Do something! Disciplinary spaces and the ideological work of play in James De Mille's The "B. O. W. C." and Richard Scrimger's Into the Ravine.
[a]dventures of a hundred kinds; drifting about in wild tides; getting lost in dense fogs; running ashore on wide mud flats, or on precipitous cliffs, or on the edge of perilous breakers; landing on lonely headlands, or on solitary islands; penetrating far forests; camping out in wildernesses; living pirate fashion in their own schooner, where all would be given up to them; shooting, fishing; hunting for gulls' nests;--it meant not sham adventures, but real ones--with real dangers environing them instead of fancied ones. (39)
In Confederation-era examples of Canadian adventure stories, a genre noted for its appeal to young male readers, adventure and survival in the wilderness are represented as necessary activities for white, middleclass boys who were to turn into the kinds of successful adult leaders the young nation desired. Notable texts, such as those in De Mille's B. O. W. C. (Brethren of the White Cross) series, functioned as Bildungsromane in which the growth of the protagonists mirrored the transition of the nation from childhood to adolescence, usually achieved after an apprenticeship in the wilderness spaces of the country. Texts produced at this time, such as Catharine Parr Traill's pre-Confederation The Young Emigrants and Canadian Crusoes and Ernest Thompson Seton's later text Two Little Savages, provided young readers with a wilderness playground in which characters could practise the serious business of survival. "[Pjrecipitous cliffs" and "perilous breakers" offered child protagonists the opportunity to practise through trial a way of life that required the qualities of fortitude and perseverance as well as an instinct for outwitting nature. In her work on recent Canadian novels for adolescents, Mavis Reimer observes that "[t]here is significant investment in the idea of the natural in these texts, an idea that is often associated with the wilderness, which has been a conventional setting in Canadian children's literature since the nineteenth century" ("Homing" 9). In Two Little Savages, for instance, twelve-year-old Yan longs to live in the shanty he builds in the woods beyond the established environment of his town (56). The wilderness is frequently coded as a feminine space in adventure novels (O'Malley 70); the "lonely," "solitary" forests of which Bart Damer enthuses are simply awaiting the penetration of young male adventurers. While De Mille's text defines as "real" the masculinized activities of "shooting, fishing, [and] hunting," there is a corresponding zeal for the less active pursuits of "drifting" and "landing," suggesting that in nineteenth-century texts, inactivity is as essential as activity, solitariness as desirable as those adventures "made in company with ... other boys" (40).
For young male heroes of the contemporary adventure novel that remains invested in the natural or wilderness, maturity at the macro level has ostensibly been achieved since the nation has come of age. What is the point, then, of the Bildung or the development of the protagonists in the teleology of the genre? In contrast to De Mille's heroic boys, in Richard Scrimger's 2008 adventure novel, Into the Ravine, preteen suburbanites must be content with "sham adventures," fabricating perils they hope will mitigate their late-summer boredom in a built environment that narrator Jules refers to as a "paved wasteland of strip malls, gang violence, and cookie-utter bungalows" (4). Scrimger's text begs us to ask what happens when young Canadian protagonists find themselves in environments like the suburbs, spaces in which the domestication of the natural and the wild appears to have precipitated a crisis in young men. No longer proximate to an actual wilderness space, young protagonists in contemporary Canadian urban novels published for adult and child audiences are still haunted by the legacy of the Romantic child's search for viable substitutes for the wilderness. (1)
While my analysis of Canadian adventure novels is largely literary, it is also informed by my interest in the representation of children's geographical spaces and the ways they function covertly in literature and culture as disciplinary in the Foucauldian sense, vulnerable to techniques of adult surveillance and narrative power. My understanding of disciplinary power comes from Foucault's notion, in Discipline and Punish, of "an 'integrated' system ... organized as a multiple, automatic and anonymous power" (176). Foucault argues that adventure as a generic concept is implicated in the operations of a disciplinary power; "'adventure' is an account of individuality" (193) that is evident in the transition of literary genres from more collective forms, such as the epic, to singular, solitary genres like the novel. Characterized in the novel by the "internal search for childhood," adventure is also, for Foucault, "inscribed in the formation of a disciplinary society" (193). Foucauldian theory makes possible an interrogation of the ways that adventure genres and the ideologies and human activities associated with them are spatialized within texts. "Thanks to the techniques of surveillance," Foucault argues, "the 'physics' of power, the hold over the body, operate according to the laws of optics and mechanics, according to a whole play of spaces, lines, screens, beams, degrees and without recourse, in principle at least, to excess, force or violence" (177). Notions of surveillance are also implicated in disciplinary or pedagogical reading practices beyond the book. As Reimer reminds us, "[t]he stark terms of the child's choice inside the book also seem a potent tool for the manufacture of the consent of the child outside the book" ("Homing" 13). In other words, adventure novels function to discipline child readers toward an acceptance of normative ideologies that are often associated with a given social or geopolitical space or place.
