Wednesday, January 19, 2011

50 in '11 Update: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

What I liked most about Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi's Printz-Award-winning sci-fi novel for young adults, was its characters. Nailer is just the sort of smart, good-hearted hero we can follow from a post-global warming slum to a clipper ship on the high seas. His cohorts, Pima and Nita, are both distinct and strong women (and, it's worth noting, both are women of color who don't come off as token diversity picks). And the story's most threatening villain, Nailer's father, is an incredible piece of character work―he's one of the creepiest literary villains I've ever read, and while he is almost entirely evil, he nonetheless never seems one-dimensional and thus fabricated. The fact that Richard Lopez is horrifying but still human makes Nailer's fear of the man―and ultimately his need to break free of his influence―something to which the reader can relate, and ultimately gives the adventure story some real depth.

Ultimately, the transformation that Nailer needs to make in this story is not from ship breaker to "swank," but rather from the "Lucky Boy" who runs from his father's beatings to the young man who is finally able to stand up to his father. By the book's end, Nailer will have to confront not only his father, but also his fear of growing up to become another Richard Lopez.

That theme is one I've seen exhibited in countless narratives, from novels to films and even works of nonfiction. I first started thinking about it when I read Melvin Burgess's Smack (published in the U.K. as Junk) for a course on subversive children's lit. Like Nailer in Ship Breaker, the hero in Smack, Tar, runs away to escape his father's beatings. But he never succeeds in confronting his father and putting the man's legacy behind him. Rather, as Tar's father tells the reader towards the end of the very dark novel, Tar becomes just like the man from whom he fled; he hits his own wife. The novel seems to warn about what can happen when a boy fails to confront (or, in a psychological sense, "kill") his father's legacy; he fails to become more than another representation of it.

I'd venture to say that one of the myths or beliefs our society constructs around the ideas of boyhood, manhood, and coming of age stories is that a boy must overcome or kill his father in order to become a man himself. Perhaps that belief came about naturally in a monarchical and inheritance-based society, in which a son literally did have to wait for (or, I'm sure in some cases, cause) his father's death in order to come into his own power, and has stuck with us through the dissolution of those ways of governing and transferring property. Maybe it's something even more deep-set and psychological. Whatever the case, it crops up in ancient literature like the story of Oedipus, it's noted by Freud and other psychologists, and it's still being pointed out today.

But noticing this trend, especially in children's books, makes me wonder: is there a female version of this myth? Are girls' coming of age stories similarly haunted by the need to overcome an oppressive matron? Could we argue that the evil stepmothers in so many fairy tales are an embodiment of the feminine version of this myth? Are there any more contemporary examples?

In Neil Gaiman's Coraline, the title character must overcome her wicked "other mother" in order to return home to her true family and mend her relationship with her father. But I'm not convinced this is really the same myth. To me, the unconscious myths at work in Coraline seem Electral, and I'm not sure that the sexual component of that myth is matched in the male version I've described. Though I group the Oedipus myth in with my examples of stories in which boys overcome their fathers to become men, I still find that these stories aren't primarily about a fight for sexual dominance. Even fairy tales seem to have more of a sexual component; Snow White incurs her stepmother's wrath by being more beautiful and desirable, and Cinderella's stepmother can be seen as hating the girl for being so beloved of her father. In contrast, sexual competitiveness seems to play a secondary role, if any, in the conflicts between sons and their fathers in literature.

Am I wrong? Have I missed books that show the feminine version of this conflict? Let me know!

1 comment:

  1. So glad you enjoyed SHIP BREAKER!

    For whatever reason, I think often a child's relationship with his or her father is given more importance than the relationship with the mother. Think of all the Disney movies where Mom was killed off before the first frame (and wasn't replaced by the Evil Stepmother archetype). Sons and daughters both must overcome their fathers in order to come into adulthood. I haven't read (or seen) Coraline, so I can't compare there, but off the top of my head I can't come up with many other stories that require a girl to overcome her mother. The closest I can think of is last year's Dirty Little Secrets, about a girl whose hoarder mother has died in the house and she tries to clean up before reporting the death, and spends a lot of time a long the way looking at their very damaged relationship.