Not Alternating Currently

Posted: March 11, 2009 in other things

I’ve had to mothball my work on alternating narratives in the last while, in order to give some talks at conferences in Vanocuver and Troisdorf, Germany, and to work on a draft of the third novel in the Ghosthunter’s series, The Hunt for ther Haunted Elephant.  I hope to  get back to it again in April.

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Lerer, Seth.  Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

This book, it seems, has just been named as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle 2008 awards for criticism.  According to its website, the National Book Critics Circle consists of “more than 900 active book reviewers who are interested in honoring quality writing.”  If so, they’ve made a surprising choice with this one.  Lerer’s book is, I think, quite dreadful–very bad scholarship indeed.  As someone who’s devoted some decades to taking children’s literature criticism seriously, reading it made me very, very angry.  To me, honouring it in this way can only suggest a depressing lack of knowledge of the nature and history of children’s literature on the part of these supposedly quality-minded critics.  Let me try to say why without too much ire.

Lerer describes the book as “a reader’s history of children’s literature: a study of the figurations of the reading child from antiquity to the present; but a report as well, on my own life of reading and the critical interpretations that my literary scholarship brings to the texts of childhood”  (1-2).  In other words, the reader whose history is being explored is an amalgam of a generalized “reading child” and one very specific reading scholar.  On the face of it, these readers seem unlikely to have all that much in common.  It’s not surprising that the book sometimes fluctuates erratically between them and sometimes uneasily combines them, so that it’s hard to tell where the child’s reading leaves off and Lerer’s ingenious but highly subjective theorizing begins.

Part of the problem is Lerer’s lack of clarity about just who the child reader he;s concerned with is–what he means by “the figurations of the reading child.”  He claims his book is “a history of reception” (2).  But except for Lerer himself and his own son (once or twice), this so-called history of “the reading child” offers almost no reports of how any actual child readers received or responded to the texts he discusses   Instead, Lerer focuses on describing his readings of texts themselves in terms of what they suggest to him about who their readers were or ought to have been.

Lerer claims that “the study of children’s literature is cultural studies” (9) because it draws on “literary, socio-historical, and economic methods of analysis” (9).  I think that’s true–and certainly much children’s literature criticism of the last few decades has made us all increasingly aware of just how very true it is.  But Lerer’s book offers nothing obviously economic in its methodology and little that a cultural studies scholar would recognize as socio-historical: no ideological analysis of class or race, no ethnographic information. Perhaps most significantly, Lerer never engages in the critique that features centrally in cultural studies–the effort to be aware of what texts might be, for good or more often for ill, inviting readers to take for granted.  Lerer describes how various texts confirm what I take to be gender stereotypes without any apparent awareness of them being stereotypes–as if they were true, as if all girls or all boys shared gender-specfic characteristics.  He also speaks of early Greek readers as generalized “children” without seeming to notice they are all male–indeed, never comments on the fact that the intended child readers of all the texts he discusses across thousands of years of history were exclusively male; and when books for girls do start to exist, he isolates them in the ghetto of a separate chapter, safely away from the history of books for “children.”  Furthermore, he describes ancient Greek children as in the care of slaves in a way that blots out the possibility that some children back then might actually have been slaves, or had slaves for parents.

This is not to say that Lerer avoids comment on how texts relate to their time and culture.  “Modern children’s literature remains an Edwardian phenomenon” (253), he asserts in a typical comment, and he claims that twentieth century American children’s literature is “nothing less than a literature of winners” (274).  But he offers very little in the way of historical or ethnographic evidence to support these astonishing conclusions.  He just puts them out there as and then acts from that point on as if they were true.

The book is filled with similarly vast, similarly unsupported generalizations.  “Slavery is central to the history of children’s literature,” (19) Lerer claims without evidence–and then doesn’t refer to the idea again.  Or again, “All children’s literature recalls an unrecoverable past, a lost age before adulthood.” (83-4).  All?   Every single bit of it?  And if it always does that, does it do it for child readers, too, and if so, what age earlier than childhood are they recalling?  Or again, “The job of children’s literature is to make sense of things” (107).  So much for nonsense verse.

Childhood, meanwhile, is as generalizable as its literature iis for Lerer.  It “is a time of exploration, an arena of adventure.  Every shipping box becomes a canoe or a spaceship” (150).  So third-world youngsters who actually live in shipping boxes and have never encountered a canoe in life or in books don’t count as real children?  Or again, “Nothing delights a child so much as tools.  But nothing delights a boy so much as new words for those tools” (154).  So much for boys like I once was who can take tools or, preferably, leave them, along with their high-falutin’ names.  Meanwhile, Montgomery’s character Anne of Green Gables is “a lesson in the ways a pictorial and dramatic imagination shapes the lives of female children” (236)–all female children always, apparently.  Lerer is surprisingly assured that children are unaffected by history and culture, alike in all times and places, and that boys and girls are inherently quite different from each other in ways that never change across time.

These surely incorrect assumptions seem to underlie Lerer’s decisions about what texts to discuss.  To begin with, he has a very generous sense of what counts as children’s literature.  In early chapters about Greece, Rome, and the middle ages, periods in which, as far as we now know, no literature specifically identified as being intended for children actually existed, he assumes that texts with qualities like those found after children’s literature did come into existence must be children’s literature also–an assumption necessarily based on the ongoing similarity of children and adult ideas about childhood across history.  For instance, he claims just about any didactic text as a text for children, presumably because people in need of learning things must have been young, an assumption the history I’m aware of (and indeed, the people I now know) don’t support.  He also asserts that the medieval play Mankind must have been intended for a young audience because its imagery “fills the play with what could only be an adolescent’s imagination” (67)–as if older people didn’t sometimes like testicle jokes also.

On the other hand, Lerer’s focus narrows sharply as he describes the eras when writing specifically intended for children does come onto existence.   While he claims that one of his goals “is to realign what has become a largely Anglophone focus for children’s literary study” (9), he discusses few texts in languages other than English and never discusses texts written anywhere outside of Europe or America, nor even many European texts beyond British ones. Furthermore, his children’s literature includes none of the didactic texts by writers like Edgeworth and Barbauld that figured prominently in the early nineteenth century; none of huge outpouring of religion-oriented texts in the Victorian period and after; no Nancy Drew or Hardy boys, no Babysitters Club or Goosebumps, indeed, none of the many series books that have characterized popular writing for children in our own century; no science fiction or teen romance; no comic books or Golden Books or Disney books and only a few very picture books; no books for babies or informational books for children of any age; none of the late twentieth century outpouring of books by and about African or Hispanic Americans, no books “for young adults” in general.  There is also no mention of a long list of important children’s writers, from Edgeworth through Charlotte Yonge, Mrs. Molesworth and George MacDonald to Beverley Cleary, Wanda Gag, Philippa Pearce, E.L. Konigsburg, William Mayne, Robert Cormier, Alan Garner, Virginia Hamilton, and R.L. Stine.

