Finding Your Way Home: Orphan Stories in Young Adult Literature
Dirk P. Mattson
Being alone in the world to confront its challenges can be either inspiring or daunting. The thought may fill the mind with possibilities of no boundaries and no authorities. This freedom, however, also creates a loss of safety. The security of home and family no longer exists. Confronting the world's challenges is one thing; confronting them all alone is quite another. This condition is the struggle for the orphan as literary archetype. The initial response to being alone might be exhilaration at the challenge. However, the orphan's final objective is to return to home without harm. It is a return to refuge, for to remain outside the home is to remain an outcast of sorts. Our society does not value the perpetual state of orphanhood. It does value
individualism; however, even the individualist usually has a place to call home.
In Awakening the Hero Within, Carol Pearson outlines specific objectives and practices of the orphan as an archetype in our world. The goal of the orphan is to find security for fear of being exploited. He or she will deal with a problem by allowing it total control, hoping for salvation, or grudgingly acquiescing to its demands. An orphan's task is to reckon with pain and disillusionment and to be receptive to the help others provide. The special qualities he or she possesses to handle these problems and tasks are a realistic approach to life, a recognition of his or her condition, and an ability to work with others (p. 82).
We are attracted to orphans in literature because they are the "common people." Orphans are heroes and heroines for us. We can identify with them, recognizing their feelings of insecurity as our own. Orphans in literature are attractive not just because of their unique status, but because orphanhood is often "described as if from the inside" (Simpson 182). Readers can find a special bond with the orphan that they might not be as quick to uncover with a sage, warrior, or other "empowered" archetype. The common objective Pearson identifies for orphans is to regain safety. They may share this objective, yet they may choose different paths to achieve it. These differences reflect the modes of literature that Northrop Frye develops in Anatomy of Criticism. In four YA novels, each narrates the orphan's quest for safety through a different mode: the comedic mode of Maniac Magee, the romantic mode of Nightjohn, the mimetic mode of Out of Nowhere, and the tragic mode of I Am the Cheese. However, the tragic mode differs. This orphan's quest follows another path. Instead of regaining safety, the orphan becomes completely separated -- even from himself -- by the novel's end. By honoring this tragic format, Cormier makes this orphan story unique.
In Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Jeffrey Magee is raised by an uncaring aunt and uncle for eight years. He then decides to end that life and strike out on his own. His naivetŽ becomes the power behind his courage as he takes on bullies and takes in runaways while continually looking for an address he can call home. He finally finds that home with his friend Amanda Beales whom he met at the very beginning of his adventure.
Gary Paulsen's Nightjohn is Sarney's tale. She is an orphan of social practice, removed from her birthing mother and raised by another slave. With this "mammy," she does small chores until she begins having the "troubles," meaning she will either be used in the fields or as a birthing mother herself. Nightjohn teaches Sarney the alphabet so that she can learn to read. It is dangerous, but Sarney wants to learn. Eventually she tells their story as Nightjohn had hoped.
Harley is an orphan rejected by his selfish mother in Out of Nowhere by Ouida Sebestyen. Harley soon meets May, a woman who is herself trying to recover from a disastrous past. Together they make their way to the house May's mother has left her and meet its current tenant, Bill. When May's eviction notice to Bill goes unheeded, she tries to clear out both Bill and his collections that fill the house and garage. By the novel's end, Harley, May, and Bill all find a way to get along with each other and even depend upon one another.
Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese sets Adam Farmer not only as orphan looking for his place but also his name. The novel shifts from a narrative that quietly recalls past events to a haunting interview between Adam and a psychologist as they search for the "gaps" in Adam's memory. Soon the questioning becomes disturbing and the narrative more disconcerting as Adam's past is not as he believed. Adam is not even his own name. In the end, those supposedly caring for him are only biding time while they decide whether his life will continue.
While other events certainly occur within these plots, they can be divided into the following stages within each book: 1)Losing the parents; 2) Establishing the orphan; 3) Confronting the enemy; 4) Finding a seeming peace; 5) Providing help to others; 6) Rejecting one life for another; and 7) Being claimed by another. Each novel models one of Frye's modes, but all four follow these seven stages. The tragic mode employed by Cormier is unique because it reverses these stages.
