At the Other End of the Timeline: Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children

I like literary archetypes.   To me, they’re the puzzle pieces a person can assemble to understand the canon of Western Literature.   Anti-heroes, tricksters, mentors and shadows are all wonderful but my favorite is the orphan-hero.   His search is for home, his judgments are his own and like all archetypes he/she morphs to reflect the values of whatever era he’s created in.**  If yesterday’s Oliver Twist lives at one end of the Hero/Orphan timeline, then Tensy Farlow in Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children resides at the other.

As I said yesterday, Oliver is a sweet kid and everyone’s victim.  Graceful and sympathetic beyond his circumstances, his victory is in surviving long enough to be rescued by kind adults.   Well, that’s fair, given Victorian Times.  Unprotected kids were nature’s victims and the best any of them could hope for is a reasonable adoption.   But that’s not very heroic.

Orphan heroes in today’s take charge of their own fates and everyone else’s.   They’re brave, caring individuals who stand up to tyrants, tall and small, and they often rescue the adults.  I realized this a few years ago when I was working on a long research paper tracing the evolution of Orphan/Heroes.   I noticed these orphans advanced from being victims to adventurers, then promising proto-citizens to redeemers and  usually the male characters advance a bit in front of the girls.   As I got to the end of my search, I found lots of orphan boy heroes rescuing the world with bravery, super powers, and what-not, but I couldn’t find any recent corresponding girls.  There were supporting girl characters but not a center heroine that fit the bill.  Then I found Tensy Farlow, a heroine for the contemporary fantasy age.

When Albie Gribble finds the abandoned Tensy in a pile of laundry, all he sees is an abandoned  baby girl.  He doesn’t know Tensy is being looked for, which is all to the good.  You see, each  human in Tensy’s world has a guardian angel to keep as much evil at bay as possible..  Unfortunately, some angels do their job better than others.  Some angels are forgetful or forgotten and some angels become demons, opening the world for wickedness.   And, although Tensy Farlow can see guardian angels, no spirit looks after her.  Tensy has no angel at all.

Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children is a children’s novel in the same literary vein as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Graveyard Book.   In other words, the setting is a bit gothic, most of the characters have odd English-sounding names (like Howard Humberstone and Matron Pluckrose) and very improbable things happen.  Like many fantasy books, it has the eternal struggle between good and evil but the the hope of redemption is not a ring-bearing hobbit or a wand-waving wizard.  Instead, the fate of the universe comes to rest on the bony shoulders of a  orphan girl with flyaway red. curly hair, especially good eyesight and a mind of her own.  Trust me, she’s somebody special.

For anyone who thought Children’s fantasy stopped with J. K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket or Neil Gaiman, take a look at this book from Australia.   It’s worth the look.  You could end up believing in angels.

** If I tend to use male pronouns in talking about universal types, that’s how I was taught during a less-enlightened century.  I hope I make it clear that as far as archetypes go, I believe neither gender has a monopoly, nor should they.  Fiction, in my opinion, should be the last place to accept limitations.

The Villans of Oliver Twist

Full disclosure:  I love the novel Oliver Twist but I can’t say I love the title character.  He cries far to easily for my taste and he’s altogether too sweet for words.   Dickens wanted to show Oliver’s basic gentle nature couldn’t be corrupted by the environment he lived in but basically his protagonist is a Casper Milquetoast.  When people are kind to him, he laps it up and soaks them with tears of joy.   When they are unkind, he leaves and cries on himself.  A very soggy kid, needing someone to rescue and rehydrate him.  Occasionally, Oliver will stand up to a bully but on someone else’s behalf, like his dead mother. In this book it’s a lot easier to like the bad guys.

They have all the best lines in this book.  No one has ever developed supporting characters as thoroughly and lovingly as Charles Dickens and the villains in Oliver Twist are either strong and bad (like scary Bill Sikes) or weak and bad.  You know who the fun ones are, right?

Of course there’s Fagin.  A fence and corrupter of children, Fagin sees himself as the ultimate pragmatist.  People do have a habit of buying things that burglars are likely to steal but that’s not Fagin’s fault.   All he does is take the stolen goods off the burglars’ hands and send them back into the economy to be purchased again.   And he doesn’t put the stray children into London’s streets, does he?  Of course not.  Fagin will tell you, he’s providing a service getting those children shelter (in abandoned, unsafe buildings) and teaching them trades.   All right, he trains them to become petty criminals, but Fagin didn’t criminalize their behavior.  That was the work of Parliament.   That’s our Fagin, the man with a reason for everything.