What Lerer actually does focus his attention on are well-known texts that might be found in the homes of literary-minded parents without much scholarly expertise in children’s literature.  While these books are certainly varied, they tend to be more like each other than like the kinds of undiscussed books I’ve listed above–and perhaps they are so because they accord in various ways with the tastes of contemporary literary-minded parents, something that might not be true of a text by Maria Edgeworth or R.L. Stine.  The focus on them seems to allow Lerer his many generalizations in a way that a wider and more accurate history wouldn’t.

That Lerer’s history of children’s literature is mostly a history of the books he and many other non-specialists already know and like would be acceptable if Lerer weren’t so intent on making such vast generalizations based on such a narrow range of texts, or so focussed on making the generalizations evidence of his own ingenuity.  At one point, he frets that it’s hard to come up with “something new” (192) to say about Carroll’s Alice books–as if engendering clever new ideas, true or not, were the point of doing literary research.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that while he points readers to a range of scholarly studies of children’s literature in his endnotes, he often describes them inaccurately there, and rarely if ever actually refers to them in his discussions of the relevant topics.  If he actually did read all these books, he certainly didn’t let them affect his thinking very much.  He’s alweays seems to be far more interested in his own clever insights than he is in the context of existing scholarship and research.

Towards the end of the book, Lerer refers to Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit in order to announce the typically overconfident generalization that “the boys of much contemporary literature are artists of the game” (315).  Lerer goes on to enthuse about the “a vertiginous quality of bullshit, a thrill that the bullshitter gets of making up the details, forming a persona, raising expectations,” and he includes himself among the boys who indulge in it: “we can feel almost an ecstasy in our own imagination” (316).  In the light of this book’s wild theorizing woven out of a surprisingly limited number of texts and verifiable facts, I have to conclude that Lerer found putting it together to be a thrilling experience.  Readers in search of usefully accurate knowledge of children’s literature aren’t likely to share his ecstasy.

The most depressing thing for me is that the singling out of a book like this for special recognition by a reputable national American organization seems somehow unsurprising.  Contemporary readers–the ones who accept the truth of made-up memoirs because they tell them things the like to hear–might well prefer easy generalizations to a more carefully researched conclusion based in a more exact and less incomplete knowledge of the material.

I seem to be turning into a typical grumpy old codger scandalized by what the world’s coming to nowdays, with all these dumb young punks in charge.  I’d better stop right now.

Carvell, Marlene.  Sweetgrass Basket.  New York: Dutton, 2005

In this novel of what claims to be free verse, two young Mohawk sisters leave the reserve to attend a boarding school, and tell of their experiences there in alternating “poems.”  As is typical of texts of this sort, the sections are in the first-person present tense, as the two alternating characters report (to themselves apparently, for these are not thoughts shared with other people) events and their responses to them as they happen.   The effect is of alternating solitudes or isolations–only readers can know what goes on in both girl’s minds, and they are deprived of knowledge of each other.  But here that hardly matters–there is very little to distinguish the two girls, whose thoughts are “poetic” in exactly the same way as each other.  Indeed, I can’t see any reason why there are actually two characters here–or at least I didn’t for a long time, until one of them died, and so it became clear that they’d have two separate fates and one would have to deal with the death of her sister.  But before then, it just seemed like an unnecessary duplication–a way of loading even more misery into the book as we read how two characters suffer rather than just one.

In that way, Sweetgrass Basket follows the pattern I’ve noticed in books written by Aboriginals or people who claim contact with aboriginality.  Unlike books by people of European descent, which tend to involve a central white character and a central native one, these books tend to have two aboriginal characters as alternating focalizers, as here, and have less to do with conflicts between different people (standard in the books by white people) than they do with two people playing different parts in the same experience, but not often or intensely in conflict with each other.  so these two sisters have their occasional differences, but really are more alike than not, and combine to convey more of the experience they share than fight with each other.  They are then both on the same side, with their white enemies–cruel teachers who mistreat them–not provided with focalizaitons so that we can get their version of events.   The result is certainly one-sided, in that there is no positive or justifying view of why the white people think the school is a good idea or how they see it as beneficial–they’re just mean old cranks and sadists, and that’s that.

A stronger book might have allowed them to have at least their own view of how they were doing the right thing for good ends–even if it turned out they were wrong about it.  Here I just find myself being crankily dismissive because the authorities are all just plain evil through and through, and even seem to be aware of their own evil and revel in it.   I’d be more likely to be persuaded if the bad guys thought they were the good guys. In other words, this book just reverse the old Hollywood good cowby/bad Indian stereotypes, and so seems equally shallow and melodramatic.

Carvell, by the way, claims only to have been inspired by her husband’s Great Aunt’s experience at a residential school–a pretty distant way of claiming some aboriginal authenticity, although she does make a fairly typical sort of property claim when in her acknowledgments she thanks her husband “for letting his family be mine.”   She does, though, avoid the usual white claiming of aboriginality by not having any terribly predominant white characters to make such claims within the text–but it does seem a book mainly designed to make white readers feel bad about what our ancestors did  (I do sense a primarily non-aboriginal readership as the main intended audience–I’m not exactly sure why.  Maybe because it’s just about how awful white people in power are, with very little sense of what an aboriginal reader might do about it or learn from it.).   The few helpful older people seem to be immigrants or minorities or of African American descent.   In other words, every aspect of the book insists on white mainstream guilt, unrelievedly.  and so it mostly avoids the possible implications of difference in alternating narrators, and the possible subtleties in presenting differing points of view.  It is simply and determinedly one-sided and monological.

Lanagan, Margot.  Tender Morsels.  New York: Knopf, 2008.

I decided to read Tender Morsels as a break from my consideration of alternating narratives; all I knew about it was that a lot of people were talking about it, and it sounded interesting.  And I started to read it and, surprise, it contains alternating narratives!   I take that as evidence of how very common the use of these sorts of structures has become in children’s and young adult literature–no longer an innovation, albeit still a sign of some degree of literary pretension and sophistication.

