More on kid fiction and trauma

24Mar10

I looked at Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak a few posts ago and tried to approach why YA fiction can be so much more direct about real threats to a child than early childhood fiction. In Speak, the trauma, the rape, was remote and we dealt with the depression, social isolation and withdrawal that a brilliant and singular main character was able to overcome small step by small step.

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Carolyn Coman’s 1996 Newbery Honor book, What Jamie Saw (Puffin, 1997), is a sensitive treatment of child abuse from a child’s perspective. The book is really aimed at an even younger audience than Speak, and has to tread lightly with a threat so real.

The first lines of What Jamie Saw detail, in words like cinematic slow motion, an act of abuse.

“When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved.”

The story then goes on like a dream, in the close third-person voice of Jamie, to tell about the move, and what happened after. This is not a book about child abuse, but about its aftermath, the effect of living through a trauma, and the re-shaping of a life.

Beginning a story with a catastrophic or traumatic event allows the author to move the story on from the life-changing event and to weave in the relevant past. What we know of the past, of Van, of Jamie’s mom, is known by its emotional resonance today. Like Jamie’s mother, the book does not look back.

The fact that this book is not about the trauma itself is, if anything, emphasized. At the moment Jamie’s mother catches Nin, Van ceases to be an immediate threat. “Van was done. He wasn’t going to hurt anybody, he was hanging his head.” He makes no move to stop Jamie, Nin, and their mother from leaving, at least no move that Jamie sees. Van remains an ominous, if vague threat, but the threat only becomes real at the Christmas carnival. Jamie shoots bb’s at the floating duck, and begins to understand Earl’s comment about “sitting ducks.” Then his mother sees a man who looks like Van, and has a moment of panic. The incident lasts seconds, but when Jamie gets home, he kicks the baby’s drawer: “Would it slide right in, just the way he’d imagined?” Seeing the man who looked like Van doesn’t make him a more real threat, it makes his effect on Jamie and his mother more real to us. It shows us more about Jamie and his mother, rather than showing us more about Van or about some intention of his.

Carolyn Coman had the opportunity to make Van more than a threat. She chose not to. At the end of the book when Van does show up, he is quiet, deferential. “I’ll come around some other time.” Jamie’s mother said “No.” That is enough. Van leaves. It isn’t necessary to make Van more evil—he provided his credentials as a monster in the first sentence of the book. The function of Van’s visit is to provide closure—to answer the question of what will happen if he does come, and to let Jamie, his mother and the reader know, finally, that they are finished with him, finished with his ghost.

Healing is possible; there is an “afterward.” If Van remained a threat, a part of the lives of Jamie and his mother, that healing would never happen and the book would be hard to read. We are on an internal journey with Jamie and his mother, a journey of healing.

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