Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: Jane-Emily

Jane-Emily: And Witches' Children by Patricia Clapp.

The Plot: Louisa and her nine year old niece, Jane, are visiting Jane's paternal grandmother for the summer. While there, Jane learns more and more about Emily, her aunt, who died at age twelve.

Is Jane becoming obsessed with Emily?

As Louisa learns more about the long-dead child, she finds out that the dead girl was willful, spiteful, bratty, mean.

And she begins to realize that it's not Jane who is obsessed with Emily. It's Emily who is obsessed with Jane. And Emily won't take "no" for an answer.

The Good: Jane-Emily holds up remarkably well -- incredibly well - it is still as spooky and scary and terrifying and creepy as it was when I first read it, years and years ago. 

Part of what makes Jane-Emily so brilliant is that it creates a feeling of doom, of suffocation, of fear, with very few actual occurrences. It starts with a young girl who seems to know more about a long-dead aunt than she should, and gradually and slowly that becomes more. A poem she shouldn't know about, a broken doll, a torn dress. But more than anything else, all the people who knew Emily can't seem to stop talking about the dead child. And none of it is good. We aren't supposed to speak ill of the dead, especially dead children, especially your own dead child, so that it's done here again and again, just adds to the myth of Emily. Because if someone is speaking ill, it has to be true, right?

What's also terrific about Jane-Emily and who is telling the story (an adult) is that it allows the book to tease with the idea that there is a logical explanation up until the very end, when everything goes dangerous, wild, and out of control on a rainy night. As an adult reading it, I could almost argue that even then, there is a logical reason for all that happens, with a bunch of emotional caught up in their own myth-creating around a sad, long-dead child.

Almost. But it is so much more delicious to instead believe as Jane and Louisa and the others believe. Once upon a long time ago, there was a strong-willed girl named Emily who always, always got her own way and was never told "no." Being spoiled led to great unhappiness for all around her, and her own death. Angry and frustrated to be dead, she came back to haunt the living, punishing her mother, and driving her father to his death. And now, with a new child living in her house, her room, with her family, Emily wants a playmate. One she'll tease and torment -- and want forever.

Much like my rereading of Wait Till Helen Comes was influenced by now modern sensibilities, so I viewed the parents as almost as bad as the ghost, my reading of Jane-Emily is viewed through a modern eye. I confess, I don't think many children or young teen readers will care that Adam is arrogant, controlling, and obnoxious -- because I think he's clearly an adult and children know adults can be all that, but, like Louisa, they love them anyway.

But what do kids think about the continuing message that the problem with Emily was not that she was some sort of bad seed, but, rather, the results of being spoiled and never disciplined? That a permissive parenting style was the problem? That a child-centered marriage was at fault? (And in a way, being child-centered continues as they all talk about Emily.) I don't think they are going to pick up on it as I did; but I do think that they all know "that kid." The one who gets away with everything, at home and at school, and is a bully and mean and a bit horrid. One reason we don't need many details about what Emily has done is the reader can fill them in, based on the Emilys they know. A kid may not want to be punished or reprimanded themselves, but they see, in playgrounds and classrooms and neighborhoods, what happens when other kid aren't. So I think that is why they will accept the origin story of what created Emily -- and why it is just so scary.

Emily is the kid next door, who is now in your house, and won't go home or go away. And while you try to make her happy, you hope that eventually someone will tell her "no". And that she'll listen.

OF COURSE a Favorite Book Read in 2015.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I love this creepy, creepy book. Have you read anything else by Patricia Clapp? I also loved her book Constance, which is a historical novel set in Plymouth (I think?), when I was a kid. I should see what else she's written!

Liz B said...

I love Constance. It's one of my favorite romances.