(Forgive my extended absence from this blog; I’ve been spending the last few months preparing intensely for qualifying exams. I’m proud to say I passed with flying colors and am now a doctoral candidate!)
Historical fiction for children, specifically historical fiction that engages with marginalized persons and/or groups, inherently comes with the baggage of decades (centuries?) of problematic representation. So much is cringeworthy. I recently returned to Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn, for the first time as an adult, and was horrified. First, by the portrayal of Native people (who aren’t given a tribal identification, who are at one end or another of a savage/noble polarity, and who are consistently rescued or otherwise benefited by their relationship with the benevolent and somewhat condescending Caddie), and secondly, by my blindness as a (white, Jewish, middle class) child; when I read this book in girlhood, I never questioned any of these representations. I wish my mother, a feminist who gave me the book in hopes that I would enjoy Caddie’s “wildness,” had had the perspective to problematize some of these images for me.
I don’t suggest that these hurtful or reductive representations aren’t still present in the children’s literature that gets published today, but there are books that engage with historical marginalization, oppression and violence in potentially rich ways. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains (2008) is one of the latter, though by no means perfect (there are still anachronisms that jar). What fascinates me, though, is the way in which Anderson openly engages with the poetics of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, in her depiction of a young slave girl in 1776 New York City, refusing in large part the simplification of slavery for her young readers into a closed teleology wed to a linear temporality. This text privileges continual remembrance, particularly through deliberate destabilization, the foregrounding of a collective loss, and representations of a transatlantic diaspora suffused with mourning.
What makes Chains a remarkable book is in its refusal to make slavery something teleologically closed, and Anderson does this through evoking Morrison’s provocative term rememory, a word appropriated and put to work in many other works (scholarly and creative), but a word that startles when encountered in middle-grade fiction. Rememory hybridizes ‘memory’ and ‘remembering’ to suggest that memory itself can function independently of intentional, internal processing, that rememories are exterior, collaborating things. What I find most interesting about Anderson’s use of the term, though, is in its context – rememory is used not to evoke the slave’s relationship with her parents, in a thematic echo of Morrison, but in reference to Isabel’s former white owner: “He didn’t care that the neighbors would come around with cakes and platters of cold meat, and drink ale to the rememory of Miss Mary Finch of Tew, Rhode Island” (4).
Though this employment can be interpreted as a misuse or misappropriation of Morrison’s evocation, I think of it instead as a clarifying misdirection. Mary Finch is not the text’s mourning subject, but is, as Isabel’s owner, nevertheless implicated in the site of violence signified by rememory. In Chains, as in Beloved, rememories have dimensions beyond the individual, and while Morrison evokes this as a kind of productive interconnectedness, Anderson, in her reorientation of the term, suggests that a reckoning with memory and representation can’t exclude the violent institutions that create the necessity for these connections.