Into the Woods Again: Three Recent Young Adult Novels of Parental Abandonment
An early and pervasive fear among people of every culture is of abandonment. Babies cry when their mothers leave the room. Adults cry when their lovers or spouses leave them, or when their employers give them the pink slip. The human experience includes abandonment as a universal and recurring feature at many points along the arc of life. To help process these reminders that we are ultimately alone and on our own, we write and tell stories about the abandonment experience. The archetypal story pattern is abandonment, journey fraught with peril (often involving survival in a hostile environment or a battle with evil), and eventual return to home and security. Typically the hero(ine) is tempered by these events and emerges stronger and fully matured. The story pattern is ubiquitous in oral and written history and its examples are numerous. Hansel and Gretel is certainly the folktale prototype, but the stories of Ishmael and Hagar, Homer's Odyssey, Babes in the Woods and even the film Home Alone share common themes.
The universal appeal of the abandonment story continues and its fascination is not lost on young adult readers. For the child poised to enter puberty, the realistic imagining of parental abandonment might be considered the greatest catastrophe and the guiltiest pleasure. Three recent novels, Mama, Let's Dance (1991) by Patricia Hermes, When the Road Ends (1992) by Jean Thesman and Out of Nowhere (1994) by Ouida Sebestyen retain the essential features of the Hansel and Gretel folktale. Although they consistently present striking changes in characters' roles and in plot resolution, each still features an enchanted forest, a house to tempt lost children, and a witch to be dealt with. Initially, the witch is a threatening feature but later becomes a sympathetic character and savior of the lost children. The children's task has been transformed from outwitting and destroying an evil witch into taking responsibility for the well-being of another. In accepting this task, the children make a moral choice -- the choice their own abandoning mothers failed to make -- and in doing so, right the wrong that has been done to them. Good wins out over evil and the children are redeemed. As their reward, they are given a new home and family with the witch. The novels retain the elemental nature and moral force of Hansel and Gretel, along with its major characters, but revise its outcome to invent recombinant families of different races, ages, and abilities. Now doesn't this sound more interesting than shoving the witch into the oven, stealing her money and running back home to a cowardly father?
Mama, Let's Dance
In Mama, Let's Dance, the earliest of the three novels, the protagonist is 11-year- old Mary Belle, whose mother abandons her, along with her brother Ariel, of unspecified but high-school-age, and her seven-year-old sister Callie. Leaving only a vague note, Mama quits their cabin home in the Appalachian foothills of western North Carolina to do what she does best -- dance. Having been left alone before and picked up by the authorities, the children have lived in temporary foster care. Wise in the way of adults, they know that they must keep their abandonment a secret if they are to stay together. They get by, expecting Mama will return after she's had her fill of dancing in the city. Ariel works full-time at a gas station to bring home groceries, stays up nights to study, and goes to school during the day. Mary Belle looks after Callie, an ethereal and unself-conscious child, to see that she keeps their circumstances a secret at the elementary school. Only their closest neighbor, an elderly African-American man named Amarius, suspects the truth.
Amarius roams the fields at night to hunt and discovers that no spring garden has been planted in the plot behind the children's house. This leads him to question Mary Belle about her mother's whereabouts. Amarius' niece, Miss Dearly, is a social worker; and Mary Belle knows that if Amarius tells, the children will be put in foster care. Amarius, who serves as the witch in this story, agrees to keep their secret because he believes that their mama will return eventually. Together he and Mary Belle plant the spring garden. When Mary Belle intercepts a letter from her mother, who has written only to ask that Ariel send money to a mail drop, she keeps the letter to herself. Just as Mary Belle becomes confident about their chances of making it alone, Callie contracts measles. Mary Belle nurses her as best she can but eventually recognizes that Callie's condition is beyond that of a typical childhood illness. By this time, the reader has long suspected that Callie, a delicate and translucent figure, will transcend this less- than-perfect world. Miss Dearly and Amarius get Callie to the hospital and wait with Ariel and Mary Belle for eight long days before Callie dies of complications.
After the funeral, the two children and the two adults decide to stay together. They spend weekdays in the children's house and weekends at Amarius' and Dearly's house. By fall, Mary Belle is able to tell Callie in her mind that "Life is so much better. Especially now, it's happier, with Mama gone -- yes, with mama gone-- and Ariel and Amarius and Dearly here, all of us like a family" (p. 167) .