I want to accomplish in the study of Canadian children's literature, then, what Stuart Aitken achieves in his cultural geography of young people, that is, "to elaborate the different sides of the spatiality that constitutes the construction of young people's identities--their embodiedness and embeddedness--and to relate this to the moral geographies that emanate from ... adult concerns" (11). I seek in this study to make connections between geographical spaces, discipline, and the ideologies invested in representations of children's play and adventure in nineteenth-century and contemporary texts, by focusing on a specific space--the ravine--as representative of other Canadian substitutions for the wilderness. Seeking in the ravine an opportunity for freedom, play, and escape from the homogenizing process of suburbanization, boy characters of contemporary Canadian adventure novels experience Toronto ravines as a complex moral geography shaped by the anxieties and panic of modern adulthood. Through mediated contact with this wild space, characters and readers are enjoined by complex rhetorical strategies to become orderly adolescents who affirm and comply with the white, middle-class, and neo-liberal values of Canadian suburban culture and of the capitalist ideology that was first naturalized and racialized in texts like The "B. O. W. C"
Andrew O'Malley has made note of the ways in which adventure novels and Robinsonnades "have participated in what has conventionally been understood as the masculine-coded ideology of colonial adventure and conquest" (67). Contributions to the field of Canadian children's literature such as O'Malley's chapter in Home Words, Elizabeth Galway's From Nursery Rhymes to Nationhood, and Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman's Picturing Canada establish the important connection between the theme of survival in early English-Canadian children's texts and the dominant ideologies of colonialism, racism, and sexism upon which the nation was founded. (2) I am interested in the development of the relationship of the genre to these themes and ideological imperatives in nineteenth-century and contemporary texts in the shift from colonialism to capitalism as the dominant Canadian ideology, but equally in its continuities and the ways the adventure genre participates in the production and reproduction of foundational discourses that define and naturalize gender-, race-, and class-based hierarchies and inequities in Canadian society. Taking The "B. O. W. C" and Into the Ravine as representative of nineteenth-century and twenty-first-century texts, I suggest that play has a strong rhetorical connection to dominant Canadian ideologies, in that it replaces survival thematically in the transition from "real" to "sham" adventures. The ideological subtexts of novels such as Into the Ravine thus continue to perform a disciplinary function that is tied to the natural spaces in which young protagonists play and in which they begin their transition into adulthood and the world of work and responsibility.
Although he is more widely known for his adult text A Strange Manuscript in a Copper Cylinder (1888), De Mille's Confederation-era boys' adventure novels contribute to our understanding of the roles that sub-genres of children's literature and the figuration of children's play perform in constructions and articulations of Canadian national identity. His work is also notable for its place in the history of series fiction in Canada, given that all his novels were initially serialized in American magazines before being published in book form (Tracy). Narrating the adventures of the "Brethren of the White Cross" in and around the Minas Basin of current-day Nova Scotia, the B. O. W. C. books consisted of the first adventure series to be set in a Canadian location and written by a Canadian-born author. (3) Published in rapid succession from 1869 to 1873, the six volumes in the series were quite popular in their day: The "B. O. W. C": A Book for Boys, Boys of the Grand Pre School, Lost in the Fog, Fire in the Woods, Picked Up Adrift, and The Treasure of the Sea. As Sheila Egoff observes in The Republic of Childhood, "the books had a Canadian schoolboy approach before the British school story became a popular and highly commercialized venture" (245). While Rosemary Auchmuty notes the more "assimilationist ... than radical" (408) tendencies of the school-story genre and its investment in reflecting the values and mores of the rising middle class in Britain, Egoff notes approvingly that De Mille's books were "noticeably free from didacticism, both religious and instructional," perhaps, she suggests, because their author drew from his own experiences as a schoolboy at Horton Academy in Wolfville, Nova Scotia (245). As Minerva Tracy suggests, "Almost all his novels show a delightful sense of humour and parody and a good eye for national absurdities as well as national characteristics." This is as true of his novels for children as it is of those he wrote for an adult audience; in contrast to Egoff, however, I would argue that this does not preclude the books' participation in what Ken Parille calls the "pedagogical culture" surrounding boys and boyhood in nineteenth-century North American texts, which "was obsessed with how to discipline middle-class white boys and the cultural importance of such an act" (xxv).
De Mille's first book in the B. O. W. C. series incorporates generic conventions of both the adventure novel and the school story in its depiction of a small group of boys who embark upon a series of sea adventures during their summer vacation. Bart Damer, the ringleader of De Mille's resourceful group of boys, functions as the ideal of the text: possessing a "restless disposition," he is imaginative, inventive, and resourceful--a "curious compound of intense earnestness and wild levity" (24). Bart diverts his restlessness by channelling it into the B. O. W. C., "the greatest of all his achievements" (25). He thus epitomizes the social qualities of "autonomy," spunk, "pluck and enterprise," the kinds of leadership qualities that, according to Elizabeth Segal, were valued for male subjects of empire and of the rising middle class who were to take their place in the male public sphere associated with the competitive world of industry, commerce, imperialism, and colonialism (517).
