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“Bleak Houses and Secret Cities”

July 11, 2011

Another article I quite enjoyed and wish to keep note of is Marla Harris’s “Bleak Houses and Secret Cities.”  “This essay,” according to her own abstract, “examines novels in which children or teens in an urban environment, left on their own for a variety of reasons (such as poverty, war, plague, nuclear disaster, or technological breakdown), join together to form a community that explores alternative versions of home and family.  The urban survival novel, to distinguish it from the more popular wilderness survival story, encompasses a wide variety of genres, including fantasy, satire, scinece fiction, social realism, and historical fiction.  These novels involve dramatic shifts of perspective – inside/outside, above/below, before/after – which challenge protagonists (and readers) to see the world around them differently and to confront other points of view.  The 1970s ushered in a wave of urban survival fiction that has continued to the present; I speculate on why these survival scenarios have proved so compelling for young adult readers.” (p63)  

“The urban child,” Harris explains in her introduction, “has been a fixture of fiction at least since Charles Dickens, whose young orphan heroes and heroines often find themselves alond in a hostile London or adopted, like Oliver Twist, into an inhospitable community – Fagin’s gang of pickpockets – before reaching a happy ending.  Such stories can be psychologically satisfying, as Argiro L. Morgan explains: ‘The peril and danger of an alien environment present the portagonist with a unique challenge to relinquish childlike dependencies, to master obstacles, and to emerge victorious by finding unrealized inner potentialities'”

Harris goes on to consider the nature of the urban environment:

“The Urban Environment

Attitudes toward the urban environment in twentieth-century children’s and young adult fiction are at best ambivalent.  What Kathryn V. Graham notes of modern British fiction is applicable to other national literatures: ‘urban life and juvenile well-being are somehow essentially incompatible.  When we examine novels set in the century yet to come, cities are hostile to all human life.  They loom as frightening repositories of our intractable problems: crowding, crime, pollution, alienation, out-of-control technology, and human arrogance’….  The ‘city,’ on the one hand, announces itself as civilized, in contrast to the ‘wilderness’ outside, whether forest, bush, or countryside.  Yet the city contains within itself anarchic energies, both constructive and destructive, including the urban violence associated with street gangs and unruly mobs.  Elizabeth Wilson argues that ‘urban life is actually based on this perpetual struggle between rigid, routinised order and pleasurable anarchy’….  Moreover, the modern city is defined by what or, more precisely, whom it attempts to leave out….” (p64)

Harris continues on, analysing a number of texts briefly by separating them out into three categories; “the postcatastrophe city, the inner city, and the underground city.” (p67)  

In her conclusion, she writes: “In spite of their dystopian elements, these urban survival novels, like their wilderness counterparts, are fundamentally fantasies of empowerment in which children and teens prove themselves more resourceful and resilient that their parents, teachers, or classmates ever suspected, as they take on the roles of explorers, legislators, and soldiers.” (p73)  She does suggest that “we might inquire why this plot of the urban survival adventure becomes both more serious in tone and more popular from the 1970s onward.  Whereas Emil and Timpetill restore children cheerfully intact to their families, most of the novels do not hold out the possibility of restoration to one’s family or to ordinary life; instead there is a decisive rupture with the past.  …Perhaps the difference in treatment reflects the anxiety of the late twentieth century, marked by political upheaval and devastating wars, as well as by growing dependence on technology.  Social changes in family life over the last thirty years, including an escalating divorce rate, may also account for what Marilyn Fain Apseloff sees as the increasing prevalence of abandonment as a theme in children’s literature.” (p74)

Her conclusion continues:

“On one level, the pervasive imagery of displacement might be read as a pointed criticism of modern urban life, in which homelessness figures so greatly and, in particular, of the urban renewal schemes of the 1960s; on another level it aptly conveys adolescent fears and desires about leaving home.  Patty Campbell, for instance, cites the psychological appeal of end-of-the-world or survival themes to young adult readers, for ‘Even under normal circumstances, adolescents must struggle to come to terms with a world that is shifting under their feet as their minds, bodies, and relationships change and mature.  they are living through the aftermath of the end of the world of their childhood, and the rules are uncertain as they figure out how to survive’….  The vulnerability of houses and cities in these novels to physical destruction or abandonment expresses young adult readers’ awareness that their personal universes of home, family, and school are neither stable nor permanent.  The adolescent’s perception of being in-between, neither a grownup nor a child, is underscored by characters who move between radically different environments or occupy a liminal position….” (p74)

“Above all, these novels… are not about survival at any cost; instead they share an underlying optimism about the potential of communities to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, making room for people [continues on p75] and feelings that have been left out, transforming bleak houses and secret cities into spaces that, like C. S. Lewis’s Narnian wardrobe, are more accommodating than they first appear.” (pp74-75)  

Some of the books Harris refers to:

Slake’s Limbo, Felice Holman;  The Shakespeare Stealer, Gary Blackwood; Trouble at Timpetill, Henry Winterfield;  Emil and the Detectives, Erich Kästner; The Girl Who Owned a City, O. T. Nelson;  When the City Stopped, Joan Phipson;  Tomorrow When the War Began, John Marsden; City of Darkness, Ben Bova;  Secret City, U.S.A., Felice Holman;  The Planet of Junior Brown, Virginia Hamilton;  Is Underground, Joan Aiken;  Downsiders, Neal Shusterman;  Secrets of the Shopping Mall, Richard peck

Ref: Marla Harris “Bleak Houses and Secret Cities: Alternative Communities in Young Adult Fiction” Children’s Literature in Education 33(1)2002, pp63-76


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