When the Road Ends
When the Road Ends is the story of three foster children and their unexpected companion who band together to create another new family. Twelve-year-old Mary Jack Jordan introduces the reader to 14-year-old Adam Correy and Jane Smith, whose age is unknown but thought to be seven. The three children live with a Seattle foster couple, the Perry's. Mr. Perry, an Episcopal priest, is well-meaning but ineffectual. He believes that taking in foster children is a Christian act, just another part of his ministry. Mrs. Perry, his overbearing wife, views the children as an intrusion upon her busy schedule of neurotic headaches and nervous complaints. When good-hearted "Father" Perry agrees to take in his debilitated sister as well, Mrs. Perry puts her foot down.
Perry's sister, Cecile Bradshaw, is recovering from brain injuries sustained in the car wreck that killed her husband. Her left arm is incapacitated, she has aphasia, a language disorder, and is often overwhelmed emotionally. She is completely unable to live on her own. Thinking to rid herself of all the unwanted baggage, Mrs. Perry hires a callous, lazy housekeeper to take Cecile and the children to a summer cabin in the Cascade Mountains that Cecile has inherited. There they will spend the month until Mrs. Perry figures out a better solution.
The housekeeper absconds with the grocery money during the first night; so Adam, Mary Jack, Jane and Cecile are left on their own. Even if one of them could drive, they could not go back to the Perry's because Mrs. Perry has threatened to leave her husband if they come back. This would mean separate foster homes for the unwanted Adam and Mary Jack and institutions for the damaged Cecile and Jane. Mary Jack has grown to love Jane Smith, so named by a social worker. Thrown from a passing car, Jane was found by the side of a highway. She is probably seven years old and was certainly abused. She is mute, incontinent and has scars from burns and chain whippings on her back. To communicate with Mary Jack, she draws pictures that reflect her various states of mind. Mary Jack cares for and takes care of Jane, fantasizing that Jane is her sister. She protects Jane from Mrs. Perry's wrath and from the social worker's probing questions so that Jane will be able to stay in foster care, rather than go to a mental institution.
Adam Correy is the fourth outcast, a tough and rebellious boy who wants to depend upon no one and no one to depend upon him. However, if the four are to survive, they can do so only by pooling their respective capabilities to create a make- shift family. Their summer is one of learning, hard work and recovery. By its end, Cecile has recovered her confidence and most of her health; Adam has found his peace caring for animals; and Jane has begun to speak haltingly, revealing her real name to be Daisy. Mary Jack has learned to relax her need to be responsible for all things. Cecile speaks of keeping the group together on a more permanent basis, and as she and Adam discuss renovating the cabin to accommodate the girls, Mary Jack narrates:
I tucked my sister in, listening to the others making plans down the hall. Some of their ideas might not work out, but others might. One way or another, even we would work out... We weren't so unusual, I thought -- just one more family living in the cabin beyond the end of the road. (p. 184)
Out of Nowhere
The third novel, Out of Nowhere, features a male protagonist in 13-year-old Harley (after the motorcycle) Nunn (what the birth certificate clerk wrote in the blank for "father"). Harley is left at a roadside picnic area somewhere in Arizona by his mother, LaVern, and her boyfriend of the day. "Vernie" is on the way from Los Angeles to Houston with her boyfriend/agent to launch her career as an exotic dancer. Unexpectedly, Harley is excluded from the financial arrangement and Vernie's choice is quickly made: Harley is out on his duff.
During the dispute over his inclusion, Harley watches distractedly as a pit bull is dropped from an idling pickup truck. When the truck circles to leave, the dog begins to chase after it. The truck picks up speed, the driver tosses out an empty beer can, and both truck and driver disappear in a cloud of dust. Unable to keep up with the truck, the dog heads back toward the picnic area. As Harley watches the dog, a gray-haired woman eating alone at a picnic table watches him. She has overheard the fight between Vernie and Harley, seen Harley get out of the car, and seen Vernie throw a wad of money at him, then drive off. May Woods is her name. As she tells Harley later, "I was in love with a man named Nolan Woods, and if I married him, I would be May Woods. When I said those words to myself, I could see a beautiful forest with trees full of white blossoms and new-green leaves" (p. 20) . Nolan, as it turns out, had been maintaining a second family in the Philippines since World War II. The week before, he "said he had a family he wanted to go back to, and he couldn't live a lie any longer.... He cried. Then he got on a plane and disappeared" (p. 32) . Since the Woods' home went with his job as a church music director, childless May was suddenly displaced.
