Irish Examiner Saturday - Irish Examiner - Weekend
It’s time to embrace the novels that kick against ‘blending in’
Berni Dwan celebrates comingof-age novels, a much neglected literary genre that got her through her childhood and teenage years
FOR me, it all began as a little girl watching the television series, Little House on the Prairie, set in the unforgiving landscape of late 19th century Minnesota, with all its joys and woes being experienced and interpreted through the eyes of a child.
I was also rather stuck on The Waltons of Walton’s Mountain in rural Virginia during the Great Depression.
Yes indeedy, the sobering signoffs of Laura Ingalls and John Boy Walton helped me keep my mettle until the next episode. Outside of these, my diet of children’s classics and Enid Blyton stories made me rather plucky and always up for a spiffing adventure.
Might you also be a sucker for the ‘coming-of-age’ novels with their protagonists of tender years? A fool perhaps for Pip in
Great Expectations or a romantic for Catherine Moreland in
Northanger Abbey? A champion for young Philip in Of Human Bondage or Jamie in Empire of the Sun? An apologist for Amir in The Kite Runner or a soulmate to Marjane in Persepolis? They must all endure misfortune and downright unfairness before emerging wise beyond their years.
Join me in my modest appraisal of one of my favourite genres — coming of age, and let’s start with locales. The slums of Brooklyn and Harlem in New York in the first half of the 19th century are vividly and accurately re-created in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and
Go Tell it on the Mountain.
Both novels portray the impact of struggling to survive in the ghetto as part of a tribe who are looked down on by society at large. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the tribe is Irish and the young girl, Francie Nolan, is torn between a hardened mother and a soft-hearted but irresponsible alcoholic father. The poverty they endure is appalling but Francie is a clever girl and is determined to get an education that will raise her out of the ghetto.
In Go Tell it on the Mountain, the tribe originates from the disenfranchised black communities who migrated from the Southern states of America. In many ways, the move up North does not prove to be the hoped-for Promised Land. Fourteen-year-old John Grimes is trapped between a father he increasingly hates, and a loving mother. The poverty he endures is very similar to that endured by Francie Nolan. In both novels the youngsters, Francie and John, reach a place from which they can move forward, but in quite different ways.
Three relatively recent Irish novels tackle the difficulties of being young in an intolerable situation. What I love about Alan MacMonagle’s Ithaca is that it describes a community and a
setting that is replicated all over rural Ireland, one that makes us uncomfortable and that we would rather not think about — the postcrash, economically depressed small town or village. With a mother who is too young and emotionally damaged herself to look after him, 11-year-old Jason has no tangible adult support.
Interacting with the dark underbelly of his community on the wrong side of the train tracks, he absorbs the sense of abandonment and hopelessness among people who, having never escaped, are now trapped indefinitely. Like so many young people in these coming-of-age novels, Jason resorts to his own overactive imagination to get him through. Mental health issues, prescription drug abuse, self-harming and slow self-destruction from alcohol are just some of the damaging threads woven into Jason’s life, and there is a clever ploy that serves to heighten our empathy for Jason and his demons.
A similarly limiting and self-destructing rural environment is painted in Eimear McBride’s A
Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Again, a bright and intelligent youngster is desperately trying to survive and thrive in a small and dysfunctional family unit — a brother with a brain tumour and a mother who is a religious zealot (not unlike John’s father in Go Tell it on the Mountain or Jeanette’s fundamentalist Christian mother in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit).
Our protagonist desperately tries to navigate the toxic school environment where to be any way new or different attracts the wrong kind of attention from the insecure herd of conforming and cruel teenagers; being an aloof outsider constantly embarrassed by or trying to protect your afflicted brother are stubborn magnets pulling with increasing strength on the reserves of this young girl.
Throw in an abusive uncle who enters her life at 13 and you have an enthralling and disturbing tale that rivals Dante’s Inferno and is as unsettling as Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy.
It is a wonderful thing when an author can bring us into a community and help us to understand how codes of behaviour are so important if you want to survive. But 18-year-old Middle sister in Anna Burns’ Milkman does not learn and consequently draws unwanted attention to herself. The ensuing bother that Middle sister unwittingly lands herself in is almost comical in that it starkly depicts the ridiculous lengths to which will people go so as not be out of kilter with their neighbours. Reading while walking, going for long runs, and not bringing home a steady boyfriend to her conformist and religious mother with a view to marriage, are interpreted by all onlookers as behaviour beyond the pale. Little wonder then that Middle sister, not unlike Voltaire’s hapless Candide, lands herself in dangerous and compromising situations in a Catholic nationalist housing estate in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, where codes of behaviour are unbendable.
In Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the main protagonists are grappling with coming-of-age issues from starkly different perspectives. The young Maya Angelou is forced to witness her black community duck and dive and grin and bear, to avoid the incendiary wrath of any white folks in Stamps, Arkansas during the Great Depression. Young Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird in 1930s Alabama is quite the Laura Ingalls character.
Unlike so many of their white neighbours, the Finch family are not overtly and viciously racist. Scout is determined to understand why the world she witnesses outside her house is so cruel and unjust. This feisty and admirable little girl makes us all wonder why we do not more often make nuisances of ourselves and persist in asking the awkward questions that make people uncomfortable.
But of course, the old stalwart setting when it comes to comingof-age novels, is the school. From Tom Brown’s School Days to Antonia White’s Frost in May; from Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls to Tobias Wolff’s Old School, it is the life lessons and not the Latin lessons that bring the protagonists to a greater understanding of the human condition. Tom Brown painfully learns the codes of survival at Rugby School in the 1830s — keeping a stiff upper lip while dealing with the arch bully, Flashman. In Frost in May, nine-yearold Nanda quickly learns the codes of behaviour in the stifling atmosphere of the Convent of the Five Wounds boarding school, where there is no tolerance for straying from the rigid codes of behaviour, from how you lie in bed at night to the degree of fervency with which you pray. Nanda’s dénouement concerns her literary endeavours.
In Country Girls it’s also a bit of promiscuous writing that gets Cait and Baba expelled from their 1940s West of Ireland convent boarding school, while the scholarship boy in Old School is expelled for plagiarising a story in a writing competition judged by Ernest Hemingway. And who could not fail to be impressed with the classical elegance of Miss Jean Brodie in her prime, brainwashing her chosen ‘crème de la crème’ to be versions of her unlived self?
All the books I have mentioned were written by adults, but remarkably, The Outsiders was written by the 17-year-old SE Hinton. Again, it’s all about codes of behaviour, this time in opposing gangs, the Socs and the Greasers, in 1960s Tulsa Oklahoma. With shades of West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause, The Outsiders is almost unique in the coming of age genre because it has no notable adult characters, Golding’s Lord of the Flies being another. The central character, Ponyboy, is bound by the rules of the Greasers which include being constantly at war with the Socs. I truly regret not reading this as a teenager.
So many coming-of-age novels grapple with the challenges of being accepted in a community if you are in any way ‘different.’ That difference can be race, gender, sexual orientation, academic ability, appearance, religion, nationality, disability, an ‘unusual’ family member, or just not fitting in with the herd. These novels kick against ‘blending in’ and offer hope to young readers who are finding it difficult to adhere to the ‘norm’. They are also a sober reminder to us oldies that being young is not so easy; and what better time to indulge than the long winter evenings.