As promised, my less-than-glowing review of an early twentieth-century children’s book: Little Gray Doors, by Alexandrina Woods. This author is one of the early Canadian female authors listed in the Canada’s Early Women Authors project, which 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.
Little Gray Doors (1926)
Little Gray Doors suffers from one of the predominant problems of early twentieth century literature for children: it is not only prescriptive, but premised upon guilt as a motivation for behaviour. The first four stories in the collection each show a child learning through fairly drastic means a lesson in good behaviour; the last story, “The Fairy Glen,” shows a magical visit to fairy-land given to a well-behaved child, a visit of which there is no memory on her waking.
The opening story, “Little Gray Doors,” has a naughty boy, sent to bed without his tea, suddenly and inexplicably out in the garden where he discovers a doorway in a tree truck, leading to a hallway full of little gray doors. Behind each door, he sees a different world in which the children are unhappy, mischief abounds, and chaos reigns. On the wall above each door is cryptically written L.O.P. He reaches the end of the hallway to view a final room in which a group of exhausted women, obviously mothers, sit around mending toys and clothing with tears in their eyes. At this point, he sees the full message: Land of Punishment. It is not certain to me whether the punishment is being inflicted on the children or the mothers… regardless, it is a dismal experience, and the guilt-ridden David returns gratefully to the land above, resolved to behave in an impossibly perfect manner from now on.
The stories become increasingly less traumatic as the book progresses, but none actually manage not to create a feeling of guilt in the child reader. “The Mirror” tells the metaphoric tale of a young boy who is given a mirror by his “King” (Jesus), whose face will be reflected instead of the boy’s. Each time the boy fails to behave, the mirror becomes clouded or seems cracked, until it is not longer useable. The boy must take a Pilgrim’s Progress journey back to see the King, during which he performs good deeds. The King forgives him and restores the mirror.
“The Magic Needle” teaches young Ruth be content not knowing or understanding the whole picture of what she has been set to do; “Paternoster” helps the unnamed protagonist to understand that all creatures’ lives are worthwhile, as they are all created by “Our Father”; and “The Fairy Glen” has perfectly organized and disciplined young Betty taken on a trip to fairy-land. Here, she cannot dance without diamonds on her toes, coloured jewels on her skirt, and pearls in her hair—like the fairies—but she is granted all these riches by the small animals she has helped in her real life. In the end, though, she is returned to her bed and her jewels are taken back to fair-land, the incident is explicitly forgotten: “the clock was ticking as though nothing had happened … and the little China Shepherdess has never said one word about the strange things she saw and heard” (121).
There is nothing redeeming in the message of Little Gray Doors: no child could live up to the expectations of behaviour set by the author, and while the punishment and guilt for misbehavior is explicit, there are no positive results in the real world, for the good behaviour Betty shows.