- Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature by Michelle Ann Abate
Michelle Ann Abate’s most recent monograph explores the “American thirst for murder,” apparent in centuries of the nation’s culture, as it is manifested in children’s literature (1). The book opens by surveying evidence of this national fascination with homicide, cataloging everything from the gruesome plots of colonial-era captivity narratives and twentieth-century murder mysteries to the enthusiasm for real crime stories, as evidenced by the existence of the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast and the collector’s market for crime scene materials called “murderabilia” (5). Bloody Murder highlights the frequency of mortal violence within children’s literature and demonstrates convincingly that the genre’s tales of capital punishment, filicide, teen gang violence, and more occur as often as those in the broader culture; in fact, “popular American children’s literature is both influenced by [the history of homicide] and exerts an influence on it” (25).
This reciprocal relationship makes children’s texts about bloodshed useful artifacts in the study of both American ideas about murder and murderers and concepts of children’s literature itself. First, Bloody Murder exhibits how understandings of homicide have not remained static throughout the history of the United States, nor are they consistent throughout its society; children’s literature reflects these variations. Further, Abate contends, representations of murder, who commits it, how it is explained, and how it is punished convey a store of information about society’s legal, political, and ethical systems. Narrations of murder serve as acculturation tools, instructing readers in how their community comprehends life, justice, criminality, human behavior, and morality. Children’s texts with homicide in their plot lines thus offer scholars an opportunity to investigate the ideologies of a distinct culture and historical moment.
Second, in addition to its investigation of American ideas about lethal violence, Abate’s study has important implications for how we understand children’s literature. Her book not only argues that homicidal themes are pervasive in children’s texts, but also that these issues appear much earlier in the genre’s history than critics typically acknowledge. Contesting the idea that the genre has moved “from innocence to experience” (29), Abate points to the presence of murder and violence in earlier children’s texts, asserting [End Page 295] that “these elements have been present in narratives popular among American youth from the beginning” (29). Abate links her attention to murder with recent studies of trauma in children’s literature, a critical focus that similarly inspects themes of pain and loss. The early nineteenth-century rise of murder culture in the United States, which occurred simultaneously with the development of children’s literature as a distinct genre, can be seen as one prominent source of trauma in children’s texts, though Abate argues that homicide often has narrative effects that differ from those of other kinds of trauma. Bloody Murder is a study of how the popular fascination with murder has been infused into children’s literature and shaped it, even in its earliest works, into a genre crucially invested in instructing young readers in how their society manages matters of violence, death, and crime (31).
Abate’s study spans both works authored by American writers and children’s texts written elsewhere but enjoyed by American audiences. This broader definition of American literature is in line with current critical interest in transnational literary dialogues, and allows Abate to make arguments that will appeal to scholars whose primary interests lie outside American texts. Chapter 1 argues that the Grimm brothers’ “Snow White” remains popular because it “functions as a safety valve for adult fantasies about filicide” (56). Grounding her reading in the history of this crime and on filicidal fantasies in the US, Abate shifts critical focus from a traditional interest in the psychological uses of fairy tales for children toward the meanings they offer adult readers. Her analysis of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in chapter 2 contextualizes the ceaseless execution threats made by...