The Mysterious Storyteller of Mavis Gallant’s “The Moslem Wife”

 

The Mysterious Storyteller of

Mavis Gallant’s “The Moslem Wife”

Luke Wallin

Published Fall 2012 on the Faculty Blog of

The MFA in Creative Writing Program at

Spalding University

 

“The Moslem Wife,” set in 1920, was published in The New Yorker in 1976. It’s a marvelous story about which much has been written. Here I reflect on the narrator, or storyteller, as a unique presence. This voice complicates the idea that a narrator either is, or is not, a character.

 

The opening sentence is bold:

 

In the south of France, in the business room of a hotel quite near to the house where Katherine Mansfield (whom no one in this hotel had ever heard of) was writing” The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” Netta Asher’s father announced that there would never be a man-made catastrophe in Europe again.

 

The omniscient storyteller knows where Katherine Mansfield is writing. Is this distracting? Funny? A wink to the reader of 1976? It’s not a detail that comes back into the story. What kind of being, or narrator, or voice would know such things as the location of a writer’s room, the fictional story she was writing, and what she was doing at exactly the moment when the curtain rises on fictional Netta and her fictional father? In addition to knowing this piece of (presumably) real literary history the narrator knows the intimate details of the scene; why would the narrator care enough to report these things? This might suggest that the story is being told in the voice of a post-modern meta-fictionist who begins by mocking the father and any readers who don’t know Katherine Mansfield’s work. (I don’t think we need such notions to cope with the range of this voice.)

The reader has no time to raise such questions because:

 

The dead of that recent war, the doomed nonsense of Russian Bolsheviks had finally knocked some sense into European heads. What people wanted now was to get on with life. When he said “life,” he meant its commercial business.

 

The first two sentences above are the narrator’s relaying of Netta’s father’s thoughts and statements. He has been established as a domineering man and a fool. But as decisive, forceful, and dominating for the moment as he may be, the narrator is stronger. The final sentence above, ending with “…when he said “life” he meant its commercial business” casts a negative shadow on the father’s interpretation of “life.” The reader doesn’t yet know the scope of this storyteller’s disdain, but it diminishes the father relative to three other beings: Netta, probably; the narrator, definitely; and the reader, provisionally. We don’t want to fail the Mansfield test, or come up a beat slow in mocking fictional fools.

 

The reader is invited to participate in spying on this man, his family, and great obscure writers toiling “quite near.” Readers will soon learn that this narrator is neither mean nor consistently sarcastic. Because the voice speaks freely, satisfied at one moment with effaced observation and the next with slashing a fool (just to describe two keys among many), the reader is kept slightly off balance. Gently, readers will be shown a scene and coaxed toward judgment. But don’t take all day! For the narrator will impatiently take control and assert the failing of someone, as when “Netta Asher’s father announced that there would never be a man-made catastrophe in Europe again.” The gossipy deliciousness of the point of view offered the reader is irresistible.

 

There are unique things in this voice, magical things. It’s not just a voice (to me) but a Being who should inspire us to let our own narrators soar. This third-person storyteller doesn’t just transcend the characters’ perspectives in a familiar way. This is a liquid shapeshifting Being, free to mock characters and free to challenge the reader with references unknown to anyone inside the story. The voice seems casually fearless and blunt, yet not at all show-off. We find a storyteller not to be called “who” like an extra character, nor “that” like an impersonal force. This is someone who could know anything, but practices restraint much of the time by keeping to what Netta knows. This voice is omniscient but not over-planning, like a god who never cared much for control. 

 

Netta was 11 years old when her father signed the 100 year lease giving her a lifetime of employment managing the Hotel Prince Albert and Albion in the south of France. As if this fate weren’t enough, she marries her first cousin Jack, whom she adores. She is small and dark and professionally correct with her customers and staff. Jack is large and handsome, blond, loquacious and restless. During the courtship they make love every day, and Netta worries that he does not return her passion. The narrative voice conveys this with a quietness, distantly kin to that of Willa Cather, but with a more abrupt music. In a passage describing Netta’s feelings about her marriage we read:

 

And so she came to each new meeting aggressive and hurt, afflicted with the physical signs of her doubts and injuries — cold sores, rashes, erratic periods, mysterious temperatures. If she tried to discuss it he would say, “We aren’t going over all that again, are we?” Where Netta was concerned he had settled for the established faith, but Netta, who had a wilder, more secret God, wanted a prayer a minute, not to speak of unending miracles and revelations.

 

This paragraph begins with narrative summary, proceeds with details, and leads to a character-revealing line of dialogue. Thus far the focus is on the two of them, and we are present in their space, listening and watching. Then suddenly our narrator tires of this conservative presentation and bursts out with a great secret of Netta’s heart. She is filled with attitudes toward loving Jack like wild faith and religious passion, something we would never have guessed. These “narrative outbursts” increase our confidence in the storyteller, and make us realize that our incrementally cultivated story reality can be instantly sprung free into a richer view.

 

Little shocks and revelations come to Netta, and they are delivered with a kind of disdain by the narrative voice. Netta is smarter than most people in her world, yet she has limited experience, a way of speaking that others find strange, and because of her looks and manner she is treated almost as a servant. I don’t think she realizes this, fully. She is running the place, and the guests seem silly, while the servants must be supervised. 

 

Here is passage showing the racism of some wealthy British hotel guests toward a family from India that appears one day:

 

That very spring, perhaps because of the doctor’s words, the hotel did get some maharaja trade—three little sisters with ebony curls, men’s eyebrows, large heads, and delicate hands and feet. They had four rooms, one for their governess, who was Dutch, had a perfect triangle of a nose and said “whom” for “who,” pronouncing it “whum.” The girls were to learn French, tennis, and swimming. The chauffeur arrived with a hairdresser, who cut their long hair; it lay on the governess’s carpet, enough to fill a large pillow. Their toe- and fingernails were filed to points and looked like a kitten’s teeth. They came smiling down the marble staircase, carrying new tennis racquets, wearing blue linen skirts and navy blazers. Mrs. Blackley glanced up from the bridge game as they went by the cardroom. She had been one of those opposed to their having lessons at the English Lawn Tennis Club, for reasons that were, to her, perfectly evident.

She said, loudly, “They’ll have to be in white.”

“End whayt, pray?” cried the governess, pointing her triangle nose. 

“They can’t go on the courts except in white. It is a private club. Entirely white.”

 

Although Netta finds this odious, it wears on her. The careless guests also speak of a “Moslem wife” as someone without power or independent identity and the implication is that this is how they see Netta. Her place is between the guests and the servants, as she is reclusive and quiet, fiercely loyal to her father’s training and the 100 year lease. She feels so close to her husband that these cooler relationships don’t matters to her. Then one day she begins to see him differently and her industry and work ethic, her desire to be true, and her sense of humor about the idle rich all serve her well. Jack slots into the category of younger guests, idle and charming, chatting in the bar and at cards. Nobody who interests her.

 

She seems emotionally stunted compared with Jack. Yet she realizes one day that he is lazy, unfaithful, and bored. She grasps that she has a whole set of feelings with which to deal with this, developed and, now that they’ve become conscious, ready. She agrees to Jack’s plan that he should visit England, and soon she goes along with a casual seduction of a young man now that she “realizes” sex has nothing to do with love. Such events and emotional shifts occur throughout this story; each is rooted in her past, comes as a surprise to her, and she finds she can toughen and survive a great deal.

