Archive for the ‘past and present’ Category

Lawson, Julie.  The Ghost of Avalanche Mountain. Toronto and New York: Stoddard Kids, 2000.

–  –  -.   Destination Gold! Victoria: Orca, 2000.

In an article published a few years ago in CCL/LCJ, I wrote about two other novels by Julie Lawson, author of White Jade Tiger, discussed in the last entry.  Now I’d like to go back to what I said then, and see if I can learn anything by comparing the three novels with each other.  the essay, “Of Solitudes and Borders: Double-Focalized Canadian Books for Children,” can be found here.

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In both The Ghost of Avalanche Mountain and Destination Gold! the plot alternates between events as experienced by different characters.  In Ghost, the focalizing characters are the ghost of a boy who died in an avalanche decades ago and a girl of today who wears the goldstone he wants to reclaim (with one passage focalized through the girl’s Australian aunt and one through a boy, Raven, who is her friend).  In Destination Gold, the focalizing characters are a boy, his sister, and another girl caught up in the Klondike gold rush.  For a long time in both books, the key characters remain physically separate from each other and experience quite different events without knowledge of what is happening to the others.  Thus, it’s a major point of the plot of Destination that a letter Ned writes does not reach his family, so that he and his sister Sarah don’t know where each other are, and for much of the novel, Ned and Sarah and the other girl, Catharine, are not even aware of each other’s existence.  In Ghost, meanwhile, the living Ashley and the ghost Jonathan are aware of but unable to understand each other’s life and needs until their first (and last) conversation at the novel’s climax.
But while the characters remain isolated in their separate stories, their intertwining narratives offer readers insight into their connections with each other.  Indeed, readers are able to understand what remains mysterious or confusing to the characters–and also, what their connections to each other are–as answers to questions raised by one narrative of appear in the others’ narratives.  In Destination, for instance, readers know as Ned doesn’t that his letter has never arrived–and when Ned overhears a conversation about the girl his supposed friend Montana won in a game of cards, readers will understand from earlier narratives of Catherine’s that she is in fact that girl–that there is a connection between Ned and Catharine through Montana neither will be aware of for many pages to come.

Furthermore, since readers already know from Catharine’s earlier narrative about Montana’s vicious treatment of her and her horror of him, they can understand how foolish Ned is to trust him.  In Ghost, similarly, readers can understand from Jonathan’s narrative who he is and why he is doing what he does to Ashley long before Ashley herself does–and similarly, readers know what Jonathan can’t figure out–that the raven who he knows will lead him to his prize is not a bird but a boy of that name.

In both novels, then, readers know more than the characters do, and can read their situations in ways the characters themselves cannot understand.  This creates suspense: readers can wonder when characters will realize what the readers already know, and meanwhile, enjoy worrying about what the characters’ ignorance will lead them into.
The way the different focalized charters occupy different story spaces raises the question of the degree to which the novels might be about difference.   In Robyn McCallum’s terms, do they suggest “a dialogue between two social, cultural, gendered or historical positions”?  Are they examples of what W.H. New calls “boundary rhetoric” and identfies as a feature of writing by Canadians?

The novels certainly do focus on contrasts between their characters.  The characters in Destination Gold are an optimistic male with a vision of a glorious future who trusts others too much, a pessimistic independent female fleeing an awful past who must learn to trust others more, and an uncertain dependent female who neither flees the past nor seeks the future and who must learn to be more independent and trust herself.    In Ghost, the two key characters are opposite in almost every way: they are male and female, ghost and human, orphan and possessor of a happy family, isolated from others and highly connected to them, illiterate and knowledgeable.

These differences are well worth exploring.  But before I do so, I need to repeat what I suggested earlier–that these contrasts don’t seem in any obvious way to highlight “social, cultural, gendered or historical positions.”   That these characters are rich or poor, male or female does not seem to me to engender any obvious, intentional consideration of the ways in which their gender or class influences their fate–as does in fact happen in other double-focalized novels– in, for instance, Diana Wieler’s Bad Boy or Welywn Katz’s False Face, which clearly strive to make readers think about gender and race.  There’s no doubt that a careful reading of Lawson’s novels would reveal much about ideological assumptions, but the novels themselves never obviously focus on them.  They take it for granted that the contrasts between their characters have more to do with personality and individual destiny than ideology or history.

