Edward Tulane is a china rabbit…
The bulk of my reviews deal with serious fiction and not with children’s literature. Therefore, you may ask yourself, “What does a china rabbit have to do with literary fiction?” Well, to answer that question honestly, I must say: “Nothing…nothing at all.”
There is no question that a children’s book about a china rabbit is an unlikely contestant to end up in my `favorite books’ pile. After all, this book is not about a character contemplating the murderous attitude of the world. Nevertheless, the book is about a character – a china rabbit named Edward Tulane. Therefore, we should be asking ourselves whether Edward merits closer attention, and whether Edward’s story deserves to be considered a work of literary fiction, and I must answer with an: “Absolutely!”
A couple of years ago, a dear friend introduced me to Kate DiCamillo’s writing. As a reader who prefers serious fiction, I was a bit skeptical at first. Nonetheless, the first book lead to another, then another, and one more yet. Among these, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Candlewick Press, 228 pages) is, by far, my favorite. In my opinion, although designed for the young reader, this book has all the attributes of a work of serious fiction, and can be enjoyed at any age.
Edward Tulane is not just any china rabbit, but the most exclusive, finely handcrafted rabbit. Frankly, Edward is the best rabbit money can buy. He lives in a wealthy household with a girl who loves him and cares for him, he owns the finest silk suits, and even wears a gold pocket watch. Unfortunately, Edward is fully aware of his superficial qualities – too aware to care about anything but himself; and although he is a doll, Edward has a soul. A clouded, dark soul empty of love for anything but himself.
In majority of the books I love, a character grows…undergoes a certain metamorphosis. For Edward, the transformation begins with a crude awakening: Thrown overboard, Edward ends up on the bottom of the sea, in a place where the starlight does not reach. It is there that, for the first time in his existence, Edward begins to feel. And, once the wheels of consciousness start turning, they cannot be stopped no matter how hard he tries.
Tormented by self-pity and fear, Edward is eventually rescued by an old fisherman who brings him home. Edward, initially full of arrogance, grows to recognize a new feeling inside of him – love. Yet, he is not destined to experience it fully, as he is soon torn away from the world he is becoming familiar with. And this is where his story really begins – not in the house where he was loved, not at the bottom of the sea, not even with the fisherman’s family – but at the moment he realizes what love is, and the pain that comes with loving. And, this is where I leave the particulars of the story, so as not to spoil it for any potential readers.
Edward’s journey, nonetheless, continues for many years. With it, and each turn his life takes, Edward’s consciousness comes alive, fed by multitude of encounters and experiences. The love he initially felt for the fisherman does not disappear, but becomes the first building block in the foundation of his understanding of what loving someone really entails. Edward experiences joy and losses, growing bitter at times when he wishes to no longer feel anything, yet, having no control over his life, he must continue on wherever chance takes him. When he witnesses death, he wishes to no longer live; however, this serious story could not be complete without a sort of redemption at the end, but not before he goes through hell, for one must often lose everything to find himself.
DiCamillo’s writing is simple and precise (after all, the target audience for this book is younger), but the way she delves into the depth of consciousness more than makes up for it. She doesn’t waste time with fancy words one needs a dictionary to understand – she delivers a superb drama without them. She is very comfortable in the world that exists just under our skins, an often-dark world of human emotions where love and hate coexists side-by-side, separated by a very thin line.
One thing is for certain: no matter how many times I read this book, it never fails to stir things up inside of me; and that is, in my opinion, a mark of an exceptional literature.
–Henry Martin, author of The Mad Days of Me (2007).
…In the morning, the sun rose and the cricket song gave way to bird song and an old woman came walking down the dirt road and tripped right over Edward. “Hmph,” she said. She pushed at Edward with her fishing pole. “Looks like a rabbit,” she said. She put down her basket and bent and stared at Edward. “Only he ain’t real.” She stood back up. “Hmph,” she said again. She rubbed her back. “What I say is, there’s use for everything and everything has its use. That’s what I say.”Edward didn’t care what she said. The terrible ache he had felt the night before had gone away and had been replaced with a different feeling, one of hollowness and despair. Pick me up or don’t pick me up, the rabbit thought. It makes no difference to me. The Old lady picked him up. She bent him double and put him in her basket, which smelled of weeds and fish, and she kept walking, swinging the basket and singing, “Nobody knows the troubles I seen.” Edward, in spite of himself, listened. I’ve seen troubles, too, he thought. You bet I have. And apparently they aren’t over yet. Edward was right. His troubles were not over. The old woman found a use for him. She hung him from a pole in her vegetable garden. She nailed his ears to the wooden pole and spread his arms out as if he were flying and attached his paws to the pole by wrapping pieces of wire around them. ……The birds were insistent. They flew around his head. They tugged at the loose threads in his sweater. One large crow in particular would not leave the rabbit alone. He perched on the pole and screamed a dark message in Edward’s left ear: Caw, caw, caw, without ceasing. As the sun rose higher and shone meaner and brighter, Edward became somewhat dazed. He mistook the large crow for Pellegrina. Go ahead, he thought. Turn me into a warthog if you want. I don’t care. I’m done with caring. Caw, caw, said the Pellegrina crow. Finally, the sun set and the birds flew away. Edward hung by his ears and looked up at the night sky. He saw the stars. But for the first time in his life, he looked at them and felt no comfort. Instead, he felt mocked. You are down there alone, the stars seemed to say to him. And we are up here, in our constellations, together. I’ve been loved, Edward told the stars. So? Said the stars. What difference does that make when you are all alone now? Edward could think of no answer to that question. …..
I read this to my ten-year-old last month. There is a paragraph near the beginning of the book that, to my mind, is clearly literary fiction:
“In all, Edward Tulane felt himself to be an exceptional specimen. Only his whiskers gave him pause. They were long and elegant (as they should be), but they were of uncertain origin. Edward felt quite strongly that they were not the whiskers of a rabbit. Whom the whiskers had belonged to initially–what unsavory animal–was a question that Edward could not bear to consider for too long. And so he did not. He preferred, as a rule, not to think unpleasant thoughts.”
This passage reminds me of Virginia Woolf, sympathetically dipping into a character’s mind, writing in that character’s tone, but revealing the irony of his/her thoughts at the same time. DiCamillo’s writing here has much of that same kind of complexity. However much I like this passage, I cannot say that the rest of the book is more than an exceptionally well-written children’s story.
My son, who says his favorite kind of writing style is “ironic understatement,” liked the beginning a lot too, but he wasn’t that impressed with the rest of the book, which turned out to be not as complex thematically as he had expected after reading the first chapter. Edward “just grows up,” he says, “it should be more complicated than that.”
Had I not thought this was literary, I would not have posted it here :)
I agree with your assessment of the first chapter, however, the story is plenty complicated as it progresses. Yes, as your son blatantly put it, Edward just grows up. But DiCamillo touches upon rather serious issues as the story progresses. The old abandoned parents whose daughter thinks she knows better; the men who turned tramps, leaving their families behind; and the complicated issue of death in the form of the little girl. That’s quite serious writing aimed at a young audience.
Nevertheless, I hope that both you and your son have enjoyed Edward Tulane and his journey.
We enjoyed the book. I’m just not sure it belongs on a review site for adults. If KD had maintained the writing style of the quoted sentence (above) throughout the book, then I would say it definitely does belong. Probably the type of complication my son and I wanted would be communicated at the sentence level, and not, so much, at the level of plot. There are probably other books reviewed on this site, written for adults, that aren’t as well written. I do think MJET is literary fiction, but it is literary fiction for children.