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Margaret Mahy’s storybook families

September 18, 2015

I just rediscovered an old article which rightly highlights Margaret Mahy’s treatment of families in her fiction.

Joan Gibbons makes the following points:

“[Mahy] is able to combine elements of fantasy with a treatment of family life which recognises the darker side of humanity that it may reveal as well as the comfort it can bestow.” (p.11)

“[Mahy] has become recognised internationally as a writer who has brought to children’s literature new insights into family relationships. Feminist critics have seen her as being a leader amongst writers who have broken from tradition in their treatment of females and children. There is room in Mahy’s families for the female to be “ambitious, competitive, courageous, active”, and yet still be primarily involved with the family, which is seen as central, not peripheral, to the world. Mahy has, in many of her early stories and in all of her highly acclaimed novels, advanced family themes with sophistication and sincerity, especially as regards casual, friendly relationships between children and parents, whatever their marital status.” (p.11)

In Mahy’s work “family relationships are often of fundamental importance to the structure of the story.” (p.11)

“Relationships between parent and child, between siblings, and between child and the wider family group, are ll explored by Mahy, and all are found to be vigorous sources of both conflict and comfort or sustenance. Hayes said that Mahy joined Mark L’Engle and Fitzhugh “in writing stories in which parent and sibling relationships” were “vital and dynamic elements in the plot”.” (p.11)

“The family is often what anchors Mahy’s fantasy in reality.” (p.12)

“When her families were described as being “a bit like psychic battle grounds” Mahy replied that “Family life is where you get your greatest blessings, but it’s also the area where a lot of people sustain their greatest damage.” These two themes, of family blessings and family imposed damage, are detectable in many of her stories.” (p.12)

“Parents can be unsatisfactory not because they are nasty, but because they lack the imagination to be adequate to the situation.” (p.15)

“The acceptance of one’s true nature, despite family disapproval, is a frequent theme in Mahy’s work.” (p.16)

“The divided family has been called “a recurring Mahy motif”.” (p.18)

“Mahy avoids such aberrant relationships [as incest], preferring to deal with family relationships where the finding of equilibrium is the theme.” (p.18)

“Robert Westall is an interesting author to compare with Mahy because in his novels also (The Wind Eye and The Watch House, as well as The Scarecrows) much of the tension revolves around family relationships, and the supernatural plays an important part in the resolution of the conflict.” (p.18)

“The female heroes of Mahy’s serious novels are ambitious, courageous and determined, and the focus for their activities is their family. This does not belittle their activity, because the family has been declared the place where all truly important things happen. The importance of the young women is enhanced by their achievements being associated with the home.” (p.22)

“Mahy’s families provide a source of experience from which characters can imaginatively explore the world.” (p.22)

Ref: Joan Gibbons ‘Family Relationships in the Stories of Margaret Mahy’ Papers 5:1, 1994, pp.11-27

On this same topic, Anna Lawrence-Pietroni writes: “”Family” has a shifting value in these novels [The Tricksters and The Changeover] and exists equally as a place of violence, as a purely biological unit, and in the coupling of intercourse. The struggle is to find wider meaning.” (p.37)

Ref: Anna Lawrence-Pietroni ‘The Tricksters, The Changeover, and the Fluidity of Adolescent Literature’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 21(1)1996, pp.34-39

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