Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Mothers and Daughters

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Mothers and Daughters

Article excerpt

There is no such thing as the archetypal North American woman. She is as many-sided as the continent itself, a vast fusion of races and religions. All the same, books for children and adolescents provide an interesting overview of the expectations, projected desires and anxieties of young people as they confront the older generation. These books featuring parents and children offer insights into what is considered socially representative and generally acceptable or unacceptable.

However, the realism of this type of literature is limited. It is a setting for encounters between many-faceted realities, where conflicts arise and solutions are sometimes found. Above all these situations stimulate us to think about our own identity and that of others, about cultural differences and shared values.

A lust for life

These shared values might be generally defined as "lust for happiness" or "lust for life". We even find the theme of lust for survival in Vera and Bill Cleaver's book, Where the Lilies Bloom (1969). This is the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who, after the death of her mother and father, makes superhuman efforts to bring up and hold together a large family, thereby fulfilling a promise that she has made to her dying father. The strength of character that she deploys in the process would honour an adult woman - but it also consigns her to great solitude.

The ideal in this book is that of the family, whose life-giving and life-supporting function is made abundantly clear. Led by the energetic Mary, the children collect rare medicinal herbs which they sell to make a living. The story ends when Mary's sister starts a family of her own. The two girls have very different characters and ideals. Mary is brave and has disciplined herself to be so hard and unselfish that childhood and youth pass her by. Her very virtues deprive her of what she most needs - the love of others. Her sister is gentle, pretty, conciliatory and indecisive in all matters except for her decision to marry.

The fact that the roles of the sisters are reversed at the end of the novel raises the question as to whether these two images of woman are mutually exclusive in the author's mind. They certainly provide a striking demonstration of the psychologist Erich Fromm's theory that a person must first learn to love him-or herself (and accept the love of others) before becoming capable of loving others. The same principle applies to the family. This story deals with two kinds of survival - physical and above all psychological - for a girl, a young woman, a human being and a family.

In I Would Rather Be a Turnip (1971) another story by the same two well-known authors of children's books, the family is seen in a different light. After her mother's death, twelve-year-old Annie lives alone with her father and an extremely wilful black housekeeper until the housekeeper's nephew, who was born out of wedlock, moves in with them. Annie's hatred of the intruder is expressed in eloquent fantasies, as when she writes a "novel" about an illegitimate child being thrown into a dustbin. Unlike Mary, Annie is able to sublimate her fantasies of violence and eventually she saves the life of the once-hated new family member by shooting a bull that is threatening him. Through this symbolic act, she liberates herself from the constricting world of her prejudices and doubts. The little nephew,who is exceptionally gifted and far more mature than she is, has long since won her over and passed on to her his own love of reading. She comes to understand that the word "family" does not necessarily only describe a blood-relationship.

Keep your cool is the rule

Awakening sexuality is another common theme in literature for adolescents. At first it is surprising to see how naturally twelve- to fourteen-year-old girls use an erotic vocabulary which still, absurdly, sometimes makes their mothers blush. But this linguistic ease hides a lack of real experience. …

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