Becca at Sea

Eila and I recently came back from a visit to some relatives on their island. They were, as always, unfailingly gracious, and entirely without vulgarity. They remind me that if one acts and speaks without resentment, mental generosity becomes second nature. I always enjoy books that recall this gentlemanly stance. It’s hard to find them, especially in adult literature where jealousy and selfishness loom as large as they do in most of our lives. Elizabeth Goudge wrote quiet grown-up novels about non-vulgar people, but they’re not much read any more. The phenomenon is much more prevalent in children’s literature, particularly children’s literature of the past. When I need this kind of thing I turn to the Bastables or the Swallows, and recently I enjoyed Astrid Lindgren’s The Children on Troublemaker Street. But I’ve just found a new one, fresh off the press: Deirdre Baker’s Becca at Sea.

Becca at Sea bucks the trend in children’s literature toward cinematic action. There are action scenes–a fire is averted, a boat is rescued in a storm–but the heart of the book is the still space in the mind of a girl coming to know an island and the gracious, if eccentric people who inhabit it. There are brief instances of meanness–cousins can be snide–and a glimpse at a potentially rocky adult romance, but all of it–we see, though we are never told–will sink into Becca, becoming the means by which her curiosity is channeled into generosity of spirit. I read the book in one sitting, last night. I wish it were longer, but at the same time I am deeply satisfied with it.

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9 thoughts on “Becca at Sea

  1. “Gentlemanly stance” is a good way of putting it (if unfortunately gendered). Some of these books, though, have one incredibly-bad bad guy — like Walter Mayne’s books, or Alan Garner’s, which always remind me of Walter Mayne’s for no reason I can articulate.

    I too find these books comforting (although not Swallows & Amazons — I never liked those, and still can’t get through one), but I’m not sure they are any more salubrious than their heirs.

  2. I scratched my head for a long time about “gentlemanly.” Once upon a time I would have been able to say “gentle” but the meaning of that word’s changed. I did think about “gentlewomanly,” but it seemed forced.

    Now, hey, did I say these books were more salubrious? But you’ve smelled me out. It’s true I think they are. I want my kid to have more Bastable in her life and less Lyra and Will. I want her to have more Rat & Mole, and (yes) less Harry. More Moomintroll, and more Little White Horse, and more blue remembered hills, and more “I am the centurion’s dog, I lie at the centurion’s feet.” I like the new books too; I do! But–let’s be honest–I want my child to reproduce my nostalgia for a world neither of us ever knew. The “gentle” gets short shift in the current ethos, and I want her to seek it out.

  3. As a victim of my own mother’s galloping nostalgia, I am ever on guard against undeclared nostalgia as the deciding factor. As long as you declare your nostalgia and don’t give it priority over other features (good writing etc), I’ve got no quarrel.

    As you’re probably about to say, one can have moral conundrums without evildoers. *Wind in the Willows* starts out with one, when Mole sees the rabbits and fantasizes about eating them with onion sauce.

  4. I’m entirely floored by your comment about evildoers. It’s true that some of my favourite books don’t have any at all. There’s no villain in Wind in the Willows. This must be one of the reasons I love it.

    I always wondered about the meat eating question in Charlotte’s Web. You’re not supposed to eat animals who can talk: we learn this from The Silver Chair, where they get sick after finding out they’ve been fed one. But in Charlotte’s Web, the animals can all talk, and they can all be eaten. Is it supposed to make humans feel mean and stupid then?

    And, anyway, are moles carnivorous? But WITW is an animal story with no human beings, and so the animals are actually people. Mole is a fat old Englishman, not a mole at all.

  5. No no — there are humans in WITW. Remember the jailer’s daughter that helps Toad escape? The animals are very clearly living alongside humans, and esp. Toad. He deals with humans all the time (buys cars from them, etc.). It features as a moral lesson: Don’t get too close. Although there is Ratty’s travel tale too.

    (I don’t have my copy here or I’d give more examples and be insufferable.)

  6. Oh Lord of course I remember the jailer’s daughter and the motorists! Well what to do now? I’m so confused. I’m thinking anyway that we can start from the premise that all talking animals in all children’s books are actually people. Some of them are more animally than others, and some exist in a world without human beings while others don’t, but they’re all people. Is this right? If so, it means they can eat meat, if the story happens to be constructed that way (Wind in the Willows is, Watership Down isn’t, but this is a matter of degree of animalyness the author wants his characters to have).

    But there’s still something wrong here, some key I’m missing. I don’t even know the right question, only that there are so many different ways of using animals as characters. And, like, for instance, to change the subject slightly, how come in picture books the animals are always wearing shirts and no pants? But whoa. Maybe I can start by asking you how the lesson, “don’t get too close,” works for a reader. Who shouldn’t get too close to whom?

    Wayfarers All, yes!

  7. I’m of the opinion that while most children’s books about animals are more or less consistent about their animalyness, WITW constitutes a formidable challenge. Getting too close — imitating the talking apes — is Toad’s problem, and he suffers for it again and again. Eating meat is an issue for the rest of the crew, although it’s not worked out/through.

  8. Deidre Baker was my children’s literature professor at the University of Toronto. She’s the person who intoduced me to the Bastables and the Swallows as well as other essential characters in children’s literature. I’m glad people are actually enjoying her book as well.

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