Saturday, November 16, 2013

E.B. White’s Odd Little Book

E.B. White’s Stuart Little puzzled me when I was a child, and it continues to do so as an adult.
            I’m not sure why I read it as a kid, perhaps it was simply because it was on the shelf, available, and I was a voracious reader.  I do, however, distinctly remember not knowing what to make of it.  The cover with its image of a mouse paddling a canoe seemed promising, but it turned out to be misleading.  It wasn’t a light-hearted adventure, a fun fantasy.  It was something else entirely.  That canoe ends up being destroyed, and Stuart has a screaming tantrum next to it while his date, Harriet, unsuccessfully tries to calm him down by suggesting alternative activities like going dancing.  Eventually she walks off and leaves him, never to return to the story.
            Besides Stuart’s “mouse-like” appearance, there are odd aspects like a button that makes a model car invisible.  Stuart pushes this accidently, so he and the dentist who built the car can’t find it as it’s running, and it ends up smashing itself apart.  Perhaps this is a warning.  Some fantastical things can’t be controlled and thus must be used sparingly.  The episode, however, is typical of the book’s bittersweet tone.  Something that initially seems wonderful ends up being ruined, inadequate, or lost.  The canoe is called “summer memories,” a phrase of nostalgia, and it’s a trinket bought at a general store.  It’s the idea or representation of a canoe rather than a functional one, and Stuart must seal its leaks with gum.
            Part of the book’s appeal is how Stuart solves problems by MacGyvering solutions and engaging in what we now call Life Hacks.  It plays with scale, something that always fascinates and amuses whether it is Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels.  Then there are the wish fulfillment adventures for a child, the negotiating of adult activities -- sailing, driving, teaching, dating, traveling.  And there is White’s wonderful wry sentences:  the dentist saying, “Oftentimes people with decayed teeth have sound ideas”;  and Stuart “not only looking like a mouse but acting like one too –wearing a gray hat and carrying a small cane.”
            However, the book never goes in an expected direction.  Stuart doesn’t form any kind of relationship with Harriet, a girl his size who is patient, easy-going, and seemingly nice.  He doesn't find Margalo, the bird he loves who has flown away.  He leaves home without much of a goodbye, or much regret.  Unlike with the movie adaptation (which I’ll discuss next week) there is no closure or resolution of any relationship. At the end, Stuart is hitting the road.  As my brother put it in a recent email, “instead of beginning in medias res, it ends in medias res.  I remember as a kid, being stunned.  What?  I just read the whole book and for what?  It had no ending.  What?  Where's the rest of the story?  … Why didn't the author finish it?  Why didn't the mouse find the girl? The bird?  It made me sad that the book had no ending… Every kid knows a book should have an ending...  
I didn’t feel as strongly as my brother, but I was similarly disconcerted.
Returning to the book as an adult, it’s open-endedness still surprises, but I understand it more.  In part, it’s because Stuart Little is a book, but it’s not a story.  There is no plot or linear narrative.  It is a situation, a set-up which generates a series of episodes.  (In this way, it's similar to James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times.)  These easily could have been expanded into a series like Flat Stanley or any of a number of kid’s books.  White, however, did not do this, and it strikes me as a brave choice on his part.  One of the main problems of writing for children is writing for children.  Or rather, writing down to them, not challenging them and not respecting their intelligence and abilities.  White understood these pitfalls, saying, ““My fears about writing for children are great—one can so easily slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness.”  There is nothing whimsical or cute in the line “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” and Stuart demands to be respected rather than cuddled.  White never doubted children’s abilities to accept odd imaginative worlds and imaginative acts.  The open ending is not a hook to sell the next book; it's part of the overall point. 
White said Stuart Little was about "the continuing journey that everybody takes-—in search of what is perfect and unattainable. This is perhaps too elusive an idea to put in a book for children, but I put it in anyway."  Stuart searches for Margalo, the bird he misses, the one he is entranced by from the moment she speaks to him in rhyme.  She literally saves Stuart’s life, rescuing him from a garbage scow that's heading out into the ocean.  The beautiful and poetic can save us from this world of trash, the oblivion of the abyss.  It can give us a transcendent flying experience, and it can become a type of grail.
That's not a little idea at all.

1 comment:

  1. I also read Stuart Little, but other than what you described, my memories of this book are vague compared to E.B. White's other classic, Charlotte's Web. This was an interesting post.