Sunday, 26 December 2010

There are books after Christmas

Here is yet another old review. It is sad that so many wonderful books disappear so quickly. Do tell me if they are still read.

The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh

When a British colleague recommended to me to read a new children's series about animated dolls, I was rather skeptical. This motif seemed rather trivial. However, my reaction demonstrated the danger of preconceived opinions and the importance of judging books not by subject but the way the subject is treated. The Mennyms makes something radically new out of this old theme, which has been varied in children's novels from Pinocchio to The Indian in the Cupboard, and which has been studied thoroughly by Lois Kuznets in her When Toys Come Alive.

The Mennym family consists of a collection of live, intelligent rag dolls of human size. They were made forty years ago by an "extremely skillful seamstress" and came mysteriously alive after her death. For forty years they have contrived to live in a suburban house without contact with human beings and without being exposed. Sylvia Waugh describes ingeniously the doll's life style. In Mary Norton classic story The Borrowers (which is not about dolls, but about miniature people, yet faced with the same survival dilemma), the characters live by "borrowing," that is stealing from people. In many doll stories, the simple solution is that dolls do not have to eat or sleep, do not wear out clothes, and their housing problems are solved by their inhabiting a pretty and safe doll house. Waugh describes some clever tricks the Mennyms have developed in order to get money for rent, electricity and occasional luxury objects. The grandfather writes newspaper articles, the grandmother makes fashionable knitwear which is sold at Harrod's, the father works as a night watchman. The Mennyms' life seems a neverending happiness.

It is, however, a tragic story. Both Pinocchio and many other books about toys describe the protagonist's longing to be alive, which reflects the child's conscious or subconscious desire to grow up. The Mennyms were created to be a definite age, with respective knowledge and experience; they cannot grow, mature or age; nothing can ever change in their lives. The teenage daughter Appleby celebrated her fifteenth birthday every year. The twins Poppie and Wimpey play nicely with their toys, the baby Googles sleeps in her carriage. The dolls pretend to have tea in the evenings; they make lavish Christmas dinners, but deep inside they know that these are merely make-believe games to compensate the emptiness of their lives. They cannot have any friends outside the family. The central conflict of the story is the young Appleby's revolt against this static, unchanging existence. Desperate to add some color to her gray life, she invents an adventure which the family and the reader believe to begin with. Thus the author poses the eternal questions of what is real and what is fantasy, what is creative imagination and what is meaningless and stupid lies. In the middle of the adventure, which seemingly threatens the family's secure existence, Soobie, the most likable and sensible Mennym, discovers still another, half-finished doll in an attic chest. In order to bring her to life, the mother reads books to her: it is through literature one gains experience. Through the new daughter Pilbeam's awakening the desired changes arrive.

This is a story full of humor and surprises. When so much of today's children's fiction is focused on violence and pain, it feels liberating to read a book about traditional values, about family love, about teenage protest which does not necessarily end in a tragedy, about parents who learn to listen to their children. The fantastic form creates a distance which is necessary to prevent the book from becoming hopelessly sentimental. I am sure that the Mennyms will join Pinocchio, Winnie-the-Pooh and the Borrowers as readers' favorites.

Opsis Kalopsis 1999:1


Clémentine B said...

Oooh I read that!! I'd completely forgotten about it! --> Shelfari :)

Maria Nikolajeva said...

I had forgotten about it. It's good to go back to your archives every now and then.

Julia said...

I love the Mennyms! It's funny now that the baby is called Googles.

Maria Nikolajeva said...

Indeed! I haven't even thought about it.