Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rewriting Our Past [Or maybe just a rabbling notion about historical children's literature] (Week 7)

As much as I've enjoyed our last two weeks of class reading, which included Laura Ingalls's Little House on the Prairie and Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House, I can't help, but wonder about how rewriting history (in this case, their families' past in a fictional format) does to our understanding of the events. Do they actually help children learn about the times and question them? Or rather, do they mask the issues children need to learn? More importantly: Are they really a child's story? Or just grown-ups playing make believe?

Roni Natov seems to cover this as she can in her article Child Power in Louise Erdrich's Fiction for Children. She very fittingly points out that children can understand more than we give them credit for, saying, "Children are aware of much that goes on outside their ability to articulate and evaluate complex problems".  Natov also points out that in Little House, Laura does ask the hard questions about the territory they live in (if it's Native American land, if the government will make the Native Americans move, etc). However, Ingalls was an infant at the time this actually happen, meaning when she "rewrote" her past, she added these adult questions. Erdrich's situation in writing isn't much different, but she makes a much different decision in how she portrays a childhood knowledge of the world, the "child's power" as Roni points it out to be.

Erdrich shows how children do comprehend: not through the same words adults would, but by instinct and feeling. Omakayas, our main character, doesn't necessarily know what adults are talking about or what really is happening, but she does know when it's important or not. Once she notes it's importance, she holds onto it and finds herself referring back to it. While both are children's actions, this one seems much more childlike than Ingalls's version of herself in her series of books.

It is difficult, understandably so, to write from a child's perspective. It seems especially hard to do so while telling a historical tale that gives all the information of the time. It's much easier when one is writing from a child's perspective for adults, like John Connelly seems to do on a regular basis, or when one writes purely for children, like most children's books.

For those interested in writing from a child's perspective, here are a few links to help: 
Best Line: 
"Furthermore even if the writer does a very, very fine job of imitating a child, there will almost inevitably come a point where something rings false; a word or a phrase or a thought will be wrong or very difficult to attribute to a child. "

 Child Narrator's in Adult Fiction
Take note of the suggestions of where to pull the ideas and look at the long list of recommended reading (which even includes the child narrator's age). The format is a bit messy, but worth the long read.

How to View the World from your Child's Perspective
  Not necessarily a traditional writing tips article, but think about it: if you can learn how to see through a child's eye than that's about as helpful as any writing tip when it comes to writing from a child's perspective.


  1. Don't get me wrong, I see where you're coming from here. Both of these novels certainly rewrite history, although Birchbark House's form is more acceptable than Little House's. However, I feel this is simply a side effect of writing historical fiction. After all, few fiction writers aim at purely capturing facts unless it helps them put forth the perspective they are trying to put forth in their novels - and every novel has a perspective to put forth, make no mistake about that one. So in the end what we're looking at here is a genre convention of historical fiction wrapped up in the nature of fiction itself - in other words, a conflict that really can't be solved.

  2. I think our understanding of history is largely informed by narratives like in "Little House" or "Birchbark House." While I am sure Wilder and Erdrich took pains to be accurate, I am also sure they embellished some things, left out other things, ect. This reminds me of Nietzsche's "On the Use and Abuse of History," which deals with history in general, not just historical fiction. These parts in particular:

    "Might not an illusion lurk in the highest interpretation of the word objectivity? We understand by it a certain standpoint in the historian, who sees the procession of motive and consequence too clearly for it to have an effect on his own personality. We think of the ├Žsthetic phenomenon of the detachment from all personal concern with which the painter sees the picture and forgets himself, in a stormy landscape, amid thunder and lightning, or on a rough sea: and we require the same artistic vision and absorption in his object from the historian. But it is only a superstition to say that the picture given to such a man by the object really shows the truth of things. Unless it be that objects are expected in such moments to paint or photograph themselves by their own activity on a purely passive medium!

    But this would be a myth, and a bad one at that. One forgets that this moment is actually the powerful and spontaneous moment of creation in the artist, of “composition” in its highest form, of which the result will be an artistically, but not an historically, true picture. To think objectively, in this sense, of history is the work of the dramatist: to think one thing with another, and weave the elements into a single whole; with the presumption that the unity of plan must be put into the objects if it be not already there. So man veils and subdues the past, and expresses his impulse to art—but not his impulse to truth or justice."

    Since history is written, and writing is artistic, then is history, in some degree, artifice? Our perspectives of 1800's life as pioneers or Native Americans might be more based on what people say and write, rather than concrete, provable facts.

  3. Your point about a child's aspect and the credit that Erdrich gives them is quite interesting and true. Children, even at a very young age, are much more observant and perceptive than most adults give them credit for. It made me think of our daughter and how she seems to notice and understand things even when we don't know she's paying attention. She often says things like "I don't like him anymore" about friends or family members of ours; when we ask her why she says things like "he's always mad" or she'll ask "why are you and daddy upset" even if she doesn't understand the context of what is being said - she observes the tone and expressions. These instances have taught us to be much more aware of not just what we say around her but how we say it. It seems Omakayas acts very similarly around her grandmothe and other family members and people in general; she reads them regardless if she understands the context of their conversations. This makes me think the children's books we have read that I previously thought were possibly not appropriate for children may in fact be just that. It's good to protect their innocence but to also allow them the freedom to learn from the "safety" of a book.

  4. The perspective of the child has been brought up numerous times in our class, namely the week we focused on 18th Century works: William Blake, Rousseau, Wordsworth. The works were didactic in centering the child as the subject matter and elevating him/her as the closest to Purity and Innocence mankind will ever achieve.

    What am I rambling about? Well, my point is that this "near flawlessness" is where adults find difficulty relating to the child's perspective because experience has distorted the naive view of the world as this wholesome place free of any questionable doubt, pain, disappointment, etc. Retaining that mindset is difficult, and for most people, nearly impossible. You made some very fine points about this disconnect and the links about "training" oneself to "go back" is humorous in its irony and truth.