Monday, February 21, 2005

Warning: A very long post. Jill Paton Walsh, The Green Book (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1981). Later republished as Shine.

One of the things I’ve said in the course of this blog is that few of the authors seem to have much awareness of science fiction as a complex form: most of the books are very linear, they support only one reading, and there is little in the way of subtext. I very much want to talk about the language of science fiction for the young, but most of what I’ve read doesn’t support much in the way of interesting discussion. The Green Book is very different.

Jill Paton Walsh doesn’t, as far as I know, have a reputation as an sf writer, but I’ve read quite a bit of her work over the years, and I was utterly delighted to find that when she set out to write sf, she didn’t assume that she had to dumb down her own writing. The Green Book is a real find, one of the best books for kids I’ve found, and easily the best book for the pre-teen category.

At the beginning of The Green Book someone starts off, “Father said, ‘We can take very little with us.’” And we open up into the rushed preparations of a small group of people about to leave the earth forever. A very simple description of this book is that they colonise, find the planet inhospitable, find aliens, discover they should have brought a more thoughtful range of books, and eventually find a crop that will grow, but as ever with sf, the point is how Walsh writes this, and as ever with sf for children, how she writes the children.

Although there are implausibilities in the book, they are all of the sf-handwaving type. When the corn grows, tainted by the new planet, it’s tough to believe that it really does turn out to be safe, and the problem of the failure of the vegetable crop is never really discussed as a long term issue, but I’ll accept these because they are precisely the kind of cheats that sf writers make. To go back to a much earlier topic, they are symptom of a belief in one’s world, not a disbelief.

The book is made plausible by the absolute confidence Walsh has in both people’s abilities and their shortcomings.

The first part of the book talks about what the humans take and the constraints on them—this is probably one of the best colonisation novels I’ve ever read in terms of the care it takes thinking through necessary population densities, and also considering just how much rests on everything going right. All of this is an ongoing theme. Walsh doesn’t drop in information and then abandon it. The Father takes with him Intermediate Technology which turns out to be both a commonsense choice—much more useful in many ways than the people experts who go—but also a choice that is rooted in social politics. Much later, Father explains that on earth he was just manual labour, and here he was seen as population fodder, but that his stewardship of this book will make him and his children very important.

In turn, Father’s actions are determined by the exchange systems that start to emerge. While everything goes well, co-operation is the theme, but the moment a shortage appears (of books) coercive barter rears its ugly head. Father—who still refuses to share his book—puts in a great deal of manual labour to secure two hours with the Illiad.

Elsewhere, the children experience what it is to be children in an agricultural society. All the children work, even if it is just clearing stones. They have their own concerns: meetings take place out of sight and the children just vaguely know they are happening. They develop their own concerns, and slowly, we see that the children are adapting to the planet better than the parents. And here is where one of the “twice read” clues come in. If you read the book carefully, and think about how the narrator perceived the planet and what s/he remembers of Earth and identifies as different, Walsh gives you enough clues to work out who the narrator is, even though s/he includes herself as one of the people s/he describes in the third person (actually, at some point one ought to notice that we seem to be a child “short” except that Walsh manipulates the convention of the omnisicient narrator to manipulate us).

Over the course of the book, Walsh also shows us the way difference means doing things differently. If a tree grows outward in long poles (like fasces) then the consequence is that it will be hard to chop down but easy to split. She is prepared to leave interesting loose ends for the colonists to come back to later: the children find glass in the sand after fires have been laid, but the adults are in too much of a hurry to do the things that need to be done. It will be the next generation that explores this.

Frequently it is the increased leisure time of children that leads to discovery, just as it is frequently leisure that permits science in our world. It is the children who discover that the boulders are moth-cocoons, who have already discovered candy sugar trees with which they make friends with the moths, and who learn how to communicate with the moths—something Walsh never once confuses with “conversation”. It is also the children who take risks because it is their sense of danger which is muted enough for the leap, so that when the risk is finally taken to eat the corn which has grown crystalline, it’s a child who does it. In some ways, The Green Book is an argument that far from keeping children away from danger, their willingness to take risks is what helps the species to survive.

When the book ends, with the first of the corn harvests and the knowledge it can survive, it also ends with the revelation that what we have been reading is what the youngest child, Pattie, has been writing in the green commonplace book she brought with us. Although the colonists—thanks to their failure to co-operate over what literature they brought with them to the new world—have lost Earth’s culture, they are reminded by Pattie that culture is a future thing, not just a thing of the past.

Re-reading the book (the first of all the books I’ve looked at this semester where I just plain couldn’t help myself) I realised what an incredible job Walsh had done. I’ll only mention one example: Pattie is laying out a picnic. “Pattie liked playing fathers.” (82) And I completely missed the fact that this sentence had to be written by a small child who had never been on a picnic with her mother or seen anyone else go on a picnic with their mother, which means it had to be written by the youngest child. Every time you are given information in this book, Walsh has thought very carefully about what Pattie might know.


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