She is on her way from San Diego to her childhood home near the fictional town of Gattman, Arizona, described only as being somewhere northeast of the Rockies. Not knowing what else to do with the boy and the dog, she agrees to take them as far as the next town. Harley uses the ride as an opportunity to become indispensable, and May agrees she will need help to set up housekeeping. She suggests Ishmael as a name for the dog, after another desert outcast, and "Ish" goes along.
The three abandoned souls arrive at May's house only to find it occupied by two likewise-displaced persons: 16-year-old Singer, a girl who is staying with May's renter, the cantankerous junk collector Bill Bascomb. Bill is in the hospital due to a fall and has not been able to vacate the premises in time for May to move in. Singer, whose mother is dead and father is dying in a VA hospital, is the "local angel." She lives with the elderly or young families in the area, working as nanny, companion or housekeeper. She is intelligent, spirited and wise beyond her years.
The house, shed and yard are crammed with the spoils of Bill's years of inveterate junk-collecting. May is outraged to learn that Bill will be released from the hospital that day and plans to continue his recuperation in her house. The two begin a battle of wills -- she to force him and his junk out, he to cling to his home and possessions. While he is laid-up and unable to stop them, May Singer and Harley clear the rooms crammed with furniture, tools and assorted Bill accouterments. They scrub and paint the interior and set the worst of the junk outside in the yard.
The climax of the book surrounds a mishap with the dog. Ishmael makes a harmless canine mistake in the car; but, angry and unable to cope, Harley beats and kicks him. The dog runs off and Harley, immediately ashamed and embarrassed, goes to look for the now twice-banished Ishmael. In the ensuing chase, the dog suffers a broken leg. They get the dog to the vet, and Harley waits anxiously with Bill as the dog's badly damaged leg is amputated. When they return home, they learn that Singer has left permanently to be near her father in the VA hospital.
Her sadness over Singer's exit surprises May. Harley tries to comfort her as she cries for the loss. He offers to belong to her, to be her child. She realizes that she wants this more than anything. May accepts Harley's offer and in turn, offers to let Bill make a new home for himself in the shed. The novel ends as they watch a brilliant rainbow appear in the front yard.
Comparison to Hansel and Gretel
Elements of the three novels that bear comparison with Hansel and Gretel are the tempting house set in an enchanted forest, the witch figure and the inclusion of a substitute "Hansel" or "Gretel" to complement the protagonist. Mary Belle has Ariel, her brother. Mary Jack has Adam and Harley has Singer. The obvious differences are the role reversal of the witch from threat to ally and the moral choice to condemn the abandoning mother's behavior and bond with the witch. Most important, characters recycle themselves into new and improved families, rather than return to a biological family.
Each of the novels is set in a rural area, begins during the spring months, and describes an enchanted forest where reality is suspended and important lessons are transmitted. The initial setting in the spring is important for young adolescent readers. As well as supporting the plausibility of the stories by making school truancy a moot issue, spring is a time of exaggerated growth compressed into a brief period. Much like puberty, it is a time of potent change.
The houses in the three novels are located deep in the woods, secret and isolated from ordinary life. In folklore, the forest has always been a magical place; and, as Jack Zipes has noted, "It is the source of natural right, thus the starting place where social wrongs can be righted" (p. 45) . This observation certainly holds true in the novels under discussion.
