‘The Meaning of Children’ shows us ourselves

Published on July 20, 2011
‘The Meaning of Children’ shows us ourselves

One book currently being considered for the Giller Prize is the remarkable collection of short stories “The Meaning of Children” by Montreal writer Beverly Akerman.

In differing ways these stories relate to the large themes of childhood and parenthood. But, in saying this, I’m quick to also point out that these stories are not simply about being a child or a mother or father. These perspectives serve as launching points for stories that actually transcend such matters rather than being entirely defined by them.

The same applies to the fact that some of these stories also reflect Judaism and aspects of the Jewish experience; it’s a meaningful thing to keep in mind — but such aspects of how Akerman’s stories are grounded serve well as a starting point in understanding her fiction; they are not the be-all and end-all of what her stories are “about” as it were. It’s as though these considerations are simultaneously central and incidental.

One thing that readers of these stories might notice quickly is the way Akerman engages with dichotomies. Childhood is that safe, magical, carefree time and place — but it’s also risky, threatening, ominous and dangerous — full of impenetrable mystery around things seen and experienced, but beyond understanding. And if it’s not too much of a simplification or stating the obvious, life and the world are not gentle on children simply for being children.

In the opening story, “Tumbalalaika,” Akerman shows how the slightest touch can bring childhood perceptions crashing down to expose harsh truth and reality. When Karen, who is just on the verge of beginning to understand the world of adult concerns, lets her guard down and dares to playfully address her mother as an equal, her mother counters in brutal terms that she is not.

Children are not safe from harsh awakenings, and Akerman shows that very capably throughout.

Parent and adult characters are both touched and irritated by the children in their lives. For their own part, children try — and often fail — to take measure of the world of adults.

In the world of these 14 stories, the beauty of children and the innocence they represent is recognized and welcomed by parents — but, as is often the case in actual life, parents fail in this because they’ve lost that connection with their own childhoods, and the warm influence of their children cannot bring it back.

The story “The Mysteries,” shows very well that the signals given off by children reach adults only in scrambled form. Adult perceptions distort the meaning of a small girl’s friendly encounter with an elderly man she does not know while walking to school. This brief, warm and innocent encounter swiftly becomes misconstrued as a brush with a suspected predator — all because she fears adult reprisals for being late.

If, as Dostoevsky once remarked, and as is quoted on the collection’s frontispiece, “The soul is healed by being with children,” it is the tragedy of adulthood that we become so isolated from childhood — and what children offer us.

Artfully, evocatively, Beverly Akerman’s “The Meaning of Children” reminds us of that.

Darrell Squires is assistant manager of Public Information and Library Resources Board, West Newfoundland-Labrador division. You can contact him at: dsquires@nlpl.ca or by phone at 634-7333. His column appears every other week.