Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages
Reviewed by Richard Larson
26 July 2007
I've heard it said that children are like aliens, and to some extent it's true; they are little creatures new to our planet and its customs, small beings who learn quickly and often know more than we think they do. The experience of being a child, then, is the experience of being a tourist in a totally foreign place. In Portable Childhoods, her debut collection of short fiction, Ellen Klages writes about childhoods which navigate that experience of otherness with trepidation and fear, driven always by the desire for escape. The stories were published at various points over the past six years, so this is not only a theme of this particular collection but a major preoccupation of its writer. Klages's protagonists experience a world which never quite makes sense, and in which they are never quite welcome. For Klages, childhood is a distinctly antagonistic realm, a physical place or thing from which we must escape at all costs. Unfortunately, this is told more than felt: her characters never experience anything more than they can stand, and their ultimate escapes are often unsatisfying.
The collection opens with "Basement Magic," a novelette which won the Nebula Award in 2005. The story is a fairly conventional narrative of escape. Mary Louise is a young girl living with a stepmother, Kitty, and a largely absent father. Being a quiet, lonely child, she does not get along well with Kitty, a garish former beauty queen who is more interested in the benefits of being a corporate wife than the actual responsibility of raising a child. But Kitty is mostly harmless—besides destroying Mary Louise's favorite book and just being generally unpleasant, she poses no great threat to the young girl's well-being. However, Mary Louise—with the help of Ruby, the housekeeper—embarks on a magical project to protect herself from Kitty, as though Kitty is something more dangerous than a frustrated second wife raising someone else's daughter. "But now that there is magic, there will be a happy ending" (p. 17), as Mary Louise notes as she falls asleep one night, dreaming of supplanting the "false queen." But the story ends disastrously—at least for Kitty—and Mary Louise abandons her project for a more permanent escape, as she transforms into a mouse in order to fully escape Kitty and, by proxy, the horrors of childhood. The story, then, has been leading us all along to this moment of refusal—Mary Louise's choice to escape from childhood utterly and completely, rather than facing and overcoming her (fairly benign) circumstances.
This is a motif that is repeated later in Portable Childhoods. In "Flying Over Water," Kritter is a girl just hitting puberty whose body is changing into something different than what her Barbie-esque mother had in mind for her—a "sturdy girl," essentially shapeless, with an overbite, who eats too many potato chips. There is an extended conflict between Kritter and her mother over a swimsuit—her mother wants Kritter to wear a "flowered monstrosity" that she considers more suitable for a girl Kritter's age than the plain Speedo that Kritter would prefer. Kritter responds by isolating herself, choosing to leave the public swimming pool, where she feels intimidated by her peers, in favor of the open sea, where she can swim among the parrotfish. There are some touching moments in the story, such as when Kritter ends her first swim in the sea and wishes that her mother could have seen the "graceful creature" that she had been while underwater, but the story fails to explore the possibility of an understanding between mother and daughter. Instead, Kritter abruptly transforms into one of her beloved parrotfish, mimicking the escape taken by Mary Louise in "Basement Magic." Again, Klages chooses to allow her protagonist to escape a childhood that, while uncomfortable, holds no sinister threat.
A slightly different brand of escapism is explored in "Travel Agency." The narrator is a librarian hosting her sister and niece at her house for a few nights, and after settling the niece into the attic bedroom—complete with a stack of "nine-year-old-type books"—we discover that somehow the niece has transported herself to the world of one of the books, simply by opening it. The narrator has given her "the chance for a bit of a storybook childhood" (p. 121), as though the one she is living just isn't good enough. The story is quite short and certainly doesn't overstay its welcome, but not knowing anything about what the girl's life is like outside her aunt's magical attic, it's impossible for the reader to have any emotional connection to this escape. A more successful emotional connection comes later, in "Guys Day Out," a poignant story about a father and his son, Tommy, who was born with Down's Syndrome and thus is destined to be a child, or like a child, forever. There is no escape for Tommy, except in the story's heartbreaking conclusion. Klages's efforts to characterize childhood as a dark, sinister place are most fully realized here, as we want more than anything for Tommy to magically become a normally functioning adult.