The characters in each mode have particular tasks assigned to them. In Maniac Magee they represent those found in a comedy as defined by Frye. Mars Bar is the alazon, the "humorous blocking character" who is usually the impostor because of a "lack of self-knowledge" (p. 172). The eiron, Maniac, is the hero of the story who is "unformed" (p. 173). Russell and Piper are the buffoons who "increase the mood of festivity rather than to contribute to the plot" (p. 175). The fourth type of character found in the comedy is the agroikos. Grayson is this character in the novel, for he is "the straight man, the solemn or inarticulate character who allows the humor to bounce off him" (pp. 175-6). Grayson supplies Maniac information and materials that create the exaggeration or absurdity necessary in comedy.
In romances, two characters are prominent: the hero and the enemy. In Nightjohn this is true as well. Nightjohn and Sarney share responsibilities of the hero, however, as Nightjohn endures those dangers too extreme for the young girl. Frye asserts that the hero often comes from the "upper world" representing divinity and a renewed spirit (p. 187-88). To be sure, Nightjohn appears with knowledge that is freeing, and Sarney is anxiously seeking that knowledge. The opposite of the hero, of course, is the enemy. Old Waller's society of slave owners and masters is the enemy associated with "darkness" and "sterility" (p. 187). In the romantic mode the agroikos "call[s] attention to realistic aspects of life, like fear in the presence of danger" (p. 197). As the agroikos, Mammy continually warns of the dangers in learning to read.
In Out of Nowhere, its characters are specific to the mimetic mode. It has the alazon, yet here that character is a "blocking [humor] in charge of society" (Frye, p. 227). May acts as this alazon as she determines the rules and regulations for her society: her household. The eiron is the hero, but a realistic one, recognizing that life will have its ups and downs and accepts this. As the eiron, Harley views life with an "attitude of flexible pragmatism" (p. 226). Singer represents the ingenu (p. 232). She is an outsider, living by a simple code without all the intricacies that May and Harley bring to relationships.
Because the tragic novel is unique, the comedic, romantic, and mimetic modes together can provide a backdrop before considering Cormier's reversal in I Am the Cheese.
1 - Losing the Parents . In each of the three parallel modes, the parents leave soon into the novel. In the comedic, Spinelli is whimsical about the parents' demise and devotes only a paragraph to the narrative in this stage: "On the way back home, [Maniac's parents] were on board when the P & W had its famous crash, when the motorman was drunk and took the high trestle over the Schuylkill River at sixty miles an hour, and the whole caboodle took a swan dive into the water. And just like that, Maniac was an orphan. He was three years old" (p. 5). The vocabulary is fanciful and almost sounds like someone retelling a circus trick gone bad, with "kaboodle's" and "swan dives." This description is retold dramatically as comedy and legends often are. The event also took place when Maniac was only three, not old enough to realize its seriousness.
In the romantic mode, Paulsen's Nightjohn focuses on the despair of not only losing the parents, but also of never being able to identify them in the future. The cruelty of the system must be exposed if the reader is to see the glimmer of hope at the end of the novel. Sarney explains who her mammy is now and the difference between this woman and her birthing mammy who was sold because she was a good breeder. She even recounts the sale and departure of her biological mother. Yet this has been told to Sarney; she does not remember it (pp. 15-16). Like Jeffrey Magee, Sarney is protected from this horror.
In the mimetic mode of Out of Nowhere, Harley's loss of his mother is a picture of an all too familiar world. His mother is never "Mother," just "Vernie." Sebestyen devotes eight pages to Harley's abandonment. He displays how the world -- especially today's world -- can behave at its worst moments. Parents seek their own welfare first. Adults leave children to fend for themselves. The loss of the parent is displayed in all its crud.