For Mary Belle, the protagonist of Mama, Let's Dance, her house in the woods lies way out from town and away from the rest of the houses, way out along a dirt road that runs back into the fields. After a mile or so, the road thins out so it's hardly a road at all, just a narrow path that goes on for another mile, and then ends at our house at the very foot of the mountain.... sometimes in spring rains, you have to wade across the water waist deep, unless you know the hidden places where there are boulders to step on, places that we know that hardly anyone else knows. It makes the road seem most secret. (pp. 17-18)
Adult worries and responsibilities fill Mary Belle's days, but in the evenings she studies nature's ways. "Sometimes deer would come timidly down from the mountain to graze at the very edge of the field, flicking their white tails. One doe always stood with her head up, watching, as though she had chosen to guard the rest." On the evening of a particularly discouraging day, through the dusk, I could just make out the outlines of a herd of deer that had come out of the woods and stood at the edge of our field, grazing, heads down, tails flicking. I looked for the one who was on guard and found him -- or her. There is always one who guards, whose job it is to protect the others, to warn them of danger. But I did not do good at my job. (pp. 65-66)
For Mary Jack, the cabin where she and her companions will spend a month alone in secret is located, as the title describes, When the Road Ends.
The road simply ends after half a mile. She was right. We stopped in a wide turnaround. Two paths led off from it, one to the right and the other to the left. Each followed a line of poles carrying wires.... we followed the electric line through the woods, past blooming dogwood and wild flowers, under drooping branches where birds watched us. Moss silenced our footsteps. We passed a pond, as dark and still as a mirror beneath the trees. (pp. 35-36)
Mary Jack and Adam meet in the forest at night to make plans out of earshot of Cecile, who does not fully understand their predicament. Like Hansel and Gretel, they ponder the possibility of starvation.
" We won't starve," I said. But I wasn't all that certain. I sat hugging myself to keep warm, for the wind that blew down the river from the mountains was cold and smelled of snow, even in May. " Anything could be out here and we wouldn't know it," I said. " Yeah," Adam said, and he sounded pleased. (p. 69)
In Out of Nowhere, Harley and May wind their way through the foothills to come upon their less-magical but equally-isolated house in the woods.
Finally, she pointed out the pale, level horizon of the plains through a gap in the foothills they were coming out of. They passed little towns perched along creeks. She tried to remember their names, getting mixed up among the new interchanges and housing developments. She turned off on a smaller, gravel road. It passed planted fields and a bunch of junky mobile homes, then rose over a hill and sank toward a creek in the distance. A couple of miles beyond the hilltop, she suddenly turned in at a dilapidated red-brick house. Behind it was a big old garage or shed of some kind and a beat-up truck. " Good Lord," she said. He gathered it had changed for the worst. (pp. 42-43)
Harley's new-found friend, the girl Singer with the mysterious dolphin smile, leads him into the woods and gives him some advice. "So you need to start practicing feeling loved, Harley. Feeling cared about and held dear" (p. 103)
They went on in silence, padding barefoot behind the zigzagging dogs through a fortress of trees. Held dear. He clutched at the words. He followed, watching the slanted sunlight flick across her back. He had heard of enchanted forests. It seemed magical that Singer had come into his life like an answer to something he hadn't even known to ask for. (pp. 103-104)
The enchanted forest is still an important place and is central to the characters' development. Only the forest is fertile with opportunities to experience what has been withheld from their childhoods -- a sense of connectedness to the natural order and the flow of generations.
The witches figure prominently in reestablishing the children's lost sense of connectedness by taking up the vacant role of parent. The witch character is represented by Amarius (Mama, Let's Dance), Cecile (When the Road Ends) and May (Out of Nowhere), each of whom is some combination of elderly, dispossessed or damaged, and each of whom owns a house in the enchanted forest. In two of the three tales, the witch is not much better-off than the abandoned children. Amarius is a rural, elderly African-American, hardly a tragic figure, but of low status in the social order. Cecile is disabled and widowed, and no one is willing to care for her. May is childless and has been abandoned in her elder years by a faithless husband. According to S.N. Eisenstadt, "If roles are allocated in a society according to age, this greatly influences the extent to which age constitutes a component of a person's identity" (p. 35) In our society, children and the elderly can be powerless, discarded if they are of no immediate use, and relegated to a lower status. It makes some sense then, that children and the elderly should seek those of like identity.
The young protagonists reject what their mothers have done and account for it as moral weakness. This judgment serves as a turning point, after which Mary Belle, Mary Jack and Harley take on the task of "parenting" a helpless and unprotected character in the story. Mary Belle accepts responsibility for Callie, her younger sister, who is ill and will eventually die. She vows, "I'll never turn out like my mama. I'll never run away and leave my kids, making them have to cover up for me and pretend that everything's the same" (Hermes, p. 17) . Later in the book, she tells Amarius what she would like to do to her mother, "I think about hurting her. Breaking her ankle, so she can't dance again" (p. 70) .