Most of Tender Morsels is a third-person narrative about a woman and her two daughters who live in a world of forests and villages that sounds much like the typical setting of European fairy tales (see my paper “Once: The Land and Its People“)–appropriately so, for the plot centrally involves the women’s dealing with men who transform into bears, as happens in at least one of the Grimm tales.   Also appropriately, the plot centrally involves a wish-fulfilment:  Liga, who has been sexually used by her father and become pregnant by him three times, finally producing a daughter as a result, and then gang-raped by a group of village boys and producing a second daughter as a result of that, is given a better world to live in–the world as she would imagine it if it were to her taste, as she wished it.  It’s unclear why this happens–or who or what gives her the gift–it’s simply what ought to happen to her, and so it does.  So she lives near the same village, but in a version of it free of anyone who frightens her or might harm her–there are simply empty spaces where their houses used to be.  and everyone is pleasant to her, and she learns skills form people who would simply have ignored or looked down on her before.  Liga lives in that place, actually cut off from the real world that has forgotten her and knows nothing of her daughters, until the daughters have grown up.

Nevertheless, others accidentally (and dangerously, we are told), break into Liga’s world.  all of them are men, and when they defile her place separate from the dangerous sexuality of men, they each tell what happens to them in the first person.  One is a greedy man who persuades a witch to get him there so that he can bring back valuables and get rich.  the others are young men taking part in the village’s annual ritual, in which young men dress up as bears and chase and try to kiss all the women in town–a spring festival to make the crops grow, and a playacted freeing of male sexuality, which presumably works to purge it and keep it safe within.  In Liga’s world, when these men accidentally enter it, they appear as bears, one a safely restrained bear, the other a more potentially lustful and dangerous one.  They spend long times in Liga’s world, interacting as bears iwth her and her daughters, but then return home on the same day they left.  Their intrusion also leads to Liga’s daughter and Liga herself getting out of her dream world–a place which isolates and imprisons them even though it is only pleasant, for it’s not their dream.  So the novel gives its characters the wished-for safe place then reveals the necessity of giving it up–the need to be more than just safe, the need to accept the danger of contact with others (especially, it seems, men) in return for the pleasure and humanity of it.   But even then, the contacts made through the dream place play out in positive relationships for Liga and her daughters.  It has allowed the right people to find each other and to interact in the right way, beyond danger.  It’s still a wish-fulfilment fantasy outside of the wish-fulfilment place (which is proably what makes it a novel for young people?).

The alternating narrative here have mainly the effect of being what they are in terms of plot–intrusive: they insist not just on another view of the story, but as first-person interruptions of a third-person story, as alien presences in the dream world that represent various oppositions to its central values of peace and safety and comfort.  they are both dangerously unsettling and necessary if these women are to return to a realer and less safe but more alive world.  thematically, they represent the versions of maleness that create both difficulty and desire for women–greed, lust, nurturing and comfort.  So the book comes to be about how maleness intrudes into the lives of women–a theme mirrored by the use of alternating narratives.

This is a complex novel, although an entertaining one and in the light of the complexity, surursingly easy to read and be gripped by.  I very much enjoyed reading it and bering absorbed by it, even though  I have a feeling I’ve barely begun to understand it.  It would certainly repay a rereading, and not just because of the interest in its alternating narrative construction.

After the various positive comments for The Proof That Ghosts Exist, the novel by Carol Matas and me, that I recorded earlier (see Responses to the Proof That Ghosts Exist) comes this late bloomer, from School Library Journal:

MATAS, Carol & Perry Nodelman. The Proof That Ghosts Exist. Bk. 1. 216p. (The Ghosthunters Series). Key Porter, dist. by PGW. 2008. pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-1-55470-014-1. LC C2007-906679-8.

Gr 4–7—Molly and Adam have been given the task of watching their father closely during their lakeside vacation. Several of the men in his family have died the day before their 35th birthday, and the Barnetts are determined to protect Tim’s life. Meanwhile, the siblings connect with the ghost of Tim’s father, who helps them piece together the mysterious deaths. The book ends on a cliff-hanger. A cut above generic series fiction, Ghosthunters nonetheless is a serviceable, not stellar mystery. It contains the requisite spiders, screams, and knives, but the story itself is workmanlike. Molly and Adam are obvious foils for one another, and the dialogue tries too hard to point out character development. The authors explain clues rather than allowing the plot to reveal information, and the story is linear rather than three-dimensional. Ghost stories by Marion Dane Bauer, Mary Downing Hahn, or Betty Ren Wright will serve as well or better.—Caitlin Augusta, The Darien Library, CT

Oh dear.  So much for “endearing and intrepid protagonists, and a mystery complex enough to sustain interest across volumes”  (Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books). So much for “Simply put, The Proof that Ghosts Exist is a fun book to read from start to finish” (CM Magazine).   We are, in fact, merely linear and serviceable–and, it seems, above all, nothing to laugh at.

Those who don’t mind a little comedy mixed in with their ghosts or characters with a little self-awareness or a plot that doesn’t require special glasses to make sense of it might he pleased to hear that Book Two of The Ghosthunters, The Curse of the Evening Eye, will be forthcoming soon in Canada and will be available a few months later in the U.S.

curse-evening-eye-cover

Hess, Karen.  Brooklyn Bridge.  New York: Fiewel and Friends, 2008.

This novel starts out for seeming to be a certain kind of book–and continued to seem to be that for a very long time; but as it approaches its conclusion, it suddenly changes into quite a different kind of book, in a way that makes an especially interesting use of alternating narratives.

First off, the kind of book it seems: it seems to be primarily a charmingly nostalgic story of life for an immigrant Jewish family in New York in 1903.  The family history is based in real history: a family named Michtom did in fact begin to manufacture stuffed bears after a cartoon depicting Roosevelt being kind to a wounded bear cub appeared in the newspaper, and thus, started the ongoing craze for teddy bears.  It’s hard to tell how much of what happens to the family in the book echoes the actual Michtom family history, but one way or the other, it’s told in such a way that the focus is on good feelings and happy times despite bad things happening and comic nostalgia.  Joseph, the main character, tells his story in the rhythms of the kind of Yiddishy English redolent of heartwarming traditional schmaltz–Molly Goldberg redivivus.     Joseph is convinced his life is rotten–too much family,  too much time spent in the family business since the teddy bears took off, not enough time to be by himself, or go to Coney Island, which he longs to do (his longing for Coney Island doesn’t actually become apparent for a long time–he doesn’t mention it until the beginning of Chapter 16) but in between the preceding chapters are quotes from contemporary newspapers discussing the wonders of Luna Park, so it’s sort of hinted at before it’s said, at least in retrospect–which turns out to be yet another way in which the novel demands retrospective rethinkings of its readers; more below.)