They are, nevertheless, about difference and moving beyond difference.  The plots of both novels work most significantly to bring the characters together–not just to bring them physically together and into an awareness of each other they first lacked, but also, in doing so, to offer each other what they emotionally lacked, so that isolated people achieve connection, dependent people achieve self-governance, and so on.  The characters in both novels achieve happy endings by moving from isolation in their separate stories to participation in the one story they all share.
But in fact, not quite all.  In Destination Gold, the happy ending the central characters share is happy specifically because the villain, Montana, has been defeated and left town. Before then, the story has centered around questions of property and ownership–of supplies for the journey to the Klondike and of the claims staked after the characters get there.  Every potentially valuable possession passes through Montana’s hand, gained through deceit and trickery–but ends up happily in the possession of the characters who share the single story of the book’s conclusion.  Apparently, one can have or share ownership in the place one chooses to live in only by not being self-seeking–by displaying a willingness to share it.

Ghost focuses even more centrally on questions of property–in this case, the goldstone, which both the ghost Jonathan and the girl Ashley have claims to.  Ashley has received it as a family heirloom from her aunt.  Jonathan was present at its making, as lightning struck his grandfather while he made the stone, and has pledged to bring it back both to his grandfather and to the spirits of the mountain, whom he believes are angered by its loss.  The story ends as Ashley, buried under an avalanche caused by Jonathan and near a death that will pull her into Jonathan’s ghostly world, willingly gives up the goldstone to Jonathan, in return for reconnecting him to the rest of humanity by putting his name, previously unknown, on his gravestone.  Once more, sharing leads to connection with others–although this time, not to ownership; Ashley concludes that the goldstone “was where it belonged, where Jonathan wanted it to be.  In the snow, in the mountains, in the shadow of the glacier” (230).  The goldstone then acts as a symbol of what separates–what keeps Jonathan isolated in his half-world and connected neither to living humans nor his dead grandfather, what separates Ashley from her friends (after she accuses one of them of stealing the goldstone).
Furthermore, that separating something has much to do with the “spirits” of the mountain–the forces of nature itself, the dangerous but compelling landscape that dwarfs humans and that they need to protect themselves from in their contacts with each other.  It’s instructive that this novel also contains the story of Ashley’s friend Raven, a member of a family that falls apart who then acts in an anti-social way and defiantly leaves the communal group on a field trip in the mountains to head off on his own, an act which leads to Ashley’s near-death.  In his story as in Ashley’s and Jonathan’s, isolation leads to identification with and destruction by the vast forces of nature: like Ashley and in a different way, like Jonathan, Raven must be, and is, restored to the community, in order to be protected from the dangerous spirits that inhabit and express the essence of the natural landscape.

All of this reminds me of Earle Birney’s poem “Bushed,” in which a settler finds that the mountain he settles under is “clearly alive”:

then he knew    though the mountain slept     the winds
were shaping its peak into an arrowhead
poised

And now he could only
bar himself in and wait
for the great flint to come singing into his heart

“The great flint’ of lightning does come singing from the mountain spirits into Jonathan’s grandfather, and thus creates the goldstone that dangerously isolates individuals from their communities  “Bushed” is often cited in discussions of what Northrop Frye called “the garrison mentality”: the idea that Canadians so fear and feel dwarfed by the vast natural landscape surrounding them than they retreat behind the walls of their communities and there huddle together for safety.  Now considered to be outdated as a way of accounting for adult Canadian literature, the garrison mentality seems alive and well in Ghost of Avalanche Mountain.  The isolation of characters from each other that double focalization almost inevitably emphasizes works to support and help express support for a traditionally Canadian garrison mentality–the need to constrain individual desire in order to gain the safety of a community, and at the same time, the happy ending of a shared story.

In the light of the home-and-away pattern so central to children’s fiction, that’s not so surprising: children’s stories often send young protagonists off into the dangerous wilds in order to learn the need for the safety of home.  What’s interesting, I think, is the ways in which that pattern develops a distinctly Canadian resonance in the light of Frye’s garrison mentality–so that aspects of texts which might mean something less nuanced in another context do imply specifically Canadian meanings in the Canadian context.

The skepticism with which contemporary scholars view Frye’s garrison theories might cast doubt on that conclusion.  The theory certainly works less well for recent Canadian writing for adults than it does as a way of approaching earlier Canadian texts–ones written by immigrants new to the Canadian landscape–a landscape itself less urban and less controlled by humans than it has since become.  Why then might Frye’s theory operate as a context for contemporary writing for younger Canadians?  It might be, simply, that adults who write for children conceive of childhood and adolescence as something like being an immigrant–a stranger in a unsettlingly strange land.  But that does not account for the surprising frequency with which Canadian novels for young people move their characters from urban settings to rural ones, cottages or country houses or forests or wilds, where they face forces larger than themselves.  It seems like an especially Canadian way to figure a theme conventional in children’s literature internationally.

