Tuesday 14 July 2009

I feel weird

Apparently, if I want to read books un-fraught with uncomfortable ideological weirdness, I shouldn't go for the kiddy lit. I picked up The Cricket in Times Square last week during my yard sale road trip extravaganza near Parry Sound. It's one of those classics I managed to miss out on and so I decided to expedite the reading of it.

I read it yesterday and today at the store (interspersed with Henry James - see below for an update!!) and it's made me feel confused and a little upset.

I think the next bit is plot spoilerish
Things didn't start off in a complicated way: The Cricket in Times Square began simply as a story about a country cricket who, through a horrible accident of fate (and as retribution for his covetousness - kidding! sort of), ends up being transported from rural Connecticut to New York City. He's rescued by a boy who works in the subway station at Times Square, where his family owns a newsstand.

Chester cricket likes the boy and quickly makes friends with Tucker and Harry, a mouse and cat, respectively, who also live in the station. Things are going well, if predictably, when Mario (the boy) decides to get Chester a cricket cage, for which he must go to Chinatown.

It's Sunday and so nothing's open except for Sai Fong's novelty shop; at this point, Selden becomes a racist muthafucka for a little bit. I cringed, I winced, I hissed, I covered my eyes. Here's how Sai Fong responds when Mario asks if he has any cricket cages and shows him Chester (up to this point, slumming it in a match box):
"Oh velly good!" said Sai Fong, and a remarkable change came over him. He suddenly became very lively, almost dancing a jig on the sidewalk. "You got clicket! Eee hee hee! Velly good! You got clicket! Hee hee!" (p. 45)
Making Sai Fong imbecilic in the most racially stereotypical way is then counter-balanced by making him seem wise and sage in the other most racially stereotypical way. Having told Mario about the first cricket ever created (by the gods), Sai Fong says (in response to Chester's chirp at a key point in the story) "Ah so...Clicket has understood" (p.50). Oh no you dinn't! You dinn't just drop the "Ah so"!! Oh, but you did, George, you did.

At this point, I almost gave up on The Cricket in Times Square but I decided to see what else it had to offer (plus it's really short) - and it got better. I think this is actually a very good book for the childers when Selden isn't working out some of his issues with Chinese immigrants. In fact, there's one scene near the end of the book that I liked so much I wept a little over it! Chester turns out to be a musical genius and can learn any song by heart just by hearing it once. To make up to Mario and family for almost accidentally burning down their newsstand, he becomes their dancing monkey, providing concerts every day in the subway for thousands of enthralled fans. Indeed, everyone's so quiet one day that his music can be heard above ground (via the grates or something) and something amazing happens. Check it:
Traffic came to a standstill. The buses, the cars, men and women walking - everything stopped. And what was strangest of all, no one minded. Just this once, in the very heart of the busiest of cities, everyone was perfectly content not to move and hardly to breathe. And for those few minutes, while the song lasted, Times Square was as still as a meadow at evening, with the sun streaming in on the people there and the wind moving among them as if they were only tall blades of grass. (p.140)
I'm a little bawl baby, I know. I wouldn't say I like to cry, but it sure happens a lot, even with books I'm not so sure about. But I think the utter impossibility of this moment made me sad. A few years ago, I was walking through the busiest subway stop in Toronto (Yonge and Bloor) on Xmas eve. The buskers that play in the subway here have to be licenced and so are often very good.

One of my favourites - a 40-something man who plays an er hu (I think) - was there playing the most ridiculously beautiful stuff ever (as he does, but he was really going for it that evening). I stopped and listened and actually closed my eyes and when I opened them all I saw was the usual Toronto subway scene: everyone looking pinched and annoyed and hurrying like hell to get somewhere because being where they are is never no good. It made me sad for Torontonians.

My, I am a maudlin one, aren't I? Here's some good news:

HENRY JAMES - T MINUS 106 PAGES and 18 DAYS!!! (As a challenge, this does seem a little ridiculous all of a sudden, given the progress I've made in the past two days - but I've got 2 library books on the way and one in hand and I worry about the lengths I might go to to avoid reading James, even though I always enjoy him. There's just so much of him, and all at once.)


Moony said...

Hmm, sounds like an intriguing read!

And I have something for you on my book blog!

Yuri... said...

I have never heard of this book, but you have piqued my curiosity. When was it written? Can the stereotyped portrayal of the Chinese shop owner be a product of the time?

Bookphilia said...

Thanks, Moony!

Yuri: the book was published around 1960. So, I'm sure context is the source of this but it's still weird.

Speaking of context and kids' book weirdness, I've recently learned that the original Nancy Drew books had to be rewritten because they were apparently quite horribly racist!