For some time, the novels seems to be primarily episodic–each chapter describes something that happens to Joseph and his family that seems to be finished by the time the chapter ends–something that affects Josephe and that often teaches him something about his real feelings or about parts of his family history he wasn’t earlier aware of.   An aunt’s death reveals that she’s been responsible for bringing many people from Russia to America, a fact previously unknown to her family; or Joseph finds it possible to make friends with a brain-damged boy he’d previously been annoyed by, and thus helps expand a feeling of community and concern for others–building bridges.  Doing that kind of thing is also a habit also of his parents, who are constantly helping out others worse off than themselves.–thus all the good feeling and happy tears the novel seems to be designed to engender.

Running as a theme throughout these somewhat isolated vignettes, however, is Joesph’s ongoing complaining about what’s happened to his family–how the wonderfully successful bear business has taken over all his free time, how constraining and constrictive family life is.  He is anything but convinced about how lucky he is.

Interspersed with Joseph’s first person story of his hard lot in life are shorter bits in italics, told from an omniscient third-person point of view, which describe a group of children, unknown to the characters in Joseph’s story, who live together not far away from Joseph’s home, under the Brooklyn Bridge–victims of various kinds of abuse by their parents and other adults.  Their stories almost always involves some way in which these damaged and utterly isolated children find ways to help and sustain each other–and so they read like a kind of weirdly distorted parallel to Joseph’s story, except that this is a manufactured family rather than an actual one, and also, the children in it don’t spend their time complaining about how repressive the others are.  On fisrt glance, then, these interspersed sections seem to be there as an ironic counterpoint of Joseph’;s story–he thinks he has it bad?  Look at these kids who have it ever so much worse!  He thinks a family is a bad idea?  Look at these kids who don’t have one and have to make one up by themselves!  It reads like a nasty trick on Joseph, a way of undermining his self-pity and confirming how wonderful and warm and happy his family actually is.

So far so good–except for one small, strange detail:  the kids under the bridge all appear to have contact with another ghostlike child who comes to warn them every time they are threatened with death.  This insertion of something fantastic or supernatural into an otherwise realistic narrative is strange–especially since the realistic narrative is the schmaltzy kind of feel- good bad-things-happen-but-we-have-each-other sort of world where the last thing you’d expect is a group of unaided homeless kids and, especially, a ghost.  Nevertheless, the point seems obvious: this life under the ridge is all that Joseph’s life isn’t.  He should stop with the complaining already and enjoy the charming nostalgia and schmaltz of it all.

But then, very close to the end, a whole different thing happens–and suddenly, I found as I was reading, I had to reconsider everything–go back and imagine how this could actually have been being a quite different kind of book all along.  What happens is that Joseph’s family finally goes to Coney Island, as he has dreamed–this after he has walked all the way there by himself, swam in the ocean, had his clothes stolen, got very cold and hungry, and scared the wits out of his parents before the police finally bring him safely home the next day; he has now experienced something like a small but instructive version of the isolated and dangerous life the kids live under the bridge.  But on the family expedition back there again, they come upon Joseph’s supposedly dead uncle–the one who was supposed to have died trying unsuccessfully to save his son from drowning.  Joseph’s aunt has responded to these events by hating crossing the bridge and seeing the water, refusing to leave Manhattan for Brooklyn–but due to the death of her sister and a family wedding and others forces of change, she’s done it now, and there, suddenly, is her artist husband, alive and selling portraits form a booth at Coney Island.   She is furious with him, but they are both finally able to move past the past that has held them in stasis–to move on from a self-imposed rigidity.  Furthermore, it turns out that the ghost under the bridge is their son, whom his father buried there.  The boy is excavated, and is allowed to leave also.  Once more, a theme of moving on.

So–after many pages where the only connections are thematic ones, an actual  connection is made between the two narratives–the central boy of one is the cousin of the dead ghost in the other.  Each has observed death in his group, each has helped others past pain–they counterpoint each other.  Furthermore, the discovery that the ghost of one story is the dead cousin of the other ties together the two narratives, make them curiously one, even though there’s no actual contact between the characters in one with those in the other.  And the connection then requires a rethinking of what happened before it became known.  It especially points to  ways in which Joseph’s family history is a story of people held back from moving and then finding out how to move on:  his aunts who are forced to leave their secluded apartment and take new jobs when their eldest sister dies, his uncle who finds a wife, the woman the uncle marries, Joseph himself hating how the bears have taken over his family life, his brother giving up his own bear and feeling free of it, Joseph finally freeing himself of the memory of his dead cousin–all have to break down a wall that holds them in, cross a bridge and get somewhere else (the novel’s epigraph, from Isaac Newton:  “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”  Joseph gets to Coney island, as he wanted–but what he finds there isn’t the freedom he expected, but it’s opposite, a family connection, another bridge that ties him into the life he has with his family–another bridge of the many he must accept and learn to celbrate. All that seemed anecdotal and heartwarming is that, yes, but also, full of unresolved pain and a complex set of thematically connected events that give the novel as a whole a structure that’s not only surprisingly complicated but also surprisingly meaningful, surprisingly tied in to a set of similar concerns being expressed in a variety of ways.

It’s telling that, while Joseph’s dead cousin gets his freedom, there’s no evidence at the end that the rest of the abandoned and lost children aren’t still there suffering under the bridge.   Learning to understand the value of what you’ve got, as Joseph does, doesn’t necessarily mean that pain or suffering or hardship disappears from the world around you–or even, for that matter, from your own life.  there’s an admirable toughness and honesty in this book about bridges and bridging that doesn’t forget the disconnected bits left over unseen under the bridge.

Hesse, Karen. Witness. New York: Scholastic, 2001.

The text consists of a series of poems in free verse, each in the voice of one of eleven characters who all live in a small town in Vermont in the twenties.   The free verse here seems a little less free of verse than that in a number of other supposedly free verse novels I’ve been reading lately; each character does tend to have a distinctive voice, individual speech mannerisms and so on, and also, there’s some sense of implication–of wider meanings beyond the literal of the sort I expect of poetry:

daddy says:
how alone do you want to be, leonora?
you’re already nothing but a wild brown island.

