I have a confession: I may look pretty well-read in children’s books from the posts you see here, but I have some embarrassing gaps in my reading history. For example, I’ve never read The Wizard of Oz, and until this past weekend I’d never read Peter Pan, either the play or the novel. Well, last week I was in Harvard Square and, moth to a candle, I walked into the Harvard Book Store, which has quite a well-curated children’s book section. I picked up King Baby for the Changeling, and paused in front of the luxury edition section (a terrible idea, really). That’s when I saw Peter Pan as illustrated by the design studio MinaLima.
Sometimes all it takes is a fancypants new edition to lure you into reading that one book you’d always meant to read. Thankfully there wasn’t a fancy edition of The Wizard of Oz right there, or else who knows what would have happened? (Well, I mean, we all know what would have happened.)
So I read it over Shabbat, and I think you don’t need me to tell you that it was good, do you? It’s a fairly well-established fact by now that it’s a pretty decent book and you should all read it. In fact, I’m probably one of the few children’s book nerds around who hasn’t read it, so let’s cut past the “is it good?” part and swing forward to “what do you notice reading it for the first time as an adult? Did it defy expectations? How?”
The answer? It defied all of my expectations. Let’s take a quick glance at the blurb on the back of my edition and talk about the “how”:
“Let your imagination take flight as you journey with Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, and the Darling children to the magical island of Neverland…”
Oh. Well, the words “light” and “innocent” don’t actually occur in that quote, but that’s sort of the impression I’d ended up receiving over time: that it would be light, innocent, and magical. I knew it had been interpreted in darker ways from articles and reviews I’d read at various points (I know, weird that I’d have read movie and play reviews without having read the novel– indefensible, I’d go so far as to say). But somehow I expected a charming tale of childhood innocence.
The more fool I. (A quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, another tale of innocence which isn’t so innocent.)
Who says childhood is innocent? Not J. M. Barrie, in any case.
Think about the basic plot structure: a boy creeps in at the nursery window to find his shadow, which had been stolen from him (by the way: I’m pretty sure a stolen shadow turns up in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales), and ends up persuading the children in the nursery, who are left completely unattended that night, to run away with him to his home. His home is under constant threat of violence, and all of the children live in the wild, fending for themselves, until they finally end up fighting a dangerous battle and returning home at last.
Severely reduced, that is what happens. And that’s without getting into the frankly bizarre age situation: Peter Pan’s obstinate refusal to grow up, but Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily’s evident interest in him. Then there’s Wendy’s burning desire to be a mother and play at being Mother and Father with Peter. And then there’s the Lost Boys’ burning desire to have a mother, although they have only the vaguest notion of what a mother is. Even the pirate Smee wants Wendy for his mother. We’re also told that only children who are young enough can enter the Neverland, and as soon as they’re too old, Peter sends them “away,” wherever that means. That being said, all of the children except for Peter show signs of “growing up,” which is to say, of being on the very fringe of pubescence, of the desire to get older and initiate some family life. All of the Lost Boys do, in fact, end up growing up and going to school and, presumably, like Wendy, having families.
But to return to, the Neverland: their games there show a tug-of-war between wild independence, led by Peter, and cozy dependence, championed by Wendy. Either they’re fighting with the (so help me God, I’ve never typed this word before and it galls me to do so now) “redskins” and the pirates with Peter or they’re being tucked into bed by Wendy. And Peter and Wendy are joint leaders, a kind of “Mother and Father,” in the Neverland (Peter always being a bit more in charge). The desire for family life, therefore, is central to the novel, even though on another level it’s about rejecting family for a never-ending state of childhood. The Neverland is an island of permissiveness, where childhood dreams are true, and a bit scary.
And there’s a darkness in that. Clinging to childhood as a state of independence means that make-believe can be real, or almost real. Peter believes his make-believe so deeply that a pretend meal is the equivalent of a real meal to him, and the other children sometimes go hungry as a consequence. Death is really death in the Neverland: Captain Hook is truly eaten by a crocodile and truly dies and is never heard from again. In battles, people die. It’s gruesome. So what about this theme of motherhood, of family relationships, of tucking into bed and mending stockings? Where’s the reality of make-believe in Wendy’s games? I think the words which are never spoken there but are so important to her story are “marriage” (her love of Peter) and “sex” (where the babies she so longs for come from).
Fundamentally, there’s a pull between the heartless, independent pleasures of childhood (“I don’t want to grow up and be stuck with a job and family!”) and the more social pleasures of developing pubescence (“I want a mother/to be a mother and to be looked after and to have a family!”). No wonder the generations get mixed up: Wendy is their age but is playing at being their mother, and is playing at being the wife (though that word is never used) of Peter, who’s the youngest and the oldest of them simultaneously.
In a lot of ways, then, this book is incredibly bizarre. This play at family life, of innocent stocking-darning, takes our nursery games of mothering baby dolls and puts it into a strangely realistic setting: what happens if there was a real island somewhere where all of our nursery games came true? asks J. M. Barrie. And the answer is this brilliant, disturbing, and beautiful novel.
I wonder what I’ll find when I finally read The Wizard of Oz?