Fear and the Uncanny in Children’s Literature

This post’s delay brought to you by homework… and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Between the two, I entirely forgot about posting here yesterday.

My homework, by the way, involves rereading Parable of the Sower (and The Girl Who Owned A City, and The Summer Prince). My short end-of-term paper this semester is on the way in which fear and the uncanny are used to replicate the home-away-home structure of a children’s story (discussed by many people, though I’m mostly sourcing from Reimer in Keywords for Children’s Literature and Nodelman and Reimer in The Pleasures of Children’s Literature), without requiring a spatial journey. Essentially, I hypothesize that by using fear and the uncanny to create emotional distance from a space, the departure and return inherent in a home-away-home story can be emotional instead of spatial. Plus, you get some interesting dynamics where the protagonist tries to make an un-homelike space homelike (again, or maybe for the first time) instead of returning to a safe space that has remained safe the entire time. Oh, and I know that Parable of the Sower isn’t exactly a kids’ book, but it’s sometimes cross-shelved in YA and has a teenaged protagonist. So.

On the storytelling side of things, I’ve come up with an excellent conceit for an adventuring setting that allows you to go on dungeon crawls without having to twist yourself into pretzels trying to justify why there are so many monster-filled ruins all over the place. I won’t go into more detail here at present, because I want to write it up and submit it to Worlds Without Master. Maybe if I can’t get it published there I’ll put it up here.

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Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

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Holy crap, this is a good book.  Many thanks to Monica for the recommendation and the loan.

It turns out that Octavia Butler knew what she was doing when she wrote Parable of the Sower.  She managed to create a believable (and deeply grim) future; perhaps more impressive, the grim future she envisioned in 1993 still feels like a compelling vision of our potential future, even if the dates and tech seem a little bit off.  To be perfectly honest, I find the future shown in this book to be especially frightening because of the fact that I remember imagining something very much like it in my early childhood.  Except, of course, I had no conception then of the persistent undertones of racism that are seamlessly integrated into Butler’s story.

Somehow, despite writing about a world that is so clearly dying, about people caught in the death throes of a failing state, Butler writes a protagonist who retains all the hope that you could possibly ask for.  And this isn’t because our narrator is naive or stupid: it’s because she has looked carefully at the world around her and recognized that she has a choice between giving up and killing herself, or deciding to do something to change things.  And she’s clearly unwilling to give up.  I find her really refreshing, a wonderful narrator to follow through such a wounded world.

I’m not saying that it necessarily feels good to read all the way through; the truth is that this book is quite painful at times.  But it’s also uplifting in a way that only people enduring in the face of adversity can be.  And not just enduring, but people who refuse to simply prey upon each other, and who instead try to make something better from the world around them despite how ruined it is.  I like that a lot.  I find it inspiring, and I think that because of that this story fulfills an extremely important role.

Because I’m on a tight schedule today, I’m going to make this one brief rather than going into further depth about the story or its construction.  I admire what Butler has done with this story, and I wish she were still alive for me to thank her for writing it.  I hope that you pick it up and read it too.  If you’ve read it yourself, please weigh in with your thoughts below.  I’d love to hear them.

As if the good story weren’t enough, this is yet another good example of a teen female narrator for me to learn from.  Yet another reason for me to like the book.