So maybe this isn’t great verse but it is verse.

The novel describes events surrounding the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan in town.  The various characters express opinions about it–some favourable, most not so much.   The less Klan-favouring characters include a twelve-year-old African American girl and a six-year-old Jewish one, each in a family which is the sole representative of its race in the otherwise white, mostly Protestant town.  Each of these girls suffers from the prejudice of others–but also, as the novel progresses, finds friends and supporters, as a basic human decency emerges and then triumphs over the apparent appeal to morality and American values the Klan purportedly represents, and as knwledge of individuals triumphs over stereotypes.  As the Klan reveals an uglier side, more of the townspeople turn against it.

The novel then has the typical structure of fiction for young people–bad situations that get better, as horror moves gradually and apparently inevitably towards the utopian.  It seems neither convincing nor historically accurate–but I can’t deny it’s very satisfying as wish-fulfillment.  And in the midst of it all,  all sorts of other magical things happen, too.  A very prejudiced teenager learns to think of Jews and Negroes as individuals, even though he first flirts with the Klan; the Jewish girl and the black one both find the strength of character all on their own to come to the rescue of those who have made their prejudice against them clear and obvious–they;re ever so much better than their enemies, as, of course, all Jews and African-americans are.  Meanwhile, the worst of the Klan bigots has revealed a serious character weakness (he takes advantage of a young girl) and has left town (or died–it’s not exactly clear to me which), and many of the other townspeople have seen the light or developed the strength of character to publicly profess the anti-Klan feelings they’ve been hiding; the world is, by the end, a gloriously better place.  The novel has something like the structure of a traditional girl’s book, like Heidi or Anne of Green Gables.  The innocent, whimsical, and charming Jewish girl, a new arrival in a rural place, shows the way to her elders by charming them with her utter spontaneity and innocence and connections with the natural world around her, just as Heidi and Anne of Green Gables did.

So what is gained here by the use of the many alternating focalizers?  As I’ve discovered is typical in a book with a large number of alternating focalizers, the focus is on how individuals relate to a community.  Here as most often, many isolated voices tend either to become entwined into a more complete and integrated community, or refuse to do so and must leave the group–skip town.  Readers get to see how a range of different individuals react to the same events, how they see and make sense of the same things differently, and how their actions have differing impacts on each other.  Readers also know ways in which the characters affect each other that they are not themselves aware of–an overriding knowledge of everybody that gives greater insights into the meanings and implications of each of their individual perceptions.  Thus, knowing of the fear and sensitivity and basic niceness of the black girl as we overhear vher thoughts and responses, readers have information that contradicts and trumps the blind prejudice of the Klan leader and minister.  Readers also know that the teenage boy accused of shooting the Jewish girl’s father is not guilty, and who is, and so have that soap opera pleasure of hoping secrets are revealed in time to save the innocent.  As, of course, they are.

Witness is presented as if it were a play–divided into five sections, labelled Act One, Act Two, and so on.  But there is in fact nothing inherently dramatic in it.  There are no interactions between the characters–no dialogue except in the sections involving a husband and wife who talk together.  Otherwise, what all the characters do is just think about things they’ve already done and experienced–readers are privy, it seems to what goes on inside their minds, the one thing that theatre usually keeps us ignorant of (except in terms of how characters express it to each other–the exception, I guess, is the Shakespearean soliloquy, and these poems are indeed sort of like that).   There is, I guess, a kind if dialogue in terms of the ones readers can construct from hearing how the differing voices understand each other; but it is an act of readerly construction, not something that actually happens in the book itself.  So it’s only theoretically dramatic, a theoretical drama that develops in terms of the alternating structure.  As in other free verse novels, each individual section is quite isolated from and separate from all the others, and it’s up to a reader to work out how it all fits together and to see contradictions and connections and communal ties that characters themselves are rarely ware of.  In a sense, the structure creates the community, in ways the community itself can’t possibly be aware of.

So it’s a trick of structure that becomes thematic here, and that reveals aspects of the characters’ lives never really known by them individually or even as a group.  Perhaps all alternating narratives imply that sort of interactive meaning larger than anything known by the individual alternating characters–and perhaps all require this sort of relational work of readers, putting separate streams of information  together to see more than the characters do.  Which is what happens in the theatre as audiences view a well-made and well-directed and -acted play.  So maybe alternating narrative is inherently dialogical?

Katz, Welwyn.  Come Like Shadows.  1993.  Regina: Coteau, 2000.

The most noticeable thing about this novel is just how very, very complex is the situation it describes.  The plot centres around a production at the Canadian Stratford Festival of Macbeth, but also involves at least four different historical events: Shakespeare’s version of what happens in Macbeth, the real Scots history behind it, the defeat of Montcalm by Wolfe at Quebec in 1759, and the contemporary dispute between Quebec and the rest of Canada over the question of Quebec separatism.  All these are implicated in the Macbeth production, an attempt by its director to use the play as revelatory of the French/English political scene in Canada.  All four streams are meant to, at times, parallel each other, and, at other times, to diverge from each other in in significant ways.   Furthermore, the supposedly “real” history of Macbeth involves the actual existence of three witches, who are still alive and well in Stratford, Ontario in the present and still intent on doing serious mischief to others in support of hteir own power.   The novel probably shows that these streams do parallel each other; but it’s so hard to keep track of all the threads that sometimes it just seems pointlessly intricate and very confusing.

Like much if not all of Katz’s work, Come Like Shadows is exceedingly binary in its thematic concerns.  It involves not only the disputes between the various historical Scots and the binarily oppostional values they represent (kindness and cruelty, oppressors and oppressed, etc.), but also, those between the Scots in the play,  those between the French and the English in two different historical periods,–and also, not surprisingly for Katz, those between males and females and between male forms of belief and male gods and female forms of belief and goddesses.  Here as in novels like Sun God, Moon Witch and The Third Magic, there’s an ancient female form of worship that is in conflict with male views and seems in danger of escaping out of the past; here, of course, it’s represented by the three witches.  Here as in the others, I suspect, Katz claims to want the pure male and female to be seen as dangerous extremes, needing each other for balance and sanity; but here, certainly, the witches seem more malevolent than not–and the imperious theatre director who eventually joins their coven seems like some kind of caricature of domineering womanhood, a kind of femininity that the novel suggests the current world can well do without; Katz here as elsewhere seems distressed by the idea of powerful women (the mother in False Face is a key example) more obviously and virulently than she is by the idea of powerful men.

