Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Part I: Mothers and Daughters

A review/analysis of Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst

(Go here for the Intro and links to Part II and beyond.)

One of the things I've noticed lately is that when movies and TV shows want to depict a meaningful but complex relationship between a parent and an adult/older child, the parent is almost always a father. At least outside of "chick flicks," anyway. (In fact, that rather seems to be the definition of a "chick flick" - a movie that is about the relationships between women, rather than the relationships that men have.)

I think that part of the reason that a lot of girls and women are drawn to fairy tales is because the opposite is true. While the characters in traditional fairy tales are often one dimensional and not always the best representations of women, the relationships in fairy tales tend to include a lot of mothers. Cinderella, Hansel and Gretal, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty...while the mother figure is often an evil one, at least she is there, making the stories usually about girls with mommy issues, not boys with daddy issues.

Sometimes there are even other adult women - good and bad - who figure prominently in the story. And they aren't all bad; in Little Red Riding Hood, it is Red's positive relationships with the adult women in her life that provides the catalyst needed for the story to start. (Despite the paternalistic tone of the version most of us grew up with.)

WARNING - massive spoilers below the cut!

Her mom smiled, and Julie grinned back. And for an instant, everything was ok.

The same is true of Into the Wild. Julie's story begins with Julie having to deal with being her mother's daughter and how that isn't always easy. Julie also accepts the call to adventure solely because of her emotional ties to her mother, Rapunzel, and her grandmother. And as we all know, it was Rapunzel's mother who provided the conflict needed for her story to begin as well . While not important to the plot of the story, this tidbit makes it clear that Julie's relationship with Zel, although special, is not unique. Julie's story is part of a larger pattern, and this connection to the cycle of mothers and daughters makes her journey more meaningful, not less so.

So it's no surprise that Sarah Beth Durst dedicated the story to her mother and her daughter. In interviews, Durst has talked about free will being one of the main themes of the book, and it is. The relationships between women is another one. Throughout the story, female friends of Julie and Zel act as helpers and guides, and the relationship between Julie and her mother is central to the action that takes place.

Zel sighed. Sometimes she understood why her own adoptive mother had locked her in a tower. It was hard to watch the person she loved more than her own life grow distant. Each time her daughter rolled her eyes at her, Zel felt her heart twist. She didn't want to wait nine or ten years for Julie to like her again.

Durst does a very good job of not only showing the conflict between Julie, who just wants to fit in, and Rapunzel, who is afraid of losing her daughter to the abyss of teenager's inner turnoil, but also of depicting it in such a way as to make both characters sympathetic to readers of all ages. While most of the story is shown from Julie's point of view, the entire second chapter is spent shadowing Rapunzel instead as she goes about her daily routine at the Salon. This not only provides some necessary world building, as Julie's understanding of the Wild and the past is patchy at best, it also allows kids to step into Rapunzel's shoes and see her as a person and not just a mother archetype.

When Zel and Julie fight, we feel for both. When Julie wonders if she is the cause of her mother's capture by The Wild, we can all empathize with having wished our parents gone at some point, despite the fact that such a wish would mean our deepest fears as well. And even if we haven't been a mother ourselves, we can see that Zel's situation is no easier than Julie's. The stories she refuses to share are do not belong to just her, and intention is obviously to protect Julie, not dismiss her.

Mom went in? In the Wild? In that Thing that ate a police helicopter? Her mom was in that?

When Julie sets off to defeat the Wild, she does so for the sake of her mother and grandmother. Throughout the story she also learns that, in doing so, she is following in her mother's footsteps. Julie learns a lot about her mother during her journey, and she consequently learns a lot about herself, as well. Many fairy and folk tales - and myths and the like - are about the younger generation replacing the older. In very old versions of Little Red Riding Hood, the grandmother stays dead, symbolizing that Red's entry into adulthood is part of a cycle of life and death, of new life replacing old. While neither the grandmother nor the mother die in Durst's book, the story is still very much about Rapunzel having taken on the role of protective mother that her own mother once held - and about Julie beginning her own path towards adulthood.

She looked up at her mother with a fierce expression on her face, an expression that Zel had never seen her wear. For an instant, Julie reminded her of herself. Was that how she'd looked when she'd fought against the Wild?

Into the Wild is an incredibly feminist fairy tale not only because it features a brave and likable female protagonist, but because it recaptures the original spirit of many old fairy tales: the wisdom of old wives and the importance of mothers passing on such wisdom to their daughters.

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