I don’t know what it was about the ’80s that made great authors start great books in the most boring way possible, but between this and JACOB HAVE I LOVED, I feel like I’m being confronted with some sort of trial: subtle and surprising stories await those with the patience to wade through long scene-setting descriptions while the author meanders around to such niceties as character and plot.
“This” is Paula Fox’s ONE-EYED CAT, a classic (a Newbery Honor) that I discovered only recently, and the problems of the book’s beginning were heightened by the fact that I couldn’t really get my head around the character; take this scene early on:
“I believe it must be close to your birthday,” she added. Ned was surprised; grown-ups often recalled things he thought they would have forgotten.
What kid doesn’t believe adults are always thinking of them and their birthdays? I scoffed. I now think this was in character for the book’s protagonist, an extraordinarily gentle boy who makes a mistake that leads him into secrecy and misery throughout much of the book.
Paula Fox, in fact, doesn’t mess around with her characterizations. The character painted with broadest strokes in this book is one Mrs. Scallop:
Ned went over to the radio and drew a finger down the back of the bronze lion. He imagined Mrs. Scallop saying, “Mrs. Scallop doesn’t dust lions.”
Or take this exchange that I particularly related* to:
He opened his mouth and she said at once, before he could speak, “Calm down, calm down.” He hated the way she spoke in that false soothing voice, as if she owned the country of calm and he was some kind of fool who’d stumbled across its borders.
But Fox rescues Mrs. Scallop from being a parody, not by redeeming her as much as simply revealing her. At the end of the book I still didn’t like or even particularly respect her, but I truly believed in her.
What I love about Fox is how moral her books are, and by that I don’t mean that she moralizes. I mean, instead, that she presents characters whose choices matter, and she shows us how they matter not by over-dramatizing their consequences in the outside world, but by showing the characters realizing how much their own sense of themselves depends on what they do.
In ONE-EYED CAT, I also particularly like the relationship between Ned’s parents. His father is the town minister and his mother, because she is the mother in an atmospheric novel for kids, has a mysterious ailment (I believe its technical name is Disneyosis). We get tiny glimpses of the family’s complicated relationship to religion; Ned remembers that before his mother was sick, his father (who provides very loving care for his ailing wife) never spoke in his “preacher voice,” but now he sometimes uses it like a shield; Ned’s mother has her own beliefs, which are not necessarily her husband’s, and not necessarily anything she feels an urgent need to spell out to Ned. They seem like real people, in other words.
And… holy shit, you guys. Writing this post and thinking about how principled Fox’s books seem to me made me want to learn more about her, and the first thing Google has taught me? Paula Fox is Courtney Love’s grandmother.
That kind of just took the wind out of whatever I was going to write. I leave you with that odd bit of trivia.
* One of my boyfriend’s favorite ways to annoy me — one of many, I might add — is to adopt just this condescending tone. “There, there, relax,” he’ll say, just to piss me off. “Just — shhh…... Just calm down.” He does it because it drives me to violence. He perfected this technique on his sister growing up; I think it’s a wonder she still speaks to him.