Perhaps because she wants to move past binary opposition to balance, Katz most often writes narratives that are alternately focalized between two central characters who do not, in fact, accurately represent the binaries central to the situations they’re involved in; they are then tempted to move to one pole of the binary or the other, but have to realize the doing so would be to deny the other opposite part of their nature, and be a commitment to incompleteness.  That happens here also–the central characters are tempted to make decisions or act in ways that would make them incomplete.  But as I understand it (or perhaps, don’t understand it, for I certainly don’t feel very confident about it), it does that in an extreme and therefore confusing form.

In a sense, then, the two main characters are living representatives of the French/English dispute.  She is of British descent, he of French  but then, she comes from Montreal, and has great sympathy for the Separatist cause; and he is an American who resents the prejudice against French Canadians in his New York home town and so tends to deny his heritage.  So both take a stance against that represented by their backgrounds.  (And perhaps both represent the silliness of extreme patriotism or cleavage to any group or principle–Katz doesn’t like the idea that people are sigjnficantly defined by their specifc racial or cultural heritage.)  Both are angry about the director’s attempt to impose the story of Wolfe and Montcalm and the Battle of Quebec onto Macbeth, but for different reasons.  She resents the anti-French stance it implies, he simply sees it as a distortion of the truth of the play (a position perhaps undermined by the insistence throughout that the play itself is a distortion of what actually happened in the history behind it).  So once more, neither actually takes a stance that represents a position in the political disputes being discussed–it’s her empathy for the other vs. his concern for historical truth, hardly even recognizable as a binarily oppositional dispute.  The alternation of their focalization does not in any obvious way reinforce or represent the political dispute being engaged with.

Something similar sweems to happen with the male/female issues.   Lucas and Kinny look into the bewitched mirror that figures centrally in the plot, which shows them what happened at the moment when Macbeth chose to defend a young girl from the witches and himself became trapped inside the mirror, and have different and perhaps opposite responses to it.   He identifies with Macbeth, clearly assigned the role of the male principle here (and a very benign and loving version of it, too).  Kinny doesn’t identify with anybody, but through her efforts to be helpful to others is nevertheless faced with a choice of joining the witches and thus attaching herself to female power (in a sense, then, she represents a variation of the events and values that have jailed Macbeth in the mirror, and make her more like him than like the witches).   But neither Kinny nor Lucas expresses or espouses or represents one of the extreme positions in a gender war that the novel postulates.  He’s not particularly macho or honorable, she’s anything but a primitive force of nature and divine darkness.  Once more, their alternating points of view do not mirror or echo or particularly throw light on that central binary-oppostional positions (except insofar as they don;t represent those positions and so comment on the extremism and lack of validity of hte positions).

Furthermore, Kinny and Lucas aren’t even obviously at odds with each other.  They do get angry with each other, have disputes, and so on–but these relate only peripherally to the central binaries.  They never argue about the French/English situation in Quebec, for instance,  or about whether men or women ought to run things or have power.  They actually spend less time talking to each other than worrying about each other without actually expressing their concerns.  Perhaps the most intriguing thing about their relationship is ow little actually engaged with each other they are.  The plot of the novel throws them together and the witch/mirror business makes them important participants in the central events, but they actually have very little to say to or do with each other.  Each seems too locked up in their own powerful relationship to the mirror to have much time for actual conversation.

So Kinny and Lucas don’t in any obvious way represent the binaries in conflict at the thematic heart of the novel; there’s a disjunction between the themes and the central characters Katz has engaged to reveal that theme.  In other words: the novel doesn’t do what most other alternating narratives do: have the alternating characters clearly represent different groups or ideas or principles that can then be engaged as the characters engage with each other.  Maybe that’s why the book seems so annoying intricate.  A reader can’t easily get to its central concerns hy means of understanding obvious aspects of the characters.

There is, though, one way the characters do represent an important binary.  Each looks into the mirror and gets caught up in it, but for different and perhaps even opposite reasons.  Kinny makes a bad wish and must then, she feels, atone for it; both the wish and the atonement represent her extreme empathy for and concern about others.  At the end, she is about to sacrifice herself and be caught up in the mirror over what is presented as to much empathy, too little concern for herself.  Lucas’s engagement with the mirror isn’t exactly opposite; he is indeed sort of self-involved, but its a form of self-involvement that also involves an empathy with the other.  He is fascinated by the Macbeth he can understand so well when he looks in the mirror–he has found the ultimate version of an actor’s empathy for characters he plays, a becoming other.  Lucas must stop being so involved in his own concerns, Kinny more involved with herself and less with others.  She must become more like him, he more like her,.  That, at least, seems like a traditional use of alternating narrative in a binary-oppositional context.

At any rate: all is very complex, very confusing in the transmission, and, I have to say, not all that interesting–not as compelling as False Face or Out of the Dark or even the fairly over-intricate The Third Magic, all of which equally deal with male/female issues.  I think that’s because of what I’ve been describing–because the binaries aren’t used obviously or effectively, because what the alternating characters see and think and do and be doesn’t necessarily encapsulate a thematic concern.  Am I complaining because the novel’s not simple and straightforward enough?  I don’t think so.  I’m complaining because there;s an implication of meaningfulness in the use of alternating narratives that doesn’t seem to amount to much of anything here.  so the alternations tend to seem like an excessive frill.

Lodge, David.  Thinks . . . . 2001.  New York and London: Penguin, 2002.

This novel is so elegantly and intricately built on its alternating focalizations that I’m tempted to identify it as a meta-alternating narrative–an novel in which the structure of alternating narratives is so completely linked to and expressive of its meanings that it reads like a textbook case of how and especially why to deploy this sort of fictional construction.  There are two alternating protagonists, each with a separate style of communication.  Ralph is a cognitive scientist who embarks at the novel’s beginning on an experiment of recording all his thoughts as they pass through his head, first via a tape recorder and then by using voice-recognition software; Helen is a widowed novelist who keeps a written diary of what happens when she comes to his red-brick campus for a term to be a writer-in-residence.

