ChLA Quarterly Spring 2009 Volume 34 Number 1
This is the introduction to one of the ChLA Quartarly publications:
Forsaken Spots: At the Intersection of Children's Literature and Modern War
Karin E. Westman
The key terms of this special issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly—children’s literature and war—acquired a companion term during the publication review process: modern. In doing so, this issue contributes to a growing body of scholarship that explores representations of war in children’s literature since 1890, with particular emphasis on World War II. In pursuing “representations of war:’ this issue also takes to heart the observation of contributor David Henry that “we cannot judge the meaning of a piece of children’s literature—or indeed any literature—solely by how it appears on the page; we must also consider the performative practices by which it was embedded within the community.”
With these “performative practices” in mind, our definition of modern wartime texts must adjust accordingly. Certainly, the moment of a text’s production—whether before, during, or following war—may signal its status as a wartime text, with the consequence that, as Paul Fussell claims, all literature written since World War I is war literature. More conventionally, however, we tend to use the dates of writing or publication to establish a text’s link to war. Given the many wars waged since 1890, much of the work of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries could fall along this historical timeline. An extension of this first view leads to a second: a text might be considered a war text if its author’s experiences in war contributed to the composition in some way, regardless of when the writing occurred or the writer’s stated intent. Readings of Tolkien’s work alongside his experiences of combat in World War I and of living through World War II, offered in books by John Garth and Janet Croft, illustrate this approach, as does a recent essay by Mark Heberle. “While the Second World War may or may 213 not have been [the Trilogy’s figurative subject:’ Heberle claims, “the war was on Tolkien’s mind throughout the composition, reawakening, yet also helping to revise, the trauma of the Great War imaginatively and, in turn, his earlier mythology” (130). A third way that modern war could inflect a text might be through setting. Noel Streatfeild situates the narrative action of Curtain Up (1944) during the Blitz, for instance, but so, too, do Susan Cooper in Dawn of Fear (1970) and Edward Bloor in London Calling (2006). This range of publication dates may push the conventional definition of “modern war text” beyond its usual bounds, but productively so: we are reminded how one modern war can reflect past, present, and future in its iterations through time.
The recent essay collection edited by Elizabeth Goodenough and Andrea Immel, entitled Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War (2008), recognizes this kind of performative complexity surrounding children (as historical subjects, protagonists, or interlocutors), literature, and war. Under Fire follows on a number of resources for mapping representations of war in children’s literary and cultural texts and the recovery of child experiences during war, including works such as Kate Agnew and Geoff Fox’s Children at War: From the First World War to the Gulf (2001), Emmy E. Werner’s Through the Eyes of Innocents: Children Witness World War II (2000), Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig’s Women and Children First: The Fiction of Two World Wars (1978), and annotated bibliographies such as M. Paul Holsinger’s The Ways of War: The Era of World War II in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction (1995) and Desmond Taylor’s The Juvenile Novels of World War II: An Annotated Bibliography (1994). Such work in the field of children’s literature serves as an important complement to literary scholarship on “adult” war literature, represented by essays like Elizabeth Goodenough’s “We Haven’t the Words’: The Silence of Children in the Novels of Virginia Woolf” (1994), or the type of historical research represented by Sue Wheatcroft’s “Children’s Experiences of War: Handicapped Children in England During the Second World War” (2008).
In the collection Under Fire, war is read first as an historical event translated into text, but the contributors also explore the stories that emerge from that history for both child readers and the adults around them. A common thread between the essays, according to Goodenough and Immel, is the recognition that many authors for children “chose not to shield readers from the heart of darkness”: “They believe that children, like adults, can be offered challenging texts showing the tragic interplay between private lives and impersonal forces that suggest just how complex negotiations between the demands of memory, imagination, and historical truth can be” (4). Essays in the collection explore wartime propaganda that makes use of familiar tropes of children’s stories, tales that advocate “juvenile agency” in place of a “safe” but perhaps ultimately more traumatic “haven” (7), recovery of children’s experiences of during war, and The “consensus now that children’s literature is the most rather than the least appropriate literary forum for trauma work” (Kidd 161)—the latter reminding us of the increasingly central role children’s literature plays in literary and cultural scholarship of war, in contrast to its absence from earlier critical conversations.215
215 Within the cultural texts of the modern child, then, war becomes an organizing principle of lived experience, its consequences played out on historical or storied, literal or figurative, landscapes. By placing our emphasis on the child’s experience within the modern landscapes of war, we can make explicit the transformative, often didactic, ideologies that, shape modern life. We are granted license to explore emotional realities, from trauma to renewal, from fear to hope—even if that hope is slim, as it is in the last section of Adorno’s essay on Kafka from 1967:
The only chance, in Kafka’s eyes, however feeble and minute, of preventing the world from being all-triumphant, was to concede it victory from the beginning. Like the youngest boy in the fairy tale, one must make oneself completely unobstrusive, small, a defenceless victim, instead of insisting on one’s rights according to the mores of the world, that of exchange, which unremittingly reproduced injustice. [. . .) Whereas the interiors, where men live, are the homes of the catastrophe, the hide-outs of childhood, forsaken spots like the bottom of the stairs, are the places of hope. (269—7 1)
Setting aside the paradoxical view of agency Adorno’s language suggests (one must become a “defenceless victim” in order to thrive), Adorno’s turn to the child’s perspective offers a way out of an almost untenable condition described earlier in the essay in terms of war, a space “inhabited by living skeletons and putrefying bodies” (260). Imagery of children and warfare converge on the pages of Adorno’s essay, but they do so to emphasize “hope”: the child’s position, however fragile and reduced, becomes a metaphor for productive alterity—a way to live in opposition to, rather than in concert with, the ideologies of “injustice.” In addition to representing the historical child and his or her agency within the world, perhaps that child’s point of view— that value found in “forsaken spots”— could also become a metaphor for the otherwise overlooked literature that maps a child’s experience of war in the modern world.
