In fourth grade, my Language Arts teacher read us The Trumpet of the Swan, a children’s novel by acclaimed American writer E. B. White.
The story opens when Montana boy Sam Beaver, on vacation in a remote part of Canada, discovers a nesting pair of swans. The boy saves the female swan—the pen—from a fox and becomes a trusted observer of the pair and their cygnets. The pen and cob soon discover that one of their newly hatched swans, Louis, cannot beep or honk. Louis (pronounced LOO-ee, like Louis Armstrong) proves himself a strong swimmer and flyer, but his parents worry that his inability to trumpet will harm his chances when it comes time to find a mate.
When he grows older, Louis’s desire to communicate drives him to seek out Sam Beaver, who brings the swan to school. Louis learns to read and write and thenceforth carries a slate and chalk around his neck. But this does not help him with other (non-writing, non-reading) swans, especially when young Louis falls in love with a pen named Serena.
The cob determines to help his son by stealing a trumpet from a music store in Billings. The debt weighs heavily on the cob, and Louis, with Sam’s help again, finds a job playing Taps and Reveille at Sam’s summer camp. Louis goes on to earn more money—and fame—playing trumpet for the swan boats in Boston, and in a club in Philadelphia.
Gigging proves lonely for Louis, but soon fate and high winds blow Serena into back into Louis’s life. She awakens after her journey to the sound of Louis playing Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” White writes, “It was love at long last for Louis; it was love at first sight for Serena.”
Louis wins the girl with his hard-earned skills. And after misadventures with the zookeepers, the swans fly back to Montana, where they give Louis’s father the money and the cob is able to discharge his debt.
White is best known for such children’s classics as Charlotte’s Web (1952) and Stuart Little (1945). But he is also an important figure in American letters; he wrote the essay “Here Is New York,” was the White of Strunk and White’sElements of Style, and was a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker. In a lot of ways, White has shaped what American literature is now.
Trumpet is a later work, written in 1970. Key facets of the novel have aged badly. Louis himself and other characters refer to his disability in ways that are jarring and possibility upsetting to modern readers, and White frames Louis’s condition of “being without a voice” as a problem to be “overcome at last.” Sam Beaver is probably supposed have Native American blood, but the book never says outright that Sam is not white. It mentions several times that he is “like an Indian,” in appearance, in habit, in the way he walks by putting one foot in front of the other. Sam is also imbued with almost magical properties of being able to communicate with birds and animals, and always having solutions for Louis and his family when the need arises.
I suspect that my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Stephenson, had an agenda when she selected The Trumpet of the Swan to read to our class.
Fourth grade was the year that I left my English-language school and entered a French immersion program. Twelve—maybe thirteen—of us primarily Anglophone children went from being educated in one language to being thoroughly confused in another. For the first few weeks, we understood almost nothing that our teachers said to us: We didn’t know when we were being told to stand up. We couldn’t understand when we were asked sit down. Nevertheless, science and math took place in French. For music, we sang along to French records. Monsieur Campbell, who also taught an aerobics class in downtown Winnipeg, was our PE teacher. The only class that wasn’t conducted in French was Language Arts—English. It was such a relief to be able to do little things like read and speak.
And maybe Mrs. Stephenson chose to read The Trumpet of the Swan because it was a bit like how we were living in our first weeks of French immersion. Like Louis, we were unable to construct simple sentences, to make ourselves understood. We were unable to communicate.
But—that wasn’t the full story, was it? The difference was that we had our voices, and our teachers did actually understand English, they just chose not to speak it so that we could learn French. And we could talk to each other in English during recess or when the teacher wasn’t listening. We were not alone.
Perhaps we did identify with Louis—I’m sure many of us did. But we didn’t come from nothing. Louis’s situation was imperfectly mapped onto ours; it allowed us to identify with the underdog—underbird?—without actually having to truly experience hardship. We were in an environment engineered to make us helpless for a time, but which was ultimately about providing us with more tools, another language, more power.
After reading Trumpet, I thought about a passage that poet Patricia Lockwood tweeted about from Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot. Batuman writes:
I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, a Disney movie about a puny, weird looking circus elephant that everyone made fun of. As the story unfolded, I realized to my amazement that the kids in the class, even the bullies… were rooting against Dumbo’s tormentors… But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know?… Everyone thought they were Dumbo.
Lockwood was struck with it because, she notes, at this point in history, everyone thinks they’re the underdog. The current US administration is composed of billionaires who complain of being vilified by media and who tell themselves that they are being attacked by poor people, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQIA, and all combinations thereof.
And I realize that in the story I just recounted about starting French immersion, I elided facts and identities. I wrote as if my class was uniform in our confusion, in being English speakers. We weren’t the same. A couple of kids knew some French. And maybe some of us didn’t care or weren’t listening as avidly to the story about the musical swan. At least one girl in our class was First Nations, and I wonder what the Sam Beaver sections of the story meant to her—if anything. As I reflect on the differences among my classmates, I find that I can’t—shouldn’t—speak for who we might have been and our what our reactions were.
