In my other life, I work for the Canada’s Early Women Writers (CEWW) project, headed by Dr. Carole Gerson at Simon Fraser University. The project aims to construct an online database of all Canadian women who published—in any genre, in any forum—before 1950. CEWW is one of the seed projects for the larger database project, the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC), run out of the University of Alberta, and headed by Dr. Susan Brown.
Connecting my love of early Canadian literature with my love of children’s literature, I have been reading through the children’s texts written by some of our authors, with the intent of sharing them—if only superficially—with others. The first such text was The Bells on Finland Street, by Lyn Cook.
The Joyous Story of Astrid (1931)
“L. Adams Beck” is one of the three pseudonyms used by Elizabeth Louisa Moresby Beck; the others are “E. Barrington,” which she used for historical fictional biography, and “Louis Moresby,” which she used for non-fiction. Beck was from a prominent British imperial family, and travelled extensively in the Orient before settling in Victoria, BC. Moresby Island, a part of the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, is named after her paternal grandfather. The pseudonym “L. Adams Beck” was used primarily for writings dealing with Eastern mysticism and religion, which she studied intently. The Joyous Story of Astrid, while not predominantly religious or philosophical, does present tales from Asian traditions to the young Canadian reader.
I must admit that I am generally skeptical about the quality of many novels for children written in the early twentieth century: so many of them are trite and prescriptive at best, and positively controlling at worst (wait for my upcoming review of Little Gray Doors , by Alexandrina Woods). The Joyous Story of Astrid, however, delighted me in its freshness, its lack of prescriptive condescension, and its healthy representation of an eschatology that differs from the prevailing Christian notions of Heaven and Hell. The writing style is somewhat dated, unsurprisingly, but I would still heartily recommend the text to young readers today. My only regret is perhaps that it does not actually present a philosophical belief to young readers; I think Beck would be admirable proponent of a more explicit message, so balanced is her presentation in this short story cycle.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a short story cycle is a collection of short stories contained within an over-arching narrative frame; the stories and the frame narrative together construct the whole of the narrative. In The Joyous Story of Astrid, we are introduced to Astrid, a “moon-child” as she is born beneath a full moon right on the stroke of midnight. Thus, she belongs to the Moon Goddess, and sleeps all day, coming out to frolic with her nocturnal friends in the forest at night. By and by, the Moon Goddess tells her stories of her own life, as well as the lives of children and animals and mythical creatures in other lands: China, Japan, India… lands where the people believe in the magic Astrid lives by. The stories themselves are delightful, although interrupted perhaps too much by the narrative frame plot in which the Mr. Mouse and the Mouse Queen orchestrate the marriage of the Mouse Princess, with the help of Astrid and her wish-dog, Jock.
As Astrid learns more about “true dreaming” and the creation of “mind-flowers,” she learns more about “The Back of Beyond,” the place where all knowledge will be acquired. Initially, this seems to be a metaphor for the Christian Heaven, but by the end of the text, Astrid and Jock cross the “Cold River” and enter the Back of Beyond, where “they were slowly beginning to see that a wonderful new story, which yet was the old story too, was starting for them, exactly as when the daffodil bulb hidden underground sends up a golden flower into the sunshine” (281-2). The Back of Beyond is a magical place, where the gods and fictional characters are real, where there is no need of houses or protection, where maturity and vision have been achieved and the toil and hardship of life falls away: a nirvana for children, presented in a simple and powerfully enticing way.