolerance.  It seems that an arrowhead Tom found and had in his pants pocket when they bumped heads is the cause, for they are reliving a Tohaka love curse, the Tohaka being an Eskimo tribe–not, notice anything so respectful as an Inuit nation, but two racist slurs in one phrase.  To add icing to this poisonous cake, Nelson even invents his own Tohaka god named, with a clear intention of cuteness, Winnihecket.  This is aboriginality as found in Peter Pan, but produced a whole century later and on a different continent where actual Inuit have an actual culture.  So much for respect for alien others.