Wednesday, July 16, 2008

RONIA, THE ROBBER'S DAUGHTER, by Astrid Lindgren


As I read this book, I found myself comparing it to THE REPTILE ROOM, another book aimed at children which I read only a few weeks ago. THE REPTILE ROOM is a product of today, while RONIA feels like it comes from a different time. Technically, RONIA isn't all that old--it was first published in 1981--but it comes from the pen of a woman born in 1907, and it reflects certain values and interests, and an approach to children, that aren't in keeping with our current mores.

For one thing, RONIA is written with a harder hand than THE REPTILE ROOM. That book, second in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, is rather maudlin in tone, a mimicry of Victorian tragedy. The tragedy in this book, the level of pathos it deals with, is decidedly more sincere. RONIA, which tells a sort of friendship-based Romeo and Juliet story with two people drawn together despite their warring families, is unflinching in its portrayal of how a parent's prejudices can hurt children. When turmoil unsettles the relationship between Ronia and her father, it is real turmoil. The emotional pain is not handled with kid-gloves; it is given raw and red.

Part of the reason the pain feels so much sharper in this book than in THE REPTILE ROOM relates to the solidity of the characters in each work. Ronia and her companions feel more complicated, more rounded, and more real than the three Baudelaire children and Count Olaf, which are so simple that their identities are basically explained by a single repeated action (for example: the oldest Baudelaire kid is a girl who likes to invent and ties her hair up with a ribbon when doing so, and that's pretty much all you need to know about her). The conflict Ronia experiences isn't simple, it doesn't have any truly easy answers, and its eventual resolution feels believable but not cheap.

I'm tempted to think that this reveals something about the changing nature of our relationships with children. Astrid Lindgren gives the impression, in RONIA, that children are capable of handling authentic difficulty and tragedy. She gives them credit that Daniel Handler doesn't really give to his audience with the Lemony Snicket books. The fear of being rejected by a parent because of the parent's deep-seated prejudices, which comprises the conflict in RONIA, is a real fear for a lot of kids, and Lindgren allows her audience to face that real fear. She doesn't protect them from it; she gives it to them straight, no pandering. It shows a lot about what she thought kids were capable of, and it reveals a respect for children that I think we might be losing.

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