- Cinderella’s Stepsisters, Traumatic Memory, and Young People’s Writing
The Children’s Literature Association’s 2015 conference took place in Richmond, Virginia, in the United States, and was hosted by Longwood University with additional sponsorship from the University of Richmond. Adrienne Kertzer delivered the Francelia Butler lecture, the keynote academic talk of the conference, and considered the conference theme of “‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!’: The High Stakes and Dark Sides of Children’s Literature” through responses to that darkness, especially trauma and trauma studies.
In taking my title from David Rudd’s comment that “sometimes children’s literature critics adopt . . . tactics reminiscent of the stepsisters in Cinderella, trying to shoehorn texts into ill-fitting footwear” (57), I do not intend to portray such critics as evil and deluded. Rudd’s analogy proves useful to my project for different reasons. Just as a resistant Cinderella might depict the heroine’s stepsisters (and the prince) as learning that there is no ideal shoe size, understanding the widely disparate ways trauma circulates in young people’s writing requires a similar perspective. No one-size-fits-all theory can capture the contradictions in this circulation, and it is these contradictions that interest me, for they highlight the very different ways we conceptualize not just trauma, but the subject and the readers of our field.
My paper has four parts. In the first, I outline some of the assumptions and definitions we bring to our reading of trauma. In the second, I explore the ongoing debates outside our field about the nature of traumatic memory. I do so because these debates inform the different approaches to traumatic memory in two YA novels, Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, the focus of part three. In the final part, I examine Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s multiple retellings of her Canadian [End Page 1] residential school experience, paying particular attention to the different theoretical perspective these retellings invite.
How Do We Recognize Trauma?
What do we mean when we talk about trauma? Many today regard flashbacks as a common symptom of trauma, yet shell shock victims in World War One hardly ever referred to symptoms that we might categorize as flashbacks. Just as an analysis of British military records does not confirm our contemporary view of dominant traumatic symptoms (McNally, What 152–53), not all children’s books that critics discuss as trauma writing adopt the temporal structure that enables flashbacks.1 We may believe that it goes without saying that novels set during the Holocaust are inherently traumatic,2 but while a novel like Gudrun Pausewang’s The Final Journey is deeply disturbing—it begins with the heroine crammed into a truck and concludes with her about to die of asphyxiation in a gas chamber—precisely because the heroine does not survive, Pausewang cannot explore the intrusive, repeated memories that so many now view as characteristic of trauma. The Final Journey conceptualizes trauma as event; it does not represent trauma as memory.
Some critics are very clear about what they mean by trauma and the many terms for which traumatic serves as an adjective. Eric L. Tribunella defines traumatic loss “as the enforced sacrifice of persons or objects that produces a psychical injury in the child who experiences the loss” (xiv). Regarding such trauma as “an enabling injury” (xiv), he suggests that the proliferation of trauma in American realist children’s literature is directly related to how “it has become increasingly difficult for many children to experience traumatic loss in their ordinary environments” (xxvii). The proliferation, he speculates, reveals a cultural belief that “children need trauma” (xxvii). This cultural belief not only excludes those child readers who experience traumatic loss in their ordinary environments; Tribunella’s provocative claim also conflicts with those in our field who worry about readers’ being traumatized by what they read. One of the contested questions is who benefits from these texts: are they readers with no personal experience of trauma or are they readers who have their own experiences of trauma?
In asking what we mean by trauma, I have several fundamental questions in mind. First, when...