01 October 2006

Motherless Bybanks

Rachael Vilmar's last posting on Your Fairy Bookmother weeks ago caught my eye because she listed four similar examples of "A Children's Book I Did Not Like," and I'd already chosen to stop reading two of them: Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo, and Everything on a Waffle, by Polly Horvath. Furthermore, number 3 on Vilmar's list was a volume in my reading queue: Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech.

Vilmar wrote of Creech's 1995 Newbery-winner:

it just came off as yet another “My Mother Is Dead Or In Trouble But It’s A Good Thing I Have Such Wise People In My Community/Family To Teach Me What Life Is All About So I Can Approach Things From A Philosophical But Whimsical Point Of View” book. Yes, it made me cry, but they felt like cheap tears. I felt manipulated.
Not really what the business calls a selling review.

But I decided to tough it out. There's no question that Walk Two Moons is a "My Mother Is Dead or in Trouble" book. The narrator's mother is gone, and not just to make it easier for the kids can have an adventure--a common authorial challenge. Missing Mom is the central theme of the book. By my count there are, in no particular closeness to the narrator:
  • a dead mother
  • two mothers who suddenly leave their families
  • a mother who gave up her child for adoption
  • a blinded mother
  • an insane mother
  • a mother who suffers a miscarriage
  • a mother who dies in the course of the novel
In fact, I can recall only one example of a fully-intact mother in Walk Two Moons, and she's a minor character.

I was able to make it all the way through Walk Two Moons because the young protagonist's response to this plight is not syrupy cheeriness, as I found in Winn-Dixie and Waffle.

Walk Two Moons also displayed a most interesting use of what I called "perspective" in an SCBWI New England conference workshop earlier this year. I'm promoting this as a new idea in writing, so bear with me. By "perspective" I don't mean just another word for "point of view." I mean a measurement in time between when events happen and when the narrator relates them. A novel in diary form has a different perspective from a novel that masquerades as a memoir. The narrator has had time to learn more, grow, and reflect when the perspective is more distant.

In Walk Two Moons Creech actually juggles four different perspectives. As Sal tells her story, she braids together incidents from four different times:
  • memories of her mother in Bybanks, Kentucky
  • memories of life without her mother
  • experiences in a new home with new friends, particularly Phoebe
  • her trip to Idaho with her grandparents, telling them about Phoebe
Sal has a different perspective on each of these periods, and in the final chapter, adventure over, she describes her current situation in an immediate perspective.

I've seen Walk Two Moons described as "intricately plotted," but that just seems like a synonym for "lots of things to keep track of." I found some of the plotting to be a bit forced. There are coincidences, information withheld from Sal for no apparent reason, information withheld by Sal from us for a most apparent reason, etc. But I would certainly agree that the book is intricately narrated.


Anonymous said...

I agree, why are all the books my daughter wants to read have to do with a dead mother? My daughter loved all three of those books you mentioned. I can't understand why the mother is dead in all three and in every book that my daughter wants to read!

J. L. Bell said...

I try not to get in the middle of a parent-child relationship! But I suspect one reason that "dead mother" books are popular, like "wilderness adventure" books or "evil wizard" books, is that they let readers explore an experience that would frighten them in real life.

Janni said...

Ah. I'm guessing you're heading to the same conference I am next week. :-)

I actually adored Because of Winn Dixie, even though it's not a sort of book I usually like. But Walk Two Moons ... yeah.

I've been wondering too about all these dead and absent mothers. I've written books and stories that do this myself (more absent than dead), and now I'm wondering why.

I suspect I'll be a bit more self-conscious about Mom's role, whatever book I write next.

J. L. Bell said...

Conference next week? ALA? Kindling Words? Alas, not. But I hope you have a fun trip.

My next venture from home will be to the SCBWI Mid-Winter Meeting in NYC.

Janni said...

I was thinking KW, since Walk Two Moons was one of the recommended books to read before same--while somehow not noticing that this was actually posted back in October. :-)