My daughter was five when she glibly announced:
Nothing exciting happens until your parents die.
Don’t be horrified. She was describing a literary truth:
James and the Giant Peach…The Little Princess…A Series of Unfortunate Events…Oliver Twist…Tom Sawyer…Anne of Green Gables…Huckleberry Finn…The Golden Compass…even (especially!) everybody’s beloved Harry Potter.
In literature, parents must get out of the way so kids can answer the call to adventure. These are our youngest heroes: forced into self-reliance, they face down the world, and give us a thrill.
But there’s more to it than just a good read.
A few years ago, at a book signing in Salt Lake City, Lemony Snicket, creator of A Series of Unfortunate Events and the unforgettable Baudelaire orphans, inscribed a book to my son with these coy and prophetic words:
To Sam, a future orphan
Sam’s parents have steadfastly refused to die, and are, to this day, resolute in their determination to quash all excitement by being. But, eventually, you know….
Anyway, even before parents fade away, orphan-style adventure serves as a metaphor for growing up, for leaving home, for finding one’s way in the world. We prepare ourselves (and then our children) for independence by fantasizing about being an orphan.
Being left behind by your parents serves the same function as leaving everybody behind to go on a quest: you’re on your own and must prove yourself to the world through trials.
Orphans: We do everything heroes do, only at a younger age and on a diet of gruel.
Here’s the best part: Losing your parents, evidently, has an equalizing effect. At least linguistically. A boy can be an orphan. A girl can be an orphan. She is not an orphanette or an orphaness. It is, I suppose, enough of an indignity to be an orphan without adding yet another layer of ‘other’ on top.
And the literary orphans club welcomes boys and girls.
I admit that some of the older stories of orphaned girls are a bit lacking in universal appeal compared to the boys’ stories. (My son has not yet forgiven me for making him sit through hours of reading ANNE OF GREEN GABLES.) But, recently, things have improved. I’ll put the adventures of Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua up against a day in the life of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter any day.
And Violet Baudelaire (to say nothing of sharp-toothed little Sunny) is every bit a match for her brother Klaus.
When Violet Baudelaire and Lyra Belacqua grow up, everybody will want a piece of them.
We will want to know that they are good mothers, that they have strong friendships with other women, that they stand up to men. We will want to know that they are devoted wives, that they are nurturing but pursue meaningful work, that they make time for themselves.
Let them do all of these things and we will love them.
For now, just fight evil, girls.