All I know is that I was eager to map myself onto Louis’s narrative.
It is seductive, this story of the underdog, but one key to its appeal is that fact that Louis propels himself upward and onward. It’s part of American mythology to imagine oneself starting off with nothing except maybe some bootstraps and a pair of biceps with which to pull oneself up. I was not even American, and I found myself drawn to it.
Adding to its power is the fact that the writer behind Louis’s story is E. B. White, shaper of American discourse. He writes of Louis’s journey:
Almost anybody can find Philadelphia who tries. Louis simply rose into the air with all his things around his neck, and when he was about a thousand feet high, he followed the railroad tracks to Providence, New London, New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, Cos Cob, Greenwich, Port Chester, Rye, Mamaroneck, New Rochelle, Pelham, Mount Vernon, and the Bronx. When he saw the Empire State Building, he veered off to the right.
In passages like these, we can hear the voice of the author of “Here Is New York.” Louis is following well-worn American paths and White sweeps us along, allowing us to imagine traveling upward with Louis. But we don’t all begin at the same geographic points, and we don’t start out with the same amount of nothing.
At the end, with all their debts paid off, it would seem that Louis’s dealings with the world of money—and people—are done. Sam’s father asks him if he hears from Louis anymore.
“No,” replied Sam. “He doesn’t write anymore. He ran out of postage stamps and he has no money to buy stamps with.”
That’s not quite the truth.
Louis and Serena return year after year to the old campground, to the swan boats of Boston to play for a day, and to Philadelphia to visit the zoo and Sam, who has become a zookeeper there. At times, they deposit one of their needier cygnets there. Ostensibly, they have no need of money or people—they’re animals. Animals don’t need money. Unless they are not quite animals but stand-ins for something else; unless, as this whole story seems to indicate, they do.
Louis has so much at the end, and he is generous with his time and skills. He can afford it.
At the beginning of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, eleven-year-old Margaret Simon and her family move from New York to New Jersey just before Labor Day.
The story takes place over the school year. We see Margaret adjusting to a new classes and new friends, including her next door neighbor, Nancy. Nancy also initiates Margaret and two other girls into her secret club, the Preteen Sensations, and she plants unflattering rumors about Laura Danker, a tall, busty classmate.
Margaret is entering adolescence. She has questions about bras, getting her period, and boys. She also wonders about religion. Her father’s family is Jewish, and her mother’s is Christian. In their suburban New Jersey town, she does not know whether to join the YMCA or the Jewish Community Center (JCC).
Attempting to find out what she wants to be takes the form of a yearlong class project. She goes to temple and to church—and she finally meets her estranged Christian grandparents.
Judy Blume is the much celebrated—and oft-banned—author of children’s, young adult, and adult novels. Blume’s books deal with adolescence—particularly sex—in a matter-of-fact way. Like Margaret and Nancy, my friends and I were curious about sex. Sometimes we whispered about it via Tiger Eyes, Forever, and Deenie—via the books of Judy Blume.
Margaret was published in 1970. I read it the 80s when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I may have received my purple paperback copy of the book from one of my friends for my birthday. Margaret dealt with menstruation, breasts, and bras. There was a Spin-the-Bottle scene. Although it was fiction, I do remember Margaret also had the status of a manual of adolescence. It was in libraries and recommended by teachers because it was seen as “realistic.”
So while Margaret had the aura of being forbidden (and was banned on occasion) because it was about tricky subjects, it was also seen as educational. That’s how its existence in libraries was justified, and that’s why it was probably handed to me.
Margaret is the first-person, present-tense narrator. She works hard at school, but she’s not a genius. She’s not tall, not precocious. She is a middle-class Everygirl trying to find her place. Margaret’s search stands in contrast with the certainty of her frenemy, Nancy Wheeler.
Nancy defines many of the terms of Margaret’s first year in the suburbs. “Oh, you’re still flat,” Nancy notes on meeting Margaret. Margaret is immediately on the defensive: “‘Not exactly,’ I said, pretending to be very cool. ‘I’m just small boned, is all.’” Nancy says later, “I figured you’d be real grown up coming from New York City. City girls are supposed to grow up a lot faster.”
Nancy brings up every topic that will shape the book (and Margaret’s thinking) in that first meeting: sex/adolescence, insecurity, and religion. Nancy is the one who tells Margaret that she has to pick Christianity or Judaism or risk being socially stranded. She tells Margaret how she should dress for the first day of school. In later encounters, she polices their friend Gretchen’s weight. She tells her girls that they have to wear bras and that they all have to like one boy—Philip Leroy. And she tells Margaret how she should react to their classmate Laura Danker.
