13 January 2010

A Different Standard for the Dust Bowl?

Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn is set in the Dust Bowl of the late 1920s and 1930s. It does a fine job of evoking that environmental catastrophe. I wasn’t so impressed with how the book’s plot was resolved, with a jump into the supernatural. The young hero appears to end the drought and fix his personal troubles in a way that the laws of nature made impossible for real children of that time and place.

Would reviewers be as quick to praise an equally fantastic treatment of other historic tragedies? In particular, I wonder about depictions of the Nazi Holocaust. Would critics, librarians, and teachers be as comfortable with a novel about that history that offers such an unreal resolution?

In The Devil’s Arithmetic, Jane Yolen used the fantastic element of time travel to introduce a modern girl (and, through her, modern readers) to the horrors of the Nazi death camps. At the end, the heroine escapes being killed by traveling forward through time to her home. And that produced some objections.

In an editorial for the Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books in 1988, Roger Sutton praised aspects of The Devil’s Arithmetic but, as he’s acknowledged, “took issue with the fantasy aspect of the plot.” Specifically, he felt that ending undercut the historical reality:

Time-travel fantasy can be an honorable form of historical fiction, but how effective is it as an introduction to the Holocaust? . . .

Jane Yolen has written a powerful, not easily forgotten, story, but is it a story about the Holocaust? The horror—and the history—are betrayed by the essentially comforting vision of the story and its time-travel form. . . .

This optimistic, neatly rounded lesson fits comfortably into children’s literature, a genre that, despite well-known exceptions, demands a hopeful conclusion. How much hope can be extracted from the Holocaust?
I saw something similar in The Storm in the Barn. It offers hope for young Jack, and a sense of accomplishment he badly needs. But that comes about entirely at the fantasy level: Jack defeats the personification of the rain (who’s a rather easily defeated personification, as these things go) in a physical tussle atop a windmill.

More recently, many people objected to John Boyne’s fabulistic treatment of the Holocaust, The Boy in Striped Pajamas, because it, too, offered historically impossible hope. (Others loved the book for the same reason.) As of tonight the novel’s entry on Wikipedia argues:
it is not historical fiction. The very premise of the book - that there would be a child of Shmuel’s age - is, according to critics, an unacceptable fabrication that does not reflect the reality of life in the camps.
The Storm in the Barn is also a fabrication, even more obviously since one doesn’t need to look up histories to see the unreal elements. But no one has called Phelan’s book “unacceptable.” Indeed, it just received the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

The Dust Bowl and the Nazi Holocaust are separated by a decade at most, so I don’t think our different attitudes toward those events are based on how fresh their memories are. Instead, I can think of several other reasons for the difference, including:
  • The lack of human villains in the Dust Bowl, meaning that the personification of the storm doesn’t absolve anyone of responsibility.
  • The lack of any small or vocal groups denying the severity of the Dust Bowl.
  • America’s powerful agricultural and economic recovery after the Dust Bowl.
But what happens if climate change becomes a major problem in daily life? In that case, treating an environmental catastrophe as fodder for a fantastic fable might raise as many objections as those fantastic treatments of the Holocaust.


Wendy said...

I've heard this argument about The Devil's Arithmetic (which I read in fifth or sixth grade) before, but never read a primary source, and I disagree with Roger about the book being excessively hopeful and that having anything to do with its being time travel. I don't think it's any more hopeful than almost any other children's / YA book about the Holocaust; the protagonist almost always survives. But actually, Hannah/Chaya DOESN'T--that's an important part of the story. Chaya dies and so do all her friends except the one she saves. Hannah's own 1940s self dies. She gives up her chance to live because she knows she'll have another one. That's the point.

I think comparing The Devil's Arithmetic to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is misleading at best, offensive at worst. The second book tells things about the Holocaust that are completely untrue, but disguises them as realism; in the first book everything is true except the time travel itself, and no one is going to read that and mistake it for reality.

Likewise, it's obvious that the fantastic parts of The Storm in the Barn are not "true". But you're definitely wrong that no one has objected to the book--indeed, I've been hearing objections about its casual/fantastical/unreal treatment of the Dust Bowl since before it was published.