 

 Jack takes off and stays gone. She endures the war with its waves of occupiers, lack of food and heat, and she seems to take it with a touch of irony, as if these boorish military men are not so different from other humans she’s known.

 

After the war a few people from Netta’s childhood reappear. There is a young Indian woman who had lived in the hotel with her parents, two sisters, and a governess. She is now tall and severe, and Netta doesn’t recognize her at first. But she stirs all sorts of memories:

 

She and the girl lunched in a corner of the battered dining room. … Netta, who had no use for the past, was discovering a past she could regret. Out of a dark, gentle silence—silence imposed by the impossibility of telling anything real—she counted the cracks in the walls. When silence failed she heard power saws ripping into olive trees and a lemon grove. With a sense of deliverance she understood that soon there would be nothing left to spoil.

 

I love the narrative flowing along, effortlessly but not quite smoothly, full of grace and full of little reveals and shocks and new generalizations on Netta’s part. 

 

This is such an intimate story — between narrator and reader — and it’s wonderful that it’s in close third person rather than first. The voice has a quality of anger, of dismay at people other than Netta, and this seems to be Netta’s anger (not the storyteller’s or the writer’s). Yet because it’s expressed in third, the reader doesn’t have to deal with endless I this and I that. There is ease and freedom in the reading experience, comfort and page-turning curiosity for me, yet the narrator can pull back from the close scene and speak conversationally about other characters, the war, or the long-ago hotel guests who wanted to be thin in their photographs. Grand knowledge and conversational charm — this is a special being, this teller.

 

One moment the voice quietly delivers Netta’s POV — the annoyed watchful-eyed hotel manager who must guard her privacy, and whose life is slowly losing its quality, all its pleasure. The next moment our storyteller is an anonymous fly on the wall, describing slow days and slow years with a light touch.

This voice doesn’t stamp us with a brand, but earns its stylish thrust with each revelation of how people affect each other. It can be so direct and matter of fact, delivering the most secret thoughts yet limiting them, too. They’re often limited by what Netta knows and feels at the present moment. This is a key to the technique, because as the story moves forward some small new thing can happen which opens her eyes differently. And sometimes she overhears a comment that causes her to re-evaluate a relationship in the past. 

 

Gallant is a patient writer, her storyteller is a mainly patient teller, and Netta is sufferingly patient. 

 

With some writing in first person the emotional reflections are like lights that are too bright. Once given, what’s next?  The reader often feels the moment may be plausible but isn’t very interesting, and there is no space between the narrator delivering the insights and the character receiving them. The narrator KNOWS and the character NOW DOES TOO. So the storyteller seems simplifying, dogmatic, and immature, and the character feels emptied of mystery. The reader must wait for something new to happen, and then for the storyteller to remark on it’s illuminative value. 

 

So earnest and tedious! Give me Gallant’s Mystery Being, casual and loquacious yet irritable and vast with time. What will Voice say next? One more thing, dear reader: the ending you will not guess.

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Published in: on May 7, 2013 at 10:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Guest Blogger: Kaylene Johnson on Writing About Wilderness

First Salmon: Writing About Wilderness

It is late July in Alaska, a season of abundance as salmon migrate with headlong fury back to their natal streams. As I write, my neighbors are in their front yard “cutting fish” on a makeshift table with coolers lined up nearby. They wear bright yellow rain gear and use a garden hose and sharp knives to filet the rich red flesh from the bones of this most amazing species of fish. During this annual migration, rivers and streams shimmer with life as thousands of salmon make their way upstream. And each year I am equally in awe of this primordial miracle of movement and procreation.

In my book, A Tender Distance, I wrote a chapter called “First Salmon,” in which I wove together two stories. One was the quest of my five-year-old son to catch his first salmon. The other was the story of a particular salmon and its lifecycle from egg to adult fish and its return to its spawning stream to die. I loved writing this piece because of the intersection between the two worlds, one above and below water. It represented in a way, something deeper.

This intersection between wilderness and human endeavor never fails to intrigue me. Without question, we are nurtured by wilderness – it sustains us on every level. Physically, wilderness provides sustenance through the plant and animal life that we (respectfully) harvest. Emotionally, it connects us with this home we call earth and nurtures a perspective of our place in it. And spiritually, wilderness reaches deep and wide into the larger questions of our existence.

As I wrote about the salmon’s life, juxtaposed against that of my son, I found that the writing itself grew wild. It’s hard to describe, except that the story of this salmon’s journey became as natural and vibrant as the blood coursing through my own veins.

Even before the electrical impulse, before the spark of life created movement – before a flick of tail or fin – her eyes stared out beyond the membrane of her embryonic cocoon. Before she knew she existed, she could see things. She saw the graveled texture of her redd, a cradle created by her mother in the bed of a freshwater stream. She saw gradiations of light as the long days of summer moved toward winter. She saw shadows: a dark moose’s hoof as it narrowly missed her bed; the swipe of a bear’s paw; the momentary silhouette of eagle’s wings passing overhead. And she saw the mottled shadows of adult salmon moving slowly, laboriously through the cold water. Birth and death happened simultaneously here in the hushed eddy of this quiet stream. But she could not know this, as knowing goes, the primordial cycle of life and death. She could only see with eyes, around whose form a body slowly grew.

For a writer of nonfiction, these were daring words. Who was I to presume what this salmon saw or considered? She was an enigma to me, yet her point of view under the water as the seasons came and went felt right. I forged ahead and as I did, I was able to let go of my notions of literary propriety. I suppose I slid into the water with her – and allowed myself to write wild.

Still the most prominent features of her body were her golden eyes, huge and unblinking, as they absorbed the very essence of this place. Somehow she would remember it all, assimilate every fine detail about these waters, the scent of the seasons, the colors of rock and snow and sky. Although her body fed on the ever-shrinking yolk sac, something beyond the fullness of these nurtured days of growth began to stir in her cells. Something akin to longing.

The gray of winter dissolved into the brilliant sparkle of spring as lengthening daylight hours melted the snow and ice. In a desperate press against the confines of her watery womb, the salmon – barely the length of a human fingertip – dislodged first one and then another pebble. The current, made stronger by the melting snow and rain, gently pried the rest of the redd apart. Suddenly she found herself swept up and away by the rushing water. Instinctively she shuddered and flexed and then swam. Yet her strength was nothing against the power of the water and she tumbled downstream until the current deposited her into a shallow back-eddy several hundred yards from where she had hatched. Her tiny gills heaved with the free-falling sensation of a universe breaking open, beckoning. She was, for the first time, hungry.

I was inspired in part by the images of Natalie Fobes photographic book Reaching Home: Pacific Salmon, Pacific People. It was utterly fascinating to see these fish underwater. I wrote the salmon story in a rush of passion, caught up as I was with her epic journey. And as I wrote, something astonishing happened. My own point of view from the human perspective shifted. Suddenly my son seemed the more shadowy elusive figure – the one blurred by the line of demarcation above and below water. This shift was perfectly fitting for the themes of A Tender Distance, a book that attempted to understand the mysterious process of my sons becoming men in the wild places of Alaska – from a mother’s point of view.