Laura is taller than anyone in the class. She’s pretty—this is in fact the first thing that Margaret observes to Nancy. Nancy does not like this. She calls Laura, “The big blonde with the big you know whats.”
She adds that Laura has a bad reputation. “My brother says she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose.”
Nancy is saying that because Laura is pretty and mature looking, she is promiscuous. As the year goes on, Nancy adds to the rumor, claiming that their sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Benedict, has a crush on the girl.
Laura Danker is the object of Nancy’s jealousy and fascination—and despite having doubts, Margaret chooses to believe Nancy.
Nancy enforces the standards in Margaret’s peer group. According to Nancy’s vision, girls are supposed to be attractive, but not too beautiful—like Laura. They should be uniform.
There are, by the way, no queer people, no disabled people, no people of color in Margaret.
Blume captures the push-pull of Margaret’s conflicts very well—the tension between what Margaret sees and thinks about Laura, about the boys in her class, about life, and what Nancy tells her she should see.
Margaret is a normal girl. Sometimes she is mean. Sometimes she parrots her friend and her parents and she doesn’t think for herself. By the end, Margaret sees just how fallible these people often are.
This, I think, is the triumph of this book: how Blume manages, despite the tight focus on Margaret’s consciousness, to show that her assessments aren’t always right. Margaret is an unreliable narrator whose friends and family are also proving unreliable. The reader sees how her judgment can be led astray. We can sympathize with Margaret’s feelings and in turn form our own judgments.
Near the end, Margaret confronts Moose—her secret crush—about the rumors that Nancy goes behind the A&P with the boys:
“Nancy told me that Evan told her that you and Evan—” I stopped. I sounded like an idiot.
“You always believe everything you hear about other people?” Moose replies. “Well, next time, don’t believe it unless you see it!”
As I’ve said, there are no queer or disabled people in Margaret. Everyone is white. “I have not tried being a Buddhist or a Moslem because I don’t know any people of these religions,” Margaret writes about her yearlong religion project.
Of course there were Buddhist and Moslem, disabled, and queer people in the suburbs in the 1970s. My parents weren’t white. They lived in the suburbs.
“Next time, don’t believe it until you see it!” Moose says.
Well, what I knew—what I saw—was that I was alive and living in the suburbs—that my parents were there. Margaret was pushed on me as realistic, but I knew—I saw—that there were limits to its realism.
There is a relatively recent update to the book where Margaret gets her period and her mother shows her how to use a pad. “Now look, Margaret—here’s how you do it. The pad fits inside your panties and—”
In the version I had, Margaret used a belt to hold the pad in place—and belts were mostly outdated even when I was growing up. But it’s funny the things we choose to update in the name of staying “realistic,” isn’t it?
I still love Judy Blume. I like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Yes, re-reading this book frustrated me at times. But I admired the way, despite the narrow scope and focus of the narration, that Blume shows that there is a wider world, that Margaret should doubt what she’s told, that what her friends tell her, what her parents and grandparents and teachers say, is open to question.
Teachers probably told me that Judy Blume’s books were realistic; in many ways they are. But if I had doubts at the end—if I still had uncertainty about what was real and what was not—well, asking, doubting, and questioning is what Margaret taught me to do.
In E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid hatches a plan to run away from her home in Connecticut to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, taking along her money-grubbing younger brother, Jamie.
The children roam the galleries during the day, blending in with crowds. They sleep in the antique beds on display and bathe in the fountain, supplementing their money with the coins they find in it. When an angel sculpture recently acquired by the Met from a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler begins to attract crowds, Claudia and Jamie become fascinated with the piece. They use their access to the museum to try to prove that it was indeed crafted by Michelangelo. And in their attempt to discover its provenance, they travel to visit Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler herself. (For some reason, I can never think of her as a mere Mrs. Frankweiler—so I’m just going to keep typing out her whole, grand name.)
The story is prefaced by a letter from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her attorney, Saxonberg, and is narrated by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, complete with trenchant and sometimes cryptic asides.
From the Mixed-up Files was published in 1967. It took the Newberry Award, and Konigsburg became the only writer to have both won and been runner up for the prize in the same year (for her first book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth). She also illustrated From the Mixed-up Files, modeling Claudia and Jamie on her children.
I read From the Mixed-up Files when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I picked up my copy from the paperback carousel in the library of my suburban Canadian school.
But memory had softened the story into a soulless romp. Over the years, my mind fashioned it into a dreamy urban version of those children’s survival novels that I also liked to read as a kid; instead of weaving reeds and baiting fish hooks, Claudia and Jamie hid in bathrooms and ate at the Automat. I’d forgotten the opening letter from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her attorney. I’d forgotten about Jamie’s cheerful, avaricious practicality, and about how the children wander not just in the Met but over Manhattan. I’d forgotten Claudia’s deep and fundamental dissatisfaction with her life. I’d forgotten about Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s files—the entire meaning behind the title, the heart of the book—probably because I didn’t understand what I was reading.
