Because of Winn-Dixie and the Non-Normative Family

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I live in China, and here the majority of families are two-parent. Not only that, but there is an assumption that the majority of families in America are also two-parent.

But the truth is that a very, very large minority of families in America are now one-parent. That’s not something that has ever existed in human history before. No one is quite sure how to deal with it. Political reactions range from trumpeting the value of the single parent to putting in place every possible incentive to keep parents together. And a huge source of anxiety for American society in the last few decades has been “how do we explain this to our kids?”

“Because of Winn-Dixie” isn’t explaining to kids how to deal with having one parent abandon them. It’s the story of how one girl came to terms with her mother leaving her. The idea of “family” was broken, and it feels as if it can never be repaired. Most kids can barely process the idea that their parents don’t know everything, and now they have to process the idea that their parents can not only do wrong, but can commit sin.

Her family broken, she has to find a new family. And because of Winn-Dixie, she does.

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The Temeraire Series, Indigenous People, and Leveling the Playing Field

Like the book says, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” were the three major factors that allowed in European colonization. In the Americas, European diseases decimated the local populations, and anyone who survived had only wood and stone weapons with which to fight the initial waves of conquest. In Africa, superior technology allowed Europeans to conquer the continent. And in East Asia, European weapons technology pulled ahead of Chinese tech enough for China to be defeated and humiliated in the Opium Wars.

Then Naomi Novik asked “what if everyone had dragons?” Dragons are not a purely technological innovation, they are a natural one. They grow, they aren’t built. They are bred, yes, but they can never be bred into the sort of dead end that technology can reach.

In Novik’s China, this means that the technological head start the Chinese had in the middle ages never went away. They learned how to breed dragons better than Europeans, and they kept it up.

In Africa and the Americas, this means that the native populations couldn’t be easily dominated and subdued. Sure, plague still swept through native Americans, but it was not solely responsible for the conquest of the Americas. However, when the colonizers come on boats without dragons, and the local populations have fully integrated dragons into their cultures, the European guns and steel are useless.

It’s hard for me to describe, as a history buff  and a person invested in social justice, just how awesome this is. There’s an African empire that has no interest in getting the English to abolish the slave trade, because they’re going to end it themselves by burning all the goddamn ports to the ground with effin’ dragons. There’s a sequence in which the characters journey up the coast of Africa and find that every single slave port has been destroyed in a coordinated attack.

There’s a recounting of a famous incident in which the emperor of the Inca was murdered, after being ransomed, by Europeans. In real history, the Incans attacked the Europeans, and it was a bloodbath as the Europeans shot thousands of Incans and emerged without a scratch. But add dragons on the Inca side, and suddenly the Incan bloodbath becomes dismembered Europeans.

In North America, it’s pretty ruddy hard for the early Americans to ignore and trample over the native tribes when those tribes are breeding dragons–so the colonists and the native peoples unite in their desire for independence, and produce a new fusion of a distinctly American culture.

In fact, over the course of the series, Europe is slowly revealed to be quite backward in its idea of dragons, and Europeans’ failure to integrate dragons into their society has put them at a huge disadvantage compared to the rest of the world. The Regency era was, in real history, a time when England felt itself to be the master of the world. Not so here, because they’ve kept dragons walled off from their society. They’ve lost access to a huge amount of knowledge and skill. They’ve downgraded thinking beings into animals, and they’ve suffered for it.

It’s a pretty awesome way of turning history on its head.

Five Children and It: Stepping outside the Self

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Children, according to JM Barrie, are fundamentally selfish and heartless. He’s not exactly wrong: children in general are selfish, careless of the future, impulsive, and lacking in self-awareness.

So what would happen if you gave four selfish, careless, impulsive, and un-self-aware children one wish each day? That’s the premise of “Five Children and It,” and the results are brilliant. Of course, first the children wish for beauty. But to be beautiful is to no longer be themselves, and they can’t even go home because they’re not recognized. Luckily, the wishes go away at sunset. Then they wish for wealth, but no one believes they didn’t steal it. They figure they should have wished for specific denominations of cash, but never get around to doing it.

Then they make the mistake of wishing that they can make a wish anywhere, instead of talking directly to their grumpy genie creature. This is when the impulsiveness gets really bad, and they make assorted inadvertent wishes and have all sorts of trouble dealing with the consequences.