My son’s story paralleled the salmon’s story in that each “character” was driven by a fixated determination to succeed at their quest. Although each was driven by different motives and instincts, the press of their desire seemed a tangible thing to me. While my son’s story marked one of many rites of passage, this was also a story about departures. In the end, the salmon would lay her eggs and die, completing the natural order of things. And my son catching a salmon was the beginning of a long goodbye as this boy departed into manhood.

The current now was a slow-moving stream of clear mountain water. From behind the shadows of rocks, young smolt appeared. Tentative at first, they grew more intrepid at her sluggish movement. Her body had somehow grown heavy, almost too cumbersome to move. All that remained of her will had shriveled into the slow, occasional wave of her tail. Eventually even that grew tiresome and she lay limp, sideways, suspended in the shallow water. The only life left in her body glimmered from her eyes. Motionless she watched. As still as she had been in the beginning, she absorbed the swirl of water, saw the colors of rock and sky. And she watched as a new generation began to feed on her flesh.

The cry of a seagull pierced the evening air. And downstream, a little boy fished, hoping that maybe this time he’d finally catch one.

The last sentence of this last paragraph of the salmon’s story was the only line that alluded to the boy’s quest above the water. There was never any direct interplay between the characters as their stories unfolded. That would have given the chapter a comic-book feel and the ending would have been too tidy had my son caught this particular salmon.

By ending the chapter this way, I hoped to reflect the nature of wilderness itself. We walk along trails with our own thoughts and observations while nearby entire ecological stories are underway without our remote awareness. Even when we try to be in-tune, we cannot know the comings and goings of each nest of redpolls; or deduce the reason behind a bear that has grown lame; or be aware of a newborn moose as it struggles to follow its mother across a stream.

The wilderness is rich with stories about life and death and yes, I will dare to say – longing. The human point of view captures only part of the story. By immersing myself in the story of a salmon, I grew to a deeper understanding of how the point of view of another species might more fully inform my own.

Kaylene Johnson is a writer who lives in Eagle River, Alaska. Her books include A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska; and Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned the Political Establishment Upside Down as well as other books. Her award winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles TimesSpirit magazine and other publications. She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Please visit her website at www.kaylene.us

Published in: on July 25, 2010 at 2:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Writing Ecological Fiction: Give-Away Panther and Grandfather Rattlesnake

There are many strategies for incorporating ecological matters into fiction. One of them is to present a conflict between people who are operating from different cultural outlooks, including different ways of feeling and thinking about nature. In the story below I use cultural conflict to focus on the significance of a rattlesnake. Another way to integrate ecological perspective is to represent the viewpoint of an animal. This can be done using close third person, as I show below for a Florida Panther. The third person voice is able to suggest the interiority of the panther, including his mostly unconscious participation in the ecology and metaphysics of the Mikisuki worldview.

Ceremony of the Panther1, a novel for young adults which includes the story “Grandfather Rattlesnake,” below, tells the story of a Native American shaman who kills a Florida Panther as a religious duty. He needs the animal for medicine to heal his grandmother. His son, sixteen-year-old John Raincrow, is torn between his father’s traditional beliefs and the nihilistic world of his contemporaries. Mikisuki religion holds that each species of animal or plant has a master spirit, just as each individual creature has a spirit. When a hunter goes out to take an animal’s life to provide food or medicine to his people, he first prays to the master spirit and promises not to kill more than he needs. The hunter fasts in the sweat lodge, and has a vision dream in which the following day’s location of the animal is revealed to him. This revelation is a gift of the master spirit. When he hunts at dawn, the animal appears and this is known as the “give away.” The animal sacrifices himself to maintain harmony between the humans and its own species. In every proper hunt there is a three-way bargain and contract, between human, particular animal, and master animal spirit.

The father teaches his son this system of meanings, according to which a person can and must encounter animal spirits in doing his duty to family and community. So I’m telling the story in linear, normal time, but at certain moments I need to touch this timeless world of spiritual meaning.

John’s father, Moses Raincrow, asks him to fast and sweat in the lodge in order to help seek the panther’s location. I show the night scene, including hot stones and steaming water, at the end of Chapter 13. On the first page of 14 Moses slowly brings John up from sleep (early the following morning), asking whether he saw the panther in his dream. John remembers and describes a place they both recognize, where great slabs of cypress stumps lie like stones on the swamp floor. Moses feels that the spirits of the animals have used John as a vehicle to guide him to his appointment.

The rest of the chapter follows Moses on his hunt, and ends with him waiting patiently. Then Chapter 15, p. 107, begins, told from the point of view of the panther. The narrator begins in third person limited, showing the panther from the outside.

The panther was far from the cypress brake. He had returned during the night to the place where his mate had been killed and he had recoiled from the urine of dogs, the oily tracks of leather boots, the smell of death. He shook himself and ran through the swamp for a long time, splashing across a leafy pond, rolling over and over in dry, aromatic cypress needles in a dense thicket, scratching the sweet sticky sap from beneath the bark of a hard, yellow pine. Finally he smelled only of the woods and the night air.

Notice how I take the reader inside the sensuous present of the panther. After 2 1/2 pages of this kind of writing there is a single-line paragraph:

And then something happened.

The big panther began to move along the trail…

The reader doesn’t know what this thing is, but soon comes the line: Whatever it was, it compelled him…

On the next page, last of the chapter, his run intensifies and so does his sense of being called somewhere. The narrative continues with lush description but includes sweeping history of place:

He ran on into pine woods, sparse and clean, and as he crossed in the shadows he came to a small grassy field within the trees. It was sandy there, with clumps of reddish sagegrass growing, and the panther stopped, trembling, in its center. Far down below him in the ground there was a great bone pile, thirty thousand years old, of the skeletons of tigers. They were the long-vanished saber-toothed cats, clustered here in a mysterious mass grave beneath the layers of the earth.

This vein continues, wrapping the sensuous present moment in a history which is both cyclic (nature’s seasons that fill an animal’s consciousness) and historical (the sabre-toothed cats are gone; the Florida Panther is almost gone). Finally he seems seized by something:

The breath of wind over the sagegrass was his own grace. The presence of ancient tigers filled him, called him to great slabs of cut cypress trunks, rising like stones above the woods floor. He knew that place well, but what was there? That was the source of his feeling and his calling. He growled once and ran to meet it.

In this passage the panther actually responds to his “calling” from his master spirit. He heads straight for the place revealed in John’s dream. For the young or casual reader, the story moves on. For the reader interested in the system of Native medicine and hunting culture, this passage confirms the working of timeless meanings through an earthly story. As the passages show, I do this with a light touch, so as not to impede the adventure. On the other hand my narrator is reliable, and his voice does subtly endorse the Native interpretation of events.

Grandfather Rattlesnake

Luke Wallin

The weeks became months, and John heard nothing from his father. Sometimes Sedie Jumper, his cousin who ran the little store by the air-boat dock, came to visit, and once she brought John a letter from his mother. It was just a note, with a clipping from the tribal newspaper, about a woman from an Alaskan tribe who had come through, visiting. She had given a talk at the youth center, telling about the history of alcohol and Native Americans, and she had finished up with saying, “For one of us to stay sober is a revolutionary act.” That was her message, and it was Anna’s, too. John had expected a long letter saying how much she missed him.