Claudia is a self-assured and earnest twelve-year-old. She has a sense of mission and tries to make her museum stay educational rather than an anarchic escape. Mrs. Frankweiler notes:
Claudia informed Jamie that they should take advantage of the wonderful opportunity they had to learn and study… her ambitions were as enormous and as multidirectional as the museum itself.
Jamie says he prefers an adventure untainted by grown-up regulations—but he lives in thrall to the rule of dollars and cents. When Claudia suggests trying to find the origins of the angel, brother and sister end up researching. In libraries.
Yes, two school-age children at loose in New York City willingly and deliberately go to the library.*
(*Sorry NYPL, I love you.)
Claudia makes increasingly poignant and quixotic attempts to give their trip a shape and a mission without being quite sure what will change it. She wants the difference she feels in herself borne out. She wants to be a heroine but has a muddled sense of how to go about accomplishing it. At one point, she sees a guide at the United Nations dressed in a sari:
When she was grown she could stay the way she was and move to some place like India where no one dressed as she did, or she could dress like someone else—the Indian guide even and still live in an ordinary place like Greenwich.
(Frankly, I see a lot of grown-up white people who are as misguided as young Claudia.)
She wants to be different. She wants this trip to have significance and change the way people see her—or change how she sees herself. She tells Jamie brokenly that she wanted to prove the provenance of the angel because then she would be a heroine—others would see her as heroic, and she wants to herself: “I feel as if I jumped into a lake to rescue a boy, and what I thought was a boy turned out to be a wet, fat log. Some heroine that makes. All wet for nothing.”
But it is in her conversation with Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that she learns to think of herself as one. Those secret files record her as a heroine.
I re-read this book while watching my daughter’s swim lesson on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—across the park from the Met, across the park from where Claudia and Jamie hid.
Because I now live in New York, the fantastical landscape of my childhood imagination has supposedly become a part of my day-to-day reality. Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Mary Rodgers’ Freaky Friday, and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, among others, all take place on streets I’ve walked.
I think of these books sometimes—I think of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing when I’m in posh doorman buildings with mirrored elevators, like the one Peter and Fudge lived in. But most of the time I don’t remember the fact that I share a setting with favorite childhood books. I don’t feel like a heroine.
I first read From the Mixed-up Files when I was around Claudia’s age. I left for New York when I was ten years older than that. At both those times in my life, I was earnest, like Claudia, but more anxious than she was. Much less confident.
Twelve is often the age when girls lose what self-assurance they had. And I wish I’d understood this book better at twelve. I wish I’d carried more away from it. To read—and understand—From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler can be vastly and secretly affirming: Claudia learns as long as she knows she’s a heroine, she is the heroine of her life. “Now she wouldn’t have to be a heroine when she returned home… except to herself.”
I re-read that last fierce and tender section of From the Mixed-up Files while watching my kid’s swim lesson, and I tried not to cry. I still don’t know what I felt: grief? mourning? a sense of losing something I wasn’t sure I had? My daughter was learning to float and blow bubbles—she was learning to save herself in the water. I hope these skills last her for a long, long time.
In Owl At Home, Arnold Lobel’s 1975 illustrated early reader, solitary Owl scolds winter for coming into his house. He is frightened by a creature under his covers, which turns out to be his feet. He makes himself cry in order to enjoy a pot of tear-water tea. He runs up and down the stairs in order to be in two places at once. He worries about the moon.
Throughout these five short episodes, Owl never encounters any other animate creatures. He talks to the weather, his legs, objects in the sky. He doesn’t seem perturbed by the fact that they never reply.
“If I am looking at you, moon, then you must be looking back at me. We must be very good friends,” Owl says.
Aha, the reader thinks, the moon isn’t a real friend—it just seems like it’s there for you. The moon begins to follow Owl and Owl shoos it away. He feels sad when he is home safe in bed and cannot see his friend—and relieved when it reappears from behind clouds to shine in his window. Poor, deluded Owl.
At another point, Owl tells himself vignettes of small things and objects, about wasted potential, and isolation, in order to make himself cry:
“Spoons that have fallen behind the stove and are never seen again,” said Owl…. “Books that cannot be read,” said Owl, because some of the pages have been torn out.” … “Mornings nobody saw because everybody was sleeping,” sobbed Owl.
“Soon,” Lobel writes, “the kettle was all filled up with tears.”
And yet, while the episode chronicles small moments of stunning loneliness, the chapter ends on a note of optimism. “Owl felt happy as he filled his cup. ‘It tastes a bit salty,’ he said, ‘but tear water-tea is always very good.’”