Mary Jack takes responsibility for Jane Smith, the silent, abused foster child who also lives with the Perry's. Mary Jack reminds the reader that parents can be contemptible.
Do adults know how their quarrels affect children? I suppose not, or they would keep them a secret. Can't they remember from their own lives how it is to hear people shouting, threatening divorce, issuing orders? Can't they remember the fear that curls children's spines? The lumps in their throats? The little half- moons that fingernails cut into palms? The night when sleep is impossible because of the angry voices -- or the memory of angry voices? If I ever have children, I won't quarrel where they can hear me. No, not ever. (Thesman, pp. 19-20)
Harley Nunn, the hero of Out of Nowhere, lays it out straight for his mother, Vernie, when she wants to buy him a bus ticket out of town.
He was seized by the quick, protective anger that made people yell, Hey, you can't fire me -- I quit! He put his hands on the edge of Vernie's window and looked in at the man. "I don't want your dinner or your bus fare or your leather seats or anything else you have. I don't like you." Vernie said, "Shut up, Harley." He turned to her. "I don't like you, either. Or your lying and mooching and drifting around and promising us a house." It was coming out for the first time ever, like a blast from a fire hose he couldn't turn off. "I don't like how it is. Living with you. Or what I'm turning out to be, or how to change it -- " Vernie reached out and grabbed his shirtfront. Her eyes were fiery. "What you're turning out to be is a little smart-ass. Was I supposed to change my whole life just because you dropped out of nowhere and started cluttering it up?" " Yes," he gasped. (p. 9)
Shortly after this exchange, Harley surprises himself by deciding to keep the dog that had been dumped at the roadside picnic area. Through ownership of the dog, he will learn the rewards and annoyances of being responsible for the welfare of another. The protagonists, at the climax of their respective plots, recognize that love does not come without emotional risks and practical responsibilities, yet they readily choose to engage in it. Although young adult readers may have outgrown the folktale characters they enjoyed as children, the story line is ageless. The abandonment tale has been adapted and retold to successive generations of children since the eighteenth century. Its continuing lure, as Jack Zipes notes, is
... that children in contemporary society respond intuitively to symbolical tales of past experiences that are historical representations of familial problems and problems of power that have continued to hinder the development of compassionate social relations.... There is a great deal yet that we can still discover about our childhood and about listening to children's needs today. (p. 126) ...
What then, might be historically unique about these three abandonment tales of the early 1990s? If anything, it is that they present the ad-hoc family as a legitimate resolution to parental abandonment. The ad-hoc families proposed by the novels have been synthesized from persons found at random: met at roadside picnic areas, neighbors from down the road, or people who have been grouped together for the convenience of others. This resolution differs even from recent abandonment stories -- the best-known of which include Betsy Byars' The Pinballs (1977), Rosa Guy's Edith Jackson (1978), Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming (1981) and Joan Lowery Nixon's books in the Orphan Train Quartet series of the late 1980s -- in that the resulting families in the latter are foster, adoptive or of some biological relationship. What is the moral to these stories of the 1990s? Perhaps it is that above all else, the quality of interpersonal relationships should define family membership, rather than one's social, legal or biological credentials. For children about to enter the teenage years, these credentials may no longer be a satisfactory means to define the family, or their own identities. >
Eisenstadt, S.W. "Archetypal Patterns of Youth." The Challenge of Youth. Ed. Erik H. Erikson. Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1965, 1963. pp. 29-50.
Hermes, Patricia. Mama, Let's Dance. Little Brown, 1991.
Sebestyen, Ouida. Out of Nowhere. Orchard, 1994.
Thesman, Jean. When the Road Ends. Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
Zipes, Jack David. The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World. Routledge, 1988.
Gail Munde is Assistant Professor of Academic Library Services at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, and has been both a student and teacher of media librarianship since 1980.
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 intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Munde, Gail. (1997). Into the woods again: Three recent young adult novels of parental abandonment. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 3, 22-26.