17 May 2012

Wild Things

Maurice Sendak, with a few friends

The author Jean Craighead George has died, just days after Maurice Sendak’s passing, an event that provoked an outpouring of nostalgic tribute and critical appreciation. “Death comes in threes,” they say, and really, I’m not sure the world of children’s literature can stand another such loss. Again and again in their stories and pictures, Craighead George and Sendak evoked the call of the wild, and a child’s fascination with the kinds of danger that lie “outside over there.” Yet what strikes me is the reassurance that both writers offer, too. As Max learns, you can return home after a wild rumpus, and your soup will be waiting for you.

Jean Craighead George

Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain was a veritable pillar on which my childhood home was based, especially because my brother loved the book so much. The book recounts the adventures of Sam, a pre-pubescent Thoreau who goes off to live by himself in the woods. Craighead George writes beautifully of the natural world, and she details her protagonist’s ingenuity so carefully — yet so matter-of-factly — that even modern, mechanized, entirely mother-dependent suburbanites like us found ourselves wanting to follow him into the wild, and believing we were quite capable of doing so.

Reading My Side of the Mountain is something like watching Fred Astaire, whose grace appears so effortless that you think, “I could do that.” Whereas in reality, of course, you could not. Sam himself nearly dies on his mountain, and I daresay that neither Linc nor I would have lasted one paragraph out there. That didn’t stop us from dreaming, and it’s something of a miracle that Linc stayed home.

Portrait of my brother as a young bear

Part of Craighead George’s great achievement lies in her ability to make Sam’s survival seem so cosy: he doesn’t merely live in the woods, he makes a home for himself there. Maybe Craighead George — and Sendak — would have told their stories differently if they were writing for grownups, but the scary parts are always balanced by comfort. I found Higglety Pigglety Pop! absolutely terrifying when I was a boy, yet there it is: Jennie finds peril but also friends and a new kind of home with the World Mother Goose Theatre, and at the story’s end, she assures us she gets plenty to eat. (Granted, she’s eating mops, but what’s important is that she’s not hungry.) Sendak’s Max and Mickey get home safely, too, and so does Craighead George’s Sam.

Utterly terrifying: Jennie’s specialty act

In an exceedingly rare instance of my turning down a book because it was “too girly,” I never read Craighead George’s other masterpiece, Julie of the Wolves. This is especially ironic because there’s no doubt that Julie could have beaten the stuffing out of me — or perhaps my awareness of that fact is really what held me back. But there’s no question that she and Sendak both lent something mystical and exciting to our young lives: not least the prospect that my brother, who also identified so closely with Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear (drawn by Sendak), might run off like Sam or Jennie, and that I’d have to go looking for him, outside over there.

We were very tame children, really, but we dreamed of wildness. Now you know two reasons why.


Alex said...

Maybe part of the reason why we were tame children was because we had such wonderful outlets for our wildness -- outlets that let us return safe and sound to the world of order and sanity (although with our wild memories intact).

William V. Madison said...

Good point, Alex!