In this way as in others, I’d argue, Canadian children’s literature seems to represent a particularly intense version of the characteristic generic markers of children’s literature as a whole.  Just as Canadian thinking seems immersed in boundary rhetoric, so is children’s literature. It is literature written across a border–by adults but for children perceived as different enough from the adults who write for them to need to be written for differently.  It almost always therefore deals with contrasts, conflicts, and negotiations between the adult and the childlike (here in these books, the family and the wild).  In its inherent doubleness, children’s literature offers a paradigm for understanding the Canadian situation as imagined by Canadians in many different ways.  If Canadian children’s literature is a particularly intense version of these matters, then the presence of so many double-focalized texts within it may not then be so surprising

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So what about all this in relation to White Jade Tiger?  My earlier thoughts on the other novels centred on what might be specifically Canadian about Lawson’s books–and I can see how I might think about White Jade Tiger that way also (although this time, in terms of Canadian ideas about multiculturalism and how they work to defang different cultures of their difference, etc.).  It’s also intriguing that both White Jade Tiger and Ghost of avalanche Mountain are about connections between past and present, involve a contemporary girl laying old ghosts to rest (male ghosts, in both caess), and center around possession of a specific object that represents a significant history and needs to be returned to its rightful hiding place as the present lays to rest the sins of the past.   And the past is laid to rest in terms of being brought to light and properly remembered–and thus rendered effectively both honored and made inoperative in terms of still affecting the present.   It’s put in its proper place.

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Lawson, Julie.  White Jade Tiger.  1993.  Toronto: Sandcastle Dundurn, 2006.

The text is a traditional third person past narrative, usually focalized through the central character, Jasmine, but frequently interspersing sections involving not only Keung, a Chinese boy who comes to BC to find his father in the nineteenth century but also other Chinese characters connected to Keung, such as his ancestress Bright Jade, and ones describing the spirit of white jade tiger of the title–a piece of jade in the shape of a tiger, but representing something larger than that–the fortune of a village and a family, ruined because the white jade tiger has been stolen form its required resitng place.  Most of these sections are separate, but there are a few places here and there where the focalization shifts from Jasmine to Keung within a section.

The novel operate in the tradition of time-slip fantasy: after putting on an old Chinese coolie outfit and visiting Victoria’s Chinatown, Jasmine finds herself back in Keung’s time, helping him to find his father, whose possession of the piece of jade has doomed his family to bad luck, and return him and it to China.  At the end, it turns out that the bad luck that doomed Keung’s family because of the jade has extended to Jasmine herself, who thought she was all white but turns out to have had a Chinese great-great grandfather–Keung himself.  At the end, then, she heads off to China to see her father, a professor there, and will return the jade and end the curse that earlier in the novel, it seems, killed her mother.  She will be her own saviour–as the novel implies in its use of spirits of the past, etc., she was always fated to be..

Like just about all time-slip books, this one allows two young people to meet across time in order for them to help each other in bad situations.  Here, Jasmine helps Keung find his father and learn the possibility of a kind, humane white person–which, it seems to suggest, leads to his settling in BC and marrying a white woman and thus leading to Jasmine’s own existence (there’s the unsettling sense that Jasmine and her ancestor feel attracted to each other in a way that eventually leads to her own birth).   So Jasmine brings her current tolerant attitudes to the past and teaches them to Keung.  Meanwhile, Jasmine, who wants to control everything and who hasn’t managed to control the accident that led to her mother’s death, gets healing from her adventure in the past–and concern for and even love for a boy, and as a result of all that, finally, an end to the family curse.  The past helps the present by providing an opportunity to right wrongs, the present heals the past, by being wiser, and readers see it happen through alternating eyes in a way that confirms their actual lack of isolation from each other: because we know both and see as both see, we are already aware of the connection unknown to the two characters before they realize it.  We are outside and above time in a situation which laways implies that time is illusory or its apparent limitations conquerable.

There is, nevertheless, something strange and a little creepy going on here.–not just because of the incestuous overtones of the feelings not asserted but implied between Jasmine and Keung, but that those feelings lead to her coming into existence, and her coming into existence then guaranteeing an end to an ages-long curse–as if she has somehow ended up engineering her own existence and controlled the existence of others, as if she is a sort of divine being resident over her own fate (there are places where Keung confuses her with the ancestor spirit Bright Jade, now also more than just a mere human, and also a controlling spirit in the book).  There something of an ultimate wish-fulfilling egocentricity here–the girl who wanted control ends up in control of just about everything, and fixes up everything all by her little self, and by being such a contemporary kind of liberal, tolerant, evolved self.