 Then there is the wonderful Beadle Bumble (you can tell what a bumbling, bumptious oaf he’s going to be with that name) who takes careful inventory of Mrs. Corney’s possessions before he proposes marriage to her.   He’s so pompous and mean to everyone else, you can’t help but cheer when the coy Mrs. Corney becomes his tyrant after marriage.  English majors, feminists and law students all cheer when, apprised that the law assumes a man is in charge of his wife’s behavior, Bumble responds, “ If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

The weakest of the bad boys is Noah Claypole, a sniveler if  there ever was one.  He’ll bully half-starved orphans because he’s better fed and knows the names of his parents (That’s all the genealogy Noah knows but it’s enough) but turns up his nose at snatching handbags because old ladies tend to fight back.  Big, bad Noah Claypole has to take ‘the kinchin lay,’ when he becomes a full-time criminal.  That is he steels the errand and pocket money from children who still have their moms.   His zenith is achieved when he becomes a stool-pigeon.

One of the characters that rarely makes it into an adaptation is Charley Bates, a friend of the Artful Dodger and fellow pickpocket.  Charley stands out against the rest of the bad guys because he’s cheerful.  Unlike the saturnine Dodger and Sykes, Charley  spends most of his time laughing.  He’s just as much a pickpocket as the Dodger but Charley can’t help seeing the funny side of life.   When he witnesses the violent side of crime, Charley rethinks his options and becomes an honest man.  

 And then there’s the Artful.   Jack Dawkins, ladies and gents, immortalized forever as The Artful Dodger.   Although he’s not as adorable as Jack Wild portrayed him in the 1960’s musical adaptation (where huge hunks of the story were chopped off) The Dodger steals every possible scene in Oliver’s life story and has to be transported to Australia to keep from absconding with the ending.  He’s cunning, naughty, impudent, deceitful and a wonderful counterpoint to the perpetual victim, Oliver.  

In the end, Twist is a serious story about the effects of poverty and I am glad that the book helped some real people and that the fictional Oliver eventually obtained enough security to stop dripping tears at the drop of a hat.  He deserved a happy ending, as did the poor of Victorian England.   But if Mr. Dickens had written sequels, as so many writers do these days, I wish he had told of Jack’s life in Australia.   The Dodger Down Under would have sold!

Lest we forget: Taylor Caldwell’s The Balance Wheel

Veteran’s Day is coming up and I can’t help thinking about a poem called “Ode of Remembrance” by Laurence Binyon.   It reads (in part)

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Those verses and this holiday were to memorialize the veterans of the first World War, the war that was supposed to end all the others.  Well, we know what happened after that.  Despite the enormous cost, wars continued to flourish, large and small, and although no one publicly prefers sending soldiers into battle, the soldiers keep being sent.  Taylor Caldwell explores the reasons and pressures that lead in to war in her book, The Balance Wheel.   It’s an old-fashioned novel in many ways but some of its themes are contemporary.

As the balance wheel among four adult brothers, Charles Wittmann is a very busy man.  Most of his time and energy are consumed either managing the tool factory his father created or his siblings, the materialistic Joe, Wilhelm, the aesthete and Fred, a rabble-rousing, proto-Marxist.   What extra time Charles has is devoted to his teen-aged son, Jimmy. When a government representative visits and talks of imminent global conflict, Charles has to broaden his concerns  to protect his family, his business and his town.  

After that, Charles Wittmann caries the burden of Cassandra, able to see his country’s future but unable to change it.  The reader watches the approach of war through his eyes, knowing his efforts for peace will be swept aside in the end as his family gets swept into history

The novel suggests that families and communities are microcosms of the nations they occupy and that war occurs when intelligent, well-meaning governments and leaders don’t actively work (like Charles) to keep peace or resist evil.  That may or may not be true.  What cannot be disputed is that when governments fail in these tasks, it is the citizens who pay.   Treaties can be negotiated or border-lines redrawn, but no agreement can revive sacrificed soldiers.  No general can bring back the dead.

