Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

'When I Was a Child I Thought as a Child ...': The Importance of Memory in Constructions of Childhood and Social Order in a Selection of Post-Disaster Fictions

Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

'When I Was a Child I Thought as a Child ...': The Importance of Memory in Constructions of Childhood and Social Order in a Selection of Post-Disaster Fictions

Article excerpt

This paper will analyse the construction of childhood in three post-disaster texts for young readers: Ruth Hooker's Kennaquhair, Robert C. O'Brien's Z for Zachariah, and Hugh Scott's Why Weeps the Brogan?, exploring how the relationship between particular notions of childhood and memory are used to show protagonists' assumption of power and hence choice in how they respond to the social orders in which they find themselves. 'Power' has been defined in many ways, but I will use the definition which Roberta Trites draws from the work of Judith Butler: 'Power is the force that allows for subjectivity and consequently, agency' (Trites 2000, p.3). Whereas O'Brien's and Scott's novels place their protagonists in dystopian settings, Hooker's Kennaquhair presents a small-scale utopia and implies a younger readership than do the other two texts, and I will argue that the utopia in this text can only work in narrative terms because the novel is aimed at children rather than young adults.

In "'A useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past": Memory and Historical Reconciliation in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Telling', Raffaella Baccolini explores the relationship between memory, history and utopia/dystopia, focusing especially on Le Guin's text. I intend to take three of the points Baccolini makes to use them to investigate the connection between memory, childhood and social order in Kennaquhair, Z for Zachariah and Why Weeps the Brogan?:

1. All utopias and dystopias are dependent on their historical context for understanding....

2. Memory is ... necessary to an understanding of oneself and of the past, but also of the present and of the future, and thus acquires a social dimension.

3. Only those who choose to remember are capable of taking responsibility for their actions and being accountable.

(Baccolini 2003, pp. 114, 118, 119)

All three texts to be discussed in this paper belong to the genre of post-disaster fiction, that is, fiction set in the future 'after the world we know has been destroyed by cataclysmic disaster, usually caused by human actions' (Stephens 1992, p. 126). With a few exceptions, the general trend in post-disaster fiction (for children and young adults at least) has been that the type of disaster which creates the narrative situation in the text is a disaster of significant concern to the society in which the text was written. In this way, post-disaster fiction accords with part of Baccolini's explication of dystopia: 'Dystopia shows how our present may negatively evolve' (Baccolini 2003, p. 115). As John Stephens notes, 'the purpose of the [post-disaster] genre is to issue a warning about destructive tendencies in human behaviour' (Stephens 1992, p. 126) and while these 'destructive tendencies' can take a variety of forms, one of the functions of post-disaster fiction is to show what might happen if the disaster threatening the society in which the text was written becomes reality. As Jenny Mutton says of Brother in the Land, for example, 'The author's message is that what can happen to [the main protagonist] can happen to anyone. Take heed lest the situation in the novel become reality' (Mutton 1987, p.3). Accordingly, these three texts, as well as most other post-disaster texts for children and young adults that focus on the effects of an implied or stated nuclear disaster, were published during the Cold War years, whereas the general trend in more recent years has been to consider other types of disaster, such as ecological crises.

Rather than discuss the texts chronologically, I will begin by looking at Kennaquhair, which offers a utopia, and then consider how the dystopias of the other two texts compare with it. Kennaquhair is set after a major disaster: probably nuclear in origin since much of nature is dead, there are very few people around, and protective clothing and gas masks are required. Six children meet, without talking, and find their way to a secluded valley which has somehow escaped the effects of the disaster. …

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