Perhaps not coincidentally, "Guys Day Out" is devoid of magic—as is the collection's title story. "Portable Childhoods" is a meditation on childrearing from the point of view of a mother obsessed with the trivialities of her daughter's life. It is essentially plotless—a sequence of saccharine examples of the ways in which a parent comes to know her child, and the wishes of that parent that the girl would be a child forever. At times the writing here is touching, despite its earnestness: "Am I crying because she is beautiful? Or because in my own childhood I was told that I was not? I don't want her to turn from this fairy child dancing at dusk to the stiff adolescent I'm afraid she will become, as if my past is a legacy, genetic and inevitable" (p. 181). The story is most interesting at moments like this when the narrator references her own childhood and sees it mirrored in that of the person she has created, the person she is so mystified by. But more often, as details accumulate without any plot beyond the slow maturation of the child, getting through the story feels like work. And I had a similar reaction to "In the House of the Seven Librarians," a story about a girl named Dinsy who grows up in a library mysteriously cut off from the rest of the world. Dinsy learns a lot by living in a library, but she yearns to experience the things she has been reading about, so the story ends when she decides to go off to college. (Like going to college isn't the less fun version of living in a library!) She heads "out into the world as she had come—with a wicker basket and a book of fairy tales, full of hopes and dreams" (p. 207), and so what seemed to be a story about a library ends up being a story about experiencing the world rather than sitting around reading books, which seems like a message more easily conveyed than the story's 25 pages would lead you to believe.
But the best story in the collection is a great one. Incidentally, it is also one that never enters the realm of the speculative or the fantastic, and is all the more wonderful and powerful for its placement firmly within reality. "The Green Glass Sea" (Klages has also written a marvelous novel by the same name) is the story of Dewey Kerrigan, a girl only ten years old and yet just on the cusp of growing up. Klages brilliantly sets the story at Los Alamos in 1945, a site rife with metaphors of transition and change, during the time when the atomic bomb is being created and tested before being dropped on Japan. Dewey was recently orphaned when her father, a scientist working at Los Alamos, died in an accident during a visit to Washington. In the story, she travels with the Gordons, the family she is now living with, deep into the desert to visit the bomb's first test site. Once there, Dewey walks out with Suze Gordon, a girl from her class, onto the "green glass sea," a seemingly endless expanse of "trinitite," a radioactive material produced during the test. "I didn't know war stuff could be pretty" (p. 45), notes Suze as the girls begin to pick up pieces to take back with them as souvenirs. This climactic moment within the story is perfect because of its horrific implications; as readers of this piece of historical fiction, we know what the atomic bomb will soon be used to accomplish, and we also understand the very real danger of handling the material that the girls so casually collect. The novel, which won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, expands on Dewey's history and what brought her to Los Alamos, but the scenes represented in the short story make up most of the last chapter of the novel, still representing the climax of Dewey's story. And the naïveté of the scientists who bring the girls there, so proud of having contributed to such a big project and yet hoping that it will never have to be used, is particularly heartbreaking, and Klages handles this subtle tragedy poignantly and respectfully, allowing us to see the scientists also as children making their own transition, learning exactly what they have brought into the world.
The atomic bomb, then, functions as a beautifully appropriate metaphor for adulthood, representing the dramatic transition from innocence to a harrowing, out-of-control sense of responsibility and accountability, of having been implicated all along in a project that was never before known to exist—for the children in "The Green Glass Sea" are indeed kept in the dark about the work being done at Los Alamos until the climactic moment represented in the story, the one that marks their sudden departure from the carefree days of childhood. And this moment is made all the more powerful because we know there is no possibility of escape; the girls cannot turn into animals and flee the desert, refusing to deal with what they have seen. This is the world they will live in—a world newly fractured—and as much as they may long for their previous childlike innocence, they have suddenly abandoned it forever. Because, really, there's no going back, and stories about childhood are strongest when they address the fact that childhood is something worth holding onto, even when no one really can.