Fueled by Gruel

25 Sep

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.


24 Responses to “Fueled by Gruel”

  1. solidgoldcreativity September 26, 2010 at 5:03 am #

    Jenny, I love it that the heroine issue has travelled through HB-land and Cheri-land and ended up here in a post ostensibly on orphans. It’s on its own epic quest 🙂

    I share your frustration and dismay with the sexual stereotyping, the sentimentalising of goodness/power in females. SGC

    • jenny September 26, 2010 at 7:46 am #

      Yes, SGC, it’s tag-team theme treatment. Actually, it’s a pyramid scheme. I’m getting ten of my friends to write about heroines (or orphans) and they’ll get ten of their friends, and before you know it, we’ll all be stinking rich!

      I think that’s how it works. 🙂

  2. Paul Costopoulos September 26, 2010 at 6:46 am #

    Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, was herself an orphan raised, like her heroine, by an aunt and uncle. She lived on P.E.I. and her substitute parents’ home is now a small museum.
    We visited the place with my three children then 9 and seven (twin girls). It gives another aspect to her books and reading her diaries, 3 volumes are now published, number four is on hold because not all those she spoke about are dead, introduces you to a very depressive girl and young woman fighting to get into her own and living through an unhappy marriage…but sticking it out to the very end when she became a widow.
    Sorry about your son hating poor little Anne (with an E).

    • jenny September 26, 2010 at 7:54 am #

      Here’s a little side story you might appreciate, Paul:

      My son read my post and complained to me that he comes off as the typical insensitive guy who won’t give the time of day to stories about girls.

      I said: Would you rather I said that you loved ANNE OF GREEN GABLES?


      You’re breaking my heart with this news about Lucy Maud Montgomery. By the way, I liked Anne (with an E), but these kids, Paul, how ya gonna keep’em down on Prince Edward Island now that they’ve met Lord Voldemort?

      • Paul Costopoulos September 26, 2010 at 8:44 am #

        Lord Voldemort is in another league. Each set of books call on various emotions and feelings. Each kid reacts in his or her own ways and we, as adults, must respect that.
        Anne was written in a gentler time in a language slightly antiquated that is, in some parts of our Maritime provinces and of your New England states, still in use. So let life take its course and the chidren will pick what suits them.
        Anne is almost now 100 years old, let’s see if Harry lives that long.

  3. rosaria September 26, 2010 at 7:37 am #

    Interesting, provocative, senza scherzi!

    • jenny October 5, 2010 at 5:28 am #

      Mille grazie, Rosaria, for these kind words. I am only now reading them because, for some reason, WordPress had relegated them to the spam box. I’ll keep an eye on that from now on.

  4. Cheri September 26, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    Your delightful post took me back to my childhood, Jenny.
    Although not an orphan, I often behaved as one, fleeing parental dictates and sibling annoyances as often as I could.

    It all started when I read The Boxcar Children and then demanded (not asked) that I move out of the house and into the dog shed. My dad complied. I stayed out there a number of nights, at age 10, until, exasperated that their reverse psychology didn’t work, they demanded that I come back into the fold.

    This pattern was to continue for many years.

    Now that I am almost a real orphan, these behaviors come back to me, in Where the Wild Things Are proportion.

    In order to individuate and rise to hero status, do we have to pick a pocket or two?

    • Paul Costopoulos September 26, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

      No Cheri, we just have to explore our own pocket and go the very end of what we find in it.

    • jenny September 27, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

      Oh, Cheri! Let us, then, gnash our terrible teeth and roll our terrible eyes metaphorically and create something beautiful from it, eh?

  5. Andreas Kluth September 26, 2010 at 11:04 pm #

    Actually, the orphan experience seems to be considered so powerful that a lot of stories in mythology give us the exaggerated version, which is exposure. From Moses to Oedipus, you get infants who don’t just lose their parents to death but to rejection, who are floated down rivers in baskets or given to shepherds to be disposed of, but then prevail against all odds.