And then, that all gets mixed up with issues of race–and of claiming.  Jasmine, the nice normal suburban white girl, is the ideal young Canadian of her time–without a glimmer of prejudice against people of another culture.  indeed, she adores Chinatown, adores Chinese food–eats it with pleasure in the past when she finds white man’s food almost inedible.   But the basis of all that tolerance for difference in thrown into question when it turns out she’s actually in part Chinese already.  So she is discovering a forgotten past, that makes her one with the other, and not someone representing a tolerance for otherness–she was always already Chinese, as a post-modernist might say.  Her claim on Chines culture is her own previously unknown Chinese-ness.  This weirdly parallels the way a lot of novels for young people about whites and aboriginal children solves problems of difference or discrimination by allowing the white children to think of themselves and of all good people as ones who share aboriginal values.  In becoming “aboriginal,” they are meant to represent fellow-feeling, universal humanity; but in doing so they deprive actual aboriginals of any specific claim to, say, land, or the past, etc.: it belongs to all the universal aboriginals, not just to genetic Indians.  So, too, here, I think, except there is an blood claim made, one that then implies that the only real tolerance can be for someone like yourself, a group you are already part of.  Jasmine, it weirdly seems yo imply, can actually be part Chinese because she is in fact a tolerant representative of universal contemporary humanity–already one with all forms of humainty.  All of which is to say: for all its celebration of Chinese culture and horrors at the treatment of the Chinese men who built the railways, there’s something here that makes me unnecessarily uncomfortable.

Jenkins, A.M.  Beating Heart.  New York: Harpercollins, 2006.

The alternating narratives are visually distinguished from each other–his is third person present narrative that looks typically novel-like, hers a first person collection of thoughts set out on the page to look sort of like poetry (but hardly actually ever achieving anything poetic–the only thing this spacing of a few words over a lot of blank paper accomplishes, besides the death to far too many trees,  is to make the book a very quick read; I actually managed to get through two-thirds of it in just one wait in my doctor’s office, and he wasn’t even having one of his bad days).  The alternating characters are a girl from the past, now a ghost inhabiting her former residence, and a boy in the present who moves into the house and into what was her bedroom, where she is immediately aware of him, and he is increasingly aware of her presence.

Why she is there as a ghost is not immediately obvious, but it gradually comes out that she fall in love with a young visitor, slept with him, and then assumed he would marry her.  But instead, he kills her by suffocating her, and no one knows he did it.  He got off scot free, and she still haunts the house, still in love with him and unable to let go.

Meanwhile, in the present, the boy is in a relationship with a girl, loves the sex but has to admit he really doesn’t love her or even find her all that interesting out of bed.  So there’s a parallel, in a way, or perhaps a contrapuntal relationship: a girl used sexually who’s hoping for love, and a boy who just wants sex and can’t or won’t commit to love.  He gets his way, and when she tries to get hers–a commitment from him to loving her–he find himself wanting to kill her.  One iof the boy does kill his girl.  One doesn’t–and that’s what the novel is actually about.

The novelist’s choice of focalizing characters has interesting implications in relation to conventional gender assumptions.  She clearly represents conventionally “female” attitudes, ones very clearly at one pole of a firmly antithetical set of opposites: she is frillily italicized, sensitively poetry-like, and committed to emotion over passion, love over sex, meaningful relationships over random randiness; not surprisingly, she is also of the past, representing nostalgia and pastoral rather than evolutionary survival of the fittest, nature over aggressive conquering of everything.   He is more or less the opposite of all that, a boy of our time with a commitment to lack of commitment and a focus on self-interest.  This would, obviously, have been quite a different novel if we had that boy from the past and the girlfriend in the present as the protagonists: if we went by conventional assumptions, we might then assume that nothing much of interest to readers would happen, since they’d both want the same thing, i.e., a good time and nothing much more–she’d ask him to say he loved her and he’d say it to get what he wants and that would be that.   Or maybe we’d have a less-clichéd, more sensitive boy now, or a more moral and upstanding boy representing a different cliché of the past, and that would create a quite different effect again.  Thinking about these alternatives reveals exactly how much the novel does bring conventional gender assumptions into play and depend on readers recognizing them.