After his recitation, Owl’s decision is to be happy—to be nourished by his temporary sadness. He seems to be the master of these sad stories.
And yet…if Owl understands the illusory nature of these stories, does he know that his friendship with the moon is also not real? Does it matter, if it makes him happy? Is Owl in command of the narrative? Are we?
Arnold Lobel is perhaps best known for creating Frog and Toad, who make up one of the funniest, most poignant relationships in children’s literature.
The first book, Frog and Toad Are Friends, came out in 1970. The pair is a classic odd couple: Frog is sunny and energetic; Toad frets about buttons, swimsuits, and about not being able to think of stories. He has moments of deep and deeply real insecurity and melancholy that always find reassurance in Frog’s abiding friendship. Frog and Toad can also be seen as a portrait of male-male love. In total, Lobel wrote four Frog and Toad books. (Another two were discovered more recently and released by Lobel’s daughter, Adrianne.)
When reading the Frog and Toad books, it is difficult not to draw parallels to Lobel’s life. In a May 2016 piece for The New Yorker, Colin Stokes traces Lobel’s origins as a children’s book author and illustrator—sometimes in collaboration with his wife Anita Kempler. Stokes also notes that Lobel was gay. Lobel was one of the early casualties of AIDS and died of complications from the disease in 1987. He had come out to his wife and children in 1974. Owl At Home was published in 1975. It is hard not to read some of Owl’s loneliness—the wasted potential that he cries about in the tear-water tea, the ignored history of objects and creatures—as being about Lobel’s personal, hidden tragedies.
But perhaps we don’t have the right to look at Lobel’s story—his stories—through that lens. Lobel’s books, after all, are ultimately happy. They affirm friendship. They show that people (or owls and amphibians) need and find joy in ties, even while acknowledging that relationships are as ephemeral as life.
My experience of Owl at Home has always been social. I likely first encountered the book during one of those important early kid’s events: story time.
Between kindergarten and third grade, my class went to the school library at least once a week for a reading with our librarian, Ms Wilkins, and to take out books.
Ms Wilkins was tall and gray-haired. She wore a heavy man’s watch, which I sometimes stared at when she read. She introduced us to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. She read us Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and paused to explain to us how the author used collage to make up his illustrations. I still remember the care she took to talk to us about each book that she selected, about how pictures and words were put together. She was teaching us how to see, what to look for in narrative—something that I don’t think anyone had ever really done for me before. I remember her as a reserved woman—not the kind of person whom one would peg as someone who wanted to work with kids. But as my reading advanced, she listened to me quietly when I told her I wanted books like Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. She didn’t grimace or laugh—and she steered me to Enid Blyton, P. L. Travers, and Dodie Smith.
To this day, the memory of Ms Wilkins—of sitting cross-legged on a low carpet of the library surrounded by other kids, of listening to her read in her low, scratchy voice—brings me immense comfort. It was this same feeling of intimacy and sharing that I tried to bring to my daughter when I read to her about Frog and Toad, and Owl.
In the wake of the US election, I have been thinking a lot about the uses of reading and writing. I dwell on how useless writing—my writing—seems to be. I consider this while taking refuge in stories that conclude happily and unhappily—in narratives that have the courtesy to end while our reality continues rudely and dangerously on.
We do think of reading and writing as solitary pursuits—perhaps they’re even selfish. But reading can take the form of a parent reading to a child, a story time for a class of eager kids. Or it can be one person and a book.
I tell myself this when I write: that a book may be an inanimate object, but it is also contains the words of a person reaching out. I tell myself that empathy works even when results are not immediately visible. Or I tell myself nothing and just go on.
At the end of Owl at Home, Owl has fallen asleep. The moon is still shining on him. It is there if Owl needs it.
Central to Anne Stuart’s 1991 contemporary Southern Gothic romance, The Night of the Phantom are kidnappings, violence, fanaticism, revenge. There’s also attempted suicide, ableism and perhaps appropriative and exploitative depictions of race. Frankly, I lost count of possible issues one might have with this book because I got sucked in.
Let this serve as a warning.
On the eve of upstanding executive Megan Carey’s departure for a European sabbatical, she finds her construction-mogul father in his office pointing a gun at his head.
Reese Carey is threatened with exposure by reclusive, genius architect Ethan Winslowe, who has proof that Megan’s father knowingly ignored the specs and used shoddy materials in his projects causing the deaths of several people after a building collapse. At the time, flaws in Ethan’s intricate design were blamed and now Ethan wants Reese to show up at his isolated Arkansas home and beg for mercy.
Reese maneuvers his daughter to go in his place to negotiate with Ethan. Megan agrees, even after realizing that her father never intended to go through with suicide (the gun isn’t loaded and her father has already made travel arrangements for her). She arrives in Oak Grove, Arkansas, a creepy, unfriendly small town whose residents are prone to gnomic and menacing pronouncements about reclusive hometown boy, Ethan.
