Friday, 10 May 2013

Article: Nikolajeva - "A Dream of Complete Idleness": Depiction of Labor in Children's Fiction

Nikolajeva, Maria, '"A Dream of Complete Idleness": Depiction of Labor in Children's Fiction' The Lion and the Unicorn 26.3 (2002) 305-321

"A Dream of Complete Idleness": Depiction of Labor in Children's Fiction

Maria Nikolajeva

"If you look for the working classes in fiction . . . ," George Orwell writes in his famous essay on Dickens,"all you find is a hole" (57). There is no sense of work; indeed work is virtually invisible, for " . . . in the typical Dickens novel, the deus ex machina enters with a bag of gold in the last chapter and the hero is absolved from further struggle" (57). Orwell calls it "a dream of complete idleness" (94, author's emphasis). Whether Orwell's accusation is just to Dickens or not, it is an accurate description of children's fiction. Such a hole where work should be, such "a dream of complete idleness," is characteristic of most children's fiction from the late nineteenth century until the present.
There may be several ways of explaining why labor is absent from children's literature. The simplest is that children do not work—which is certainly not true from the historical point of view and not quite correct in our day either. Yet we can observe that since child characters cannot, without a very good reason, have a professional occupation, a large number of typical mainstream characters and, consequently, plots and conflicts tied to these characters, are impossible in children's fiction. In fact, most of the several hundred occupations suggested for characters in writers' manuals (e.g. Lauther) are not relevant for children's fiction. Child protagonists can neither be brokers nor ambassadors, physicians nor jet pilots, college professors nor tax collectors. Naturally, there are certain genres that allow a substitute for an occupation. For instance, the child detective is a widely used figure. A journalist of the mainstream novel may become an editor of a school newspaper, a company executive the president of a student board. Further, child characters may be fieldworkers, horse trainers, circus artists, babysitters, and so on. Hobbies and school achievements can provide some insight into professions. However, the actual depiction of labor is significantly limited. [End Page 305] This is, however, a superficial explanation. Of much greater importance is the essence of children's literature itself: literature written by adults for young readers. Consequently the notion of childhood that we meet in children's fiction reflect adults' views, which may or may not correspond to the real status of children and childhood in any given society. The central concept seems to be that childhood is something irretrievably lost for adults, and this lost Arcadia can only be restored in fiction. With this premise, children's fiction is not, as it is commonly defined, literature addressed to children, but a sort of storytelling therapy for frustrated adults, a point made by Jacqueline Rose in her famous study The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Literature (1984). This is a disturbing and provocative statement, which I have explored in my book From Mythic to Linear (2000). Rather than, like Rose (and many other critics), focusing exclusively on the sexual innocence of the fictional child, I find it essential to treat this innocence more broadly, encompassing remarkable freedom from most of the defining attributes of adulthood, including its financial and occupational obligations. It is a commonplace to point out that before Romanticism, children were hardly believed to be different from adults—and certainly not thought to be better than adults. Anglo-Saxon criticism tends to focus on Blake and Wordsworth as sources of the new concept of childhood; however, similar ideas have been developed by Romantic writers in other language areas. The most essential issue is that childhood in the Romantic tradition is equal to idyll, while growing up is equal to loss of Paradise. However, the idea of the child as innocent continues to influence children's fiction long after mainstream literature has abandoned the Romantic views. Traditional children's fiction creates and preserves what may be called a pastoral convention, maintaining a myth of a happy and innocent childhood, apparently based on adult writers' nostalgic memories and bitter insights about the impossibility of returning to the childhood idyll. This myth has little to do with the real status of child and childhood, and indeed a number of contemporary children's novels successfully subvert this myth. However, the vast majority of children's fiction, classic as well as contemporary, shows the same unmistakable features of pastoral: the importance of a particular setting; autonomy of the "felicitous space" from the rest of the world; a special significance of home; absence of death and sexuality; and, as a result, a general sense of innocence. The general utopian nature of children's fiction, which compels authors to portray childhood as a happy and beneficial place, often precludes any elaboration, or sometimes even mention, of the restrictive aspects of human (that is, adult) civilization, [End Page 306] such as government, law, money and labor. Children, real as well as fictional, are supposed to be growing up unaware of and unencumbered by these tokens of adulthood (see Nikolajeva 21ff). Thus, in traditional children's literature, work is not an issue by definition and is therefore promptly de-emphasized. The conspicuous absence of labor in children's literature has its aesthetic reasons as well as the social and historical. If work is depicted at all, it will most likely be downplayed, camouflaged, obscured, and its significance distorted. The examination of the work motif illuminates the general dilemma of children's fiction as an "impossible" endeavor (cf. Rose). As with many other aspects, we encounter here the incompatible desires of adult writers to keep children innocent and ignorant, while at the same time socializing them into the adult hierarchy, which inevitably must include work. Yet we cannot ignore the existing depictions of labor in children's fiction, and I will proceed to discuss a few examples, demonstrating that whenever labor does appear, it is inevitably inscribed into the general pastoral convention. This can be done in several ways: transforming work into play, either with ironic or sentimental undertones; dismissing work as an evil to be avoided as far as possible; or distancing it to the historical past, where it feels less threatening and offensive. Whatever the strategy, the objective is to disarm work, presenting it as something that is essentially irrelevant to the world of childhood.

