Cows on boats

May 10, 2009 at 6:46 pm Leave a comment

secret-island1 After my Boxcar rant, it seems odd to kick off what is now looking like it will be Roughing It Month* with a book that could be The Boxcar Children‘s British twin — Annie to Warner’s Hallie. But while Napa-bred Hallie was the bolder and more adventuresome of that pair, in this case the English provenance means vibrancy rather than insipidity.

Blyton’s story of four kids who run from the scary adults in their life in order to survive on their own in the wilderness shares some of the weaknesses of Wilder’s. Both authors have a tendency to make their children characters into idealized little automatons, free of the heavy burden of personality. The protagonists of The Secret Island, siblings Mike, Peggy, and Nora and their picaresque friend Jack, are often shining beacons of well-bred English children (Just look at their rosy-cheeked faces on that book cover) who fall into the same stereotypical roles as Warner’s kids. But then they break out of them.

The story begins when the kids decide to run away from the abusive uncle and aunt who are taking care of them since their parents went missing in a plane crash. The abuse in the book is in some case physical, but largely based around gender roles. The girls are expected to do ‘feminine’ tasks like cooking and cleaning and are beaten when they do it poorly —  Nora gets slapped when she washes the curtains incorrectly. Mike’s burden is in the fields, where he’s expected to pull the same weight as his uncle. The strict division of these tasks wouldn’t be so remarkable in children’s literature of the era (1930’s), were it not or the children’s ambition to escape it. The most remarkable change in the children on the island is not in their self-sufficiency, but in their self-generated erosion of those gender roles.

Don’t get me wrong, once the children escape, they still maintain plenty of the division expected in a story from the 1930s. Peggy and Nora, for example, have the responsibility of preparing the food and comfortable adorning their greenwillow house while Mike and Jack are the providers who steal eggs and perform any required carpentry. But they all work together to fish and the girls plunge gleefully into caves. The boys? Well, I suppose they stick to proper boy tasks, but you can’t have everything.

The Secret Island makes use of the same “playing house” trope that The Boxcar Children does, but here the pretending is an effective escape from a dark world and a learning experience that informs the children’s future outside of the fiction. While it’s still a product of its time, Blyton’s book sure does the best it can with what its got, and that’s at least a good start.

PS. While I’m sure its not entirely legal, you can apparently read the whole book here.

*Due to field trips and stomach flu outbreaks, two things that should never fall in the same week

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Entry filed under: Uncategorized, Weekly Themes. Tags: , , , , , .

Excuses, excuses Happy holiday!

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Read the Printed Word!
he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.

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