2 - Establishing the Orphan . In this second stage of Maniac, the reader sees a picture of what his life is like. Maniac encounters situations that are just a bit above believable. Each mysterious appearance early in the novel shows how he has learned how to fend for himself. His actions become legendary. They are exaggerated. A person doesn't challenge the neighborhood bully and get away with it, let alone hit a frog for a home run. This contributes to the comedy according to Frye: "Repetition overdone or not going anywhere belongs to comedy, for laughter is partly a reflex, and like other reflexes it can be conditioned by a simple repeated pattern" (p. 168). Early on Maniac Magee is full of repetition.
Sarney is established as an orphan -- a subject of the slave system--- in her second stage. It is a romantic mode, for the reader knows more of her condition than she does. Sarney is in a challenging situation, and yet there are hints of the quest to come (Frye, p. 187). Sarney is also too young to completely understand the concept of freedom. Somehow this provides relief for the reader as she recalls her childhood: "I was small then and didn't know about being free, or even how to think about being free, or even what being free meant" (p. 24). There is hope that Sarney can go a little longer without knowing the cruelty that is in store for her.
As Harley establishes himself as an orphan, he keeps a realistic perspective. He does not cry in the road nor wait in hope that his mother will return. He only admits the inevitable: "ÔOkay. You know this had to happen,' he whispered. ÔSooner or later'" (p. 22). Harley's response to his orphan state is mimetic. This is how the world operates. Frye suggests that this is a basic element of the plot structure. This type of story "takes for granted a world which is full of anomalies, injustices, follies, and crimes, and yet is permanent and undisplaceable. Its principle is that anyone who wishes to keep his balance in such a world must learn first of all to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut" (p. 226). Harley quickly learns to do just that as he tries to regain his safety with May.
3 - Confronting the Enemy . After establishing his identity as an orphan, Maniac confronts the enemy. Even this confrontation is amusing, without any real danger for Maniac as he verbally duels with the alazon, Mars Bar. Maniac's response to Mars Bar's challenge depicts the comedic mode's humorous exaggeration: "ÔI said, tell me I'm bad.' Maniac blinked, shrugged, sighed. ÔIt's none of my business. If you're bad, let your mother or father tell you'" (pp. 34- 35).
In Nightjohn, Sarney is saved from confronting the enemy -- at least physically -- in this third stage. Nightjohn will act in her stead as the divine hero would. When Mammy finds Sarney learning letters with Nightjohn, she chastises him for teaching her. Mammy warns of the beatings that will occur because Nightjohn is confronting the enemy. But in the romantic mode, the hope is greater than the despair: "ÔThey have to read and write so we can write about this -- what they doing to us. It has to be written'" (p. 58). Harley does not confront a physical villain or destroyer, but rather the more mentally realistic enemy of loneliness. If Harley does not find his place, he is left with the prospect of living on his own. He tempers any hope with reality. Harley acts in the mimetic as he agrees to take life one day at a time. He "merely follows procedures . . . to maintain one's balance from one day to the next" (Frye, p. 226). As long as Harley maintains the status quo, it will be good enough for the time being.
4 - Finding a Seeming Peace . Maniac finds a seeming peace with Grayson. At long last, he has found someone who can accept him and a place where he is safe. With Grayson, Maniac eats Krimpets, sleeps on catcher's gear, and talks baseball. Most of all, Maniac has a place that he can call home: 101 Band Shell Boulevard. This is not a true home. But to suggest it is once again is an exaggeration. The catcher's gear for bedding, the self-proclamation of the house number, and the diet of Egg McMuffins: all of these help to give Maniac a peace, but it is an exaggerated peace for the comedy.
In Nightjohn, this fourth stage is short in narration, yet is still important. Sarney is still a slave; those around her still are forced to do their work. Waller still whips them. For a few weeks, however, Nightjohn works with Sarney on the other letters. She learns "a whole family of letters," all the way to G (p. 60). With this, she makes her first word: bag. It will eventually be the word that causes the pain when Waller finds her writing it in the ground and punishes those who taught her. But for a few weeks Sarney thinks that she has found a peace in the despair of her condition. This stage reflects the hope in the romantic orphan story.
