Archive for the ‘Laura Amy Schlitz’ Category

Schlitz, Laura Amy.  Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.
Cambridge: Candlewick, 2007.

The author explains that she had seventeen children to work with in putting on a theatre piece and wanted them all to have big parts in the play: “It really isn’t possible to write a play with seventeen equally important characters in it . . . . So I decided to write seventeen short plays–monologues–instead of one long one, so that for three minutes, at least, every child could be a star” (viii).  So the book really isn’t alternating narratives so much as a long series of them, with none repeating.  Nevertheless, that comment of the author’s suggests an important aspect of all alternating narratives–how the use of them allows for a positive sense of self for everybody.  Not only here but generally in stories with alternating narratives, a number of participants each gets to tell his or her story.  It’s a sort of ego equality–no one’s version of events is superior to or truer than anyone else’s.  Nobody is the most important because, as generally seems to be the case in contemporary culture and as is certainly the norm in the contemporary politics of education, we hold it as an unquestionable truth that everyone ought to think of themselves as important–and yet also, of course, understand that everyone else is allowed to think of themselves as important, so that some respect for the egocentricity of others is a requisite for being allowed respect for your own.  A faith in the inevitably and absolutely justified egocentricity of the young (or more likely just of people generally?) then leads to a division of ego in the construction of a story: more than one version of the same events or circumstances (life in a medieval village, e.g.) has equal validity and respectability.

This interests me mostly because it might help to explain why there are so many alternating narratives in contemporary fiction for children.  That seems at first to be counter-intuitive:  we generally tend to believe that young readers are egocentric enough to need a character they can relate to or identify with in the novels they read, but how can they relate to two quite different characters in the same book?  Or if they do choose to identify with only one of those characters (as N.M. Browne suggests she allows readers to do by providing alternating narratives by a girl character and a boy character), then what are those readers supposed to be doing when the other character, the one they aren’t identifying with, is the focus of attention?  Schlitz’s comment about the seventeen equal characters doesn’t necessarily answer that, but it does suggest a way of thinking about the necessities of ego-validation that might account for there being nowadays so many stories focalized through more than one character; and perhaps the solution Schlitz found for her problem–attempting to give different voices equal status–is exactly what leads to the problems I’ve been outlining with this form of storytelling as literature for children.  Trying to satisfy everybody’s egocentricity undercuts everybody’s egocentricity?

Whatever else, the idea of privileging everybody as equal is bizarrely anti-medieval, and what is most fascinating about this strange little book is how completely anti-medieval it is.  Yes, the characters describe details of their various lives in a medieval English village with convincingly authentic details.  But the mere fact they are doing the describing, talking about themselves and their feelings about their lives so obsessively and in such a self-involved way–is very much of our time, not of the one they supposedly occupy. They often seem surprised or offended by the conditions of their lives–or at least seem determined to point them out–something that I find it hard to imagine medieval villagers, unaware of a twenty-first century alternative to the only  lifestyle they and everyone around them have ever known, would do.  Also somewhat strange is that these supposed citizens of a time besotted by and immersed in devout Christianity seem almost never to have even a single religious thought, and don’t pray.  A medieval England without Christianity is like Fred Astaire without the dancing.  Meanwhile, instead of thinking on God, they express views that would be, I’m sure, almost unthinkable in their supposed time: like that all women of every class are really the same, as a peasant girl claims, or that Jews are people you could make friends with as a Christian, as happens to another child.  Like most historical ficiton, I guess, this book says more about the assumptions of its intended audience than those of its supposed subject.  We give Newbery Medals (and this book did win this year’s Newbery) for confirmations of our own most cherished beliefs, not to authentic expressions of otherness.

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