Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book 32: After a big April I'm only 1 off the pace, but I'm 1/3 of the way through one book, 2/3 of the way through another book, and 2/3 of the way through an audiobook that time ran out on so I had to check out the hard copy.

Mr F doesn't like libraries, but Mr Bunches and I do, so when we want to go to a library, we usually try to do something for Mr F first, like go to a park or go swimming or something. Today we didn't really have that chance. It was raining, so we couldn't go outside and play, and we all went swimming last night, so as a warmup for Mr F to go to the library, we went to "Rocket McDonald's," which is a McDonald's that has a playland with a big spiral staircase thing that for some reason we decided looked like a rocket. (It doesn't.)

Mr F wasn't crazy about that either: he seemed spooked by the rocket-stairs, going to them repeatedly and then climbing up one before skittering away. He spent much of the time hanging out by his french fries or sitting in the high chair.

So when we went to the Verona library -- the next town over, and a library I've wanted to go to for a long time because from outside it looked really spectacular -- I decided not to follow my usual routine with Mr F, which is to pick out a book and make him read it with me. Since Mr Bunches plays with all the library toys and then reads all his books before we go, Mr F is usually stuck at the library for a pretty long time, so we walk around and look at the books and check out the movies and the bubblers and the art and etc., and then we sit and read a book together, and then we just hang out until Mr Bunches is done.

Today, like I said, I didn't want to make him read, since he already was out of sorts. So I decided I'd read to him, and was looking around for a book when I came across Book 32.

What really attracted my attention to it was Neil Gaiman's name being on it. I'm not sure what I think about Neil Gaiman. He wrote one of my all-time favorite books (American Gods) but I thought The Ocean At The End Of The Lane was only so-so, and I gave up on a collection of his short stories. I liked Coraline as a movie. But I've also gotten the feeling that Neil Gaiman is getting all kinds of credit just for being Neil Gaiman, the way Stephen King can just write anything and it's going to sell a billion copies.

So I wasn't entirely sure that Neil Gaiman writing a kids' story would work. It was entirely possible that this was just a way to boost sales for some book, pasting Neil Gaiman's name on it, or that it wasn't one of his best.  But I decided to give it a shot.

The way we did it was Mr F would sit somewhere -- the castle, a chair, the slide -- and I'd sit by him and read it quietly to him.  If it got too crowded around us we'd move to a quieter spot and continue.  It's hard to tell if Mr F is paying attention or not, but I figure at least hearing the reading is worth something.

The book was actually really very good -- and surprisingly so, I think.  Everyone knows the story of Hansel & Gretel: two kids led into the woods by their dad who stumble across a witch's cottage and end up shoving her into the oven.  What Gaiman did here though was flesh out the story (to be fair, I don't know how much of the original Brothers Grimm story there was, so maybe he just rewrote it?) to give some dimension to the characters, and add some emotional complexity.  In the end, he wrote something that's more than a book for children, and is actually quite chilling if you think about the story.

The story here has the mom convincing the dad to take the kids into the woods because there's a war, and money and food are scarce, and they won't all survive -- so two can die so that two can live. Hansel overhears them talking and the next day he's ready, with white stones in his pocket to trace their way back.  So the first time it doesn't work, but the second time Hansel isn't ready, so he has to leave bread crumbs, and of course they get eaten, so they wind up at the cottage, where the witch is pretty gruesome, referring to Hansel as meat and trapping him in a cage.

What really makes the story work better than just a fairy tale is both the extra time dumping them in the woods, and the little details that show Gaiman at his eerie best.  The first time they go out, Hansel knows what's up but Gretel doesn't, and Gretel (the elder) seems to not want to believe their dad just dumped them in the woods. But the second time it happens, they both know what's going on. That leads to this:

Gretel's getting it was a really creepy moment, as was the witch's house, with Hansel being fattened up in the cage. To keep the witch (who is almost blind) from realizing how fat he's getting, Hansel takes an old bone that was lying in the cage, and each day when the witch comes in to feed him and says to poke a finger through the bars so she can see how fat he's getting, Hansel pokes the bone through, tricking her into delaying until she loses patience and has Gretel build a fire in the stove to cook her brother anyway.  When Gretel goes to get her brother out, having burnt the witch, she wonders why Hansel clings to the bone and won't let it go, and anybody reading it should get a lump in their throat at that.