After that, he began to really wonder how long they might leave him in the swamp.

Then one day Sedie came by to say Moses would be out to the res the next afternoon; he wanted John to meet him at the store.

“You want me to come and get you?” she asked John.

“No!” Mary said, “We don’t need that air boat out here again tomorrow. He can take the canoe in.”

They looked at John, as if to test him.

“Sure,” he said. “I don’t care.”

He tried not to think about seeing his father, and he got away by himself as soon as he could. It was hard to get to sleep that night. After midnight a storm blew in, and it rained for hours, on into the morning. John waited it out, with nothing but worry on his mind. When it finally slacked off and quit, he still couldn’t figure out how he would feel when he actually set eyes on Papa again. And he wondered, Is this it? Is he going to bring me home with him now?

It seemed years later when John finally eased the long dugout canoe into the weedy bank behind Sedie’s little store. His father’s air boat was in the willows, and John’s stomach turned in anticipation.

An old refrigerator lay on its back with its door gone, and inside a big gopher turtle crawled in a slow circle; it would be Sedie’s supper tonight. John walked into the rear of the store, where the air was still and tense. Silently, Sedie handed him a soda and a Twinkie, and her eyes told him not to speak.

Moses Raincrow stood by the broken jukebox with his powerful arms crossed and his wide, serious face focused on the man he was talking to. Moses nodded at his son and returned to his conversation, and John saw at once why he was so formal. The tall, bony white man in the khaki uniform, standing with his back to John, was Mr. Crane. He had red hair and thickly spread freckles over his skin, and not much humor about him at all.

“We know they’re in the area,” he said. “Don’t try to fool me about that.”

A dark blush of anger passed across Moses’ face, and he looked out the open front door toward the old highway that cut through the reservation.

“We have a pretty good idea you could help us on this pair, Mr. Raincrow.”

“Look,” Moses said quickly. “I just got here. I been working all week on a gladiola farm. How do you expect me to know where two panthers are in this whole swamp, huh? Even if I knew last week-you think they haven’t moved since I was out here? You think panthers don’t move?”

Sedie Jumper began to laugh. John started in, too, then finally Moses. All of them together made a soft, musical sound. Even Mr. Crane closed his eyes and smiled.

“All right, Mr. Raincrow. You got me there,” he said. “But you could help me look around, couldn’t you? You could save me a lot of time.”

Moses turned to his son and with a straight face said, “John, this is Mr. Ron Crane, of the state’s Task Force. You ever met him before?”

“No!” Crane said loudly reaching for John’s hand over the counter.

“My son,” Moses said. Crane pumped John’s hand up and down.

John had been about to say yes, he had met this man at school last year, when Crane had come to talk about saving the panthers because they were an endangered species. How could the man not remember him?

“He’s a fine boy!” Crane said, releasing his hand. How does he know if I’m fine? John wondered.

Moses gazed out the door.

“Look,” Crane said, “the pair I’m after . . . the big male’s radio collar has gone dead on us. Shoulda been good another six months. Anyway, they were seen crossing the road up by Blackwater Creek, just last night. Heading east. ‘Course, rain’s washed out all their tracks by now. That’s why I need you. Everybody out here, when I ask them, they say wait till you come. Ask you. So, I’m asking.”

Moses glanced at Crane and returned to studying the palm trees beside the roadway.

“Well?” Crane said in exasperation.

Moses turned to him, jarred and frowning.

“Are you going to help me or not?”

Moses said quietly, “I don’t know where those two panthers went, Mr. Crane. But if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”

Now Crane stiffened up. “You know, sir, it’s not me personally that’s benefiting from all this work. Whatever you do . . . whatever effort you put yourself to . . . it’s for the good of the animals out there.”

“Oh?” Moses whispered.

“Yes!” Crane continued. “Do you think I like tracking panthers through this swamp? Do you think I enjoy climbing up in trees and lowering them to the ground? You may not know what this is all about, Mr. Raincrow, but someday your children might. This boy here”-he pointed directly into John’s face-”he might appreciate it some day. There are only thirty of them left, Mr. Raincrow. Thirty. This boy’s children might thank you someday for what you did-away back when he was young. It’s like I tell the schoolchildren when I give programs, this is really important! You can make a difference! This is the hunt of a lifetime!”

Moses and Sedie and John were all turned away from the loud white man. Then there was the sound of tires in gravel out front, and they saw Max Poor Bear’s camo-painted jeep pulling in. His tape deck was turned up loud, playing the Rolling Stones.

“Here’s you man to help you!” Moses said, moving for the door. “Come on, son.” They left Crane with his hands in his pockets and walked out the door. Max was leaning against his jeep, smiling.

“Look, here!” Max said. “Moses and John together. Don’t see that every day, now!”

“Hello,” Moses said. “What are you doing out here?”

“Come out to the swamp, man. Get away from the Trail for a night. What else, huh?” Max laughed. His big semiautomatic rifle lay on the seat of his jeep. And beneath the roll bar, in the back, there was a washtub loaded with ice and beer.

Moses looked glum, nodding. “You’re out here to get drunk and then go spotlighting. You’ll shoot a few deer, and if the heat doesn’t spoil them, you’ll sell them in Miami. Am I right?”

“What an imagination,” Max said.

“It’s thanks to you,” Moses said, “that the tribal council may have to pass some hunting laws.”

“I’m scared to death,” Max said lightly, smiling at John. “Whatever you boys are up to,” Max said as he stepped away from his jeep, “best of luck to you.”

He headed into the store, and Moses got into his pickup and crashed the door shut.

They pulled out and started down the road, neither wanting to talk about Max. They had driven only half a mile and John was about to ask where they were going, when they saw a small crowd in the schoolyard. The children and Ellen Cypress, their teacher, were standing close together pointing at something, and they began to wave Moses down.

John could see the rattlesnake beside the soft pine stump on the grass as he opened his door.

“It won’t go away!” one of the children cried out. Others laughed, and they all squeezed together.

“It’s an old one,” Moses said, easing close to the snake. It was about six feet long, thick, with the sharp black diamondback pattern, and it had a lot of rattles. “Does it live in there?” He pointed to the stump.

Ellen nodded. “It’s been coming out every day.” She spoke with deliberate calmness. “The children and I have been talking to it, haven’t we, children?”

“Yes, Ellen!” they said. “But it doesn’t listen.”

“No,” she agreed. “Any ideas, Moses?”

He squatted near the snake’s head and said nothing. John knew he was trying to tune into it, setting the tone for a talk. Slowly, he took a little pouch of tobacco from his shirt pocket, worked a pinch of it between his thumb and forefinger, and sprinkled it on the ground beside the snake.

“Grandfather,” Moses said to it, “we don’t want to harm you, you know that.”

The snake backed up a little; it was very sluggish.

“But each day you insist on coming out of your hole, and being near the children.” He paused and looked at the sky, a clean blue with scattered white clouds.

“Now . . .that’s no good. You might hurt one of them, even though you don’t mean to.”

Moses cocked his head and looked more closely at the rattlesnake.