Harley finds that seeming peace as he makes his home with the other "disowned" tenants in the house. What would certainly make the census as a "non-traditional" household is fine with Harley: "Being needed as part of a team was new, and so was the little tingle of pride when he walked into a freshly painted room he had helped to transform" (p. 112). Harley was finding a place among others. This gave him that peace. It was not an unusual peace such as Maniac's, or a peace from the cruelty such as Sarney's. It was simply a peace "to be."
5 - Providing Help to Others . After this seeming peace is established, the orphans in these three modes provide help to others. Maniac does this for many people: Grayson as he learns to read, Russell and Piper (Giant John's brothers) as they attempt to run away, and Mars Bar as he sees through the color just as Maniac does. The comedic mode shows the byproduct of bigotry that sits in Giant John's home -- a pill box. Frye notes that the "social judgment against the absurd is closer to the comic norm than the moral judgment against the wicked" (p. 168). The bigotry of the real world exists, but is so exaggerated that the pill box seems almost beyond belief. It connects the comedy to Maniac's help of others.
In her fifth stage in this sequence, Sarney helps Nightjohn. It is again a short scene. But its brevity does not distill the conflict between the prevailing cruelty and future promise. Sarney is Nightjohn's student again after Old Waller has chopped off a toe on each of Nightjohn's feet. With this torture, the novel enters Frye's sparagmos in which the hero is torn to pieces (p. 192). Here, the meaning is literal as Nightjohn is disfigured for his teaching. Soon he will disappear as the sparagmos suggests. Still, Sarney provides help for Nightjohn as he calls her over only one night after being tortured to show her the next letter: H. She provides help to him after the seeming peace. In Out of Nowhere Harley contributes some "elbow grease" when he provides help to others. He does this for both May and Bill. May has the house to clean. Bill has his car to repair. He assists both as they adjust to their new situations.
6 - Rejecting One Life for Another . Maniac has the opportunity to live with Mars Bar and his family, but Maniac knows that he does not belong there. He knows that he cannot live there. He is searching for that peace, while not perfect, that he once had with Grayson. He declines the offer.
The sixth stage in Sarney's tale is a mental struggle. Sarney's "troubles" come, and she knows that she will soon be sent to the breeding shed. But this is the life that she will reject because of Nightjohn's return. She may not be able to do so physically, but she will do it mentally like so many before her. Nightjohn persuades her to attend the pit school with him, and she goes.
In Out of Nowhere Harley's sixth stage in his mimetic mode revolves around a realistic problem. He makes a choice that will be a benchmark for how he solves problems in the future. He must decide if he will take money from Vernie for his dog's veterinarian fee -- if she can even be found. When he calls Vernie for the money, she is using it for a new leather jacket. He realizes that he neither can get that money nor does he want it. Harley makes the decision not to treat others the way his mother treated him. He decides to save the dog by paying the fee. He rejects the life Vernie chose.
7 - Being Claimed By Another . In the final stage of the orphan, Amanda Beales claims Maniac. It is Amanda, not her mother or father, who "lays down the law" and take Maniac as a part of her family. Its dramatic fashion adds to the exaggeration, such as when Shirley Temple was in charge of the household: "ÔYou got it all wrong, buster. You ain't got -- ouuu, see' - she kicked him -- Ôyou do not have a choice. I am not asking you. I'm telling you. You are coming home with meÉ. This is not your home! Now move!'" (p. 183). In this final stage, Maniac will reside in the Beales household. This is where he belongs. Maniac has moved from chaos and disruption to order and a hope for a better future as the comedic mode would have him do.
In her final stage, Sarney is claimed by another. For Nightjohn, it is Frye's anagnorisis. He returns to overcome the despair established in the beginning of the novel. In Frye's romantic mode, it is "the recognition of the hero, who has clearly proved himself to be a hero even if he does not survive the conflict" (p. 187). Nightjohn claims Sarney, yet she claims herself as was his goal. The hope is fulfilled, and Nightjohn's task is complete. The final chapter of the novel is "Words." It is Sarney establishing herself -- not necessarily as part of a family -- but as part of humanity. She reaches the promise for which the romantic mode strives.