Megan finds her plans to plead for clemency for Reese and to move on with her European trip derailed. Her rental car is trapped in the mud. Ethan has no telephone. (?!?) And, oh yes, through his henchman, Salvatore, the mysterious architect demands that Megan stay on in his labyrinthine estate in place of Reese.
Ethan is rumored to be severely disfigured or ill, or kept alive on ventilators. In reality, he is not sickly; in fact, he’s prone to running miles and miles on his indoor track and hefting fainting ladies around his vast maze-like home. (A robust-looking Fabio stares skeptically out from the original Harlequin American Romance cover, perhaps doubting his fitness to play the lean and agonized Ethan.) His so-called disfigurement consists of (spoiler) a dark birthmark which bisects his face and chest. (I spent some time before re-reading trying to remember where the birthmark ended and—uh—whether it split Ethan’s ween. It does not.) When he does finally meet Megan, he has her escorted to the bowels of his home and he speaks to her from the shadows. She’s moved to a succession of theme rooms every night: a tower room with a pallet, a Roman room featuring lewd frescoes, an angular, ultramodern pad—basically the worst fantasy honeymoon hotel in the world. He outfits her in diaphanous, low cut caftans and spies on her via video camera. Because of course he’s fascinated with her and she with him.
The story is a little Beauty and the Beast, a little Phantom of the Opera. Ethan sits at the center of it all, orchestrating a series of convoluted revenge plots against Megan’s father, against the town’s white-hooded, cross-burning religious fanatics who he blames for his father’s death. A gentle but bossy garden ghost counsels Megan. And she and Ethan grow closer and more obsessed with each other until an angry fanatical mob descends on his house.
Phantom first was passed on to me in a box of Harlequins someone gave my parents in the early 1990s. I was 22 or 23.
Among the books was also a novel about a virginal Englishwoman who falls in love with the renowned Italian portraitist, and a romantic comedy about a crusty computer engineer who gets to know her boss via a proto online forum. I’d be interested in finding these novels again, but I don’t recall the names or the authors. I didn’t remember Anne Stuart’s name either, but Phantom is the one I managed to come across again years later—entirely by accident—while systematically (and obsessively) attempting (and failing) to read all of the New York Public Library’s romance e-books.
Phantom was part of a collection of re-issues, called appropriate enough Out of Print Gems, put out by Stuart herself. I began reading, and as Reese Carey started talking about his reclusive genius architect that recognition—and joy!—dawned.
I remembered this book. I remembered it because I devoured it greedily. And because this book was completely banana sandwiches.
Anne Stuart herself knows it. According to the introduction in Out of Print Gems, “I threw everything I had into the book, going completely over the top and holding nothing back.”
Phantom was popular and controversial enough to inspire the Silhouette Shadows line.
For Stuart, Phantom marked her turn into writing the dark stories with sinister heroes. Now, Stuart is famous for male leads who skate on the edge of being irredeemable—some would say they are irredeemable. True to form, Ethan Winslowe is compelling, single-minded, great at sexing, the standout sociopath in a book rich with DSM-worthy personalities.
In a lot of ways, Phantom is the kind of romance novel that people who hate romance novels point to when they argue that the genre is terrible. (I love romance novels and now I write them, so these are not my people and they probably wouldn’t much care for me, either.) There is, for example, Megan and Ethan’s relationship: Ethan blackmails Megan, lies to her, locks in her room and watches her in person and on video cameras. He leaves her with nothing but Stephen King novels to read. She cracks wise and protests her captivity, but Stuart herself alludes to Megan’s lassitude in face of Ethan’s sexual power.
“She was his to do whatever he wanted with, and if she felt passive, it was an oddly, intensely erotic passivity.”
Megan and Ethan do not always model a healthy relationship. But listen, at 22—an earnest and callow 22 at that—I got that this was so not the point of this particular book.
A far more troubling element for me now is how Ethan is presented as an exotic and uncontrollable Other, more legend than reality. Even after they knock boots, Megan spends more time discussing him with other people (and a ghost) than she does talking with Ethan himself. Hand in hand with this is the possibility that Ethan Winslowe can be read as biracial—as black. This is maybe not the accepted reading—the Fabio cover probably means most readers and editors default to white—and it wasn’t obvious to me before but now it is pretty much impossible for me not to read Ethan as black. I mean, look at the townspeople’s reaction to him:
They were dressed in white. White sheets to be exact, with hoods, eye holes cut out, and there had to be at least thirty of them…. In front of them, providing illumination, was a burning cross.
And aside from the Birth of a Nation scene, there is the fact that Ethan’s body is, y’know, two colors. (And he’s the initially scapegoat when Reese Carey’s—a white man’s—building/institution literally crumbles.) And believe me I really do understand that having a two-toned face and body is not how being biracial works but we’re not exactly reading a textbook here. The hints are there. But if this reading holds true, then this book, while sympathetic to Ethan, is also troublingly exploitative of him.
