Snuggled in the crook of my arm with his sister cuddling his other side, Eric chose The Tale of Peter Rabbit as one of our books last night. Peter Rabbit is a favorite in our house, along with Beatrix Potter generally. Her language is delicious, and I grew up on all of her stories.

Deeply involved in the tale of the transgressive rabbit, Eric tightened with anticipation as Peter started looking for parsley to calm his sick stomach. As we turned the page to find Peter stopped cold in his tracks by the ominous Mr. McGregor planting on all fours, Eric threw his favorite blanket over his whole head. “Me scared!” My two-year-old son is absolutely empathetically terrified whenever we read, “But round the end of a cucumber frame, whom should he meet but Mr. McGregor!” I don’t think even a boogeyman under the bed could produce a greater effect on Eric than the Scottish farmer.

After reading the next page, in which Mr. McGregor chases Peter with a rake, I decided to probe into Eric’s developing world a bit: “Eric, do you think Peter will still get away? Or will Mr. McGregor catch him this time?” It was a baited question, to be sure. His whole two-year-old self, his mind testing out new words every day, seized up as he began to make several sputtering sounds at once, looking for language to explain what he already knew: Of course he gets away, mama! Books don’t change. But Eric doesn’t quite have the language for that yet. So he simply explained, “Turn the page!”

Turn the page.

As I sat with my late dinner, a crisp apple and a bit of goat cheese, and basked in that quiet hour of night when my kiddos are asleep, I let my mind wander a bit. What is the compelling nature of the classic children’s stories we read every night? To what extent do these moments of shared reading constitute a methodical training in the ways of constructing our own narratives and meaning? How do stories like The Tale of Peter Rabbit actually become instructive material on the process of reading and what it means to be a reader?

When Eric answered that I should “turn the page,” what he really expressed was an innate understanding of a book’s immutable form, a predetermined world. The book is contained, much like a garden, in a hardcover frame. Plot points cannot change, once planted and ordered by the author. At the same time, however, we have to acknowledge the power of the reader to make a difference within that world. Although plot points may not change, and although words may not change (in an untranslated text), as soon as we enter the garden leaves of a book, our interpretive powers do, in fact, give the text mutability. Through the act of interpretation, we can deepen understanding, rearrange the relative importance of events, and breathe life into figurative elements. We get our hands dirty in its soil. We choose which words to pluck for our consumption.

Eric, whether he knows that he knows it or not, has been a part of this mutability already. Last week he noticed, for the first time, the details in the illustration of Mrs. McGregor bringing a lovely pie to the table, as Mother Rabbit tells Peter, “Your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” What did Eric notice? He saw Mr. McGregor’s pair of hands, a knife in one and a fork in the other. We don’t see any of the rest of Mr. McGregor’s body, just his hands. There is a whole body of scholarly work about the importance of hands in historical art and work, but I am going to skip over that for the moment. The importance of Eric noticing Mr. McGregor’s hands is this: Eric realized for the first time that Mr. McGregor ate Peter’s father by his hands.

Is it much of a stretch to see in this scene echoes of Hamlet?

Hamlet’s father’s ghost laments to his son:

Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand

Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d:

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,

No reckoning made, but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head:

O, horrible!

(ACT 1, Sc. V)

“Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin” suggests not just the garden imagery that is the setting for Peter’s tale, but also that, from Mr. McGregor’s perspective, Peter and his father are each nothing but a “thief”—plunderers, looters. When Peter returns to the garden (which apparently he has done once before, if we infer such from the line that “it was the second little jacket and pair of shoes he had lost in a fortnight”), he essentially performs his father’s journey, albeit with a different ending. Peter’s story—his adventure into the garden, where seeds are located with a typeset precision—has happened before. I think of the story in Genesis, of the consummate garden, of the act of thievery of a piece of fruit which set in motion all of human knowledge and sin. In that garden, that ordered world, the great transgression was the crossing of boundaries between authorship (God) and readership (Adam and Eve).

I would like to suggest that Peter represents the reader and that his journey through Mr. McGregor’s garden signifies the process of reading in a landscape determined by an author (who uses his hands as much as a farmer uses his). Although it is perhaps cliche to assert that this is merely a story about boundaries, I think it is new to offer that The Tale of Peter Rabbit is a tale of prepositions and position within those boundaries. How do we move through a text as a reader? How do we first “squeeze” (a word that appears twice in this short piece) into a text, get through it, and then out of the “gate,” the book covers? What can children learn about being readers through engaging in this story?

We notice how prominently Potter’s use of prepositions give us a sense of locus: “into the fields,” “down the lane,” “in a pie,” “though the wood.” But no word of place is used more than “underneath” in this story: “underneath the flower-pot,” “underneath the root,” “underneath bushes,” underneath the gate.” Potter’s diction constantly invites us to ponder what lies below the surface of things; and if Peter is indeed the epitome of a reader, then his mission is to locate and move within the subtext. As soon as we ask the question of what lies “underneath” The Tale of Peter Rabbit, we realize that its subtext points to its own literariness, its own didacticism. Perhaps the process of literary interpretation is the process of “wander[ing] about, going lippity—lippity—not very fast, and looking all around.”

So what else do children learn about being readers from The Tale of Peter Rabbit?Above all, to be a good reader is to engage in a sort of mischief. Mrs. Rabbit makes this plain: “Now run along, and don’t get into mischief.” Despite this, Peter runs straight for temptation, and I’ve no doubt that if he really were a reader, he would have a whole library of banned books that subvert established modes of thought.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit is the tale of a reader making it into, though, and out of a text. Peter has made it back to the big fir tree with his life, and its meaning, intact. I have no authority to know whether our lives take place in a predetermined world, or whether life’s events have more than just a little randomness to them. Inasmuch as I have been asked numerous times in my life what I think our purpose is on Earth, and whether or not I believe we have free agency, I will say that I do think our purpose (or perhaps our only choice) is to construct (or believe we construct) narrative and meaning. I have written many times on this blog about the ways in which we set about building a cohesive family narrative for our children, or about our oral tradition in our house of The Grand Adventures of Katie and Eric, or about how the crafting I love to do with my hands (quilting, cross-stitching, sewing, etc) becomes a metaphor for the making of texts and textiles that will be passed down from generation to generation.

I used to speak with my Advanced Placement students about the unreliability of narrative, not only in the texts we read but also with respect to their mode and genre essays in the 11th grade year. We always select what to take out and what to leave in—or in the language of the garden, what to weed out and what to water. It may not be that we are accurate in our retelling, some of us more or less so than others both intentionally and unintentionally, but I think it is the process of reading our history and rewriting it for the next generation that is the important part. To be a student of literature—to be a reader—is to be a student of the art of making meaning in a world and life that, absent of Platonic forms, is written purely in figurative signs and symbols.

Although I have loved literature for all of my life, never have I loved it more than now when I can share it with my two kiddos. Every day I am staggered at the ways in which literature, meaning, and narrative form layers within their “real” (whatever that means!) lives. Just today they were play-acting scenes from Peter Pan, changing them and adapting them. (Peter Pan is Eric’s absolute favorite as a text/film, and he currently dresses up as Peter every day). The fiction narrative has become a part of their childhood narrative, as inextricable as if both had equal claims to realness.  How we become who we are and how stories become part of this identity is, to me, endlessly fascinating.

And now that I have indulged this part of myself during the kiddos’ rest and nap time, it is time to do a bit more literal gardening of our own. I always imagine that it is Autumn I love best, but in this season when the chicks are peeping in their run and the soil is beneath my fingernails I find myself thinking I love all seasons best, when it is time to have them.

Advertisements