After I read it, I was thinking about how for kids it's a pretty scary story: what's scarier than being abandoned by your father in the woods, and then taken in by a witch? The contrast between the woodsman's sparse larder and the witch's gingerbread house only makes the comparison more stark: why wouldn't the kids think the witch was nice? But, it turns out, no adult is to be trusted, from a kid's perspective: parents will dump you in the woods and strangers will cook you and eat you.

Reading it as a parent, though, I got a whole different perspective on it.  The mom's choice is horrible (I'll have more to say on that below) and the dad's decision to go along with it just as bad, but how bad would it be if you couldn't provide for your kids and knew they would end up starving? I think any parent would say the kids should get the food and would do everything they could to make sure the kids live, but what that leads to in this case is (unless the war in the story ended real soon) two kids with dead parents living in a wartorn country stricken by famine.

I think there's little worse, from a parent's perspective, than letting a kid down, or feeling helpless in the face of adversity.  I feel terrible everytime we have to limit Mr Bunches' toy budget; but we're not made of money and he'd bankrupt us if he could, so the lesser evil is to deny him the many requests for toys he makes each day.  I felt worse the night Sweetie and I sat up all night in a dark hospital waiting room while Mr F had brain surgery. I remember being exhausted and wanting to just lie down for a minute or two, around 4 a.m., but every time I thought about that I would picture Mr F in the operating room. I couldn't do anything for him; I'm not a brain surgeon and there wasn't anybody to sue. So I did the one thing I could do: I stayed awake, trying in some way to at least be in the same boat with him in whatever way I could: while he was going through whatever he was going through, I was forcing myself to have some tough times.

It's that feeling, in good parents, that makes kids love us and makes us a good parent: the absolute certitude that we would take any amount of harm or danger or trouble if it would spare kids from some problem. But what about when there is no good option, only bad and worse? I was walking around looking out the windows with Mr F thinking of what the parents could do, how they might have tried to get to a different country, or worked to catch more animals or something. But each day they'd realize their kids were hungrier and hungrier and would simply have to hope that things get better.

It's that feeling of helplessness I think would be the worst. The hardest times for me in my life are when things are out of my hands: pacing around the hospital waiting room, or when a jury has gone to deliberate. You simply sit and think about what you could have done, how things might have been even a bit better. I imagine that's the desperation Hansel & Gretel's parents felt -- but the choice they made makes them, to me, every bit as bad as the witch. She was going to eat them to stay alive, but the woodsman and his wife sacrificed the kids so they could live. You could argue that the witch was doing what witches do: is it evil to give in to your nature? But the parents? Parents don't kill their kids so they can live longer.

That's why the ending of the book was hard for me to take. Hansel & Gretel escape, of course, and they find their way back to their parents' house, where their dad is waiting. They're excited to see him and they've brought all sorts of diamonds and gold from the witch's stash, and as their dad hugs them they ask where their mom is. She's died, and Gaiman suggests that maybe the Mom died because she missed her kids.

I suppose it might be natural for kids to love their parents. All kids want to think their parents are loving and great, and will go to extremes to justify behavior that is bad, or worse. Kids make excuses for terrible parents all the time. (I see some of it in my job.)  But at the end of the book, the dad has paid no price whatsoever, really: he dumped his kids in the woods, they were captured and nearly eaten by a witch, and they bring him back riches and they all lived happily ever after and never wanted for anything again.

WHAT KIND OF MESSAGE IS THAT? I know this was a kid's book, but it was a kid's book where the author felt it was okay to refer to kids as meat, and then it just cheaped out in the end, with a sort of "oh well your dad loved you he tried his best," which, after the 99% of the book that was really far better than a retelling of a fairytale could be expected to be, was a colossal letdown. I would have had Hansel and Gretel make their way to another town, and live off their riches. Or stay in the witches' gingerbread house and help travelers who are lost, until they were old enough to go back to civilization.  Something like that would've been a more consistent story, I think: Hansel & Gretel could only trust each other, after the entire world, so far as they knew, treated them as disposable. Why not tell kids hey if people treat you bad you just leave 'em behind? Gaiman ends up with a "they all lived happily ever after even the dad who, after all, only dumped his kids in the woods twice so that he could live while they didn't, and then never even went searching for them," and it feels like a cop-out, as if he realized the book was due in a half-hour and had to get something on paper, or he was worried about pro-dad groups pestering him. (Pro-dad groups -- mad dads -- are the worst. They are horrible people.)

I wasn't going to count the book originally but it actually made me think more than some of the other books I've read, so I threw it on the list.

(PS the artwork in the book is phenomenal and guaranteed to spook kids.)

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