I don’t quite know what to do with this. I don’t know.
I found Night of the Phantom compelling and fascinating in the 1990s and it remains so for me in 2016, but it has never been a comfortable fascination. Of course, finding pieces of pop culture, terrible, wonderful, appropriative, and enthralling—oftentimes all at the same time—is pretty much the permanent condition of living as a non-white woman in North America.
I read once that dreams aren’t really symbolic or portentous—that they’re just the place where the brain processes external stimulus.
Phantom is dreamlike in its overt use of symbols, but also in the way it processes all that cultural flotsam and jetsam, remaking stories that we’re told and re-tell, binding them together with the organizing principle of the happy ever after.
Megan wasn’t sure what she’d expected. Lon Chaney with his skeletal face in The Phantom of the Opera. Freddy Krueger, dripping blood. As Ethan Winslow turned slow to face her, she was ready to see almost anything. Except what she did see.
Stuart touches on Ethan as the Beast, or a creature of horror. At another point, Ethan gives Megan a ring with a picture of Janus, the two-faced god.
In Night of the Phantom we are given many stories. The alchemy of these elements what I respond to—this is what makes me find it compelling even while I don’t always know what to do with it, or how to find my way out. And in that refashioning lies—for me at least—some great part of romance’s power. Part of me finds its genre-ness fascinating; my mind enjoys the repetition and refinements of tropes, which are, after all, the themes and stories that propel our culture for better or for worse. Another part of me really likes the idea that these cultural stories can be re-written, that outcomes can change—that eventually I can change them.
(And other times I just like fun banter. I find that in romance, too.)
For me, romance novels serve many functions. They aren’t always escape or comfort reading, although that’s fine if they are. They don’t always reflect women’s desires, or supply role models, although sometimes they do. After all, in that box in which I found Phantom back in the 1990s was also a book about a thorny female computer engineer. I’d be writing about that book, too, if I could find it again.
I reject the notion that all romance novels are crappily written, mass-produced heteronormative mommy porn, responsible for making women long for things they can’t have and also somehow setting women back hundreds of years. But I reject the standard response to these charges: that romance is actually super-duper feminist. That peppy vision of the genre is in its own way whitewashed; that notion seriously undervalues the motivations of readers and writers. What I do accept is that the genre is vast and heterogeneous, and that our reasons for reading it can be complicated and simple, and both at once.
I read Sad Cypress, one of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, several times while I was in junior high. It was probably my favorite book featuring the dapper, egotistical, foreign (to the English) sleuth.
In Agatha Christie’s 1940 murder mystery, young and beautiful Elinor Carlisle stands accused of murdering young and beautiful Mary Gerrard. The story is told partly in Elinor’s extended flashbacks, in discussions between Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and Dr. Peter Lord, and in courtroom scene.
In the beginning, bright, young thing Elinor receives an anonymous note informing her that her ailing aunt, the wealthy Laura Welman, is being manipulated by an “artful” girl. Elinor and Laura’s nephew by marriage, Roddy Welman, decide to visit their aunt to make sure she’s well—and to ensure that their inheritance isn’t hijacked.
Elinor and Roddy are engaged. From the first, Roddy is described as sensitive and fastidious—disliking emotional display. What he says he loves most about Elinor is her polish and reserve—he likes the fact that she’s a cold fish.
She’s really, really not.
In fact, Elinor loves Roddy with a passion bordering on desperate, but she has twigged on to the fact that Roddy prefers that she act distant.
At the estate, Elinor deals with her aunt’s nurses and makes the acquaintance of her new doctor, Peter Lord, who is immediately smitten with her. Meanwhile, Roddy runs into Mary Gerrard, the lodge keeper’s daughter and Aunt Laura’s favorite, and in turn falls head over heels. Elinor is distressed by this development and her behavior becomes somewhat erratic; She laughs hysterically at her own jokes and gives dark looks to her rival.
Not long afterward, Aunt Laura dies intestate, resulting in her entire fortune going to Elinor. She breaks off her engagement with Roddy and Mary Gerrard dies after eating a sandwich prepared by Elinor.
Elinor is seemingly the only one with motive to kill Mary Gerrard, and she has plenty of opportunity.
Lovelorn Peter Lord asks Poirot to find enough evidence to acquit Elinor and he proceeds to unravel the case in a way that I still find wholly satisfying.
Christie, who lived from 1890 to 1976, is one of the most read and widely translated writers in the world.
She penned 66 full-length detective novels, 33 of which were Hercule Poirot books, and the character also starred in 54 of her short stories. Her other mysteries featured sleuths such as Miss Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and she wrote a handful of “romances” (the stories are bittersweet) under the name Mary Westmacott.