Work as Play

If [Tom] had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers, or performing on a tread-mill, is work, while rolling nine-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service that would turn it into work, then they would resign. (Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 19-20)
In this perhaps most vivid depiction of work in classic children's fiction, Mark Twain mocks the whole idea of labor by turning it into play. As most readers will remember, Tom tricks his friends into whitewashing the fence, which Aunt Polly has assigned him as punishment, by presenting it as a special privilege and treat. Children's fiction is basically about play. It can be serious and dangerous play, involving killing dragons in faraway mythical worlds, [End Page 307] but the young characters are inevitably brought back to the security of home and the protection of adults. Creative play is an essential way of training for adult life, and it may contain elements of work; but since young characters, as well as young readers, have vague ideas about what labor in fact is, the depiction seldom goes beyond building a treehouse, hunting or cooking. For instance, Wendy in Peter Pan seems to be working hard keeping housein the Neverland, and Barrie tries to persuade the readers that his heroine indeed enjoys this dull and monotonous work, simply because women are made this way:
Wendy's favourite time for sewing and darning was after they had all gone to bed. Then, as she expressed it, she had a breathing time for herself; and she occupied it in making new things for them, and putting double pieces on the knees . . . (84)
However, since everything in the Neverland is pretence and make-believe, Wendy's domestic endeavors are merely part of the game. Notably, in children's editions of Robinson Crusoe, most of the depictions of the protagonist's hard labor on the island are omitted, presumably as being uninteresting—in the first hand, uneventful—for young readers. Robinson's, as well as many other Robinsonnade characters', occupations are exciting only as long as they provide some suspense, based on the tension between the setting of a task and performing it. Work acquires a pleasant flavor of playfulness (children often "play Robinson"). However, a meticulous description of exactly how each task is performed, hour after hour, day after day, would be tedious even for an adult reader, still more for a young one. In some of the prevalent genres of children's fiction, such as fantasy, adventure, or mystery, labor is never mentioned since the characters are too much preoccupied with killing dragons, searching for treasures or hunting bandits—extraordinary actions chosen over the ordinary. In animal and toy stories, labor is naturally not an issue either. Traditional children's literature was written for and about middle-class children, since the middle classes were the strongest, if not the only, consumers of children's books. Therefore, it seems that labor is a still larger gaping hole in children's fiction than in general literature. Fathers in traditional children's novels have respectable middle-class occupations, such as bankers, lawyers, physicians, church ministers, or military officers. Mothers are almost without exception homemakers. Child characters in middle-class children's novels are daily exposed to a huge amount of manual labor, namely the servants' work; however, this is taken for granted and never described in detail. Basically, in children's [End Page 308] fiction, the adults' work is insignificant. The only professional occupation that characters of children's fiction regularly come into contact with is teacher, and most teachers in children's fiction are objects of hatred and mockery. Child characters seem to be surprisingly ill-informed about their parents' professions:
Now, the City was a place where Mr. Banks went every day—except Sundays, of course, and Bank Holidays—and while he was there he sat on a large chair in front of a large desk and made money. All day long he worked, cutting out pennies and shillings and half-crowns and threepenny-bits. And he brought them home with him in his little black bag. Sometimes he would give some to Jane and Michael for their money-boxes. (Travers, Mary Poppins 3-4)
