Sunday, July 24, 2016

Six Short Stories About Children Dealing With Injustice

Title: The Balek Scales
Author: Heinrich Böll
Translator: Leila Vennewitz
Where I Read It: A Walk in My World

"The Balek Scales" reads like a folk tale. It's set in an area of European countryside ruled by the wealthy Balek family. By law, only the Baleks are allowed to own a set of scales. Local villagers bring produce and what they've found foraging, like mushrooms, to the Balek scales and receive payment based on weight.

A boy (the narrator's grandfather) discovers that the scales are rigged. The villagers' response feels like a scale tipping. They've accepted a certain amount of injustice in their lives, but this uncovered lie tips them over into outrage. What changes for the villagers after the lie gets exposed?

The villagers can apparently cope with little money for lots of hard work, as long as they enjoy some pride and some faith in the order of things. The Balek family didn't just injure them materially with the rigged scales. They wounded the villagers' dignity. They also degraded their own image. The discovery of their cheap, mean dishonesty broke their power over the villagers' minds. It also makes sense that a child discovers the rigged scales. A child who still plays and is still only learning how to do things the way things have always been done.

Title: Business at Eleven
Author: Toshio Mori
Where I Read It: America Street

Johnny, the 11-year-old boy in this story, adapts to his stunted childhood with ingenuity and a seeming ease. He's Japanese American, living in California mid-20th century. His mother passed away, and his father, although able-bodied, doesn't work. The boy supports his dad and siblings by finding copies of magazine back issues that people really want and selling it to them.

He isn't the narrator of the story. The narrator is an adult who has a heap of magazines at home. Johnny comes around regularly to buy them from him. The narrator sees Johnny as brisk and business-like, qualities remarkable in a boy his age. And who knows, Johnny may wind up doing very well for himself in the future. However, even though he currently has adult responsibilities, and is cultivating his own business, he still lives under parental control and remains subject to parental whims. Also, his character feels flattened. In part, it's because he isn't the narrator, and his business face is pretty much all he shows throughout the story. He isn't pitiable, but there's an underlying heartbreak in him.

Title: Earthly Justice
Author: E.S. Goldman
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

In this coming-of-age story, the narrator isn't the main actor in the events. But as a witness, he isn't passive either. How he'll live with what he learns, and what he'll do with the knowledge, will shape him for the rest of his life.

The story starts with the narrator's aunt, his dad's sister, getting murdered. It looks as though her husband did it, though there isn't enough evidence to convict him. I'll leave it at that. As you read it, you can guess at how it might end, but the story isn't just about its ending. Because there's a sense that things will never end for these characters. They'll never find an easy resolution, after the kinds of crimes committed, the kinds of actions undertaken with conviction and incomplete knowledge.

(I'd never heard of E.S. Goldman before. Googling him led to this interesting obituary from a few years ago.)

Title: Games at Twilight
Author: Anita Desai
Where I Read It: A Walk in My World

A game of hide-and-seek among a group of siblings and cousins is the scene for heartbreak. Ravi, a young boy who is low in the pecking order, tries to beat the other kids at the game by hiding in a shed ("a dark and depressing mortuary of defunct household goods"). The shed is uncomfortable, home to insects and full of neglected things. But the thought of victory and recognition keeps Ravi in it, waiting for his chance to win the game.

The story is full of rich sensory details. And it captures the frustrations children try to voice, the tears that are assumed to stem from a silly tantrum, the invisibility they fight against. Ravi makes a miscalculation in the game, but a minor one compared to how badly his tears are misjudged at the end.

Title: Inem
Author: Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Translator: Rufus S. Hendron
Where I Read It: A Walk in My World

The main character is Gus Muk, a young Indonesian boy whose primary interactions in the story are with his mother and with an eight-year-old girl, Inem, who works as a servant in their house. Inem's parents want to marry her off, and though Gus Muk's mother mildly advises against it, the marriage takes place anyway.

Gus Muk doesn't fully understand what is going on. But he witnesses Inem's abject misery, and he pays attention to what his mother says. His guidance as he grows older will come from adults who either try to ignore Inem's plight or actively abuse her. The author shows how child marriage is sustained by a web of customs and social conditions: poverty, callousness, a degrading attitude towards women and girls, and an adherence to even the cruelest proprieties.

After offering the initial advice that might have saved Inem, Gus Muk's mother remains sympathetic to the girl but will not intervene. She has other opportunities to save Inem later in the story, but refrains in consideration of social repercussions and respectability. There's a jarring lightness to Gus Muk's mother, as if she has deliberately made herself more insubstantial to live the way she does. Whatever her thoughts, they're buried beneath what feels like layers of gauze. As for Gus Muk, he learns to play his part at the end by pressing his hands to his ears.

Title: Sredni Vashtar
Author: Saki (Hector Hugh Munro)
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

"Mrs. De Ropp would never, in her honest moments, have confessed to herself that she disliked Conradin, though she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him 'for his own good' was a duty which she did not find particularly irksome."
Conradin is 10 years old and lives with his cousin, Mrs. De Ropp, who's also his guardian. He's a sickly boy, though his ailments may stem in large part from his guardian's subtle and unrelenting attack on his spirit. Mrs. De Ropp relies on the use of 'good intentions' to stifle her ward. She cuts him off from a variety of freedoms and pleasures, needlessly takes away things he loves, and keeps excessively close watch on him. To herself and to others, she would deny the fact that she's injuring him. And people would likely believe her, because she's a respectable figure with good intentions.

From time to time, Conradin takes refuge in a tool shed. He keeps a hen there and a pole-cat ferret that he pretends is a fierce god. It's not a god of course, but it represents the boy's caged spirit, the animal fierceness and lust for life that may get crushed out of him entirely. He hopes to keep the shed a secret from his guardian, but Mrs. De Ropp discovers it, as she tries to root out all secrets under her watch. What happens then?