Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Pull of the Ocean

Mourlevat, Jean-Claude. 2006. The Pull of the Ocean.

Recently won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award for 2007.

To be honest, which I always am but I like to use prefaces, I never would have read this title if it hadn't just won an award. First of all, I wouldn't have known it existed. Second, if I had seen it on the shelf and been curious enough to pull it out to read the back cover, I probably would have placed it right back on the shelf. The book flap (side flap) reads: that The Pull of the Ocean is a 'social fable' and 'a modern reinterpretation of 'Tom Thumb' that deftly gives life to memorable characters and explores resonating themes. Which leads me to make this point: if someone has to tell you that a book has 'memorable' characters right on the bookcover that tends to make me suspicious. Don't get me wrong, it's fine with classic novels that have been around a generation or two...but for a 2006 book to flaunt or assert how wonderfully memorable the characters are leaves me with a certain degree of doubt. Furthermore to be told that a book 'explores' resonating themes is very condescending. Like a reader can't judge for him/herself that a book has 'memorable' characters and explores 'resonating' themes??? It's like someone is warning you: you SHOULD like this book because it is smart and clever and a social fable. And saying if you don't like this book it is because you're just not smart enough to 'get it.'

But putting aside certain prejudices, after all I don't know who is responsible for the book flap nonsense it could have been a perfectly fine book, I read the book practically in one sitting.

The book is about a young boy, a midget or dwarf, who has six older brothers--three sets of twins. They are very poor. Their situation is desperate. Their father and mother are too poverty-stricken, too stressed, too everything to care about the emotional needs of their children. Particularly their youngest child whom they openly despise because he is different. They blame him for not only being different but they use him as a scape goat. It's okay to verbally abuse him and treat him horribly because he deserves it. He asks for it. I'm a good parent. Really. If he didn't go around thinking he was 'better' than everyone else because he can read and write...then I wouldn't have to smack him around. Some of the twins are nice. Some are violent like their father. But it is the youngest, Yann, the one small enough to fit in a sack who is considered 'wise beyond his years' and 'respected and revered' despite his size and age.

The story is told through many voices. Voices of the young and old. Male and female. All walks of life. The story is one of a young boy leading his brothers on a journey far from home. He wakes them up in the middle of the night with a threat: I just heard Dad say he was going to kill all seven of us tomorrow. Their journey is not an easy one. They listen to Yann and trust Yann no matter what he leads them into.

If this character is supposed to inspire affection from the reader...it falls short. He is not an inspiration. Don't get me wrong. He shouldn't be picked on because he is small. He shouldn't be picked on because he likes to read. But he isn't a likeable character either. He does not talk. The book leaves the reader with the idea that his muteness is one of choice. He doesn't want to communicate with his family, his parents. They allude to the fact that he expresses everything that needs to be said with his eyes. Is the fact that he's a mute midget supposed to make him a hero who can do no wrong??? Not in my eyes.


He is a liar. The father was not going to kill him or his brothers. He was going to kill a stray cat and her kittens. If you're struggling to feed seven children should you be expected--on a farm in the country--to provide nourishment and care for stray animals? Apparently, Yann equated the death of cats with a certain amount of cruelty that he felt was intolerable. He would not try to stay in a house with a man who would 'take care' of strays in this manner. True his parents hated him. True they were abusive in the past. True the kids probably deserved a better homelife...but to reward his lies and make him a hero???? He's a liar. He's a thief.

If this is a social fable I fail to see what the message is...

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