The heroes of nineteenth-century adventure novels are thus permitted a certain degree of autonomy consistent with the needs of imperialism. About half-way through the story, a small group of B. O. W. C. boys go adrift alone on a schooner called the Antelope. Although none of them has prior experience with sailing, they all demonstrate pluck and determination by making the best of the situation. Bart, in particular, exemplifies the requisite leadership qualities: recognizing the need for action in spite of his lack of knowledge, he accepts that "he had to take the tiller and assume the responsibility of the situation" (179). Taking action leads to greater confidence for Bart; despite running the schooner ashore accidentally, he manages to prevent a more calamitous collision with a group of jagged rocks. Without adult accompaniment, the boys spend succeeding chapters exploring an island and battling a shark that they slay for their supper. Such are the real rather than the sham adventures necessary for the sons of a newly confederated Canada in a narrative that permits and celebrates, however temporarily, youthful exploration that is free from adult control and supervision.
In contrast, the contemporary boy protagonist is a more protected species than his ancestor. Whether or not he is permitted a meaningful experience within some wilderness settings depends a great deal on the target audience of his narrative. As I argue elsewhere, in the suburban fiction of Margaret Atwood, experiences within the liminal spaces of the ravines of Toronto--however fraught--are vital preconditions for the development of creative and artistic visions, making them unequivocally essential to the formation of her characters as artists or writers coming of age in the post-war landscape of the Canadian suburb. This is also true for the male artist; in Paul Quarrington's The Ravine, forays into this wild space are narrator and writer Phil's "best shot at adventure" (11). When the "sham" adventures are interrupted by "real" traumatic experiences, however, Phil must integrate the painful memories of these childhood ravine experiences before he can complete his novel. In these novels for adults, ravines are often the only spaces in which young protagonists find freedom from the vigilant gaze of adults, making them dangerous yet potentially creative spaces. "In the republic of childhood they represent a savage foreign state," Robert Fulford nostalgically observes in Accidental City, "a place of adventure and terror. A ravine provides a Torontonian's first glimpse of something resembling wilderness; often it is also the earliest intimation of nearby danger. A Toronto child usually learns about the ravines from an anxious parent's warning that evil strangers lurk down there" (37). As insistently vertical spaces that resist the horizontality of suburban development, ravines are hidden, disruptive, ambivalent, transitional, and liminal in texts published for adults.
When produced and marketed for young readers, however, adventure novels seem to transform this concealed, generative space of childhood into a consumable, reproductive space in which the function of adventure is pedagogical. The quest for boyhood adventure in Into the Ravine playfully recalls the picaresque Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as three friends find escape from the scorching heat of their Scarborough neighbourhood one Saturday afternoon in August by building a raft that they float down the ravine toward Lake Ontario. In contrast to the drifting, meandering plots of Twain's adventure novels and the books in the B. O. W. C. series, however, the contemporary journey into the ravine is neatly packaged and brief enough to be consumed in a short period of time. The narrative contains frequent brief "interruptions" that contain Jules's meditations on topics such as "Life," his childhood memories, and "Race" (44, 168). Chapter titles such as "Lots Happens, so You'd Better Pay Attention" (138) function as moral signposts for a presumably distracted audience. It is almost as though the text accommodates the assumed attention span of contemporary boys like Jules's friend Cory, the representative of the modern child with ADHD, who is "special," Jules assures us, "but not the way the teachers use the word, meaning slow" (11).
While the ravine journey is largely a pedagogical event, it occurs in a natural space of potential freedom that Jules characterizes as one that possesses "a split personality" (4). The wild underworld of Scarborough mitigates the cookie-cutter wasteland the boys experience on the land above with its "network of startlingly beautiful ravines ... surrounded by woods, weeds, water, and peace" (4-5). While the wildness of the landscape offers the possibility of freedom, this possibility is challenged somewhat by the disciplinary rhetoric of the adult characters in the text, which directs the child reader's ideological sympathies. Participating in a nostalgic representation of this natural space as a respite from the city and as a republic of children and the disenfranchised, Ernesto the "dwarf hobo" tells our heroes:
Only two kinds of people make the ravine their world. Children are one kind. They come down in the morning and stay all day, season after season, catching, climbing, growing--creating worlds where they make the rules.... The other kind of people who live in the ravine ... are the ones like me. Vagrants. Hoboes. Traveling men. Whatever you call us. Like children, we escape from the city and make our world down here. (80-81)
Ernesto and his band of homeless men join forces with the boys as they become engaged in a territorial battle over the ravine that pits them against a band of upper-middle-class bullies. Ostensibly, the creek promises adventure and freedom from the homogenizing impulse of suburbia and an alternative vision of community to that of the stereotypical middleclass NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) suburbs. In the pedagogical culture of the text, however, the sincerity of this offer depends a great deal on the lessons the boys will learn during their adventure. According to Reimer, ideological "consent is secured ... as the child reader outside the book enacts membership in an affiliative community like the one privileged inside the book, by agreeing with the adult author outside the book who guarantees the truth of the story" ("Homing" 13). The nuances of relationality that the text depicts between the boys and the homeless men of the ravine also determine the extent to which the child outside the text accepts members of this fringe community into the mainstream of suburbia.
