There are lots of reasons, I’m sure, why authors choose children as narrators. Maybe because they are unreliable or innocent narrators, or because they approach situations with less bias and can get into places grown-ups can’t. Personally, I think it is mostly because children are tiny sociopaths. Their moral compasses aren’t very well-developed and nuance is lost on them. We forgive them some pretty alarming behaviour. A child making a poor decision is tragic, where an adult making the same decision becomes unlikable.
In the hands of a young narrator, we can enjoy heavy-handed justice uncomplicated by the question of the punishment’s morality, as in Sara Saab’s “Blood Pepper and Brave Meat” (Betwixt #5). Milli, age 7, sells herbs, balms and drugs in the shadow of a gladiatorial arena. When her fascination with gladiators and their battles leads her to discover the ghastly source of one of their most potent intoxicants, she deals with the problem with a calm and brutal efficiency that would have been horrifying in a responsible adult.
Set in the lower castes of a late-Roman/early-Byzantine society, “Blood Pepper and Brave Meat” tends to take a pragmatic view of circumstances we might find problematic. Milli and her 13-year-old cousin Annaz sell drugs, but the story does not dwell too long on how harmful their wares might be. Milli is caregiver to a baby sister, and their mother is implied to be a prostitute they have never met. Milli does not seem to mind. When Milli takes off with a strange gladiator she has just met – Denniz – and spends the day watching the fights and the night in a bar watching him carouse, she never seems to be in much danger herself.
Set in the lower castes of a late-Roman/early-Byzantine society, “Blood Pepper and Brave Meat” tends to take a pragmatic view of circumstances we might find problematic.
But Milli is just seven and, as she tells us several times over the course of the story, is big now and so it wouldn’t be right to cry or get upset about the way things are. Her obliviousness to danger and hardship almost undermines the story, as it carries over very well to the reader. It is easy to get lost in a child’s sense of immortality. Her personal stakes are not quite clear, despite the violence going on in the arena right over her shoulder. She – and thus we – doesn’t see the bigger picture of injustices that are integral to her life and livelihood.
Milli, in her naiveté, focuses on Denniz’s part in the messy truths of her world because they are obvious and right in front of her. Her reaction is quick and merciless. No ink is wasted on whether or not he deserves his fate, but it is hard to feel bad for him. It is refreshing to be freed of these complicated moral questions. Milli can hardly be held responsible for her actions, and so through her, neither are we. The bad guy can get what he has coming and we can feel good about it, thanks to an innocent narrator.
Milli can be forgiven because of her tender age, but the narrator of Nino Cipri’s “Better Girls From Broken Parts” (Fireside Fiction #17) comes off very differently. Jasmine is older than Milli by a couple of years, and just old enough to have a finer tuned sense of right and wrong. When her nasty “cousin”, Rachel, arrives on a visit, Jasmine is determined to make her pay for a bullying incident the previous autumn. With the help of a sinister presence in her closet, she doles out a revenge that feels tragic rather than just.
When her nasty “cousin”, Rachel, arrives on a visit, Jasmine is determined to make her pay for a bullying incident the previous autumn.
Jasmine is a complex protagonist. On the one hand, she is the “good girl” and the victim. An adopted child from an unconventional family, she is already, at nine, feeling the injustice of being picked on for meaningless reasons. Rachel, for her part, is a snob and a bully with a snarky, unlikable attitude. Yet from the moment Jasmine gets Rachel alone, we can see that Jasmine’s decisions are misguided, to say the least. As she leads her cousin into the mouth of a supernatural “fort” leading to an otherworldly “attic,” it is clear that Jasmine knows what she is doing. She has set a trap for Rachel.
Cipri balances Jasmine’s malice and innocence very well. Her glee at luring Rachel into the fort is unrestrained – she doesn’t see anything wrong with scaring the bejesus out of the older girl. The tension lies in how aware, how in-control Jasmine really is. Does she understand that real harm can be done here? Does she know and not care? Does she think it’s a game? A responsible adult would know when to stop and when to pull back. Does Jasmine?
The story turns tragic as it becomes clear that she knows, on some level, that what she is doing is wrong. Jasmine isn’t an oblivious child; not entirely. Her inner voice warns her, then begs her not to carry on. Her age and sympathetic motivation make it impossible to dismiss her as the story’s villain, so the further she pushes her revenge, the worse we feel for her. We are denied that release that comes when you can assign monstrous actions to an inhuman “other”. The monster in this story might be Jasmine is a well-played tragedy.
Speaking of morally oblivious children playing dangerous games: Peter Pan. How did it take this long for him to get a literary re-imagining? Coincidentally, this month we got two: “The Boy Who Grew Up” by Christopher Barzak (Uncanny Magazine #1) and “The Boy” by Eric Francis (Fireside Fiction #17). Though these stories take very different tacks on young Mr. Pan, both appear to agree that a child who does not grow up is a very unsettling thing.
Though these stories take very different tacks on young Mr. Pan, both appear to agree that a child who does not grow up is a very unsettling thing.
Barzak gives the more intimate of the two portraits. His Peter Pan has fallen from Neverland at the feet of Colin, a teenager living a troubled life. Peter’s appearance is both exactly and not at all what Colin wants. He has run away from a fight with his father, is seething about his mother’s abandonment, and an escape is what he has been looking for.
Yet, the escape Peter offers doesn’t feel quite right. Colin follows him first out of boredom and then because he wonders if this teenaged-Pan might be interested in a hookup. As they travel from Kensington Garden to a land where babies hatch from eggs and fly off to meet their mothers, it becomes clear that Peter is exactly what he says he is. Colin comes to realize that escape is very much not what he wants after all.
Though he is seeking a return to the comfort of family and “something to hold on to”, Peter’s offer to literally return him to childhood comes off as creepy. Colin tries to explain his complex feelings of abandonment, and Peter returns with unhelpful parallels about losing his shadow. Peter doesn’t understand “the good and the bad” of the world, and Colin is at the point where that big picture finally matters to him. He realizes he has grown up.
The Peter Pan from Eric Francis’ story is much more terrifying because the protagonist of the tale, “Captain” Hook, is an adult fully able to see the dysfunction in Pan’s eternal childhood. This Hook is the father of a “lost boy” who has gone to live in Neverland. Having come looking for his missing son, Hook now wages a war against the “demonic” Boy who can not understand the importance of returning children to their families.
It’s a short tale, but it will pull at the heartstrings of any parent. “Lured” to Neverland by the “glamour” of Peter, the children play forever at games with no idea of the hurt they cause to Hook in particular and their abandoned parents more generally. Hook’s anguish feels real and the laughter of the children, cruel. Children can do terrible things, but at least they learn and grow. A child that deliberately chooses not to is not innocent: it is terrifying.