Although this passage is naturally ironic, the parents' occupations are seldom relevant to the plot. In fact, often the profession is chosen in order to get rid of the parent as the plot demands; for instance, if the parent is an explorer, a navy captain or a missionary in Africa, the necessary "absence" is easily provided. While adult work is omitted, child labor will most likely be transformed into something pleasant and enjoyable. In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox discovers the joys of simple manual work, digging in the garden to make it come alive after ten years' dormancy. This work is used for symbolic purposes, alongside fresh air, exercise and plain food, which bring about crucial mental and emotional changes in the character. Unlike the hard-working Martha and Dickon, two youngsters from the lower classes who function as catalysts for her improvement, Mary, orphan as she may be, comes from exceedingly wealthy circumstances and will never have to worry about her daily bread. Her gardening is therefore a healthy and useful hobby, not a life necessity:
She went from place to place, and dug and weeded, and enjoyed herself so immensely [ . . . ]. Mistress Mary had worked in her garden until it was time for her to go to her midday dinner. [ . . . ] she could not believe that she had been working for two or three hours. She had been actually happy all the time . . . . (78-79)
Observe that the task of preparing "midday dinner" is taken care of without the protagonist contemplating it, as are all the other duties of the enormous Craven household. By contrast, Mary's attitude toward her occupation is explicit:
She worked and dug and pulled up weeds steadily, only becoming more pleased with her work every hour instead of tiring of it. It seemed to her like a fascinating sort of play. (87) [End Page 309]
The last sentence is revealing: if Mary were forced to dig the garden to earn her keep at her Uncle's, she would not be enjoying it. As it is, she is creating a sanctuary for herself, her cousin and ultimately her Uncle, where they can be forever free from everyday worries and anxieties. Moreover, Mary only has to give the garden a start; the rest takes care of itself, by "magic" that her cousin Colin so strongly believes in. In the Swedish Noisy Village series by Astrid Lindgren, work is also part of play, a nice way for the children to be together and have fun while they are thinning turnips or picking strawberries. The descriptions of these events are joyful and adventurous. Although not particularly rich, the Noisy Village children are not forced to work in order to make their living, and they are too young and carefree to notice the hard work of their parents. Similarly, the endless depictions of the adults' toil in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods are refracted through the young character's mind; she finds them exciting, since she is not yet concerned about earning her bread. Actually, most of the parents' work is closely connected with providing food, which is the focus of the young protagonist's attention: hunting, fishing, salting and smoking meat, churning, baking, cooking maple syrup or cheese-making. The sight of the adults at work signifies for Laura that there will be plenty of good things for her to eat; her contemplation of work does not stretch further than that. In the sequels, Laura will learn the meaning of hard work; yet in this first volume of the series, she is too young and innocent to be introduced to the gravity of life. I find this symptomatic: in addressing young readers, authors seem to wish to keep them in ignorance as long as possible, to lock them in their blissful secret gardens and preserve the paradise from which work is forever banned. This prelapsarian existence is typical of traditional children's literature at large; the work motif merely illuminates it further. Together with sexuality and other aspects of adulthood, work is consistently presented as a "curse" to be avoided as long as possible—within the scope of a children's book, forever.

Resisting Work

". . . I am sure we work hard enough . . ."
"I know I do—teaching those tiresome children nearly all day . . ." "You don't have half such a hard time as I do," said Jo. "How would you like to be shut up for hours with a nervous, fussy old lady . . ." "It's naughty to fret, but I do think washing dishes and keeping things tidy is the worst work in the world . . ." "I don't believe any of you suffer as I do," cried Amy, "for you don't have to go to school . . .". (Alcott, Little Women 3-4) [End Page 310]
Work as a life necessity, a means of earning money, is normally beyond a young child's sphere of interest or concern. Whether or not this is true of real children, with fictional children, authors often emphasize both the ignorance of the working conditions of the lower classes and the resistance toward even the lightest kinds of menial labor.In classical domestic children's novels, such as Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) by Frances Hodgson Burnett or The Railway Children (1906) by Edith Nesbit, "being poor" means that the family has to do with merely one maid and a cook instead of a whole staff as before. From these premises, what the young middle-class protagonists perceive of as "work" would seem worlds away from the reality of the working classes. The characters of Louisa M. Alcott's Little Women (1868) see as the worst result of their poverty that they will not be able to give each other expensive Christmas gifts. The four March sisters' complaints about their toil would certainly sound ridiculous to a real laborer. The alleged poverty never forces young protagonists to earn their living by working in a factory or a mine. Moreover, most of the tasks they perform, including Jo's writing and teaching, or Amy's painting, are of a creative and intellectual nature, connected with joy and satisfaction, while Meg's trials in her own household carry a good deal of irony and humor. Even in the few exceptional cases in which children are seemingly trapped by hard labor, they are freed by the novelistic conventions of children's fiction for a life of leisure—much in the way that Orwell attributes to Dickens. The well-known French classic The Foundling (1878) by Hector Malot, among other things, describes the protagonist working in a coal mine and nearly being killed in an accident. One of the all-time favorites among Swedish elementary school teachers is a novel by the German writer Lisa Tetzner, Die schwarzen Brüder ("The Black Brothers")(1938), dealing with child labor in Italy in the 1840s. In both stories, the characters are eventually liberated from the hell of manual labor: Remi when he turns out to be a child of a rich aristocratic family; the poor chimney-sweeper Giorgio by being adopted into a rich family and getting proper education. A vast number of Victorian stories deal with poor working-class children who are always comfortably killed off by the authors to provide examples of good morals for their middle-class readers (see e.g. Avery and Reynolds). Manual labor is thus presented as the curse of the working classes and juxtaposed to the clean and noble work of the intellectual or the pleasant and comfortable idleness of the gentry. Interestingly enough, this attitude reverberates in Lois Lowry's The Giver (1993), a novel set in an indefinitely remote future, where all [End Page 311] children, even the very young, participate in the so-called volunteer work, in practice forced labor, and are assigned their permanent adult occupations at the age of twelve. The author carefully avoids the depiction of actual manual labor, although presumably somebody is actually collecting the garbage.Instead, we get a glimpse of working conditions in an old people's home, which is rather a pretext to start contemplation in the young protagonist of the hierarchy of the dystopian society in which he lives. Jonas's parents are, typically enough, a lawyer and a medical nurse (in inverted gender roles). The contempt for manual workers is something the society Lowry depicts shares with many adult dystopias, such as Brave New World and 1984: " . . . he didn't envy Laborers at all" (17); " . . . Fish Hatchery Attendant. Jonas was certainly glad that that Assignment was taken, he wouldn't have wanted it" (53, author's emphasis). The protagonist is assigned an intellectual rather than a menial job; none of the painful, traumatic memories he receives from the Giver involves labor, perhaps because, if anything, labor is well known in Jonas's society. However, it is obviously more gratifying for children's authors to create smart and intellectual characters than ones who would be confined to a job such as a fish hatchery attendant. In contemporary fiction, children, especially urban children, are if possible still more detached from labor, just as real children in our society are usually detached and protected from "real life" (there are naturally exceptions, rarely reflected in fiction). A matter-of-fact mention of domestic chores is to be found for instance in Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (1977); they do not occupy any prominent place in the novel. Moreover, Jess's farm chores are primarily used to emphasize the difference between himself and Leslie, the daughter of rich parents, who is never worried about pecuniary matters. Thus, once again manual and intellectual work are promptly juxtaposed (Leslie's parents are both writers). In another novel by Paterson, Jacob Have I Loved (1980), the main character, Louise, contributes to her family's meager budget by crabbing; she feels resentful toward her pretty and talented twin sister, who is never expected to do any manual work:
I would come in from a day of progging for crab, sweating and filthy. Caroline would remark mildly that my fingernails were dirty. How could they be anything than dirty? But instead of simply acknowledging the fact, I would fly into a wounded rage. How dare she call me dirty? How dare she try to make me feel inferior to her own pure, clear beauty? [. . . ] Wasn't it I who brought in the extra money that paid for her [music lessons]? (93-94) [End Page 312]
Work is used symbolically, for contrasting characterization. Partially, it is self-imposed, a "curse" that Louise believes she is carrying, as the unloved, unwanted twin. As in many traditional girls' novels, Louise is eventually liberated from manual labor by getting an education. In all the examples above, work is marginal and the descriptions of work peripheral to the plot; even if work adds to characterization, the depiction of work can be removed from the plot without changing it substantially. Further, resisting work seems to be a natural part of resisting growing up—the eternal "Peter Pan complex" of children's fiction, in which adulthood is presented as undesirable and threatening.

Work Defamiliarized

She worked hard because work was all she knew, all she had. Everything else that had made her know herself as Lyddie Worthen was gone. Nothing but hard work—so hard that her mind became as calloused as her hands—work alone remained. (Paterson, Lyddie 148)
In one subgenre of children's fiction, historical fiction, work is central. Within the whole category of children's literature, the historical genre carries the heaviest burden of narrating labor. The reason must once again be sought in the children's literature conventions. In a contemporary setting, work is ordinary and most often beyond the young readers' experience. By placing the narrative in the past, authors defamiliarize work as a motif, making it strange, exotic and thus extraordinary. Defamiliarization, or estrangement, is a powerful device for bringing attention to the elements of human life that are otherwise perceived as too normal and ordinary to be of interest. In the treatment of labor, a profound difference can be observed between the nineteenth-century novels describing their own time and contemporary novels set in the past. Contemporary authors are not restricted by their class, race or gender, which allows them to break the taboos that nineteenth-century authors had to respect. A nineteenth-century heroine, like Jo March, could dream of a professional career, but was finally forced, by the conventions of her creator, to be married off. The heroine of Katherine Paterson's Lyddie (1991) is a product of her creator's time and can therefore be portrayed through an unmasked feminist lens. The historical setting adds to the excitement of the events and the character, and provides the necessary distance to the narrative. Hired out by her mother as a maid at a tavern, the thirteen-year-old Lyddie dreams of freedom and financial independence:
Once I walk in that gate, I ain't free anymore, she thought. No matter how handsome the house, once I enter I'm a servant girl—no more than a black [End Page 313] slave. She had been queen of the cabin and the straggly fields and sugar bush up there on the hill. But now someone else would call the tune. (18)
As soon as she gets a chance, Lyddie starts working as a weaver at a factory in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her ambition is to earn enough to pay off the debts on her childhood home and return to where she feels she belongs. But the cabin is eventually sold, her mother dies, the younger brother and sister are adopted by another family, and for a while it seems that Lyddie's drudgery has been all in vain. Labor has a double significance in the novel, both as a way to freedom and a way into enslavement. Slavery is an essential issue in this novel, set in Vermont and Massachusetts in the 1840s. Lyddie believes herself to be free compared with the black slaves in the South, but she soon realizes that she is also a slave in the tavern owner's power. She believes that she will be free through working at the factory, failing to see that she is heading into still worse slavery. She does not fully recognize how humiliating factory work is; she gladly allows herself to be more and more exploited and oppressed, accepting the male bosses' conditions and showing no solidarity with her sister workers if it jeopardizes her wages:
So it was that when Concord Corporation once again speeded up the machinery, she, almost alone, did not complain . . . She needed the money. She had to have the money. . . . Lyddie was given another loom and then another, and even at the increased speed of each loom, she could tend all four and felt a satisfying disdain for those who could not do the work. (89)
The novel is unique in its detailed depiction of the factory workers' everyday life, the inhuman working conditions, or the first attempts at protest. This is only possible because of the distance of the historical setting. Together with Lyddie, we get the first horrifying glimpse of the weaving room:
Creation! What a noise! Clatter and clack, great shuddering moans, groans, creaks, and rattles. The shrieks and whistles of huge leather belts on wheels. And when her brain cleared enough, Lyddie saw through the murky air row upon row of machines, eerily like the old hand loom in Quaker Stevens's house, but as unlike as a nightmare, for these creatures had come to life. They seemed to be moved by eyes alone—the eyes of neat, vigilant young women—needing only the occasional, swift intervention of a human hand to keep them clattering. (62)
The depiction continues for another paragraph and is reinforced a few pages later, when Lyddie watches another girl work: [End Page 314]
Everything happened too fast—a bobbin of weft thread lasted hardly five minutes before it had to be replaced—and it was painfully deafening. . . . There were moments when all three looms were running as they ought—all the shuttles bearing full quills, all three temples hung high on the cloth, no warp threads snapping. (65)
The author is using a lot of professional terms, which will most likely be unknown to a contemporary young reader, but which add a strong sense of authenticity to the description. These are the terms and the skills Lyddie has to master, as she begins working herself:
Within five minutes, her head felt like a log being split to splinters. She kept shaking it, as though she could get rid it of the noise, or at least the pain, but both only seemed to grow more intense. If that weren't trial enough, a few hours of standing in her proud new boots and her feet had swollen so that the laces cut into her flesh. She bent down quickly to loosen them, and when she found the right lace was knotted, she nearly burst into tears. Or perhaps the tears were caused by the swirling dust and lint. (75)
By repeating the naturalistic descriptions of Lyddie's working conditions, her pain and exhaustion, sick lungs and recurrent accidents, the author makes us understand that work does not take care of itself. It is a long and strenuous process, going on for thirteen hours every day, day after day, for the two years of the novel's duration. Remember, Lyddie is merely fourteen when she starts at the factory. How far is her world from the idyllic drudgery of the March sisters! Yet, just as writing was Jo's road to freedom, work is undoubtedly a way to liberation for Lyddie; it is used symbolically to show that women could only become emancipated through economic independence. It is also significant that Lyddie eventually realizes that education will give her a still better societal status; in fact, in Jip: His Story (1996), we meet Lyddie as a certified teacher, freed from the burden of hard manual labor. Although I fully understand the author's intention, the underlying message is that manual labor is less respectableand definitely less desirable than intellectual occupations. In a way, the ultimate solution for the character is not unlike that of Remi in The Foundling, who after years of misery and toil unexpectedly inherits a fortune. This is one of the constant dilemmas of children's fiction: as adults, we strive to protect children from the hard facts of life, which sometimes results in ambiguous messages about them. Another example of a narrative set in the past, although not as remote a past as Lyddie and Jip, is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) by [End Page 315] Mildred D. Taylor. This novel is not as focused on labor as Lyddie, since its central theme is racism; however, both texts share the contemporary view of the authors on the social injustices of the past. Children's authors writing in the 1930s, the time when the events of Roll of Thunder take place, could obviously not address the issues raised in this novel; by choice or by force, they wrote about middle-class white children for whom work was not an issue. Giving a voice to her black female protagonist, Taylor cannot possibly circumvent manual labor, which is an essential part of Cassie Logan's existence. Yet, as with Lyddie, the historical distance enables the author to focus on the depiction of labor, since to today's young readers it will feel strange and exotic. The family's cotton land cannot feed them any more, and the father is away working at a railroad construction. The children are thus very much aware both of the economic situation and of the working conditions of their parents. While the father is away earning money to pay taxes and mortgages, the mother runs the farm, besides being a schoolteacher, and "Big Ma, in her sixties, would work like a woman of twenty in the fields" (7). Unlike the middle-class heroines of classic children's novels, Cassie knows all too well where food, clothes and other necessities come from. Writing for young Americans in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Taylor must let her first-person narrator explain some things, which presumably are so self-evident to her that she would never reflect on them:
Because the students were needed in the fields from early spring when the cotton was planted until after most of the cotton had been picked in the fall, the school adjusted its terms accordingly, beginning in October and dismissing in March. But even so, after today a number of the older students would not be seen again for a month or two, not until the last puff of cotton had been gleaned from the fields. (16)