Then he stood up and faced the children, who were perfectly quiet, their dark eyes very round and wide. “I’m afraid there’s something wrong with our friend,” he said. “I believe he’s very old, maybe sick, and it’s time we sent his soul on its way.”

There was a sound of the children drawing their breaths.

“Now, I know Ellen is a good teacher, and she’s spoken to you about the souls of four-leggeds.” They nodded. “And you know that the old people, going far, far back into time, they never would kill a rattlesnake. They didn’t want his shadow after them!”

“No!” the children said.

“Of course not. And they especially didn’t want the Sky Rattlesnakes mad at them, did they?”

“Noooooooooo!”

“That’s right. Because if that happened, then next time you went anywhere-out for a walk, over to the store-anywhere you pick up you foot, you’re going to put it down on a . . . what?”

“Rattlesnake!” they cried together. “Rattlesnake!”

“Shhhhh . . .” Moses glanced at the snake, moving off toward its stump hole. “That’s right, children. But let’s not yell.” He picked up a stick from the grass and blocked the snake’s way.

“That’s why, every fall at the Hunt Dance, we always do the Snake Dance, don’t we?”

“Yesssss!” they hissed together.

“Uh-huh. We always do that dance . . . to let the Sky Rattlesnakes know we mean no harm to the great tribe of snakes. No harm at all.”

The big snake began to coil up.

“Our grandfathers, in the old days of our tribe, they knew better than to get the spirits mad at them . . . they were pretty smart. Do you know what they did in a case like this, when a snake needed to be sent on to the other world?”

“Nooooo,” the children whispered, shaking their heads.

“Well, they went out and got a white man to kill it for them! That’s right! If they could find one. Because he doesn’t believe in the Sky Rattlesnakes, did you know that?”

Some of them nodded their heads, some shook them. John knew that they agreed, that they were listening to their medicine man.

“Well, we’re lucky today,” Moses said. “Because we’ve got John here with us.” He looked up and smiled. “And John, the keys are in the truck. Do you think you could find us a white man, right quick?”

John turned to the children with the most worried face he could imagine.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “I’ll go look for one.”

“Good,” Moses said. “You will be the medicine man’s ceremonial assistant in this matter. While you find us a white man, who knows nothing of the snake’s shadow or its master spirits up above, we will make our apologies to this Grandfather. Are you with me, children?”

“Yesssssssss!” they cried, studying the snake for a sign that he understood, too.

John drove off in the pickup and returned within a few minutes, followed by Crane in his government tuck and Max Poor Bear in his jeep.

“Hello, ma’am.” Crane said to Ellen Cypress. “The boy here says you’ve got a rattler bothering these children-is that so?”

“Yes,” she said, holding back a smile. She pointed to the coiled snake.

“Good night!” Crane said. “Look at the size of him. Get back everybody!” He got his revolver from his truck and stood very importantly over the snake. Moses had moved away to the school’s doorway and waited with his arms crossed, amused.

Crane started shooting with his .38 Special, and the snake made a half-hearted strike in his direction, falling just short of the man’s leather boot. Crane yelled something at the rattlesnake and fired five more quick shots, two of which actually hit their target and finished it off.

“Sheeehew!” Crane said, wiping his forehead with the back of his revolver hand. “That was a bad one! Did you see how he came for me?”

He turned to the children and their teacher, then to John. But everybody was watching the dead rattlesnake, and none of them said a word.

Crane put his handgun away. He seemed a little shaken. “Good thing you came and got me,” he called out to John. “That one there was deadly!”

“Thank you, Mr. Crane,” John said.

“Don’t mention it!”

The white man climbed into his truck, waved at everybody, and drove away.

Max Poor Bear put his arm around John’s neck and pulled his to his side.

“Come with me tonight, cousin, and we’ll kill four hundred frogs!”

“No thanks, Max.”

“I’ll split the cash with you.”

“Where were you all this time, man?”

“Water under the bridge, little buddy. The important thing is, I’m out here now. I got you a taste of something nice, too.” He tightened his arm around John’s neck, bending him sharply over. “Whaddya say to that, huh?”

“Let me up, Max.”

“You gonna come out with us and shoot deer tonight?”

“Just let me go, creep!”

“Hold it! Hold it right there, kid. You owe me money, and I’m offering you a chance to get even. Listen, that guy Crane? I know where those panthers like to lay up. I told him where to run his dogs in the morning, and he’s gonna do it. Now, that’ll set us up with the best deep drive you ever saw! Get me? He’ gonna run everything in those thickets right out on top of us! And I know exactly where we need to be. You listenin’, cuz?”

“You’re chokin’ me, man!”

Suddenly Max let him go. As John coughed and drew his fist, he saw that Max was paying no attention but was staring across the yard at Moses and the children.

“What’s that?” Max asked. “What’s he doin’ now?”

Moses had draped the long broken body of the snake over the pine stump, and he was leading the children in a chanted apology to its shadow spirit and to the Sky Spirits of all rattlesnakes.

“Is he kidding?”

“No, ‘course not, Max. He’s teaching them.”

Max watched in silence, rubbing his palms up and down on his jeans. All at once he pulled a can of beer from the tub of ice in his jeep, popped it open as loudly as he could, and drank with the foam pouring out over his hand. He climbed in and drove away without a word.

Grandfather Rattlesnake

Author: Luke Wallin

From: “Ceremony of the Panther”

The weeks became months, and John heard nothing from his father. Sometimes Sedie Jumper, his cousin who ran the little store by the air-boat dock, came to visit, and once she brought John a letter from his mother. It was just a note, with a clipping from the tribal newspaper, about a woman from an Alaskan tribe who had come through, visiting. She had given a talk at the youth center, telling about the history of alcohol and Native Americans, and she had finished up with saying, “For one of us to stay sober is a revolutionary act.” That was her message, and it was Anna’s, too. John had expected a long letter saying how much she missed him.

After that, he began to really wonder how long they might leave him in the swamp.

Then one day Sedie came by to say Moses would be out to the res the next afternoon; he wanted John to meet him at the store.

“You want me to come and get you?” she asked John.

“No!” Mary said, “We don’t need that air boat out here again tomorrow. He can take the canoe in.”

They looked at John, as if to test him.

“Sure,” he said. “I don’t care.”

He tried not to think about seeing his father, and he got away by himself as soon as he could. It was hard to get to sleep that night. After midnight a storm blew in, and it rained for hours, on into the morning. John waited it out, with nothing but worry on his mind. When it finally slacked off and quit, he still couldn’t figure out how he would feel when he actually set eyes on Papa again. And he wondered, Is this it? Is he going to bring me home with him now?

It seemed years later when John finally eased the long dugout canoe into the weedy bank behind Sedie’s little store. His father’s air boat was in the willows, and John’s stomach turned in anticipation.

An old refrigerator lay on its back with its door gone, and inside a big gopher turtle crawled in a slow circle; it would be Sedie’s supper tonight. John walked into the rear of the store, where the air was still and tense. Silently, Sedie handed him a soda and a Twinkie, and her eyes told him not to speak.

Moses Raincrow stood by the broken jukebox with his powerful arms crossed and his wide, serious face focused on the man he was talking to. Moses nodded at his son and returned to his conversation, and John saw at once why he was so formal. The tall, bony white man in the khaki uniform, standing with his back to John, was Mr. Crane. He had red hair and thickly spread freckles over his skin, and not much humor about him at all.