Only when one of the children can finally step out of herself enough to wonder what It’s feelings are that the shenanigans stop. She asks It how It feels, and what It wants. By doing this, she is able to at last befriend It, and to undo the bad consequences of their wishes once and for all.

It’s a masterful story, a perfect example of how some of the true masters of Story can say things without actually having to say them.

Bridge to Terabithia, Little Women, and Becoming What We Love–Who We Want to Be

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Everyone sees the world a little differently. The way Leslie sees the world in “Terabithia” is so magical that Jess falls in love with it. Jess wants to be like her, to see the world she sees, but when she dies it is as if the world she saw dies too.

But he does not want that world to die. He wants it to live on. And so he must become her, in a sense. He can change the world he sees, too, and by doing that she will live on in him.

We all have our own self-image. We all believe certain things about ourselves to be true, and understand that certain behaviors are more true to our selves than others. But when we love someone who behaves differently, who has a different image of themselves and the world, sometimes we decide we want to change. We want to become what we love.

15796908In this way, death becomes a limited thing. In “Bridge to Terabithia,” Leslie’s death forces Jess to change, makes her a part of him in a way he isn’t even aware of. In “Little Women,” when Beth dies, Jo consciously shapes herself to act and be more like her dead sister.

What is loved cannot die. Not as long as we love it.

Skeleton Man and the Borders of Myth

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It’s one of the central problems of childhood that, no matter how sure you are of something, at the slightest hint of falsehood people will dismiss everything you say. That’s the problem at the center of “Skeleton Man,” in which no one believes that Molly is telling the truth, though she knows that she is a captive and in serious danger. But such things are so far outside the realm of the ordinary that everyone is much more willing to believe her captor.

When Molly finds herself off the beaten path, the protagonist does the only thing she can think of: she retreats into stories. She finds strength in her heritage. She knows somewhere deep in her blood that she is a captive of a Skeleton Man, and she finds the strength within herself to defeat him.

Myth is Molly’s ally in this. Myth gives her a framework in which to make sense of what is happening to her. And myth empowers her to be a heroine. The borders between dream and reality grown thin in “Skeleton Man,” and it is in the realm of myth that the protagonist can find her power. As the myth gains strength in the real world, so does she. And in myths, someone always defeats the monsters.

Out of My Mind and the Power of a Single Story, a Single Voice

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When you look at someone in a wheelchair, someone who cannot talk, someone who cannot control their bodily functions, a narrative comes to mind. “This person is disabled.” “This person is retarded.” “This person will never really be a person.” It’s an old idea, that the body is a mirror of the mind. A useless body must mean a useless mind.

Because so many of these people are helpless, unable to speak or move or eat independently, it is hard for them to challenge that narrative. It is hard for them to express themselves. They are trapped in their own heads, with all their knowledge and personality.

No person contains only a single story. The maid spends her free time reading astronomy textbooks. The murderer on death row is also a loving father. The lady at the tupperware party is a world-famous psychiatrist. It is hard to accept this about the people around us, and harder to process it, so most people avoid it if possible. But the people I mentioned above each have a voice of their own with which to tell their stories. People with disabilities like the protagonist of “Out of My Mind” are voiceless.

From the very beginning, Sharon Draper sets out to tell a story that tears apart of the idea of a “single story.” Her first-person narrator loves words, but has never spoken a word in her life. She can remember a thousand facts, but cannot say any of them without the help of a computer.

Melody is a powerful, brilliant, delightful character. From the earliest part of her life, people try to fit her into a box. They try to confine her to a single story, without paying attention to all the other stories that might be true. They see her, and they think “stupid,” no matter how smart she is.

And Melody must learn what so many people learn: that a happy life is largely about how you respond to it. You cannot choose what people do to you, and often you cannot change what people think of you. But you can, to a certain extent, choose how you respond to it. And to laugh is always better than to cry.

Charlotte’s Web and Death

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“No one was with her when she died.” That is the last line in Charlotte’s story. It’s a lonely, wrenching, heartbreaking line, as simple and perfect as the rest of the novel.

“Charlotte’s Web” is all about finding the story in the small lives. The pig who doesn’t want to be eaten, the scavenging rat, the soft-hearted little farmgirl. But the greatest story of all belongs to Charlotte, who lived both the smallest life of all, dying within the pages of the novel, and the longest, having saved Wilbur and having given birth to generations of spiders.

Yet, even so, her death is so very sad.