Adventure novels of both the nineteenth century and the contemporary period ensure, through their representation of the child characters' relationships with disenfranchised others of their community, how belonging to a national or other geographical community will be determined. While belonging in Scrimger's text appears to be defined primarily by the characters' positions within or outside the vaguely delineated middle class, the racialized character Solomon in The "B. O. W. C" is permitted limited participation in the adventure and usually remains in the feminized domestic space of the Grand Pre school kitchen. Early in the book, readers are introduced to the "aged African" cook who arrives on the scene absent of history, a blank screen upon which readers are encouraged to project desires for a pliant playmate. Given the ironically playful title the children give him of "The Grand Panjandrum," which the OED Online defines as "a mysterious (freq. imaginary) personage of great power or authority; a pompous or pretentious official; a self-important person in authority," Solomon is further described using terms that clearly identify him as the clown of the text:
The Grand Panjandrum was an aged gentleman of color, whose wrinkled face was enlivened by an irrepressible comicality of expression, which not even the solemnity of this occasion could quell. He was arrayed in a college cap and gown, with a Master's red hood and long bands. His face was a study. He was evidently doing his best to exhibit the deepest solemnity of expression, but his droll, keen, twinkling eyes darted furtively about, with an intense relish of the scene before him, and his efforts at gravity were sadly disturbed by the broad grin which, from time to time, would flash out irrepressibly over the dark background of his face. After a few furtive glances, he bowed; and then, with an audible chuckle, he awaited further proceedings. (13-14)
As Solomon "await[s] further proceedings," it becomes quite apparent that his function is solely for the amusement of the characters and the readers, a role his "audible chuckle" suggests he plays willingly. In the insular, exclusive world of the Brethren of the White Cross, moreover, Solomon is permitted entry only because his race and his role as servant place him in a lower position in terms of class, but also in relation to the child-adult hierarchy.
In spite of his apparent willingness, Solomon has little agency in the boys' games of make-believe. In one scene, we encounter him "seated high and dry in an old arm-chair," the "venerable figure ... in his robes of office, that is to say, his office of Perpetual Grand Panjandrum" (32). Again, we find him dressed in the old robes and hood of the master of the school, his humour located in his mimicry of a social position he most certainly cannot attain. Curiously, given his prominence in the school and as a framing device for the narrative, Solomon is tellingly absent from the illustrations of the novel. While all other significant adult characters (such as Captain Corbet and teachers Mr. Long and Mr. Simmons) are depicted visually, Solomon is rendered culturally and socially unrepresentable, mirroring the untold history of Black settlers in nineteenth-century Nova Scotia. When he plays to the audience, cracking his whip, readers take on faith the promises of the narrator that "[t]he noise, the laughter, and the joking were wonderful" as the procession moves through Grand Pre for the amusement of the teachers.
Katharine Capshaw Smith argues that, in the children's literature of the nineteenth century, "the racialized character becomes the site through which white children play out their suppressed desire to dominate, confine, and exploit the 'other'" (191). While the racialized role of clown is one Mark Twain would satirize for American fiction sixteen years later in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a comparison of De Mille's Solomon and Twain's Jim suggests that De Mille's text is far less encouraging of critical reflection in its representation of racialized characters, despite the fact that both writers were satirists. Like Solomon, Jim endures a prolonged role as plaything when Tom Sawyer convinces Huck that an elaborate rescue attempt is required to free Jim from slavery, despite Tom's knowledge that Miss Watson has already given Jim his freedom. Certainly, Huck's motives have been much debated by literary critics (see Seelye), but Twain ensures that Tom's are clear to readers when he justifies his actions: "Why, I wanted the adventure of it," Tom explains, implicating in his egocentric pursuit of play his voracious consumption of adventure novels (365). The moral economy of the novel thus links race and play to what Parille identifies as a strong "metanarrative on reading" in Twain's work when he suggests that "Twain advocates a form of literacy in which boys replay the adventure narratives they consume" (92). While Parille regards Twain's advocacy of play through reading as one that offers readers a liberatory model of reading, I would argue that this is problematized in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by the fact that Tom's excessive romanticism and selfish desire to recreate scenes of adventure puts Jim's freedom, indeed his life, in jeopardy. No such critical reflection is invited by the narrative perspective offered by the whimsical description of the adventurous procession Solomon heads in The "B. O. W. C." Given that he merely plays at being an adult figure of authority, it becomes quite clear that racialized bodies are the playthings, never the players, in the economy of Canadian adventure novels and nation building.
