Love Is a Losing Game: Notes on a children’s book

Love Is a Losing Game: Notes on a children’s book October 4, 2019

I hope all those interested in fantasy & science fiction already know about Doxacon, the DC-based Christian f/sf convention. If you haven’t checked them out already, you can still get tickets for the November 1-2 con here. I spoke a couple years back on “The Humiliation of Authority in Horror Movies,” and had a blast. I’m hoping to present again in the future, possibly on a topic near and dear to my heart: losers.

How do you write a story in which your central characters lose what’s most important to them, without writing a hopeless story? How have people written stories in which characters lose their loved ones, their battle for a righteous cause, their lives, even their self-respect–and yet the reader still closes the book knowing that their desperate, losing struggle was worth it? The Lord of the Rings is a tale woven with a lot of loss… but could it still be a hopeful tale if they hadn’t destroyed the One Ring?

Most stories involve some serious loss. The Satanic Mill, one of the most beautiful (and horrific) Christian children’s stories I know, ends at Easter with love triumphant, but the young hero has lost his best friend and many of his comrades. Some stories allow Pyrrhic victories: The Borribles ends with half the original group of feral children presumed dead, and all their cunning, untrustworthy leader can say is, “Ah well, there’ll be another time, some time.” Most stories at least involve the loss of the protagonist’s prior understanding of the world; it’s not hard to list stories of chastening. It’s harder to think of stories which end in complete failure for the protagonists, yet leave the reader with hope. (I think Rachel Manija Brown somewhere notes that Stephen King is a master of writing stories where the protagonists lose, and yet you know that their struggle had meaning. The Shining is a story of how Jack Torrance lost almost everything that ever mattered to him, “gradually and then suddenly” as the man said. The Shining is unsparing in its depiction of Jack’s violent, willing self-deceit, but you’ll walk away knowing that every desperate moment when he tried to hold on to his humanity was worth it, that it wasn’t just a waste.)

Anyway, so a) please send me your thoughts on this subject, and your recommendations for books–not solely children’s books, but ideally f/sf/horror–which might fit the bill. And b) I recently reread Mollie Hunter’s You Never Knew Her As I Did!, a high-romantic defense brief for Mary, Queen of Scots, and man, it’s still great.

You know from the beginning that our hero, Will Douglas, page and unacknowledged illegitimate son of a local lord, is going to lose. The novel opens with Will receiving the news that Mary has been beheaded in England. His decades of service to her have ended in failure.

Then we flash back to Will as a fifteen-year-old, a servant at the castle where Mary is brought as a prisoner. He’s entranced by her, and pretty much immediately pledges to work with those conspiring to free her. I make zero claims for the historical accuracy of this novel (although Hunter sure does!) but it is a glorious adventure, full of secret letters and sleight-of-hand.

And full of something else, which captivated me in childhood. Will is a scapegrace, the kind of buoyant near-catastrophe that sober adults can regard fondly. He loves the adults around him and they think of him as almost a 16th-century juvenile delinquent–lovable and beloved, but careless and light-minded, the kind of person who can evoke fondness but not respect. Will uses this reputation to his advantage, of course; but it’s also true. He’s irresponsible. He’s a gambler, which at first seems like a quirk born from love of adventure but which I think is something a little sadder. (This is the first book I remember reading where a character uses drunkenness as a language for the expression of crushing guilt.) His gambling isn’t the reason Mary’s first escape attempt fails, but it does compound that failure. And he doesn’t, at least in the immediate aftermath of the plot’s collapse, rise to the occasion.

In terms of “how do you write failure?”, one thing Hunter does right here is pacing. The flashback which forms the bulk of the novel is structured around two escape plots: the first one, which fails, and then a second one. The first plot is fairly traditional–its success or failure largely rests on practical matters of disguise.

The second escape plot is brilliant, an absolute ganache for the reader. It involves Will’s bad reputation, his disgrace and the condescending love his noble secret family still retain for him–it lets him be mistrusted by everybody and secretly oh so devoted, my favorite thing–and it takes place during the festivities on the First of May, when a servant can be Lord of Misrule and give orders to a queen–when the world turns upside-down. Hunter lets you feel the alien aspects of the historical setting, the society’s belief in sacred hierarchy and its punctuating, dreamlike disruption of that hierarchy. Thematically it’s startling to use the Feast of Misrule as the occasion for a plot by an illegitimate child in service of his legitimate ruler. This novel is swooningly convinced that Mary is the rightful ruler, and that this is a real and important category, which makes Will’s plot (the world turned upside-down in order to turn it right back the way it started) an especially humiliating or self-surrendering one.

So Will and the Queen dart and slink through the carnival, hunting freedom. You already know any victory will only be temporary, and yet you have something specific to hope for. Give the reader a memory of triumph: It will make the final loss pierce all the deeper.

Clouet’s portrait of Mary via Wikimedia Commons.

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