So everything is impeccably binary-oppositional: he is male, she female; he a scientist with not much imagination and a faith in reason and logic, she an artist who thinks in imaginative terms and in the context of a knowledge of literature (Henry James figures significantly); he a sexual predator and enjoyer of all things sensual, a lover of the body who believes there is nothing beyond the physical world science describer, and she an inhibited and isolated thinker. prone to distance herself form bodily urges  The novel’s title emphasizes the focus on what they think of each other and how they understand (or, often, don’t understand) each other beyond their actual encounters: it refers to the convention  used in old comic books  of using the word “Thinks . . .” to identify the contents of a speech balloon as a characters’ unspoken thoughts.  And it’s metafictional, then, that their styles of recording their thoughts also represent thematic alternatives: the formless free flow of a mind letting go of the demands of logic or audience for him, the organized staging of events in complete sentences of grammatically correct writing for her.  His experiment as a scientist is to try to capture exactly how thought happens, to be in the moment as thinking happens, to capture the almost-physical reality of undigested thought; her task as a novelist and diarist is to reorganize and shape events into a satisfying story that is inevitably then, at a remove form the immediate.

The novel operates, then, as a sort of intellectual dispute between differing and apparently opposite ways of handling one’s experiences and one’s thoughts about them–for it’s very much a novel of ideas, and filled with theories of cognition and such, and with descriptions of a series of paintings that represent differing theories of how consciousness operates.  Helen has an idea that novelists get to heart of how emotions operate–express a shared truth about how people feel and think about feelings; and yet also believes in the sanctity of personality, a oneness unique to each individual.  He believes that consciousness is a natural phenomenon explorable scientifically, but is constantly finding what looks like evidence of a uniqueness theoretically impossible, and can’t fight a suspicion that nothing actually exists but his own thoughts–that his consciousness is the entire extent of reality.  Both, then, believe in what they believe about consciousness and also in the opposite of what they believe about it.

In between the recordings of Ralph’s thoughts and Helen’s diary are passages which describe conversations between them and with others from an outsider’s point of view, in the present tense and offered without any insights into what any of the characters are thinking,.  This, too, is commented upon metafictionally in the novel itself: at one point, Helen talks about “the kind [of fiction] that doesn’t attempt to represent consciousness at all.  The kind that stays on the surface, just describing behaviour and appearances, reporting what people say to each other, but never telling the reader what the characters are thinking, never using interior monologue or free indirect style to let us overhear their private thoughts” (62-3).  In addition, there are assignments written by Helen’s students in response to her request for them to write in the styles of well-known novelists–another way of getting at the question of “style” or “personality” or the possibility of something human existing beyond what scientific explorations can uncover.  The e-mail correspondence between Ralph and Helen included at one point reveals another way of communicating differences in style.

The novel’s major concerns are the isolation of consciousness (and the corollary of that,  the sanctity of its privacy), and also, the extent to which it is unique–the question I suggested earlier about whether or not there is such a thing as personality, as being human in a way that transcends what science can understand or emulate.

The issue of isolation and privacy emerges especially in terms of questions about secrets. Ralph offends Helen by reading her diary without her permission, and thereby finding out about his wife’s affair with another man.  Helen, weirdly and hilariously, recognizes her husbands habitual behavior during sex in a piece of writing submitted by one of her female students, and thus comes to learn that he, too, had affairs before he died.  Both find out something that changes their sense of everything from thoughts recorded on paper.  It’s unclear whether that’s good or bad–mostly it just shows how little we know of what happens outside our immediate perceptions, how possible it is for us to be wrong about the thoughts and actions of others, and how successfully writing can give us insight into this other beyond our ken.  In that sense, at least, this novel is on the novelist’s side of the dispute between Helen and Ralph: writing can give us unexpected insight into others that can hep us to better understand ourselves.  Even so, Helen has to acknowledge that her writer;s insight into personality has not been working in terms of her husband–and Ralph has to acknowledge that his own personal and scientific knowledge of sexual opportunism has not prepared him to expect similar behavior in his own wife.   both have been overconfident about the extent of their knowledge of how other people operate.

These parallel secrets also suggest an interesting kind binary-oppositional variation going on throughout, so that the novel expresses yet another key aspect that makes the book meta-alternating: the characters’ experience versions of variations of similar events, and thus can confront those events and deal with them in ways that reveal their similarities and differences from each other and that thus add to the commentary on the binaries that are the thematic core of the novel. Thus, near the beginning, both masturbate for differing and revealing reasons in adjacent sections–and similar pairing occur throughout.   Also, readers know the secret thoughts of both of them, the ones they believe they have hidden form each other, so that we know how she tries to deceive him or he her about why they are where they happen to be at a certain time, etc., and also, how the other one misunderstood that behavior.  It’s the standard soap opera ploy of letting reader/viewers in on the secrets and thus privy to a wider knowledge of every event than any of the characters actually involved in it.  It forces us to stand back from any one of the characters’ point of view, to be thoughtful about everything we know instead of just accepting one character’s version of events–and also, to worry about how a secret known to us but unknown to one of the characters will affect that character.

Thinks . . . is a novel of ideas, and one that doesn’t ever get very far away from its ideas.  The characters aren’t especially deep or complicated or convincing, the plot is constrained by its need to support the intellectual binary oppositions it’s most centrally interested in.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining novel, because it is, or often a wickedly funny one, because it is.  But it does suggest how much and how centrally it involves a debate between alternative and therefore, how thematically involved the alternating narratives and the focus on how different people see or think about things differently are.   Even the university campus–two separate facilities with an empty space between–is described as (and literally referred to by one of the characters as) an allegory of the Two Cultures, arts and science; and Ralph’s building is in the shape of a brain, with two hemispheres divided from each other.

Thinks . . . is far more obviously and completely focussed on its binary oppositionality than most adult novels with alternating narratives are–in that way, it;s more like children’s versions of this form.  But then, its degree of thoughtfulness and its intellectual rigour about the implications of its alternations easily distinguishes it from the children’s novels, as does its conclusion, which keeps the alternating focalizers as separate and isolated from each other as they always were.

Crace, Jim.   The Gift of Stones.  1988.  New York: Scribner’s, 1989.

Okay, I am admitting defeat on this one.  I have absolutely no idea why this novel for adults makes use of alternating narratives.  All I can say is that it certainly isn’t for any of the usual reasons I’ve been identifying in all the many novels I’ve looked at for this project so far, both ones for young people and other ones for adults (like, say,  Julian Barnes’s Arthur & George, Joseph Boyden’s  Three Day Road, or Audrey Niffenegger’d The Time Traveler’s Wife).