Monica Edinger said...

I see yours and Roger's points about the supernatural deux ex machina aspects of how both novels are resolved. But I still don't see why they are not historical fiction. You can argue, as does Roger, about the weakness of this as a plot resolution, but why does it make it not historical fiction?

Are you following the historical fiction discussion over at bookwitch? Some interesting correlations to yours here.

Monica Edinger said...

I should also say I think of Boyne's book as very bad historical fiction.

I guess I don't see fable (as you discussed it in a previous post) and historical fiction as mutually exclusive.

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of literature about the Holocaust that describes the hopelessness. And then there is the movie "Life Is Beautiful" where, although some of the horror of the camp is shown, there is humor and hope which is entirely appropriate. Stories about horrific events are there for much more than instruction about the horror, giving them a different role than nonfiction or a course about a terrifying period in history.

Of course a story placed in a particular historical period will be made unreal by inserting fantasy. That's the nature of fantasy. Audiences, children included, get that. The story is transformed from historical fiction (which suggests an element of plausibility) to historical fantasy (which removes the plausibility). It is not an inherently bad thing -- unless the story suffers for other reasons such as a weak plot or implausibility within the context of the fantasy or some other reason. Although many children were slaughtered, some survived the Holocaust, and in some of the accounts I have read they describe active imaginations, relying in some cases on fantasy to make their lives bearable. I can't agree that creating literature out of such stories, or even inserting fantasy, would on their own be bad. It's a matter of execution.

(It dawns on me that my reaction to your piece here may be because I thought The Devil's Arithmetic to be very well done, and I disagree strongly with the critic's take.)

J. L. Bell said...

I see A Storm in the Barn as partaking of historical fiction, but I think the fantasy side of the book wins out. The resolution not only depends on the supernatural, but it also suggests that the historical situation delineated in the preceding pages had a supernatural cause.

I also see a major plot weakness in the book as fantasy, but that’s a posting for another day.

As for The Devil’s Arithmetic, Yolen did offer a fantastic escape for her heroine and a girl who would be her grandmother. But that fantasy element didn’t undercut the history of the Holocaust.

I also like to think that readers would recognize the fantastic element as there to ease the immediate experience of reading the book. And in that sense they would paradoxically come away with a stronger sense of the historical reality that millions of other young people died. In other words, if Yolen had had the heroine saved by non-fantastic means, such as the arrival of the Allied forces, the book would have offered too much comfort.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t think of “fable” and “historical fiction” as necessarily exclusive, but fables tend toward simplification and real history is complex. Thus, a novel that illuminates real history would have a hard time also being a fable.

I have read the comments on historical fiction at bookwitch, and plan to discuss them soon.

J. L. Bell said...

Some Holocaust literature indeed depicts the hopelessness of the victims, but how much of it is for children? I think Roger Sutton’s point from 1988 was that we’ve come to expect children’s books to leave readers with a “sense of hope,” which produces stress in children’s literature about the Holocaust.

J. L. Bell said...

Wendy, the similarity of The Devil’s Arithmetic and The Boy in Striped Pajamas lies in how both books addressed the Holocaust in a way that some critics complained was inappropriate because it was somehow inaccurate or misleading. The books do indeed approach the same topic in two different ways.

The next question is whether The Storm in the Barn depicts the Dust Bowl in a way similar to either of those books—or both. Two of those books use fantasy elements. Two presents themselves as “fables” while drawing on heart-tugging images of suffering.

I’m afraid I haven’t seen or heard the complaints about The Storm in the Barn that you have. All the reviews I’ve seen in both the comics and children’s book press have been favorable, without raising the issues I’ve been discussing.

dot said...

To the best of my knowledge, the main character in Phelan's Storm In the Barn doesn't have an insipid lisp whenever he says the word "Dutht Bowl" or "Kan-thith". That probably tips the scales a little, all by itself. Tragic historical incidents? Maybe leave out your young protaganist's adawable lisping mispronunciations.

J. L. Bell said...

I think leaving out the adorable lisp is good advice for all writers.