This didactic passage, however, puts the readers in the right frame of mind, reminding them that child labor among the black population was a fact in the not-so-remote past. This short passage is now and then reinforced by the depiction of the family working in the fields or about the house, which almost becomes a backdrop for all other, much more dramatic events. Taylor does not present fieldwork as hard or unpleasant; on the contrary, Cassie seems to prefer it to school (which perhaps says more about school than about work):
I was eager to be in the fields again . . . In the last week of March when Papa and Mr. Morrison began to plow the east field, I volunteered to sacrifice school and help them. (196) [End Page 316]
Even with this attitude, the difference between these depictions and the idyllic thinning of turnips in Noisy Village is profound. For Cassie and her family, child labor is a matter of life and death. If we as readers perceive the Noisy Village children's agricultural endeavors as a natural part of their games and adventures, we certainly feel indignation when confronted with the depictions in Roll of Thunder, viewing them as an essential element of the overall social injustice imposed on the character. It is clearly understood that the children of the white community are never forced to work. An extreme example, a limit case, of the power of historical fiction to contain and defamiliarize labor (though not just labor) is Jane Yolen's Holocaust novel, The Devil's Arithmetic (1988). Here a contemporary child is sent back in time to live the life (though not to die the death) of a Jewish child in Auschwitz, notorious as death camp and work camp both. "Work makes you free" is inscribed on the gates of the concentration camp. The young protagonist Hannah very soon realizes the bitter irony of these words. The depiction of actual work is sparse, conveying its essence with some vivid details:
The work was the mindless sort. Some of it was meant to keep the camp itself running: cleaning the barracks, the guards' houses, the hospital, the kitchen. Building more barracks, more privies. But most of the workers were used in the sorting sheds, stacking the clothing and suitcases and possessions stolen from the prisoners, dividing them into piles to be sent back to Germany.
[ . . . Hannah was] set to work with Rivka in the kitchen hauling water in large buckets from the pump, spooning out the meager meals, washing the giant cauldrons in which the soup cooked, scrubbing the walls and floors. It was hard work, harder than Hannah could ever remember doing. Her hands and knees held no memory of such work. It was endless. And repetitive. (124-125)
I allow myself to quote these two lengthy passages since they comprise the only actual depiction of labor in a labor camp. True, they are narrated in the so-called iterative frequency, expressing recurrent events taking place day after day, which produces a strong effect. Yolen does not emphasize the physical suffering caused by labor. While she cannot omit mentioning that anybody not fit for work is sent to the ovens, the book is more concerned with the relationship between the prisoners and their struggle for survival against all odds; in fact, it amplifies the positive camp experiences, such as hope and mutual support. Ironically, in this novel, work, if not actually setting Hannah free, does save her, for a while, from being sent to the ovens, since by working in the kitchen, she is in a privileged position and more likely to survive. The novel seems to sacrifice the historical truth for the sake of the genre's needs. [End Page 317] Further, the narrative device Yolen employs, time displacement, brings her character safely back from the horrors of the Holocaust. Her experience becomes thus an important part of her identity quest, as she understands her place in the family as well as in the Jewish tradition. But this final escape diminishes the overall impact of the story, making it nothing but an exciting, albeit horrifying, adventure or perhaps a bad dream. By awakening Hannah from the nightmare of history, by whisking her away from the death camp (also the site of her slave labor), the plot de-realizes the past and makes it merely a principle of contrast to a more satisfactory present where the reader and Hannah, the reader's surrogate, are safely based. Back to her own place and time, a wealthy Jewish home in New York in the 1980s, Hannah may remember the drudgery of the camp, but the reader will most likely feel that it was not that bad after all, since she returned safely. Although downplaying work is naturally less odious than downplaying the Holocaust, the general trend is equally unethical. It is the estrangement built into the historical genre that makes juvenile fiction both the vehicle and the inescapable diminisher of labor and tragedy.