Equally problematic in Scrimger's novel is the depiction of its only racialized character, Chris, who is relegated to the position of sidekick in spite of his apparent leadership qualities and Jules's admission that Chris "is the real hero of this story" (3). Interestingly, Jules reveals with some ambivalence near the end of Into the Ravine in his "Quick Interruption Number 3--Race" that his friend is Black. "I thought about telling you before," he confesses, "but didn't want to seem racist. Now it's like I've been saving it up to surprise you, which is racist too, because would I have saved the fact that he was white? Crap. You can go crazy with this stuff" (170-71). Curiously, Jules does not save the revelation of his other sidekicks' racial or ethnic identifications--in fact, they are never revealed--leaving us to assume that this means they are indeed a shade of whiteness that does not make our narrator uncomfortable. Putting aside some of the obvious stereotypes connected to Chris's character--he is the athletic kid and the sexualized object of an older, predatory mother's erotic desires--there is the more troubling denial to Chris of autonomous self-identification. As Sara Shahsiah reminds us, experiences of racialization among youth in Canada suggest that "autonomous self-identification appears less attainable because societal processes and dominant public discourse deploy skin colour as the marker to justify differential identities onto unconsenting people" (4). Even if he is not forced to play the clown as Solomon does, at no point does the narrative provide Chris the opportunity to decide if and when to self-identify, nor is his racial identity ever acknowledged as inconsequential or incidental to the story in the same way that whiteness is. (4)
The gendering of wilderness spaces in nineteenth-century and contemporary Canadian adventure novels plays as important a role as race in the ideological work such texts perform, reproducing a normative discourse that denotes it as a privileged space for white boys who are presumed to be the future leaders of Canadian capitalist society. There are few women in De Mille's The "B. O. W. C."; their very presence in a landscape coded as feminine is an impossibility, suggesting that the feminizing influence of women--particularly mothers--might impede the acquisition of masculine mastery over the natural world. As O'Malley demonstrates, there is a tension between colonialist and domestic ideology in pre-Confederation examples of the Robinsonnade, a genre that is related ideologically to the adventure novel. Traill's Canadian Crusoes, for example, permits the participation of a young woman in the adventures of three children lost in the wilderness. Her unquestionably domestic role is to build shelters and provide nourishment for the group as she also takes on the responsibility of converting an indigenous child to Christianity. The domestication of the Canadian wilderness is represented in De Mille's text as a refusal of the masculine call to adventure, as when the captain who is to steer the boys' ship is discovered nursing a child, much to the consternation of the teacher of the Grand Pre school:
Arriving there, they entered, and beheld a scene which so overpowered Mr. Long that for a time he could not speak. For there in his kitchen, in a high-backed chair, in front of his own hearth-stone,--there sat the identical Captain Corbet for whom so many had been waiting so long. He held an infant in his manly arms, he was gently tilting his chair to and fro, and tenderly feeding his prattling innocent with a spoon. So intent was he upon his tender task, that he did not hear the entrance of his excited pursuers. (47-48)
Captain Corbet's transgression of nineteenth-century gender ideology is rendered comic, and his readers are reassured that the arms holding the infant remain "manly." Mr. Long's indignation is clear, however, when he asks, "Where's Mrs. Corbet? It's her place to mind the child--your place is on board the vessel" (49). As for the American Huckleberry Finn, then, adventure for young Canadian boys of the nineteenth century is as much about escape from feminine domesticity as it is a movement toward adventure, an activity coded as masculine.
For Scrimger's young male narrator, the ravine is the suburban Huck Finn's frontier, offering not only the opportunity for adventure but, more importantly, an escape from the civilizing projects of overbearing maternal figures. Jules's mother is reminiscent of the overzealous Widow Douglas, represented throughout the narrative as a force that even his father is "afraid of" (46) and as an interruption in Jules's movement from boyhood to manhood as she projects "all her caring and worrying" on him after his older sister moves out (14). Early in the narrative, she worries over her son and his friends, reminding them to call their mothers and ensuring they comply with the mores of polite society by washing their hands and faces. Interrupting the boys' progress down the creek, she calls frequently on Jules's cellphone to ensure they are safe. At the other extreme is Cory's mother, so burdened by the fruits of her excessive fertility that she is neglectful, and there is no male partner in the home to influence her son's masculine development. As Jules explains, "There always seemed to be a new baby around Cory's place, but I have never seen any men. I've taken health education, so I know this isn't right" (17). Only in the ravine can the boys experience the freedom to do nothing, making part of its appeal the freedom to be away from adult surveillance--most particularly, the scrutiny of mothers. The boys find "sanctuary" and imaginative possibility in "a shallow cave in the ravine at the bottom of our backyards," as Jules tells us (5). Jules goes to the cave to write, although his mother's voice frequently interrupts the narrative he is composing of his adventures. The text represents her as an infantilizing influence that impedes Jules's development into a man, as when she says, "Good night, little Jules. Mommy loves you," while he is writing (240).
Jules and his sidekicks must frequently find temporal and spatial escape from women, initiating themselves into adolescence from within the liminal spaces of the ravines of Scarborough. Dubbed "Dun Killin," short for "Dun Killin Zombies," the cave is what geographer Denis Wood refers to as one of the "hidden spaces of childhood" where doing nothing can be generative: "Doing nothing is filling. Doing nothing is an unfolding of things to do" (9). The control of activity is, as Foucault argues, a technique of disciplinary power; in his discussion of the emergence of the timetable, for instance, he notes that it was informed by the "principle of non-idleness: it was forbidden to waste time, which was counted by God and paid for by men; the time-table was to eliminate the danger of wasting it--a moral offence and economic dishonesty" (154). For a couple of pages, away from the anxious eyes of their mothers, the boys are permitted moments of idleness in which to do nothing--they skip stones and imagine invading Italy or Pickering, the suburb next to Scarborough (8). That doing nothing is perceived as a threat to the spatial control of adults (and, more specifically, of women) becomes clear when the boys encounter an old woman walking her dog in a park in the ravine. "It's wonderful to be doing something, isn't it?" she exclaims. "On a Saturday in the summer, every child should be doing something!" (31).
