The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), by Johann David Wyss

wyss-1stI read this book once. Only once. Ever. While it is (or at least was) a classic of European children’s literature, it has certainly not aged well. I cannot bring myself to read it again to review it, so what follows are my recollections from reading it oh-so-many years ago. This might be unfair, but the novel stands out for me as one of the great literary disappointments of my life. For the story of the Swiss Family Robinson—a family marooned on an island who MacGyver together a fabulous treetop home—is the stuff of magical imagination. It speaks to the heart of the child who built elaborate road systems for little cars, and dreamed of a toy train set, just for all those fabulous track junctions… Not so the novel as it was written. Or rather, as it was translated into English by William H.G. Kingston in 1879, which is the edition I read.

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Granted, the idea of racing on the back of an ostrich is appealing to the adventurous child, I think no modern reader—young or old—would be able to get past the Robinson family’s habit of killing an animal in order to determine what it is: “Oh, look, what an amazing, elegant, beautiful creature: let’s kill it.” And while the notion of building an elaborate treehouse from the ground up, so to speak, really does appeal to the engineer in all of us, the glory of bamboo-punk does not outweigh the boredom resulting from the stilted writing and the episodic narrative. But remember, this is a novel of its time and culture. The mechanical engineering that I admired so much is now a solid stereotype about Swiss and German cultures, and the penchant for killing animals just because they could was sadly common amongst European and British explorers—and imperialist conquerors—of the time. Remember the dodo? Or the herds of buffalo shot by men riding past on the railroad? Or the tiger, hunted almost to extinction? It is hard, with modern knowledge of how we have devastated the natural world, to engage completely with The Swiss Family Robinson.

So I no longer even have this novel on my shelf, but I will hold it forever in my mind as an example of the fact that, while literature can tell us so much about a time and place, that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

(So popular was this story that there are numerous “in words of one syllable” editions and other such accessible versions.)

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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.

Mouse Vacation (2016), by Philip Roy

roy-mouse-vI really like Happy the Mouse. He makes me… happy. It seems impossible to read Happy’s adventures without at least a giggle or three. I was wondering, when I read Mouse Pet, the third of Philip Roy’s Happy the Pocket Mouse series, whether the humour would be sustained; it certainly has been so far. In Mouse Vacation, the fourth in the series, Happy is bored and wants to travel; John, predictably parent-like, attempts to stave him off. As in Mouse Pet, Happy’s contemplation opens the narrative:

“We never go anywhere.”
“Mmmhmm?”
“We never go anywhere, John.”
“Yes we do, Happy. We go places.”
“No, we don’t, John. When do we ever go anywhere?”
“We went to the store yesterday.”

Planning the vacation, John says, is half the fun. So the two begin to plan. John suggests local nature outings; Happy suggests exotic destinations. Andrea Torrey Balsara’s delightful illustrations make all of the suggestions highly appealing.

Happy’s very-mature-child voice will be familiar to readers of all ages, his self-confidence both engaging and humorous:

“Do you know where our neighbour Mrs. Farrell went last year, all by herself? … Alaska. She went all the way to Alaska, John. By herself.”

You can just hear the derision in his voice: adults can be so dense sometimes. But Happy, in his näiveté, fails to understand the economics of travel to the Taj Mahal, New Zealand, or Egypt. The pair do come to a compromise: Happy is excited to go on an overnight bus trip to the seashore to see the tall ships; John is pleased as a bus trip is within their budget. The pragmatics that John has to consider are a real part of family life, and Roy gives voice to both the child and parent perspective such that Happy, like the child reader, will be satisfied and engaged, even if they are not destined for Egypt.

In Mouse Vacation, Happy the Pocket Mouse learns a little more about how the real world works, with an adult who is obviously loving and considerate. Geography, though, obviously still escapes him:

“Hmmm … Hmmm … John?”
“Yes?”
“Do you think maybe we can stop at the Grand Canyon on our way home from the seashore?”

Too adorable. I want my own Pocket Mouse, almost as much as I want a House Hippo.

The Bury Road: Tales from the Bruce Peninsula (2015), by Donna Jansen

Jansen - Bury RoadThe Bury Road Girls is “loosely based on [the author’s] own childhood experiences growing up on the Bruce Peninsula in a family with seven girls” (back cover), which does provide a satisfying degree of verisimilitude to the story. Sadly, though, there isn’t much actual story to be had. What we have, rather, is a series of vignettes loosely held together by characters and setting (Debbie’s family and the Bury road community) that present for the reader some aspects of life in a rural Ontario community in the 1960s.

Jansen tells an Owen Sound Sun Times reporter that it was her grandchildren’s love of her stories that prompted her to write the book, and I can see how the tales of a by-gone era would be engaging both to her own family and modern urban readers, who could well be fascinated learning about girls doing boys’ farmwork, haying and threshing and driving the tractor, and a time when getting the strap was still part of school discipline. I remember those days well; rural BC communities were obviously not all that different from those in Ontario.

As a text, Bury Road Girls falls properly under the genre of the short-story cycle: neither a collection of distinct short stories nor a novel with plot or intertwined plot-lines running start to finish through the course of the single narrative. What is required of the short-story cycle, though, is some form of overarching cohesion that ties the vignettes or stories together into a whole. The Bury Road does try to present this: the concluding paragraph has Debbie revisiting the main points of each incident, searching for the Big Dipper up in the sky (another iconic rural childhood activity), because “finding it made her feel safe.” This safety, the protection and camaraderie of the family unit, is perhaps the glue that holds the narrative together, but it is sufficiently well crafted to cause the narrative to glow. The narrative voice is simple and enjoyable, and the images of rural life that we are given are true-to-life and interesting, but I can envision a more engaging way of delivering the vicarious experience.