The only ways to honor their sacrifice are to remember the dead and work to keep others from joining their ranks.   (Or, to quote Mother Jones, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”)   The Balance Wheel tries to do both.   It’s not a soldier’s novel like A Farewell to Arms  or All Quiet on the Western Front although the soldiers are in it.  It’s about how everyone loses in wars. It’s one way to remember the Armistice.

Growing up with a Gem: The Domestic Novels of Shirley Jackson

Readers love a seldom-read story or an under-praised author.  To appreciate a less-known work or author is the a mark of a book connoisseur and readers delight in being seen as connoisseurs.    Without knowing it, my sister and I trained to be gourmet readers when we grew reading  the work of an under-appreciated writer.  You may  or may not have heard of Shirley Jackson but do you know about  her books Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons?

When Ms. Jackson’s work is recalled (which isn’t often enough) she is remembered for disturbing tales such as The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived at the Castle and the short story, “The Lottery”.   These are artful, unsettling, well-constructed narratives that leave the reader with the impression they would not want to meet Ms. Jackson in a dark alley.  The titles Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons may sound like more “tales of terror” but these are something different.  These stories would be called domestic humor.

Now domestic humor has never enjoyed a great reputation.  The same critics that sneered over the pulp paper tales of crime and science fiction in the 1940’s ignored the later stories about raising kids in the suburbs, largely because of it’s female target audience.. And though the detectives and space explorers have finally achieved a certain level of respect from the cognoscenti, domestic humor is still literature’s the unwelcome step-child.  So, like Rodney Dangerfield, this work “gets no respect.” But the snob who derides these books because of their catagory is a fool.

Yes, these are family stories, but they are told without sentiment or saccharine.  If anything, Ms. Jackson’s humor is tart, like a dry summer wine. The children are depicted as fully developed characters with individual voices and opinions.  Also, there’s a faint air of disturbance in these tales.  Blankets disappear at will, imaginary playmates send very real presents and a toddler changes names without notice (I sympathize with the child, now a man, who was Barry, B, Mr. B., Mr. Beekman and finally, Beekman to his family and all the world all before he entered first grade.)  There’s an air of logical lunacy in these stories that is familiar to anyone with children, bureaucracies  or a sense of the absurd.  And the prose is as clean as a whistle.

Like I said, my sister and I were raised on these stories.  At first, our Mom read them aloud, then we read them to ourselves at lunch or to each other for pleasure.  When I left for college, I tried to pack Mom’s collection of Shirley Jackson.  My sis tried the same thing years later but each time Mom stole them back out of our luggage.  That says something, considering Mom would lend us shoes, hose or money.  Her Shirley Jackson’s books were off limits. We had to find our own copies.  We did.  I hope, so will you.

There’s Always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm

So intones Judith Starkadder, at the beginning of Stella Gibbon’s comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm.  To Judith Starkadder this statement is a curse and a warning but it’s more of an opening salvo in the war of English novel types.   On one side are the moor, mud and fen school of Novels where the clouds are always lowering, the males are always glowering and life is eternally soiled.  Opposing this school of brooding romantics is the pragmatic, organized and cheerful Flora Poste, a Jane Austen heroine in 1920’s regalia.  Can an intelligent girl with a will of her own “tidy up” the morbid and moribund Starkadders?  Can she overcome their devotion to sukebind and jumping into the well?  And can she break Aunt Ada Doom’s preoccupation about seeing “Something narsty in the woodshed”?

Since this book satirizes many novels that aren’t widely read these days, I worried some readers might not get the joke. However my spouse (who mixes up D. H.Lawrence with T. E. Lawrence) got it immediately so read away.  It’s a hilarious satire of English literature but never mind that.  You’ll love the gloomy Starkadders who live in Cold Comfort Farm and the ridiculous, pedantic Mr. Mybug (his real name is Meyerburg but in rural accents that comes out “Mybug”) who wants to write a book proving the Bronte books weren’t written by three sisters but one brother.  Then you’ll cheer for the breezy heroine who threatens to clean up everything and turn the Starkadders into a semi-functional, if not completely respectable family.  It’s amazing what a determined woman can do.

If you haven’t read, this try it and look for the reasonably faithful film adaptation made in 1995.  And remember, avoid the combination of sukebind and summer evenings if you live in a place called Howling.  You’ll be tempting Nature to make things untidy!