Robot 6

NYT critic perplexed by narrative device

14231133732188The New York Times doesn’t review a lot of comics, so when they set Tanya Lee Stone loose on Sarah Stewart Taylor and Ben Towle’s Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, that’s news. Stone is the author of a prose biography of Earhart as well as the much-acclaimed historical work Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. But Stone’s major critique of the book is that it mixes fact and fiction without distinguishing between the two.

Taylor also creates a narrator who did not exist — Grace Goodland, a girl reporter following the events for The Trepassey Herald. Other than a few quotations — like the content of a telegram Amelia dictates to a clerk: “Thanks fatherly telegram. No washing necessary. Socks, underwear worn out” — the conversations between her and the other characters seem to be based on research, but largely invented. As an Amelia Earhart fan, I’ve always thought she was exciting enough without any assistance.

Maybe, but graphic novels tell stories, and no matter how interesting the facts may be, the creators need a narrative framework to hang those facts on. Grace Goodland is so obviously a point-of-view character that it’s hard to imagine readers in the target age group (10 to 14, say) thinking that she is a real person. Perhaps the book should have included an fact vs. fiction section in the back, a la The Magic School Bus, but teenage readers would likely find that patronizing. The book is meant to be read as a story, not a biography—the creators limit their scope to a six-day period in Earhart’s life, and they use the character of Grace to show her impact on the women of her time, something that wouldn’t have been possible in a strictly factual presentation. Sometimes fiction can convey more truth than facts, and by presenting Earhart in context, the creators provide readers with an introduction to Earhart and a jumping-off point for those who want to know more.

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4 Comments

Steven R. Stahl

March 23, 2010 at 11:23 am

I didn’t get the impression that Stone was confused by the use of Goodland as a narrative device. She was thinking about young readers who don’t distinguish between fact and fiction as they read, and merely react excitedly to what they read. Note the text — http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/books/review/Stone-t.html — in the last paragraph:

All in all, kids are going to eat this book up. I handed it to one reluctant reader who devoured it in a sitting, never once getting distracted. But that’s all the more reason for the book to have been unfailingly accurate, or to be clearly labeled a novel. Perhaps the ideal solution would have been an afterword like the one John Porcellino provided in his “Thoreau at Walden,” in the same series, to explain which parts were fictionalized. This would allow kids to enjoy the story while giving them the context to understand it better.

Did Porcellino identify situations or characters as being fictional creations?

SRS

It’s been years since I watched it in high school psychology, but the movie Sybil did something similar with the almost boyfriend.

Of course, when our teacher mentioned he didn’t exist, I took it literally and assumed he was an hallucination. Turns out she meant that they invented him for the movie, so in that reality he was really real.

There’s a really interesting interview with Ben Towle at http://www.chasingray.com/archives/2008/05/the_real_point_though_is_that.html that covers a similar topic (the blurring of fact and fiction in telling a historical story) concerning Midnight Sun.

I read this last weekend and found it weird too. This book is historical fiction. It’s a pretty common genre, at least with “regular” books.

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