“We know they’re in the area,” he said. “Don’t try to fool me about that.”

A dark blush of anger passed across Moses’ face, and he looked out the open front door toward the old highway that cut through the reservation.

“We have a pretty good idea you could help us on this pair, Mr. Raincrow.”

“Look,” Moses said quickly. “I just got here. I been working all week on a gladiola farm. How do you expect me to know where two panthers are in this whole swamp, huh? Even if I knew last week-you think they haven’t moved since I was out here? You think panthers don’t move?”

Sedie Jumper began to laugh. John started in, too, then finally Moses. All of them together made a soft, musical sound. Even Mr. Crane closed his eyes and smiled.

“All right, Mr. Raincrow. You got me there,” he said. “But you could help me look around, couldn’t you? You could save me a lot of time.”

Moses turned to his son and with a straight face said, “John, this is Mr. Ron Crane, of the state’s Task Force. You ever met him before?”

“No!” Crane said loudly reaching for John’s hand over the counter.

“My son,” Moses said. Crane pumped John’s hand up and down.

John had been about to say yes, he had met this man at school last year, when Crane had come to talk about saving the panthers because they were an endangered species. How could the man not remember him?

“He’s a fine boy!” Crane said, releasing his hand. How does he know if I’m fine? John wondered.

Moses gazed out the door.

“Look,” Crane said, “the pair I’m after . . . the big male’s radio collar has gone dead on us. Shoulda been good another six months. Anyway, they were seen crossing the road up by Blackwater Creek, just last night. Heading east. ‘Course, rain’s washed out all their tracks by now. That’s why I need you. Everybody out here, when I ask them, they say wait till you come. Ask you. So, I’m asking.”

Moses glanced at Crane and returned to studying the palm trees beside the roadway.

“Well?” Crane said in exasperation.

Moses turned to him, jarred and frowning.

“Are you going to help me or not?”

Moses said quietly, “I don’t know where those two panthers went, Mr. Crane. But if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”

Now Crane stiffened up. “You know, sir, it’s not me personally that’s benefiting from all this work. Whatever you do . . . whatever effort you put yourself to . . . it’s for the good of the animals out there.”

“Oh?” Moses whispered.

“Yes!” Crane continued. “Do you think I like tracking panthers through this swamp? Do you think I enjoy climbing up in trees and lowering them to the ground? You may not know what this is all about, Mr. Raincrow, but someday your children might. This boy here”-he pointed directly into John’s face-”he might appreciate it some day. There are only thirty of them left, Mr. Raincrow. Thirty. This boy’s children might thank you someday for what you did-away back when he was young. It’s like I tell the schoolchildren when I give programs, this is really important! You can make a difference! This is the hunt of a lifetime!”

Moses and Sedie and John were all turned away from the loud white man. Then there was the sound of tires in gravel out front, and they saw Max Poor Bear’s camo-painted jeep pulling in. His tape deck was turned up loud, playing the Rolling Stones.

“Here’s you man to help you!” Moses said, moving for the door. “Come on, son.” They left Crane with his hands in his pockets and walked out the door. Max was leaning against his jeep, smiling.

“Look, here!” Max said. “Moses and John together. Don’t see that every day, now!”

“Hello,” Moses said. “What are you doing out here?”

“Come out to the swamp, man. Get away from the Trail for a night. What else, huh?” Max laughed. His big semiautomatic rifle lay on the seat of his jeep. And beneath the roll bar, in the back, there was a washtub loaded with ice and beer.

Moses looked glum, nodding. “You’re out here to get drunk and then go spotlighting. You’ll shoot a few deer, and if the heat doesn’t spoil them, you’ll sell them in Miami. Am I right?”

“What an imagination,” Max said.

“It’s thanks to you,” Moses said, “that the tribal council may have to pass some hunting laws.”

“I’m scared to death,” Max said lightly, smiling at John. “Whatever you boys are up to,” Max said as he stepped away from his jeep, “best of luck to you.”

He headed into the store, and Moses got into his pickup and crashed the door shut.

They pulled out and started down the road, neither wanting to talk about Max. They had driven only half a mile and John was about to ask where they were going, when they saw a small crowd in the schoolyard. The children and Ellen Cypress, their teacher, were standing close together pointing at something, and they began to wave Moses down.

John could see the rattlesnake beside the soft pine stump on the grass as he opened his door.

“It won’t go away!” one of the children cried out. Others laughed, and they all squeezed together.

“It’s an old one,” Moses said, easing close to the snake. It was about six feet long, thick, with the sharp black diamondback pattern, and it had a lot of rattles. “Does it live in there?” He pointed to the stump.

Ellen nodded. “It’s been coming out every day.” She spoke with deliberate calmness. “The children and I have been talking to it, haven’t we, children?”

“Yes, Ellen!” they said. “But it doesn’t listen.”

“No,” she agreed. “Any ideas, Moses?”

He squatted near the snake’s head and said nothing. John knew he was trying to tune into it, setting the tone for a talk. Slowly, he took a little pouch of tobacco from his shirt pocket, worked a pinch of it between his thumb and forefinger, and sprinkled it on the ground beside the snake.

“Grandfather,” Moses said to it, “we don’t want to harm you, you know that.”

The snake backed up a little; it was very sluggish.

“But each day you insist on coming out of your hole, and being near the children.” He paused and looked at the sky, a clean blue with scattered white clouds.

“Now . . .that’s no good. You might hurt one of them, even though you don’t mean to.”

Moses cocked his head and looked more closely at the rattlesnake.

Then he stood up and faced the children, who were perfectly quiet, their dark eyes very round and wide. “I’m afraid there’s something wrong with our friend,” he said. “I believe he’s very old, maybe sick, and it’s time we sent his soul on its way.”

There was a sound of the children drawing their breaths.

“Now, I know Ellen is a good teacher, and she’s spoken to you about the souls of four-leggeds.” They nodded. “And you know that the old people, going far, far back into time, they never would kill a rattlesnake. They didn’t want his shadow after them!”

“No!” the children said.

“Of course not. And they especially didn’t want the Sky Rattlesnakes mad at them, did they?”

“Noooooooooo!”

“That’s right. Because if that happened, then next time you went anywhere-out for a walk, over to the store-anywhere you pick up you foot, you’re going to put it down on a . . . what?”

“Rattlesnake!” they cried together. “Rattlesnake!”

“Shhhhh . . .” Moses glanced at the snake, moving off toward its stump hole. “That’s right, children. But let’s not yell.” He picked up a stick from the grass and blocked the snake’s way.

“That’s why, every fall at the Hunt Dance, we always do the Snake Dance, don’t we?”

“Yesssss!” they hissed together.

“Uh-huh. We always do that dance . . . to let the Sky Rattlesnakes know we mean no harm to the great tribe of snakes. No harm at all.”

The big snake began to coil up.

“Our grandfathers, in the old days of our tribe, they knew better than to get the spirits mad at them . . . they were pretty smart. Do you know what they did in a case like this, when a snake needed to be sent on to the other world?”

“Nooooo,” the children whispered, shaking their heads.

“Well, they went out and got a white man to kill it for them! That’s right! If they could find one. Because he doesn’t believe in the Sky Rattlesnakes, did you know that?”