It does so, I think, in order to suggest a break from them.  The plot revolves around the ghost girl’s confusion of the contemporary boy with her old lover: she thinks he has returned.  In a sense, he has, for this boy is in a similar relationship and behaving in it in a similar way.  But at the end, he does not actually kill her–although he does duplicate the beginning of a suffocation attempt, either out of a similar anger at his girlfriend or because he is somehow being forced by the ghost to relive her past.  He avoids being a murderer, it seems, because he is not actually that old boyfriend–he is someone else, an actually sensitive boy with a young sister he loves and feels concern for.  And since he can feel concern for others, he can escape fulfilling the old self-interested pattern being imposed on him.  She, too, can then escape that pattern–for his doing so seems to teach the ghost that she can do so, too, that it is possible to let go and move on.

The alternating narratives here work most interestingly in terms of how they operate across the two relationships–how the alternations of people in two different stories about two different relationships come to form a third story as they alternate with each other, and then suggest the various parallels and variational relationship in the other two stories.  Contiguity creates new and different meanings and introduces a whole other plot or story arc than the one each of the two alternating focalizers thinks he or she is experiencing.

One other thing that interests me here: the set-up is very much like that of a traditional Harlequin romance (or even, say, Jane Eyre: the story of a theoretically more powerful, more brutal, male in search of sex and a theoretically more passive, more sensitive female; he threatens to overpower her with his lust, but she eventually conquers him with her love into agreeing to a moving ongoing relationship.  This novel doesn’t exactly end that way, for the two central characters are not together, and one boy doesn’t agree to love and one girl doesn’t survive–but at the end, lust has been constrained and controlled, and both the central characters are committed to love, for sure.

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.

Browne, N.M.  The Story of Stone.  London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
There are two quite separate narratives–or at least they appear to be quite separate for most of the book, and in fact, the two focalizing narrators have only a peripheral relationship to each other even at the end–connected by their relationships to the same (third) character, one in marriage and the other in a psychic contact through a magical stone, but never actually in contact with each other.   Furthermore, the two focalizing narrators turn out to be living in different times–different historical eras–and are related across many generations; and while the two fantasy societies they occupy and evoke share some similar language, they are in fact quite different from each other, and represent two quite different lifestyle: one urban, one rural, one akin to actual primitive hunter-gatherer societies, the other more like what we know ourselves now.   So for a reader, this is a clear case of puzzle-solving: what on earth can these two different characters in different settings and in different stories have to do with each other?  The clues are objects (like the magic stone) that appear in both narratives–but since they appear in the midst of two such complex and strange sets of social assumptions, you have be alert to catch them.  Much is being, not so much taken for granted as just described sparsely–and yet the specific events all imply a larger and more complex set of social assumptions they nest into and that only become clear as the novel progresses and a lot of unexplained information about the way the societies work gradually comes together.  The central question–how do these two so different stories connect–then turns out to be the main mystery for a reader to solve, and the solution turns out to be also the solution to the mystery that has engaged the girl in the more recent story–a sort of anthropologist looking for clues about the origin of her society.
When this girl hold the magical stone, she finds herself entering into the thoughts once thought by the girl in the past who eventually becomes involved with the boy through whose point of view the other narrative is focalized–and so in a way there is a third narrative, focalized through this girl of the past.

A fascinating aspect of this book for me, in the context of exploring how alternating narratives work, is how it implies a world built so thoroughly on alternates–on binary oppositions.  The boy in the past, a blonde giant (?), worships a sun god, the girl he eventually marries after she undergoes a magical transformation is a small night creature who worships a moon goddess.  their relationship marks an end to old demarcations, and is viewed as a serious mistake by everyone around them–and is a serious mistake until the breach can be healed by their ancestors in the other story, who can bury the stone and the past and bring the world alive again.  They too represent as binary–a master and a slave–and their willingness to transcend the taboo against their friendship represents a re-inscribing of what happens in the other plot.  In any case, it’s fascinating that an author drawn to depicting these binary sorts of world-views  would then use the alternating narrative form so much, and thus, in this case, e.g., add even more binaries: boy focalizer/girl, focalizer past/present.

All of this, obviously, can be read as an allegory of racism and multiculturalism, etc., a story of how people move past the boundaries of their restrictive prejudices.  Something similar happens in Browne’s Basilisk, e.g.

There’s also a lot of variation going on here: material similar thematically but being expressed in different ways.  While the boy and girl in the alternating narratives lead quite different lives, there are echoes of each other in what happens to them.  Both have difficult and distant fathers; both hope to follow in their father’s footsteps and are thwarted in that desire; both interact with and then fall in love with an alien.  So there’s a way in which these apparently-ever-so-different stories do intertwine and interconnect with each other even before a reader solves the puzzle about their connections, at least structurally.