The fact that the novel involves alternating narrative is itself kind of slippery.  While there are two alternating narrators here, there’s nothing too terribly obvious in the way of typographical convention, etc., to make that clear, or to separate them from each other.   The bulk of the book is a story told by someone unnamed about the life of the man she calls her father, a man of the late stone age whose life is shaped by the loss of an arm in childhood, an accident which renders him useless at most stone age pursuits, and eventually, drives him into the role of storyteller to his village.  So it goes for five chapters. But then the sixth chapter begins, “Listen here,” my father said.  I’ll tell you what occured.”  And he then continues his own story, in ongoing quotation marks, until the end of chapter 13, at which point the quotation marks end and the novel return to the original storyteller.  The same thing then happens once more, with the father’s story in quotation marks inside the original storyteller’s story from the beginning of chapter 26 to the end of chapter 28, followed by three more chapters from the original storyteller.   So while the father’s sections are separated from the rest in discrete sections, they’re nevertheless clearly connected to the rest in being double-voiced: the original storyteller includes them in her story as quotes from her father.  In a sense, the novel then both involves alternating narratives and doesn’t involve them: its single-focalized and double-focalized at the same time.  Very slippery, and ambiguous, and hard to grasp or understand.

That’s particularly true because I honestly can’t say that I notice any significant difference or opposition between the two narrative voices.  They both talk about the same thing: the events of the father’s life.  While the main narrator appears in both as a young child, she is a minor character in both, and she spends almost no time explaining herself or her own feelings, focussing almost exclusively in what her father did and what it meant to him and others.  furthermore, he does the same thing, focusing on what he did and what it meant to him and others, and she often says that she’s just reporting what he has told her, and in fact, their voices sound more or less alike, except that she speaks of “he’ and he speaks of “I.”  If they’re going to be so much alike, and if he doesn’t say anything or add anything different to her view of who he is, then what’s the point of switching from one to the other?  I don’t know.

But I can say at least that there’s a lot of conventional ways an alternating narrative might have worked here that don;t actually happen. The book is rife with oppositions that might have been mirrored in alternating focalizations or points of view.  There are the practical stone workers and merchants of the village as opposed to the protagonist’s role as bard and encourager of imagination.  There is the comfort and organization of the stone-worker’s village as opposed to the wilder place on the shore where the storyteller meets the woman he falls in love with, Doe, a deserted survivor who sells herself to keep herself and her daughter alive.  There is the age and gender difference between that daughter and the man she comes to call her father, the storyteller.  There is the difference between the stone age stonecutters of the village and the orderly traditional life they lead, as opposed to the new ways implied by the bronze arrow that kills Doe, and that quickly kills the village’s livelihood.  All of these, key oppositions that the novel’s imagery makes much of,  might have been mirrored and represented by characters who would each give us one point of the view of the dualism.  That’s what happens in just all the other novels with alternating narratives.

But it doesn’t happen here.  I have a glimmering of the sense that it has something to do with one of the most central of the novel’s many binary opposites: the one between was might really have happened to anybody and the wonderful, exciting things the storyteller is able to make of those bare bones of fact–between truth and story.  A point made often in the novel is that, once the storyteller learns the art of storytelling and uses it keep himself alive, there is no longer any way of knowing if he is ever really telling the truth.  The daughter can report of his life before he enters it or even, after that, while she was a young child, only what he has told her about it, and always in the context of the knowledge that his habit is to embroider, to tell different stories to account for the same facts, and so on.   You might then expect that his sections might allow insight into the actual facts underlying the embroidery–tell us what really happened and how he really responded to it.  And they might, if they were giving us insight into his actual thoughts.  But they don’t.  Instead, they represent in a slightly different way what he has told his daughter, so that they are just as suspicious and slippery as the rest, even though the father starts his first section by saying “I’ll tell you what occurred.  I’ll keep it simple too.  I won’t tell lies.” Which might not be true.  Later, he offers three different versions of Doe’s death, in one of which he kills her himself–but none of these has any more status as truth than the others. So his sections merely confirm what hers have already established–if we expect truth, we’re not going to find it here, in this man’s version of events.  Paradoxically, both narratives agree on the undeniable fact that he is not to be trusted–and that therefore, nothing we have been told in the novel and think we know is to be trusted (the daughter never invites us to mistrust her veracity as a narrator–but how can we not, when the novel insists on the uncertain status of storytelling?)  So the narrative alternate to make the point that there is no story truer than another, or falser than another?  Once you start storytelling, you’re stuck with uncertainty?

And all of this uncertainty is in the midst, as I said, of many binary opposites and alternatives, and their status as opposites isn’t actually questioned: the village is different form the wild, the bronze age is different from the stone age, and so on .

Fori nstance, especially, one of the most interesting oppositions is that two central characters are hit by arrows that lead to great change.  The stone arrow that hits the boy’s arm early in his life leads him on journey out of the village into wild, new places, and into his life of storytelling as he returns to report on the strange things out there; it opens him, up to a new life, and the villagers up to a new life of the  imagination.  The bronze arrow that hits Doe later on, ther first seens by these people, forces them to give up their trade and allow the storyteller to move them out of the village and off into their own wild adventures in a changed and changing world.  There’s something here about the parallel between the wildness of stories and the less pleasant insecurity of being forced to give up what one has always known and depended on.  Being in the wild, whether it’s imagination or reality, is both exciting and unsettling, freeing and dangerous, satisfying and uncertain.

But still, I don’t get the reason for the alternating narratives–even though I do have a pretty firm sense that they do work and that I might after more thinking come to understand how.  In other words, the novel seems to possess a complexity and a subtlety I haven’t yet mastered.  I don’t get it.  What’s most instructive to me about that in terms of my project is that, even though the presence of alternating narratives in books for young people seems to imply a surprising degree of innovation and sophistication, I can’t think of a single example of an alternating narrative novel for young people that so studiously avoids the obvious thematic implications of this sort of construction and that makes so complex and subtle a use of it.  As I’m coming to realize more and more, the most interesting thing about such novels for young people is how, for all their apparent innovativeness, they express and confirm the conventions of literature for young people–how the genre works to pull innovation back into the same old ideas and ideologies.  Literature for young people, especially young adults, is certianly now more complicated than it once was, andm ore sophisticated–but it still tends to repress real innovation or individuality beyond what the genre has always reinforced and allowed.  The Gift of Stones makes that obvious to me simply by not being so constrained or repressed.