Adult control over time and space within the novel extends to the temporal and spatial progression of the narrative as well. In contrast to the B. O. W. C. boys who experience a degree of autonomy consistent with the needs of nation building, or the chief characters in adult-oriented Bildungsromane who are also permitted a degree of freedom from adult surveillance necessary for their creative development, Scrimger's protagonists enter the relative freedom of the ravine under a surrogate disciplinary gaze--that of the author--who subtly mediates their spatial experiences. While doing nothing is tolerated temporarily, even celebrated in the enclosed space of the cave, idleness is subversive of adult disciplinary power, for it disrupts the teleology of the adventure story. Once Jules, Chris, and Cory decide to build their raft, their narrative, like their journey, must have a point, a destination. As the creek takes them south toward Lake Ontario, the boys move toward the ends of their childhoods. As Ernesto observes, "you're almost too old for the ravine, aren't you? You've already left your own part--the part you know. The creek is your childhood, and you are following it to where it ends" (80).
Scrimger's protagonists are what Reimer calls "mobile subjects," a term whose meaning shifts at different historical moments but that she associates with the "ideological project of economic and cultural globalization" as it "define[s] the subject of privilege" in Canadian children's literature and in Canadian culture more broadly ("Homing" 22-23). While the raft and the creek contrast the more immobile, confining spaces of suburban homes and subdivisions, they also function in opposition to the swiftly moving cars on the expressway. Jules describes his sanctuary as a space where he can experience the "vast, quiet emptiness of nature--quiet that is, except for the hum of the expressway in the distance" (6). In the symbolic economy of the text, the home and the expressway function as symbols of class privilege and cultural capital typically reserved for adults; they are the material rewards for the sacrifice of the childhood pleasure of generative idleness. Like the cave, the raft functions as a liminal space that permits the boys to appear subversively to be doing something as they meander toward the ends of their childhood. It also lessens adult anxiety over the excessive mobility of suburban adolescents who are growing up too fast and adult fears that children may prolong the state of doing nothing while still assuming the entitlements of class and adulthood.
While the end of childhood may be spatially defined in this text as precisely located where the creek meets Lake Ontario, its chronological definition is ambiguous, disrupting the adult-child hierarchy and its attendant system of adult privilege. Much of the moral panic that defines childhood culturally and in the text is governed by a representation of modern teenage males as disorderly and dangerous, what Aitken refers to as "unchildlike children" who seem to assume entitlement to the privileges and material signifiers of adulthood without its responsibilities, particularly in relation to work (147). For Jules and his friends, the dangers lurking in the ravine do not come from the "derelicts" or "perverts" their parents fear, but from their peers: older teens and bullies from the wealthier neighbourhoods of Scarborough who take advantage of the relative freedom of the space from adult authority. Contrary to classist and racist media representations of the so-called gang problem of Scarborough that demonize economically disadvantaged and Black youth, Scrimger's text represents upper-middle-class white males as the entitled terrorists wreaking havoc on suburbia.
In contrast to the institutional space of the boarding school in The "B. O. W. C" and to stereotypical suburban communities, Scarborough is not homogenously white or middle class. While the chief characters of Scrimger's text are all more or less middle class, it does acknowledge variations of class affiliation as his protagonists' trip down the ravine allows them to become tourists, to see Scarborough from different perspectives. (5) They witness the "Elgin Street Bike Drop," a Saturday ritual in a less affluent section of town where young people drop bicycles into the ravine below simply because "there isn't much for young people to do" (6). Elgin Street contrasts with the wealthier neighbourhoods that overlook the ravine, where, as Jules observes, the houses "were better than ours in every way: wider, taller, cleaner. The trees were leafier, the flower beds brighter, the lawns greener, the tree houses and swing sets more elaborate. There were swimming pools, and tennis courts, and pergolas.... We stared like tourists" (37). Such varying degrees of wealth do not mitigate the homogeneity of the suburban landscape, however. To Jules, "viewing all these mansions in a row made them seem less impressive, not more. Lined up like cans of salmon, they seemed to lose their value. There was a sameness to them and a seemingly infinite supply" (37). As the journey progresses and the boys accumulate experiences with the upper middle class, those at the top of the hierarchy seem to become more and more ridiculous--conveyed, for example, by the self-flushing toilet in one household that asks its users if they are finished (49).
Just as Huck and Jim encounter increasing degrees of social and moral corruption the farther they travel up the Mississippi, Jules and his friends experience morally questionable elements of their society with each landing they make, related in each instance to the rich. The farther south they go, the more monstrous and menacing the homes become: "Manicured lawns, cobbled driveways, and perfectly enormous homes. The monster across the street had a turret and slit windows, and a metal fence with spikes to stick the heads of your enemies on" (148). Monster houses produce monster children. Scrimger's gang of bullies are spoiled, indulged, undisciplined rich kids with absentee parents; at one home, Jules observes, "the only voices these two kids heard belonged to the TV and the toilet" (51). Those that are present (and therefore morally suspect) are typically single mothers, including Jasmine's mother, who tries to seduce Jules's friend Chris.