Some of them nodded their heads, some shook them. John knew that they agreed, that they were listening to their medicine man.

“Well, we’re lucky today,” Moses said. “Because we’ve got John here with us.” He looked up and smiled. “And John, the keys are in the truck. Do you think you could find us a white man, right quick?”

John turned to the children with the most worried face he could imagine.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “I’ll go look for one.”

“Good,” Moses said. “You will be the medicine man’s ceremonial assistant in this matter. While you find us a white man, who knows nothing of the snake’s shadow or its master spirits up above, we will make our apologies to this Grandfather. Are you with me, children?”

“Yesssssssss!” they cried, studying the snake for a sign that he understood, too.

John drove off in the pickup and returned within a few minutes, followed by Crane in his government tuck and Max Poor Bear in his jeep.

“Hello, ma’am.” Crane said to Ellen Cypress. “The boy here says you’ve got a rattler bothering these children-is that so?”

“Yes,” she said, holding back a smile. She pointed to the coiled snake.

“Good night!” Crane said. “Look at the size of him. Get back everybody!” He got his revolver from his truck and stood very importantly over the snake. Moses had moved away to the school’s doorway and waited with his arms crossed, amused.

Crane started shooting with his .38 Special, and the snake made a half-hearted strike in his direction, falling just short of the man’s leather boot. Crane yelled something at the rattlesnake and fired five more quick shots, two of which actually hit their target and finished it off.

“Sheeehew!” Crane said, wiping his forehead with the back of his revolver hand. “That was a bad one! Did you see how he came for me?”

He turned to the children and their teacher, then to John. But everybody was watching the dead rattlesnake, and none of them said a word.

Crane put his handgun away. He seemed a little shaken. “Good thing you came and got me,” he called out to John. “That one there was deadly!”

“Thank you, Mr. Crane,” John said.

“Don’t mention it!”

The white man climbed into his truck, waved at everybody, and drove away.

Max Poor Bear put his arm around John’s neck and pulled his to his side.

“Come with me tonight, cousin, and we’ll kill four hundred frogs!”

“No thanks, Max.”

“I’ll split the cash with you.”

“Where were you all this time, man?”

“Water under the bridge, little buddy. The important thing is, I’m out here now. I got you a taste of something nice, too.” He tightened his arm around John’s neck, bending him sharply over. “Whaddya say to that, huh?”

“Let me up, Max.”

“You gonna come out with us and shoot deer tonight?”

“Just let me go, creep!”

“Hold it! Hold it right there, kid. You owe me money, and I’m offering you a chance to get even. Listen, that guy Crane? I know where those panthers like to lay up. I told him where to run his dogs in the morning, and he’s gonna do it. Now, that’ll set us up with the best deep drive you ever saw! Get me? He’ gonna run everything in those thickets right out on top of us! And I know exactly where we need to be. You listenin’, cuz?”

“You’re chokin’ me, man!”

Suddenly Max let him go. As John coughed and drew his fist, he saw that Max was paying no attention but was staring across the yard at Moses and the children.

“What’s that?” Max asked. “What’s he doin’ now?”

Moses had draped the long broken body of the snake over the pine stump, and he was leading the children in a chanted apology to its shadow spirit and to the Sky Spirits of all rattlesnakes.

“Is he kidding?”

“No, ‘course not, Max. He’s teaching them.”

Max watched in silence, rubbing his palms up and down on his jeans. All at once he pulled a can of beer from the tub of ice in his jeep, popped it open as loudly as he could, and drank with the foam pouring out over his hand. He climbed in and drove away without a word.


1 Ceremony of the Panther was published by Bradbury Press, 1988, and the Author’s Guild’s Back-in-Print program with iUniverse.com, 2001. It was recorded for the blind by the Library of Congress, and is recommended on the Smithsonian Institution’s Critical Anthropology website.

Published in: on July 20, 2010 at 4:04 am  Leave a Comment  

Animal Viewpoints: Eye of the Wolf by Daniel Pennac

The previous post compared point of view in storytelling, science, and conservation. Here I want to note an important shift in point of view in writing for children. Since Aesop, animals have been treated as stand-ins for humans. We have used them for food, clothing, and sport, and in stories we have used them–conceptually–as shells or images to represent human dramas. But now that one species has taken over the planet, and imperiled many other species, writers for children have a responsibility to represent animal needs and viewpoints.

In the essay on choice and point of view in conservation, I discussed the desirability of addressing the needs of many species in a place before taking an action which affects that place. These needs, and our judgments on them, may be represented explicitly or implicitly in our conservation policies. I suggested ways to become more aware of conflicts between species, and to represent them at various stages of the planning process.

As writers working on conservation projects, we can accomplish this in ways which advocate for our hopes and visions for an ecosystem’s future, and which also honestly report on the desires of other species. The key to understanding nature in its interaction with culture is careful attention to this multiplicity of viewpoints. This is what ecologists do; it is also what creative writers do.

In writing for children, we can use multiple viewpoints to draw emotional responses to the complexities of human-animal interactions. One writer who has done this in ways I admire is Daniel Pennac. Here is my talk on his children’s novel, Eye of the Wolf, which I gave in May at Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Creative Writing program.

Eye of the Wolf

Daniel Pennac, Translated by Sarah Adams, Illustrated by Max Grafe

This book, first published in France in 1982, is breathtaking in its elegance. This effect is heightened by the entire physical design of the 2002 hardcover edition, from Candlewick Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts; noteworthy features include overall size, Weiss typesetting, spaces between the lines, drawings of different sizes which augment different organizational levels of the story, and the cover illustration with its boy and wolf faces which share an eye. Notice how, seen as the wolf’s eye, it suggests a captive animal’s squint of confusion and a hint of fear; seen as a boy’s eye, it seems deep with memory and sorrow and reflection. All these features make the book a mysterious joy to hold in one’s hands.

Subject Matter

One of the outstanding features of this book is philosophical. It addresses our profound need to rethink, and re-feel, our relations with animals. For centuries we have operated with the ironclad, unquestionable, assumption that there is a clear bright line between nature and culture. Humans stand on the culture side, and “naturally” use nature, including animals, as we wish. Some people realize the trouble this has generated, for us as well as every other living being on the planet. Eye of the Wolf makes us believe that a boy and a wolf can share their stories. They are equally good storytellers, and they each identify with the other—as innocent child, as victim, as inventive and brave protagonist, and finally as tragic and wise philosopher. This book destroys the false nature/culture dichotomy, establishes cross-species understanding on a level beyond the sentimentality of pet and owner, and demonstrates how a middle-grade reader can, without pretension or didacticism, contribute to a more humane world.

Children’s stories have used animal characters since at least the time of Aesop, 2500 years ago. It’s worthwhile to take a moment to compare the role of animals in Aesop and Pennac. Aesop was a slave in Greece who achieved perhaps the most lasting fame of any writer in history. No one knows his home country, but his name seems derived from “aethiopian,” which seems close to “ethiopian,” and which the Greeks used to refer to dark skinned African peoples; many of Aesop’s animal characters are from the interior of Africa. The role of these characters is to teach moral lessons to humans, and in fact the animals are stand-ins for human beings. The stories aren’t about the animals; rather, the animals are taken out of context and used as conceptual tools for human purposes. In those days, humans needed to objectify animals for food, for pets, for instruments of war, and for means of expressing thoughts and emotions.

