The protagonist, Hélène, is taunted by her classmates and former friends because she allegedly “weighs 216 and smells like BO”. She reads Jane Eyre on the school bus every day, and manages, for a little while, to shut out the world. Hélène’s connections with Charlotte Brontë’s heroine, with the fox she spots outside her tent during a class trip one night, and with her new classmate Géraldine eventually allow her to begin to believe that, no matter what her tormenters say, she is worthy of love.
That probably sounded a little too After School Special in my clumsy rewording, but trust me when I say that this is a book that handles its subject matter with remarkable grace. Jane, The Fox & Me was almost too vivid a reminder of what a hell middle school can be. It was, however, also a reminder that sometimes the little things can save you; that books can be a refuge; that having just one person by your side can make the prospect of taking on the world seem, if not pleasant, at least survivable.
Towards the end of the story, Hélène (who is always portrayed as thin in Arsenault’s illustrations) visits the doctor and is told that her weight is in reality 88lbs. Her perception of herself, like that of many girls who suffer from eating disorders, has been severely distorted by a world that holds extreme thinness as an ideal every girl and woman must aspire to.
This brings me to the last point I want to make: sometimes, when you read a story, you start thinking about how inside it lurk the ghosts of all the other stories that also need telling. For example, stories where bisexual women’s relationships are not portrayed as transitory or unimportant even if they end up in long-term relationships with men are important, but so are stories where women get to end up together. I love many stories that show us how individual women fall victims to unjust social systems that leave them with no options, but I also want to read stories where women succeed against the odds. The more I think about this, the more I want to ask for more without asking for less. I want to critique the cultural biases that lead us to privilege certain narratives without sounding dismissive of the stories we’re already getting — we do, after all, need all of them (obviously my argument doesn’t apply to damaging and dehumanising narrative tropes, which as we know are sadly abundant).
I really enjoyed Jane, The Fox & Me, and I think that in a world where eating disorders are a thing we need stories about girls struggling with body image. I just hope that one day they get to happily coexist with stories about girls who do weigh 216lbs and love Jane Eyre and approach foxes in the dark and get to make new friends.
Here’s some of the aforementioned stunning art:
How to be a Heroine is a reading memoir by playwright Samantha Ellis, and it begins with her having a discussion with her best friend where they compare Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Ellis, who had always been Team Cathy, begins to reassess her opinion of Jane. Using this as a point of departure, she decides to get reacquainted with all her heroines: Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Jo March, Sarah Crewe, Scarlet O’Hara, Lucy Honeychurch, Emma Woodhouse, Lizzy Bennet, Scheherazade, and many more. Ellis revisits many of the books she first read in her formative years, compares her original readings of these texts with her current ones, and realises that divergent and even contradictory readings can be equally valuable to her at different times of her life. The result is a love letter to the books that form us and the ways in which they change along with us.
I think I actually liked the personal bits of How to Be a Heroine better than the reading ones. All the details Ellis includes about growing up as a woman of Iraqi-Jewish descent in Britain, about writing, about navigating social expectations, about coping with chronic illness, and about dealing with the pressures placed on single women were fascinating to read. This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t also some excellent passages about reading: the chapter about Franny Glass from Fanny and Zooey made me tear up because it did such a good job reminding me of why that book was important to me; and I laughed out loud when reading Ellis’ affectionate evocation of problem-solving Flora Poste from Cold Comfort Farm.
There was one thing that prevented me from truly connecting with this book, though — the fact that Ellis’ readings were sometimes too focused on the dutiful wearer rather than the corset. I could write a whole other post about the concept of a “doormat” and the way it’s used in criticism, and I’ll try my best not to shove all my unspent frustration into the rest of this paragraph, but: even when you have perfectly legitimate issues with how a female character is written or treated by the narrative, dismissing her as weak and spineless kind of implies that when bad things happen to women, they bring them upon themselves by failing to be more assertive. If a fictional woman is written in such a way that she fails to act when it would have been possible for her to act, then the author is at fault, and this can and should be addressed in ways that don’t adopt the rhetoric of victim-blaming. For example, there’s plenty to say about the ideal of sacrificial Victorian womanhood embodied by Beth in Little Women, but this can be done without calling her a “wet blanket” as Ellis does. Doing so draws attention away from wider cultural trends and makes her death about her own personal failings, and I think we can all agree that this is ridiculous.
Also, the discussion around the gender dynamics in Gone With the Wind made me uncomfortable at times — I would expand on this, but I haven’t read the book and I would love to hear the thoughts of more people who have. I hope I’ve made it clear, though, that I found How to be a Heroine worth reading even if Ellis lost me at times. I must find the Erin Blakemore and see how the two compare.
Ulysses can leap across long distances, fly, lift the vacuum cleaner above his head, understand human speech, and — most remarkable of all — write poetry using Flora’s mother’s typewriter. The only explanation, Flora decides, is that he must be a superhero. But reading stories has taught her a thing or two, and Flora knows that if there’s now a superhero in her life, then his super-nemesis must not be far behind.
Guys, I want a poetry-writing squirrel of my very own. It’s very hard to read this book without ending up convinced that your life is incomplete without one. Ulysses is my ideal antrophomorphised animal: he shares interests with his fellow humans, but he managed to remain delightfully squirrel-y all the way through the story. Half the charm of Flora & Ulysses is in K.G. Campbell’s illustrations, particularly in how they bring Ulysses to life by giving him a remarkably expressive face. I just wanted to hug him all the time.
Flora & Ulysses combines traditional chapters, full-page illustrations, and comic book segments in a seamless way: the art adds so much to the story. The effect is not unlike that of Brian Selznick’s books, though Flora & Ulysses is more text-based, and what Campbell and DeCamillo do is a little different. It’s also a little like a young Kavalier & Clay: a warm, smart and loving tribute to superhero comics and the people who love them. Flora goes around shouting “Holy bagumba!” and “Malfeasance!”, remembering that “Terrible Things Can Happen To You!”, and trying to make sense of life using the stories she loves as a blueprint. The narrative both supports and gently challenges her efforts: Flora is right about superheroes, but real life super-nemeses turn out to be a little more complicated than she initially gives them credit for.
As you may have gathered by now, Flora & Ulysses charmed me. I especially liked how it was moving in a way that sneaks up on you. The plot is gleefully absurd, but suddenly you’re tearing up because you never in a million years would have imagined that having a squirrel quote “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” by Rainer Maria Rilke could be done this well; or because Flora’s relationship with her parents is portrayed so tenderly in the finale. It’s funny, graceful and mightily impressive stuff. (I do wish, however, that Flora’s mother hadn’t embodied such facile stereotypes about romance writers. It was a note of ugliness in an otherwise luminous novel.)
Next up: Emily of New Moon!
(Have you posted about any of these books? If so, let me know.)
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