Each of the five essays this issue identifies a “forsaken spot” in the cultural landscape of children’s literature and modern war, revealing varying degrees of agency for the text’s protagonists as well as its readers. In “Japanese Children’s Literature as Allegory of Empire: Iwaya Sazanami’s Momotaro (The Peach Boy):’ David Henry explains how, from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894—95 to the end of World War II, the Momotaro tale of a young boy born from a peach became a central metaphor for Japanese overseas aggression. Appearing in children’s stories, national language readers, and public performances, the Momotarö tale has performed the cultural work of imperial Japan for children and adults between 1894 and 1945 and well beyond the years of its initial telling. Another “forsaken spot” 216 appears in Makito Yurita and Reade Dornan’s discussion of “Hiroshima: Whose Story Is It?” Here the “forsaken spot” is the space between North American and Japanese retellings of Hiroshima. Placing representations of the bombing in dialogue with each other, Yurita and Dornan are as interested in what remains unsaid by the children’s literature of both nations, and they mark the reasons for the silence as well as strategies to overcome it.
Turning from the cultural landscape of Japan to that of Britain, in “Feminine Bravery: The Girl’s Realm (1898—1915) and the Second Boer War:’ Kristine Murazi identifies a “forsaken spot” of agency for young girls within the wartime issues of the Girl’s Realm. Already revising earlier expectations of feminine behavior, during the Second Boer War the magazine’s pages mapped an increasingly heroic role for its girl readers—even if being brave meant being at home. In “Words about War for Boys: Representations of Soldiers and Conflict in Writing for Children Before World War I,” Kimberley Reynolds revisits the critical assumption that the “mythopoetical ideal of the boy soldier had its origins in the popular juvenile fiction of the late nineteenth century:’ and she discovers several “forsaken spots” of popular culture that suggest otherwise. Finally, in “Ghosts, Gremlins, and ‘The War on Terror’ in Children’s Blitz Fiction:’ Kristine Miller shows how recent “Blitz fiction” serves as its own “forsaken spot:’ allowing its authors and readers to use alternative realities to reconstruct a self that can take action within a contemporary world of war.
Like other scholars at work on the intersection of children’s literature and war, these five contributors remind us that the boundaries of children’s literature are particularly fluid when read within the context of war: during times of war, when adults are even more attentive to the necessary fictions they tell for child and adult, the ideological work of “children’s literature” carries greater weight and has a wider reach. It is all the more important, then, to identify those “forsaken spots”—moments that provide purchase on the necessary fictions of wartime texts as well as conceptual space from which alternatives can grow.
Adorno, Theodor W. “Notes on Kafka’ Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. 1967. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology P, 1995. 243—71.
Agnew, Kate, and Geoff Fox. Children at War: Prom the First World War to the Gulf New York: Continuum, 2001.
Bloor, Edward. London Calling. New York: Knopf, 2006.
Cadogan, Mary, and Patricia Craig. Women and Children First: The Fiction of Two World Wars. London: Victor Gollancz, 1978.
Cooper, Susan. Dawn of Fear. London: Puffin Penguin, 1970.
Croft, Janet. War and the Works of I. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Praeger, 2004.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.
Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth. New York: Harcourt, 2003.
Goodenough, Elizabeth. “We Haven’t the Words’: The Silence of Children in the Novels of Virginia Woolf:’ Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature. Ed. Elizabeth Goodenough, Mark Heberle, and Naomi Sokoloff. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1994. 184—201.
Goodenough, Elizabeth, and Andrea Immel. Introduction. Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War. Ed. Elizabeth Goodenough and Andrea Immel. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2008. 1—16.
Heberle, Mark. “The Shadow of War: Tolkien, Trauma, Childhood, Fantasy:’ Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War. Ed. Elizabeth Goodenough and Andrea Immel. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2008. 129—42.
Holsinger, M. Paul. The Ways of War: The Era of World War II in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction. London: Scarecrow P, 1995.
Kidd, Kenneth. “A Is for Auschwitz: Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the ‘Children’s Literature of Atrocity:” Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War. Ed. Elizabeth Goodenough and Andrea Immel. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2008. 161—84.
Streatfeild, Noel. Curtain Up. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1944.
Taylor, Desmond. The Juvenile Novels of World War II: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1994.
Werner, Emmy E. Through the Eyes of Innocents: Children Witness World War IL Boulder, Co: Westview P, 2000.
Wheatcroft, Sue. “Children’s Experiences of War: Handicapped Children in England During the Seçond World War:’ Twentieth Century British History 19.4 (2008): 480—501.