    Parental divorce might be the modern, more common and less extreme version of being orphaned.

    Lots of successful people have lost one or both parents relatively early….

  6. jenny September 27, 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    Uh-oh, Andreas!!!

    Overheard at this morning’s meeting of the local chapter of the Society for the Defense of Jewish Mothers:

    — Nu, so, Rivka, have you heard what they’re saying about Moishe’s poor mother, may she rest in peace?

    — What, that meshugganeh story about how she “rejected” her son? That boy owes his life to his mother! Why, she hid him for three months from the Egyptians.

    — Rivkele, she did put her son in the Nile, and the Torah doesn’t say why…could it be that she was like that shiksa, Jocasta? That’s what they’re saying.

    — Feh! Nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn!

    • Andreas Kluth September 27, 2010 at 2:16 pm #

      Thank you, Jenny. I should slow myself down before I publish comment schmutz that makes me look meshuggener.

      Exposure is the archetype in myth, not necessarily “rejection”. Often the exposure is to save the child, or the dad….

      And in legend and folk tales, the orphan is the archetype. (See my post on Heidi)

      • Cheri September 27, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

        We won’t judge you by your Yiddish, A.

    • Cheri September 27, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

      This is so funny. Have you considered sharing some of these Yiddish anecdotes with a rabbi, so that the sermons might not put one to sleep?

      • jenny September 28, 2010 at 7:06 am #

        Cheri, I’m glad you used the word anecdote. That is the Russian word for a joke.

        I cannot understand why joke telling has fallen out of fashion in America, despite my best efforts. They are the shortest of short stories, right?

      • dafna September 28, 2010 at 11:58 pm #

        yes jenny,

        please email my rabbi immediately! his sermons could use a lift.

        however out of fashion joke telling may have become, it is alive and well with this bunch.

        absolutely brilliant retelling of the story of moses 🙂 too funny!

      • jenny September 29, 2010 at 7:09 am #

        Really, Daphna, you like? Wait till you hear the one about his sister Miriam. You’ll laugh so hard, you’ll plotz! 😉

  7. Andreas Kluth September 27, 2010 at 11:03 pm #

    BTW, Jenny, did you get my last post by the email subscription feature? It appears that that thing is not working — ie, that people think they’ved subscribed but they don’t get email updates. Has anybody else found that?

    (I did get your post by email, though)

    • jenny September 28, 2010 at 7:09 am #

      Andreas, you are right: I did not receive your last post by email subscription. I assumed conspiracy. Anything else disappoints.

      I liked your Heidi post, though I regret (again!) that I didn’t discover America.

  8. Mark Workman September 28, 2010 at 8:38 am #

    Your daughter may have been glib but she was profound. I’ve been an orphan now for 20 years and your daughter is right! Does she have a blog? I’d love to see it.

  9. Cheri September 28, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    Everything in writing is a story. Even tiny poems.

    ” I never saw a purple cow,
    I never hope to be one,
    But I can tell you anyhow,
    I’d rather see than be one.”

    Can’t remember poet!

    The best historians tell the story.

    Just finished Keegan’s The Face of Battle (poor storytelling)

    Reading Howarth’s Waterloo (fabulous storytelling)

  10. lyndabirde October 7, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    trying to catch up on my reading, I was tickled to see this. I want to add Heidi. and Isabel Archer, “the girl” who wasn’t given a name until chapter 3 or 4 but who became the heroine. Literary journeys begun in innocence and protection rarely produce unchanged characters. And how about all the writers who were orphaned? Would Wordsworth have adored his sister so if his mother still lived? I like your comment on how an orphan in English is not gender specific. But, as you may guess, in Spanish as in all romance, la huerfana is to be pitied and protected in her despair and madness, while el huerfano is pitied and not really trusted because of his wildness/freedom. As if the female may be more easily controlled.

    • jenny October 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

      That’s interesting. The word for orphan in Russian is grammatically always feminine. Gotta think about that now.

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