Today things have changed. Now we need to find new stories about human/animal relationships; we have the possibility of experiencing animals as mysteries, as citizens of another country, another culture. Midway through Eye of the Wolf, after the boy Africa has absorbed Blue Wolf’s story, he yields to the wolf’s silent request for his own story. He reveals on p.56 that his name is Africa N’Bia. Then the narrator says, “But the boy knows that a name doesn’t mean anything without the story that goes with it. It’s like a wolf in a zoo: he’s just another animal until you get to know his life story.”

One of our fondest myths about ourselves is that we are individuals, privately moving through life, whereas we are actually members of families and larger communities which created us, and which continue to take up our time, dominate our dreams, and structure our thoughts and feelings. The same goes for plants and animals. They look like entities separate from all others, but until we know their stories, their species characteristics, their evolutionary histories, and their ecological dynamics, we don’t know what they are.

Structure

Structurally, the book is divided into two halves, the first in which Africa learns Blue Wolf’s story, and the second in which Blue Wolf learns the boy’s story. All along the way, however, the reader learns new and important things about both of them, so that there is a linear structure, a plotline which carries forward the mystery of what will happen.

There are several distinct places where segments of the story take place: first the zoo, then Alaska, Yellow Africa, Gray Africa, Green Africa, and finally The Other World. These scenes are specific to geographical locations and times, like acts in a play. Each feels complete in itself, but as soon as we move into the subsequent piece we realize we’re traveling within a larger design.

The events of the segments, separated by space and time, merge together in several ways at the end: physically, all the characters of the book are united; in terms of temporal development, all the lessons learned by the characters have been assimilated and processed so that now they live in a new synergy, with a striking degree of joy; they have lost their habitats, homes, and relatives, and these terrible events have provided tragic endings to the individual segments of the novel; yet now the characters have created a new sort of culture and social ecology among themselves, even in the zoo.

When Ma and Pa Bia came to the fearful decision to leave the forest and enter the Other World, that world was first depicted on p.101 as containing the home of Pa’s cousin. At that point it seemed that the Other World represented urban space v. the wild, or society v. nature. But on p.106 “Africa caught up with them all again in the zoo of the Other World.” This still suggests that the Other World is a physical place, though it contains the rather magical reunion of friends. Then on p.109 the narrator says, “The boy’s here now. He’s told the animals from Africa all about the Far North. He’s told Blue Wolf about the three Africas. And they’ve all begun to dream, even when they’re wide awake.” Then Perdix and the Redheads join them—so that the Other World contains the physical zoo, the magical reunion, the dreamworld while waking, and the return of the beloved dead to the living. Four different senses of The Other World! I’d like to hear whether you thought this was too much, or too fast, or confusing, or just richly satisfying.

Style

The first and last of the segments or dramatic acts takes place in the present of the story, whereas the others are flashbacks. Some of the flashbacks are related in past tense, but often the text shifts into present, reminding us in a pleasing half-conscious way that we’re being told a story, and one that constantly threatens to break out into our own reality somehow.

Take the short paragraph on p. 48 which opens Chapter VIII. The female wolf Perdix has just told Blue Wolf what happened to his family after he was captured.

“After their conversation Blue Wolf decided Perdix wasn’t such bad company after all.” [Past tense.]

“She was always in a good mood.” [Habitual past tense; I’ll return to that in a moment.] “And then, last week, Perdix died.” [Back to normal past.] “Which brings us up to date. Right up to the present moment, with Blue Wolf sitting in his empty enclosure, opposite the boy.” [Present, with the narrator ignoring the fourth wall and addressing the reading audience directly.]

On p.80, the chapter almost ends with “But they didn’t want to argue with the gray gorilla of the swamps.” [Past.]

Then after white space comes:

“Life is strange. …Someone tells you about something you didn’t even know existed, something unimaginable, something you can’t bring yourself to belive in, and the words are hardly out of their mouth before you find out all about it for yourself.” [This is present, but it reminds the reader of something which happens with regularity, from past into future.] “Green Africa…it was a place the boy would soon be very familiar with.” [Future tense.]

Pennac makes good use of the habitual past tense, as well as techniques like present tense comments directly to the reader, to blur the distinction between passing one-time events and those which repeatedly happen. Flaubert was the master of this, and it has become a signature of fiction writing. Here is the point explained by James Wood:

The New York Times, April 16, 2006

‘Flaubert: A Biography,’ by Frederick Brown

The Man Behind Bovary

Review by JAMES WOOD

Take the following passage, in which Frédéric Moreau, the hero of “Sentimental Education,” wanders through the Latin Quarter, alive to the sights and sounds of Paris: “At the back of deserted cafes, women behind the bars yawned between their untouched bottles; the newspapers lay unopened on the reading-room tables; in the laundresses’ workshops the washing quivered in the warm draughts. Every now and then he stopped at a bookseller’s stall; an omnibus, coming down the street and grazing the pavement, made him turn round; and when he reached the Luxembourg he retraced his steps.” This was published in 1869, but might have appeared in 1969; many, perhaps most, novelists still sound essentially the same. Flaubert scans the streets indifferently, it seems, like a camera. Just as when we watch a film we no longer notice what has been excluded, so we no longer notice what Flaubert chooses not to notice. And we no longer notice that what he has selected is not of course casually scanned but quite savagely chosen, that each detail is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness. How superb and magnificently isolate the details are — the women yawning, the unopened newspapers, the washing quivering in the warm air. Flaubert is the greatest exponent of a technique that is essential to realist narration: the confusing of the habitual with the dynamic. Obviously, the women cannot be yawning for the same length of time as the washing is quivering or the omnibus is coming down the street. Flaubert’s details belong to different time-signatures, some instantaneous and some recurrent, yet they are smoothed together as if they are all happening simultaneously.

So are the details of Daniel Pennac’s beautiful Eye of the Wolf. His individual sentences ring with clarity, but his details are “savagely chosen,” and his frequent and smooth tense changes accustom the reader to following the multiple storylines but also to hearing directly from the storyteller. He creates in his audience a hunger to get back to the various stories to see what happens next, and also to hear from the narrator what things mean. The complex structure of the story, the gliding temporal stylistics, and the arresting philosophical viewpoint make this a most satisfying book, very elegant, and very French.

Published in: on July 18, 2010 at 5:09 am  Leave a Comment  

Point of View in Fiction, Science, and Conservation

Welcome!

Today’s topic: Point of View in Creative Writing and How this Affects Relationships With Nature.

I just published an essay on this topic, “Point of View and Choice in Conservation,” in the online journal Sisyphus, at http://www.hippocketpress.org/sisyphus/luke-wallin/.
Creative writers think a lot about whether to use a first-person narrator, or several alternating voices, or some kind of third-person voice in a fictional story. But point of view choices are also important in the sciences and in conservation work. I invite readers who may be interested in these parallels to visit my essay, and this blog, and to contribute responses there or here.

In coming weeks I’ll revisit this theme, in the context of fiction and of our understanding of nature. The common thread is that all narrative frameworks, including the scientific and the fictional, require certain storytelling choices.

Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 6:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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