Pollyanna (1913), by Eleanor H. Porter

porter-pollyannaThrough the glory that is e-books, I have finally read the 1913 classic novel for girls, Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter; I’m so glad I didn’t pay money for it. Pollyanna was so popular for so long that even those who have no idea of the plot of the novel understand the ethos: like France Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), Pollyanna is the predominant literary example of excessively joyous innocence triumphing over the bitterness created by the adult world.

Upon the death of her father, orphaned Pollyanna travels to live with her mother’s sister, Aunt Polly. There are strong echoes of Anne (of Green Gables) in Pollyanna’s verbosity and exuberance when she is greeted at the station, as well as in the situation she finds herself in. Aunt Polly, like Marilla Cuthbert, doesn’t really want a child living with her; Old Tom, the handyman, plays the role of Matthew Cuthbert in his sympathy with the orphaned Pollyanna. While Pollyanna shares some of Anne’s liveliness, her character is far too saccharine to be believable; this, of course, is why the epithet “Pollyanna” is often given to do-gooders and those who push forward their own seemingly altruistic agendas regardless of the reality surrounding them.

The narrative element that underpins Pollyanna is Pollyanna’s “just being glad game,” taught to her by her father. Pollyanna’s childish logic are almost reductio ad absurdum; examples abound, one being when she is punished by Aunt Polly with only bread and milk for dinner, yet gushes: “I’m really glad about it, Aunt Polly. I like bread and milk, and Nancy too. … I’ve had such a lively time here so far. Your house is beautiful! And I know I am going to like living with you.” We do on occasion see Pollyanna’s tears—she has after all just lost her beloved father, and is being treated unfairly—but her ability to suppress her sorrow in public and private is sufficiently uncanny to be troubling. Her character is drawn such that we do not see the struggles she might have in keeping a brave face against Aunt Polly’s unnecessarily harsh attitudes.

Incomprehensibly, Pollyanna’s excessive cheerfulness melts the bitterness of old Mrs. Snow, the crotchety John Pendleson, and eventually even her Aunt Polly. Aunt Polly’s transformation is made complete when—through fate in the form of a crippling accident that begins to test even Pollyanna’s emotional fortitude—she is reunited with the lover from her youth. Maybe if the writing were stronger, or the characters more richly constructed, or the plot less predicatble and contrived, it would be a better vehicle for Porter’s moral instruction. As it is, rather than feeling uplifted by Pollyanna’s cheerfulness, we end up saying, with Aunt Polly: “Glad! … will you please stop using that word!”

Perhaps it is because we have Anne of Green Gables (1908) as such a solid part of our Canadian children’s literature heritage, but I can’t help feeling that Pollyanna is little more than a poor imitation of a real children’s classic.

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The Pirate’s Bed (2015), by Nicola Winstanley

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.4.

The Pirate’s Bed

Winstanley - Pirate

I have to agree with my teenaged daughter: “I like the drawings; they’re really cute,” but the text of The Pirate’s Bed, for me, leaves something to be desired. Brevity, perhaps, or a more flowing narrative … The premise is sweet: told, as the title suggests, from the perspective of the pirate’s bed, not the pirate. We experience its freedom in separation from its owner, its discovery of loneliness, and its return to the comforts of family. I think the problem for me is that there are too many words on the page to create a balance with the simplicity of the story; the writing is more at a chapter-book than a picture book level. The storm scene lasts far too long, covering five full pages. In this time, we are hearing mostly about the pirate, too, which really steers the focus away from the bed. When the pirate and his crew are washed ashore on an island, and we follow the bed as it drifts off to sea, it comes as a surprise, title notwithstanding. Once we readjust our focus (something the reader should not really have to do in this simple a narrative), the plot mores on more fluidly, and we begin to understand the point of the story. Maybe a skillful reader could counteract the imbalance between story and text, focusing on the drama of the storm, the loneliness of the bed… but it would take and initial reading to prepare, and a bit of natural talent to execute. Still, my daughter finds the entire book “adorable,” so who am I really, an adult, to demur?

The Quilt (2004), by Gary Paulsen

Paulsen - QuiltThis is the third story Paulsen has written about his early life with his grandmother. It is a gentle, realistic story of a six-year-old boy helping his grandmother and her pregnant young friend on a farm in the woods of Minnesota during World War II, when the men were all away fighting. While an interesting and warm story, this feels more like a nostalgic journey for Paulsen than any attempt at telling the story to a reader. More interesting for biocriticism, perhaps, than as a story for young readers, although it is written for quite a young readership.

The Phantom’s Gold (2013), by Eric Murphy

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.1.

The Phantom’s Gold

Murphy-Phantom Gold“William was shaken awake and knew something bad was happening” (1). The Phantom’s Gold open dramatically, and readers might think William is having a dream. But he isn’t: his life is turned upside down when his father dies in an accident that he survives. Traumatized by the event, and his mother’s attempts to move on, he runs away to his grandparents in Nova Scotia, only to find that they, too, are dealing with the death of their beloved son. This is the set-up for a fascinating novel of family and life on the sea, of history and ghosts and mending broken ties. Eric Murphy must be an avid and knowledgeable sailor, for he introduces a number of nautical terms seamlessly into his story. His characters exude the love of the sea that tradition might demand, but that is nonetheless very real to those who live a seafaring life.

William soon becomes involved in Lunenburg activities, most notably the sailing race his grandfather usually wins. This year, however, Granddad is too wrapped up in his grief to compete. With the family sail-making business at risk, William, his great-uncle Emmett and his cousin Harley take on the challenge. Crewing for his relatives, William grows into his nautical heritage at the same time as he solves a family mystery: the location of the lost fortune of his ancestor, the “Real McCoy.” Murphy’s McCoy is entirely fictional, but intertwined with the legend of William “Bill” McCoy, the American rum-runner during Prohibition. This connection between fictional and real characters is artfully constructed; readers learn not only about sailing, but also a bit about 1920s Canadian history. There is so much right about this novel—seamanship, history, narrative—that I would highly recommend it to any young readers, regardless of gender or usual interests.