Does Work Make You Free?

If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy.
That was what some people thought. (Sachar, Holes 5)
Work is also at the center of Louis Sachar's 1998 Newbery Prize-winning Holes. Indeed, in a motif almost unprecedented in contemporary children's literature, a child is thrust into a situation not merely of manual labor but of forced labor; the young protagonist is sent to a labor camp for a crime he has not committed. Stanley comes from an underprivileged family; but not even in this book is there any substantial mention of the parents' work. Stanley's father is an unsuccessful inventor, a further development of the stereotype of the mad scientist. Moreover, Stanley's original problems do not result from poverty; rather, he gives the impression of being a spoilt brat, even though he is bullied in school for being overweight. Manual labor is alien to Stanley, but he immediately becomes aware of its meaning when faced with the task of digging "one hole each day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Each hole must be five feet deep, and five feet across in every direction. Your shovel is your measuring stick" (13). Since digging holes totally fills the life of the young protagonist for the eighteen months of his sentence, the author cannot simply dismiss it by stating that Stanley indeed dug a hole every day. Labor is a shock for [End Page 318] Stanley, and the naturalism of the descriptions adds to the poignancy of the protagonist's emotional life.
The shovel felt heavy in Stanley's soft, fleshy hands. He tried to jam it into the earth, but the blade banged against the ground and bounced off without a dent. The vibrations ran up the shaft of the shovel and into Stanley's wrists, making his bones rattle. (26)
The description of Stanley's first working day at the camp takes many pages: a detailed description of hard, meaningless, and painful toil. ". . . by the time Stanley broke past the crust, a blister had formed in the middle of his right thumb, and it hurt to hold the shovel" (28). The author effectively uses repetition as a narrative device to convey the prolonged time of action. The word "blisters" keeps appearing to remind the reader that while the narrative goes on, shifting into other temporal dimensions, Stanley is still digging his holes in the unbearably hot sun: "He had blisters on every one of his fingers, and one in the center of each palm" (32); and further on again:
Stanley's blisters had ripped open, and new blisters formed. He kept changing his grip on the shovel to try to avoid the pain. Finally, he removed his cap and held it between the shaft of his shovel and his raw hands. This helped, but digging was harder because the cap would slip and slide. The sun beat down on his unprotected head and neck. (33)
This ruthlessly graphic passage sets up the whole atmosphere of the novel and is reinforced a few pages down: "His cap was stained with blood from his hands. He felt like he was digging his own grave" (38). Comparing these descriptions with those of Mary Lennox digging for pleasure in the Secret Garden, we see clearly how far children's fiction has moved in its relationship to reality. Further, the author is not satisfied with letting the readers imagine the rest of Stanley's suffering. His second day and second hole are described just as meticulously:
He stepped on the shovel blade, and pushed on the very back of the shaft with the base of his thumb. This hurt less than trying to hold the shaft with his blistered fingers. . . .
He took one shovelful at a time, and tried not to think of the awesome task that lay ahead of him. After an hour or so, his sore muscles seemed to loosen up a little bit.
He grunted as he tried to stick his shovel into the dirt. His cap slipped out from under his fingers, and the shovel fell free.
He let it lie there. (48-49)
Even though the actual depictions of digging eventually become less prominent, we are constantly reminded of what the character is doing [End Page 319] while his thoughts are occupied elsewhere. The phrase "He dug his shovel into the dirt" is used as a refrain throughout the text to emphasize that the first graphic descriptions of Stanley's misery were only several in a series of endless, identical days of hard labor. The author of Holes is quite ironic about the practice of forced labor. Indeed, he starts the novel by mocking the assumption that you can improve criminals by making them perform meaningless jobs. The idea is not far removed from the Auschwitz slogan. But this irony is itself ironized, for Stanley really benefits from being exposed to hard labor. He becomes better fit physically, and he gets some friends, whom he lacked in his previous life; to use a cliché, Stanley finds his identity through manual work. Eventually he also finds the treasure that ensures him and his family a prosperous and idle life ever after. Here the author has fallen into the common pit of children's literature conventions: a sentimental and implausible happy ending, which completely eradicates the physical and spiritual torture that the protagonist has endured. There seems to be an invisible link from the significant "hole" in traditional children's fiction, omitting or downplaying labor, to the all-too-material holes that Stanley is assigned to dig.


Maria Nikolajeva is a professor of comparative literature at Stockholm University. She is the author and editor of several books on children's literature, among them Children's Literature Comes of Age: Toward the New Aesthetic (1996) and From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children's Literature (2002). The present essay develops some ideas from her most recent book, The Rhetoric of Character in Children's Literature (2002).

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa M. Little Women. 1868. London: Penguin, 1994. Avery, Gillian, and Kimberly Reynolds. Representations of Childhood Death. New York: St. Martin's P, 1999. Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan. 1911. London: Brockhampton P, 1967. Burnett, Frances Hodgson. Little Lord Fauntleroy. 1886. London: Penguin, 1996. ———. The Secret Garden. 1911. London: Penguin, 1995. Lauther, Howard. Creating Characters. A Writer's Reference to the Personality Traits that Bring Fictional People to Life. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998. Lindgren, Astrid. The Children of the Noisy Village. 1961. London: Penguin, 1988. Lowry, Lois. The Giver. 1993. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1994. Malot, Hector. The Foundling. 1878. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1984. Nesbit, Edith. The Railway Children. 1906. London: Penguin, 1995. Nikolajeva, Maria. From Mythic to Linear. Time in Children's Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow P, 2000. Orwell, George [Eric Blair]. "Charles Dickens." A Collection of Essays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954. 55-111. Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. 1977. New York: HarperCollins, 1987. ———. Jacob Have I Loved. 1980. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. ———. Jip: His Story. New York: Dutton, 1996. ———. Lyddie. New York: Dutton, 1991. Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984. Sachar, Louis. Holes. 1998. New York: Dell Yearling, 2000. Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 1976. New York: Penguin, 1991. Tetzner, Lisa. Die schwarzen Brüder. 1938. Aarau: Sauerländer, 1995. Travers, Pamela. Mary Poppins. 1934. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962. Twain, Mark [Samuel Clemens]. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. 1876. London: Penguin, 1994. Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. 1932. New York: Harper & Row, 1953. Yolen, Jane. The Devil's Arithmetic. 1988. New York: Penguin, 1990.

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