Monday, September 16, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            A couple of weeks ago [look up “Child’s Eye View” on the index at right], I told the tale of misreading a piece of music and a comic film when I was a tot, and imagining both of them to be scary.

Those were personal reactions corrected by an adult understanding of the codes in which the music was composed and the film made. Encountering both music and film decades later, I saw them for the harmless things they were, but realized that my understanding was not innate. It was taught by experience.

Now for a slight variation on the same theme.

As a parent I have, over the years, read many books to my growing children. As the youngest of them is now into teenager-hood, they are all much too old to be read to anymore; but I’m sure the growing tribe of grandchildren will one day require my services.

One of the things I often found when reading to children was how their reactions to books were very different from the ones an adult might have expected.

I read to my children, complete and unabridged, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. When I got to the death of Nancy, bludgeoned by the Cockney thug Bill Sikes, I gave it full dramatic force, playing up the brutality and the horror and the pathos in my yelping and growling and sobbing and the piteous cries for mercy of Nancy.

I expected my children to quiver with horror or at the very least be shocked.

But they didn’t turn a hair. It was just another episode in the story to them.

But a few chapters later, when Bill Sikes’ dog met its death, they were genuinely shocked and let out gasps of horror. Animals being mistreated perhaps seemed more vivid to them than the death of a woman.

Also they surprised me by liking the Rose Maylie bits of the novel, where the mistreated Oliver briefly finds safe haven in the country. These are episodes that are always cut out of film and television adaptations of Oliver Twist because they don’t advance the plot much; and therefore they tend not to be well-remembered. But I think my children felt comfy and cosy with them. Little waif being looked after by substitute mother is a motif to which children respond well.

As another example of my children not responding to a reading as I hoped they would – I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to them, doing my best Long John Silver “Aaarrrr Jim lad!” theatricals. It worked up to a point. At least they followed the story, were suitably shocked by the plans of mutiny which Jim overhears when he wakes in an apple barrel (think of the logistics of this, by the way – it’s not RLS’s most credible moment), liked crazy Ben Gunn with his requests for cheese and were intrigued by Jim’s encounter with seals and voyage in the coracle.

But as the battles increased between mutinying pirates and Captain Smollett’s loyal followers, and as the body count rose, my children began to resist the story and actually rebel against it. When I read Treasure Island as a kid, the death of Israel Hands was a sublime moment (“One more step, Mr Hands, and I’ll blow your brains out!”).  For my children it was just one more murder and they began to say, “This story is violent and horrible”.

As an adult, I’m probably being very inconsistent in expecting my children to be appalled by murder in one novel (Oliver Twist) and to enjoy it as part of a rollicking tale in another (Treasure Island). But their reaction was just as inconsistent as my own.

There may be another factor at work here. In all sorts of ways, my children were subjected to values and social pressures that didn’t exist in quite the same way when I was their age.

I think Captain Marryat’s The Children of the New Forest – the one about Cavalier children hiding out from Roundheads – is still a charming pastoral and wonderful piece of wish-fulfilment for younger adolescents who want to dream of running their own house without grown-ups. But my eldest daughter got very angry with it when I read it to her and her elder brother.

The problem is that all the interesting stuff in the story happens to the two boys, Edward and Humphrey, who learn to be foresters, hunt animals, evade their enemies and so forth. The two girls, Alice and Edith, simply stay at home in the forest cottage and keep house. This made my daughter furious. Girls should be able to do anything, obviously. No gender stereotyping and boring housekeeping please. She folded her arms, glowered and stamped her foot when I got to the end of The Children of the New Forest. She was much more comfortable with the assertive Nancy, adventurous captain of the Amazons, in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series.

So feminism and anti-violence teaching have some impact on kids. And perhaps reasoned nature and wildlife documentaries do too. When I read Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World to my kids, one of my sons protested at the author’s description of nesting dinosaurs as if it was something filthy and disgusting. “But they’re only animals”, he said, realizing that Sir Arthur was trying to manipulate the readers’ response with inappropriately chosen adjectives.

I heard somebody once claim that children have very acute “bullshit detectors”. I don’t think this is always true. Children are as gullible as most adults when it comes to succumbing to publicity and fads. But where books are concerned their reactions can be surprising and unexpected; and they can sometimes see through an author’s artifice, even if they don’t always understand the codes that govern genres.

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