The final stage in Harley's mimetic story still reflects the reality of the situation. The book ends on a hopeful note, but Harley is still practical. At the novel's end, May decides that she will let Harley stay on. He is appreciative, but knows that this is still a tentative situation: "I know it's hard to have kids, May, so if you can't do it, like Vernie, I'll understand" (p. 182). The mimetic mode shows itself even as Harley is claimed by another.
The Cheese Stands Alone
The world of Adam Farmer in I Am the Cheese is similar to those of the three previous orphans and their quest to regain safety, but for Adam the chronology is reversed. This is what makes this novel uniquely different from the pattern of the other three modes. Adam travels through the stages of the orphan not only with tragic results, but also in an opposite order to emphasize tragedy's power over fate and over Adam, alias Paul.
This novel includes the characters of a tragedy as outlined by Frye. The eiron or source of evil is present, but never named until the last pages of the novel. Like pinning blame on the government bureaucracy that controls Paul, it is difficult to pinpoint the eiron. The eiron is lost in the uncaring government; it may very well be the government. The tragic mode also includes the soothsayer or prophet who moves the action without being affected himself. Brint certainly fulfills this role as he continually prods Paul for more of the story. Paul himself is the alazon. Frye notes that the alazon in tragedy is often "self-deceived" (p. 217), and the entire novel revolves around this deception. The tragedy finally involves the chorus. It is the "society from which the hero is gradually isolated" (p. 218). This chorus is Paul's family. The isolation will create the tragic orphan.
Cormier reverses the stages to slowly reveal this tragic orphan. Where the other three orphans' first stage was the loss of their parents, Adam has his parents at the novel's start. Instead Cormier begins with the last stage that the others encountered before being claimed by another. Adam rejects one life for another.
1 - Rejecting One Life for Another . Adam decides to leave behind all that he knows and bicycles to meet his father. He delays in the house for a time as he decides whether he has the courage to leave. The reader is uncertain of exactly what he is leaving so early in the book, but the decision to leave is definitely a rejection of what is there. Adam suggests through his actions that he is not returning. He also rejects the pills. Again, the reader is unsure of their purpose, but the rejection is undeniable:
I went to the kitchen and took out the bottle of pills from the cabinet and decided not to take one. I wanted to do this raw, without crutches, without aid, alone. I opened the bottle of pills and turned it over and let the pills fallout -- they are capsules, actually, green and black -- and I watched them disappear into the mouth of the garbage disposal. I felt strong and resolute. (p. 14)
Through this independence, there is little reason to feel sympathy for Adam. He is strong. He will soon be with his father.
The audience respects this strength as well. Frye identifies six phases of tragedy which closely parallel the tragic orphan's seven stages. In this rejection of one another, Adam is given "dignity" for rejecting this life (p. 219). This is the first of Frye's phases.
2 - Providing Help to Others . This is a latter stage for the orphans of the other modes, but Adam does so early in the novel. He is bringing a gift for his father and has taken great care in wrapping it and determining how he can deliver it without damage. It is his preoccupation during his bike ride. The cap that he is wearing is also important. It is a part of the help that he provides. Adam tells the service station attendant of his plan: "ÔIt's my father's cap,' I say. ÔHe kept it all these years. I'm going to visit him -- he's in a hospital in Rutterburg and I figure he'll get a kick out of seeing the cap'" (p. 24). During the entire bike ride, Adam is focused on helping his father.
3 - Finding a Seeming Peace . Adam enters the third reversed stage of the tragedy. He seems to have a peacefulness. The early recollections with Brint in the interview chapters suggest a peaceful state because Adam does not remember the evil that he encountered. Cormier tells of Adam's devotion to his father as they walk in the woods. The bond between them is strong: "Adam rushed to him, flung his arms around him. He had never loved his father as much as at that moment" (p. 47). This seeming peace is what Frye lists as the second stage: "the tragedy of innocence" (p. 220). Through Cormier's juxtaposition of the interview chapters with the narration, the reader knows that something is wrong. But at this stage, Adam still recalls the peace with his father. He still seems to be experiencing this peace -- even if only recollected.