For all its sympathetic portrayal of modern boyhood, then, this text is equally haunted by a crisis of boyhood masculinity that is projected as a fear of unruly, disaffected young male adolescents whose mimicry of and sense of entitlement to adult privilege make them "unchildlike" children. Jules observes that the gang members seem to have skipped adolescence, moving directly into a state resembling adulthood, associated with the material privileges of a middle class that is upwardly mobile economically, socially, and culturally, as signified by their access to that material symbol of suburban mobility--the car: "They can drive. They're practically grown-ups and we're just kids," Jules tells us (227). Interestingly, what makes them dangerous and unchildlike is their autonomy and mobility, qualities endorsed for young men in nineteenth-century texts and, as Reimer argues, for the subjects of Canadian children's literature and globalization ("Homing" 23). That the Scarborough "Bonesaw gang" is composed of conforming members of the upper middle class is made evident by the uniformity of their outerwear--in this case, baseball jackets--that functions as a sign of their material privilege (52). They prey on the vagrants who make the ravine their home, largely in response to the boredom their landscape and privilege precipitate. Their most problematic behaviour is inspired by their territoriality over the ravine, a territoriality modelled by the adults of their community, who frequently admonish Jules and his friends for trespassing on their property, the ultimate crime in a space governed by the sanctity of property ownership.
For all their resistance to the homogenizing process of suburban culture, the purpose of the journey for Jules and his friends must be, in this moral geography, a repudiation of disruptive, potentially violent, unchildlike behaviour. Once they set out on the raft, they are no longer doing nothing, and when Cory is kidnapped by the Bonesaw gang, it is doing something about it that is the only choice that will bring a desirable end to their childhoods--and to the moral panic haunting the text. "Written as they are by adults," Reimer argues of children's and young adult literature, "the emphasis on the child's choice suggests a recognition at several levels of the central importance of children to the reproduction of societal consensus. It is, of course, literally true that the consent of children will determine the replication of the terms of the dominant ideology into the future." Into the Ravine shares the project of earlier texts for children, which is, as Reimer argues, "to produce the subject needed by dominant ideology to reproduce itself" ("Homing" 13). The end of childhood must mean for Jules and his friends a development into orderly, suburban "every boys" who will transition successfully into the dominant neo-liberal and middle-class values of Canadian society by the end of their journey down the ontologically unstable space of the ravine; consumable and reproductive, this space must become in the economy of the novel the "sham" substitution for the "real" wilderness of its nineteenth-century textual progenitors. The spatial transition highlights the terms of coming of age to the child within and outside the text: their complicity with some of the less overt forms of racism, classism, and misogyny associated with modern suburban culture and, simultaneously, the repudiation of the values and behaviours of the privileged, affluent, and white upper middle class that the text has coded as more offensive and unruly.
What becomes evident as we compare the progression of the Canadian adventure novel from The "B. O. W. C" to Into the Ravine is the increasing emphasis on individuality. As Foucault suggests,
In a disciplinary regime ... individualization is "descending": as power becomes more anonymous and more functional, those on whom it is exercised tend to be more strongly individualized; it is exercised by surveillance rather than ceremonies, by observation rather than commemorative accounts, by comparative measures that have the "norm" as reference rather than genealogies giving ancestors as points of reference; by "gaps" rather than by deeds. In a system of discipline, the child is more individualized than the adult. (193)
While only Bart is distinguishable from the rest of the boys in De Mille's text, each protagonist in Scrimger's represents a type of modern child whose individual skills or talents contribute to making a successful team: as Jules quips, each of them takes turns being "the man" (207). Jules is the boy who talks his way out of scrapes; he represents his verbal skills as being akin to that of a snake charmer, eventually becoming the self-appointed narrator of their collective experiences (57). Chris is the athletic leader and the token Black Canadian character. Cory is the creative, imaginative, but vulnerable ADHD child whose gullibility makes him easy prey for the Bonesaw gang. As each boy learns to use his particular talent in the confrontations of the group with the bullies of the ravine, the conflict becomes a simplistic battle between good and evil, the Romantic child and the Delinquent Child: "Yes, it was an old-fashioned fight," Jules muses. "Good guys and bad guys. Rafters and Bonesaws. We had right and justice on our side, but so what? They were stronger" (235).
The lives of the homeless men who are the only other constituents in this "republic of childhood" function as cautionary tales for characters and readers alike, highlighting the fact that doing nothing is a privilege of middle-class Canadian childhood and exemplifying the perils of allowing this state to extend beyond childhood. Jules learns to feel compassion for the vagrants he once feared, but not to emulate their nonconformity. Charity has its rewards: the fact that the boys shared their homemade cookies becomes a gesture that ensures the vagrants will repay the favour with assistance during the final confrontation with the Bonesaw gang. As Miriam, Jules's love interest, explains, Ernesto helps her find the boys because "[h]e seemed to think he owed you a favour" (251). What the boys come to learn during their journey, then, are lessons in individualism and self-interest that will serve them well when they enter the world of capitalism and corporate work.