My junior high school library had a full shelf of Christie, but I went and bought my own paperback copy of Sad Cypress.
I liked the structure of murder mystery. I liked the scattering of clues, the red herrings, that final gathering of evidence where minor statements suddenly acquired major significance.
In many ways, reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot books trained young me to be a close reader. Instead of looking at bluster and swashbuckling, I started paying attention the small movements of characters, to slips, and to tiny, betraying details: shared names, a scratch on a wrist, a figure of speech.
But the books educated me in other ways. Christie’s work was full of tossed-off literary references (she could always be depended on for out of context Shakespeare quotes). One Poirot mystery I remembered, Appointment With Death, has one of the characters spontaneously reciting a song from Cymbeline. The title, Sad Cypress, is from Twelfth Night and one point, in the book, Peter Lord describes watching Elinor cutting bread and butter and Poirot interjects, “Charlotte and the poet Werther.”
References to The Sorrows of Young Werther by German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe went over my young head—and frankly, I didn’t know that much more about the Bard. Within 10 years of reading Sad Cypress, though, I went on to graduate school to study Elizabethan and Jacobean literature—including lots of Shakespeare.
Of course, it now seems marvelously ironic to me that I received my first education on the importance of high literary culture by reading supposedly low culture detective novels.
But there were other mysteries in Sad Cypress.
For instance, the book had jokes which I found completely inscrutable. At one point, Dr. Lord hears Elinor in a fit of hysterical laughter. He asks why she is laughing. She says she doesn’t know. Peter Lord persists:
“I’ll write you out a tonic.”
Elinor said incisively: “How useful!”
He grinned disarmingly. “Quite useless, I agree. But it’s the only thing one can do when people won’t tell one what is the matter with them!”
I puzzled over this exchange. The rhythm of it—and Peter Lord’s grin—made me understand that it Elinor had made a joke. I looked up the definition of “incisive.” But I didn’t quite get it.
Now, I see that maybe Elinor had what all the het, white men of online dating claim they have: a sarcastic sense of humor.
In another passage, the prosecutor, Sir Samuel, questions Roddy Welman about Elinor’s feelings for him.
“If a lady were deeply in love with you and you were not in love with her, would you feel it incumbent upon you to conceal the fact?”
“Where did you go to school Mr. Welman?”
Sir Samuel said with a quiet smile: “That is all.”
My reaction then as now is about the same: Hahaha. What the fuck?
There was a whole world that the characters in these books knew—that the author knew—that I didn’t. I wanted to understand what that was. That was the real mystery to me.
There are literary conventions, and there are social conventions—the uncodified rules and norms of living in a specific culture. Sad Cypress is bound up in both of these things.
Murder mysteries catch people in primal acts, doing things out of the bounds of civilized society. (Yes, my young, ridiculous mind conflated English society with civilized society.) They feature dignified dowagers strangling their enemies with their bare hands and nervous minor gentry poisoning their blackmailers. The very structure—the conventions—of these books emphasize that there are written and unwritten laws: murder is bad and it will be discovered and punished. But laughing hysterically out of turn is also not done and it can get you accused of terrible things.
“Miss Elinor’s a lady,” one character notes. “She’s the kind—well, you couldn’t imagine her doing anything like that—anything violent…”
Elinor is a lady and that means something. Roderick Welman is a gentleman who went to Eton and that somehow means something. The allusions, the titles, the wit—they all meant something. Hercule Poirot—a white man—is foreign, lives in England, and understands English convention; he grasps the meaning while not being held to it.
I would probably have been considered a savage.
I was a young girl in Canada. My parents were very much not English. They’d grown up in a non-western culture which had its own specific and mystifying codes of behavior and my parents often grew impatient because I didn’t know or understand things that to them seemed innate. But how could I have absorbed this knowledge absent that society? And how could I grasp the mores of the place I did live—in a midsized Canadian city, in a mostly-white junior high school—with only the guidance of my equally confused peers?
Learning about the impenetrable grown up world is, of course, frustrating for young people. But I had too many sets of unspoken rules to pick apart, and too many environments in which to apply them.
So much about my thinking then seems ass-backwards now.
I tried to absorb by osmosis the rules of late 1930s English society and apply them to Canada in the late 80s. I learned about Shakespeare to understand allusions in a detective novel. I read about murder to give myself polish. I consumed story after story about England and English people–or was I really reading because of the non-English detective whose powers of understanding came from being apart?
I came about it in a confused way, and yet, years later here I am alive, reasonably couth, and able find some jokes funny. One might say that I’m civilized enough.
But this would not have satisfied younger me. I would have preferred to be like Elinor: beautiful, charming, reserved yet passionate, just a little tragic. I would have liked to drink cocktails—whatever those were—and make witticisms that I couldn’t understand.