4 - Confronting the Enemy . This confrontation is classically tragic because it is one that can be avoided -- and if faced will ruin this seeming peace. Adam is confronted by his own memory and Brint. If he confronts what awaits him (that is, the memory of his past), he will enter an unknown world. Yet, he must confront it to move through this stage and forward the tragedy:
T: My boy, it is two fifteen in the morning. I told you at the beginning I would be available to you at any time of day or night. And that is true. That is why I am here. But you must also do your part. You must assist me.
T: Tell me - what is wrong? Evidently, there is something wrong. What is it? I am here to help.
A: What comes next? T: What do you mean?
A: You know what I mean.
T Explain, please.
A: The blanks. All the blanks. If you know what they are, fill them in for me... (pp. 91-92)
Adam confronts Brint and his own memory. He must do this to establish the next stage. It is not one that leads to seeming peace as the other three modes do. Frye states this is the hero's fall through the hybris (p. 221).Adam has not brought this fall upon himself: he has inherited it from his father. Frye cites this as a characteristic of tragedy (p. 208). The young child is at least protected from bringing this fate on himself.
5 - Establishing the Orphan . This tragic novel is also different at this stage because Adam is gradually established as the orphan. Each of the other modes was rather quick and obvious in its creation of the orphan. For Adam, the process will be slow and the pace will be painful. Even his own name will be taken from him as he learns that he is not Adam Farmer but Paul Delmonte. At this later point in the novel, it becomes clear that Adam does not have contact with his parents; he also does not have contact with himself. He has encountered Frye's fifth stage of "lost direction and lack of knowledge" (p. 222). He has established himself as an orphan who has neither his parents nor himself.
6 - Losing the Parents . Paul's loss of his parents occurs at the end of the novel. This loss promotes the tragedy: there is little opportunity for Paul to find hope in the situation. Just a few pages from the novel's end does the reader see what Paul saw: his mother lying dead by the side of the road. The reader hears what Paul is repeatedly told: his father is dead. Paul is medicated. There is no promise in this situation. The loss of the parents occurs when he is helpless to find hope. The tragic mode is reversed: "[J]ust as comedy often sets up an arbitrary law and then organizes the action to break or evade it, so tragedy presents the reverse theme of narrowing a comparatively free life into a process of causation" (p. 212). This reversal is uniquely tragic.
7 - Abandonment . The final stage for Paul in the novel is again different from the other three. As where the other three orphans were claimed by another, Paul has no one to claim him in this institution. He is left alone. What is more, the novel ends the same way that it began. Cormier repeats the same narration that shows Paul pedaling to visit his father. He now lives in the "world of shock and horror," Frye's sixth phase of tragedy (p. 222). In the tragic mode, the character has no hope. Paul's only escape is to repeat the fantasy in his mind. The reader knows that Paul will never escape this fantasy: the advisory statement at the end of the novel explains in its "bureaucratic-ese" that Paul will never have anyone to claim him. Indeed, Paul now lives within the chief symbols of this final stage: the prison and the madhouse (Frye, p. 223). For Paul, his sentence in one confines him to life in the other.
In each of these four novels, the orphan is searching for that safety. This quest makes up the action of the plot. For Cormier's I Am the Cheese, the quest is reversed. Slowly revealing to the reader and the alazon that this safety will never be regained, the plot unravels itself like the core of a baseball that can never be rewound. Cormier reverses the stages of the quest to create the tragedy.
Cormier, Robert. I Am the Cheese. Dell Publishing, 1977.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton University Press, 1957.
Paulsen, Gary. Nightjohn. Delacorte Press, 1993.
Pearson, Carol S. Awakening the Heroes Within. Harper SanFrancisco, 1991.
Sebestyen, Ouida. Out of Nowhere. Scholastic, 1994.
Simpson, Eileen. Orphans: Real and Imaginary. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987.
Spinelli, Jerry. Maniac Magee. Little, Brown and Company, 1990.
Dirk Mattson is a junior high English teacher in Hibbing, Minnesota, currently earning his doctorate in English Education at Arizona State University.
Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not inteded for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Mattson. Dirk P. (1997) Finding your way Home: Orphan stories in young adult literature. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 3, 17-21.