Once they make the transition from doing nothing to doing something, our heroes' sham adventures transform into the real dangers so coveted by the Brethren of the White Cross a century ago. Of course, the good guys win, rendering the ravine a moral, disciplinary geography in which the civilizing project of mothers--and the homogenizing process of the suburbs--is replaced by the subtle control and manipulation of the adult creator of the text. Unaccompanied though they are by an actual adult (except, briefly, the "dwarf hobo" Ernesto, who is infantilized by his diminutive stature and vulnerability just as Solomon before him was infantilized as Black), the boys rely on their official map of the ravine and on their Outdoor Survival Guide, texts that represent the authority of adults and their mastery over space, to direct the choices they make during their adventure. (6) Their journey is carefully manipulated to ensure that the disruptive, generative play of doing nothing transforms into a more productive form of play necessary for participation in the workforce. In this sense, contemporary Canadian adventure novels reproduce the pedagogical project of American books for boys of the nineteenth century, which Parille argues was to code work as more pleasurable than "careless pursuits" (2). The movement away from boyhood thus entails an acceptance of their positions as contributing members of a capitalist society, predetermined by their individual talents, but requiring a willingness to turn their liabilities into strengths. Jules, Chris, and even Cory will all find their place as team players in the corporate world of work.
"What are the obligations of living a certain geography?" asks Ellen Meloy in The Anthropology of Turquoise (14). When the Brethren of the White Cross return to Grand Pre Academy readied by their experiences to become the future leaders of the young nation, they are received by a deferential Solomon whose welcoming speech is reduced to a "prolonged and unintelligible hubble-bubble" (322) that renders Black Canadians audibly as well as visibly unrepresentable in the new Canada. De Mille's novel ends with Solomon receiving the B. O. W. C. in the dining room, where he attends subserviently to the needs of the adventurers, making clear his position within the hierarchies of age, class, and race: "They had luxuriated in the bath, and Solomon had prepared for them the banquet. He had surpassed himself. His genius had invented new dishes expressly for the occasion, and the B. O. W. C. ate, and were refreshed" (322). It is a symbolically significant moment in the history of Canadian children's adventure novels, making clear which bodies were obliged to enjoy the privileges of empire and capitalism and which obliged to serve.
While equally problematic in its reproduction of ageist, racist, and classist ideologies in modern Canadian society, Scrimger's text is redeemed somewhat by its conclusion, by the boys' desire to go beyond the map, to be mobile subjects drifting in an indeterminate, ambiguous, liminal space not subject to the mediation of adult concerns or moral panics, however well intentioned. "That raft had taken us a long way," Jules reflects, "much farther than the map would show" (254). Just as Aitken insists on a moral geography that recognizes a child's right to "inaction," to indulge in play that is more than practice for adulthood, as well as the necessity for resisting spatial oppression, so too must contemporary genres of young people's literature relinquish control of the hidden spaces of childhood. "Giving young people space is more than giving them room to play," Aitken argues; "it is giving them the opportunity for unchallenged and critical reflection on experiences" (180). What remains to be seen, however, is just how much farther beyond the maps of their own ideological concerns adult producers and publishers of Canadian texts for young people are willing to go.
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(1) For example, Torontonians such as Margaret Atwood's Joan in Lady Oracle and Elaine in Cat's Eye, as well as Barbara Gowdy's Louise in The Romantic and Paul Quarrington's Phil in The Ravine, all seek childhood experiences with the natural in the ravine spaces of their communities.
(2) I am also indebted to Annette Wannamaker's Boys in Children's Literature and Popular Culture and to Joseph A. Kestner's Masculinities in British Adventure Fiction, 1880-1915 for helping me ground Canadian examples of the genre and the implications of gender in a global context.
(3) De Mille's other boys' series, the Young Dodge Club (1871-77), was set in Europe and narrated the adventures of a group of young American travellers.
(4) The racialization of play has certainly yet to receive the attention it deserves in the field of Childhood Studies. As Dionne Brand and Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta argue, "Children of colour grow up quickly; they have to, because the adult figures of authority they encounter all too often do not see their youth, their childhood, they see only their colour. The children's play, horsing around on a bus or in the subway, is seen by the bus driver, the white passengers, the white society, not for what it is--play--but as behaviour characteristic of the children's race" (277).
(5) In spite of the critique of conspicuous consumption in the novel and its suspicion of wealth and entitlement, class is rather ambiguously defined and determined. Jules, Chris, and Cory are all from the same neighbourhood, suggesting their families share a common class identification. As Jules explains, geographically "[o]ur subdivision is about in the middle" (21), a location that seems to connote its position within the imprecise class organization of Scarborough as well. Chris's parents are working professionals. While Jules's mother does not work outside the home, his father works for "a company" that occasionally holds "barbecues" for its employees (2). Cory's single-parent family is the only one who is more precariously middle class, as vaguely signified by the fact that "[h]is backyard always looked beat up" and by the presence of an indeterminate number of children (17).
(6) In his acknowledgments, Scrimger cites Peter Darman's militaristic The Survival Handbook of 1994 as an influence on the handbook that guides his protagonists, drawing our attention to the legacy of colonialist ideology from nineteenth-century to contemporary adventure novels.
Cheryl Cowdy is an Assistant Professor of Children's Studies in the Department of Humanities at York University. Her current research explores the relationship between cultural change and reading practices in multimedia and transmedia texts. She has published most recently in Bookbird and in Global Studies of Childhood.
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|Publication:||Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2013|
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