Sunday, 5 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 6: Misery books

 Read the previous posts, 1   2    3   4   5

One very distinct category of books that I liked, although I cannot find any scholarly term for it, were books about utter poverty. I have already written about The little ruggamuffin, which isn't a children's book but was launched as one in the Soviet Union and became an indispensible part of the children's literature canon. I am sure I would have loved Jessica's First Prayer, but any mention of religion outruled books in my atheistic Motherland.

There were, however, books from the satellite states, such as Bulgaria and Romania, and I am not even sure they were children's books, but books about childhood, perhaps with autobiographical traits. I have found one. The title, One boy's miseries, says it all. Oliver Twist is an idyll in comparison. 

Another book that I remember well I could not find because the title keeps hitting a business company, and I don't remember the author. In one episode, the main character's baby sister gets sick, and the poverty-stricken mother calls a wise woman, who shoves the baby into the oven. The baby wails, and the boy screams at his mother that she will burn to death, but the wise woman just says it is the sickness getting out. Then the baby is quiet. End of chapter. In the next chapter, the mother buys a little coffin. I was terrified by this story, but as all children terrified by stories I kept re-reading it. I don't think I cried over it as I did over stories about cruelty to animals, but they surely touched something in my heart. I grew up in relative wealth, in a loving family. If the purpose of the misery stories was to evoke compassion they were successful.

The absolute favourite in this genre was Mottel, the Cantor's Son, by the great Sholom Aleichem. I didn't know anything about the author, and I didn't know anything about the Jewish culture or the Pale, where the story takes place. For me, it was just another wonderful misery book, and just like the other misery books, it had a lot of naughty-boy pranks and a lot of joy and humour right in the middle of all misery. I was puzzled that the family moved to America in the end of the book, because it brought the story into reality from a completely imaginary world and therefore made it less credible. In re-reading, I ignored the ending.

No comments: