May 24, 2016

Surveying Stories: The risks of rage in Robin Stevens' Wells & Wong mysteries

Literature trends toward patterns or themes which repeat -- sometimes because that's just what happens to hit the market at a given time, and other times it's the current zeitgeist and an active interest which people are seeking to promote. Occasionally, I observe these themes or topics in a certain author's work, and try to work through the ideas of what I find intriguing. This is an occasional series which proposes to study these elements in children and young adult fiction from a writer's perspective.

Let's survey a story!

        'Hallo, foreign girl,' said Daisy - for, of course, that golden-haired girl was Daisy.

        'Hallo,' I said shyly.

        ...'Foreign girl,' said Daisy, 'we're going to play a game. We've decided to let you join in - and that's unusual for us.' My heart jumped. 'It's a test, really we want to see who can stick it out longest in that trunk. Kitty thinks no one could do it for more than ten minutes, but I think it'd be easy. And we want you to go first. It is your trunk, after all. What do you say?'

        Today, I can't think how I could ever have fallen for it. But at the time I was simply excited to think that I might be making friends already - and that someone so beautiful should want me to be friends with her. So I nodded.

        ... It took Matron three hours to find me, and when she did, she was almost frying with rage. She asked me who had been responsible - but, of course, I knew I could not tell her without being a rat. For a week I had to spend my lunch breaks sitting beside her and sewing up holes in socks - but it was worth it when Daisy clapped me on the back and said, with admiration in her voice, 'Not bad, foreign girl.'

        I suppose, in a way, I have been getting into trunks for Daisy ever since, without stopping to ask why. This is the first time I have wondered if it is really all worth it.' (Murder Most Unladylike, p. 147-9)

When in Murder Most Unladylike we first encounter the narrative voice of Wong Fun Ying - known to her British classmates only as Hazel Wong - she is in her second year at Deepdean School for Girls, having made a place for herself trailing the famous Daisy Wells, another third former who is universally known to be "a good sport," which means a lot to British girls in the 1930's. Hazel, however, is not a good sport. She's lumpy and spotty, unenthused and uncoordinated at games and has stubbornly straight, dark hair, in contrast to Daisy's well known sports prowess and golden-blonde curls. Despite having come from China and being considered both exotic and outré by the other girls, Hazel mostly feels that she is a boring disappointment, and certainly not up to the glorious Daisy's standards. One of the small joys of reading Stevens' first book and its sequel, Arsenic for Tea is standing outside the character of Hazel to observe Daisy -- and as a reader, seeing Hazel see her allegedly "best" friend underestimate her, snub her, and treat her as if she were a lesser being... and to observe Hazel grow increasingly angry, and acknowledge that feeling.

There is so much tension in this narrative as well - because Hazel is dealing with racism of the daily sort - microaggressions that chafe like fiberglass cuts against her bewildered heart. She doesn't know how to deal with the girls who insist that her father is an opium smuggler (he's a banker), who call her "foreign girl" and play mean pranks (one of the staff speaks loudly and slowly to her, as if she is hard of hearing), who make snide remarks and then excuse themselves with a perfunctory "Sorry."

Racial tensions. Microaggressions. Murder. Just your everyday middle grade fare. From the very first book, there has seemed to me that there is an exceptional amount of anger in these stories, and additionally, an exceptional amount of risk in Hazel's anger. Getting angry, or being angry with a queen bee in anyone's school is nothing new in middle grade lit of course, but in Hazel's case it is risky because of the high social standing of her very English friend. Hazel's questionable social standing as an Asian girl who is decidedly nonwhite yet not nonwhite enough puts her on very shaky ground. Anger, she knows, could end with her being entirely isolated and rejected by her very small set of friends, and ignored by all of the girls in her year, as well as the shrimp, which are the much younger girls (the older girls consider her year beneath contempt already). Yet, Hazel can't help it. What she generally excuses as "just being Daisy becomes increasingly infuriating. Daisy believes herself to be, after all, always right. Even if she has to pretzel the truth to believe in it.

In Arsenic for Tea (or Poison Is Not Polite in the States), Hazel is invited to Daisy's for the school holiday, later joined by Kitty and Beanie, two other of their classmates, to celebrate Daisy's fourteenth birthday. It is immediately and terribly apparent that All Is Not Well with Daisy's parents, and by the time the party commences they are spiteful and cold to each other, in front of everyone. Daisy's response is to grow more falsely bright and brittle, denying the humiliation and shame of it all. When it's clear there's a mystery afoot, her insistence on isolating Hazel from the other girls, insisting, "Detective Society only!" brought back a scene from the first books, where Lavinia, another of their dorm mates, tells Hazel that Daisy only likes her because,

         'You're practically her slave.'

        'I am not!' I said furiously. 'Daisy's my best friend!'

        'Huh,' said Lavinia. 'Some friend. She uses you - haven't you noticed? And she only took an interest in you because you're an Oriental. Herr uncle is a spy - that's why foreigners interest her.' (Murder Most Unladylike, p. 107)

While in the moment, Hazel of course doesn't respond well to this, but she's not stupid. Though she may not like something that is said or done to her, she inspects it and turns it over in her mind, which is what really makes her a first-class junior detective. In Murder First Class (which is a lovely full-on tribute to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express), Hazel merely stuffs down her frustration when she and Daisy disagree on how to deal with a boy their age, a boy whom Daisy by turns tries to charm and to discourage, unable to figure him out. To Daisy, he must be Dealt With and categorized in some fashion. However, in Jolly Foul Play (no American printings for either book yet) Hazel and Daisy's friendship breaks entirely -- because Hazel dares to be friends with someone Daisy doesn't like, and to continue her correspondence over Daisy's disapproval, and finally outright shaming. When she cannot entirely own Hazel's affections, Daisy becomes hostile - and communication breaks down. And all of frustrated rage Hazel feels simply explode into surprising action.

Hazel finally venting her rage was at first a little disappointing to me, a little nonspecific. Their blow-up is tied to a single incident and doesn't account for all of the little troubling thing that have cropped up in their four-year-friendship. However, realistically, digging up the past is not the action of a person trying to keep a friendship, and figure out how to maintain it though it's problematic.

Though taking the risk of expressing herself was necessary, resolution is very much an immediate desire of at least Hazel, though Daisy always takes much longer to feel her own need of friendship. And, Hazel very much needs her friendship with Daisy - both to tie her successfully to her other dorm mates and chums who rely on Daisy's goodwill, but also Hazel very much relies on the feeling of competence and warmth she receives from Daisy, which she does not receive from matron or the other teachers or much of British society as a whole. In turn, Daisy needs the loving, admiring gaze of Hazel, the one person who can disagree with her, and who questions her, not in an aggressive way, to topple her from her position and popularity, but to keep her honest and to give her a bit of perspective. Hazel is a good friend who also seems to understand that Daisy is almost... impaired. Because of her privilege, it's nearly impossible for her to see things Hazel's way, to put herself in Hazel's shoes. She lacks the maturity and the painful life experiences Hazel has had. But, in her limited way, she does try. And this Hazel deems sufficient.

I honestly don't know where else I've run across another friendship like this. Somehow, the author balances things so that Hazel doesn't seem impossibly forgiving, but because we "hear" her grumpy, griping inner mind, she somehow comes across in her dealings with Daisy as simply... realistic.

This series is ongoing, and I look forward to seeing how Robin Stevens grows this tricky relationship between two maturing girls, one of whom believes herself to be the social better of the other, though in reality Hazel's family is much wealthier than Daisy's, and they have far more servants. I'm still very much intrigued by the tightly-written mysteries, but even moreso by the evolution of Daisy's emotional maturity. Will she ever see Hazel as her equal? How will things change if Hazel grows out of her lumpiness and sees herself as attractive - and not a subordinate to the Western ideal of golden blondeness? Though as of yet, the American stereotype of the brilliant Asian student isn't in place in 1935 England, what if Hazel excels beyond Daisy in school - at a sport, academically, or somehow socially? What if she solves a mystery without her? Despite their tenuous acceptance of the other, these types of changes might still trouble their friendship, so I look forward to seeing what else will come.

I purchased my copies of all the books discussed. You can find FIRST CLASS MURDER and JOLLY FOUL PLAY by Robin Stevens through the online e-tailer The Book Depositry, or another UK retailer.

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