28 January 2009

Timing the Moon

The narration in Shooting the Moon traces young Jamie’s thoughts and memories back and forth as she plumbs her thoughts on the Vietnam War and her sense of duty. That meant I had to look carefully for clues about the time setting of Frances O’Roark Dowell’s novel, one of the current Cybils Award nominees for Best Middle-Grade Novel.

Chapter 1 establishes that Jamie’s birthday is 10 December, and that it’s six months away when she starts a summer job at the rec center of Fort Hood. Page 138 states that the year is 1969. So the first scene takes place in June 1969.

In the first line, Jamie tells us that opening scene also occurs “The day after my brother left for Vietnam.” On page 49, she recalls a conversation with her brother “after TJ enlisted” but obviously before he shipped out, which must be early June 1969 at the latest.

In that conversation TJ explains why he likes taking photos of the Moon:

“I think the shadows are interesting. And I like the idea that now there are human footprints on the moon’s surface. There’s something pretty cool about that. And, I don’t know, it’s this place in space that people have actually gone to.”
In the following paragraph Jamie drops the name of Neil Armstrong.

However, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn’t land on the Moon and leave their footprints until 20 July 1969, or over a month after that fictional conversation.

Once I realized this was indeed an anachronism, it stopped nagging at me. I accepted that Dowell's novel takes place in a slightly alternative past in which Armstrong made it to the Moon in the spring of 1969 instead of the summer. That's not the focus of the book.

But the anachronism may point to an interesting dilemma Dowell faced. On the one hand, she could have adhered to the historical events of 1969. Then she would have written TJ's remarks in the future tense ("And I like the idea that pretty soon there will be human footprints on the moon's surface..."). And the Moon landing would have been a landmark event in the characters' lives, as it was for many people in the summer of 1969. Indeed, Betsy Bird at the Fuse noted how another reader felt the book didn't have enough to say about that first Moon landing:
I do know at least one person who thought it a little odd that the book didn't concentrate more on the moon landing and how that would have affected the characters. The book is called Shooting the Moon after all. But Dowell covers her bases, having TJ speculate at times about "the idea that there are human footprints on the moon's surface." Classrooms of children will someday be asked what the moon signifies to TJ and to Jamie.
But I think that pausing the narrative for the Moon landing, with Jamie wondering if her brother is watching the TV in Vietnam, yadda yadda yadda, could have made too much of that historical moment. The Moon is an important symbol in the story, but it's a symbol shared between the siblings, not with the whole world. In large part the Moon symbolizes being far away, and the landing would emphasize how it came within humans' reach.

On the other hand, Dowell could have shifted the novel's timeframe to 1970, with the Moon landing in the recent past, as the characters describe it. Since Dowell herself is an army brat younger than Jamie, she might well have been inspired by memories of the early 1970s rather than 1969. But that time setting would have made the politics of the Vietnam War different enough to wreak havoc on the plot. And, as I said before, the first Moon landing isn't what matters most in this book.

Another little bit of lunacy: The title Shooting the Moon refers to TJ’s habit of photographing that celestial body. However, it’s also a term from the card game Hearts. Curiously, Jamie and another important character play gin rummy instead.

No comments: