James Clavell | Critical Review by Eliot Fremont-Smith

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of James Clavell.
This section contains 2,128 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Eliot Fremont-Smith

Critical Review by Eliot Fremont-Smith

SOURCE: "Capture the Flag," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 36, September 2, 1981, p. 37.

In the following review, Fremont-Smith traces the publication history of The Children's Story and offers a negative assessment of its literary, political, and social value.

Once upon a time—this was before "Finlandization" and "secular humanism" were coined, and before James Clavell (King Rat, Tai-Pan, Shogun, Noble House) became a U.S. citizen and got really rich and famous (though not to weep, he was doing okay in Hollywood)—a little girl dashed home to tell her father what she had just learned by heart in school. "Daddy, Daddy, listen!" she cried, her cheeks rosy with excitement. And then, in a proud rush, she recited: "I plege' illegience to the flag …"

Michaela Clavell's father was touched, of course, and gave his daughter a dime at her request. But he was also curious and concerned. Had she, he grilled the five year-old, been taught in school what the words stood for—"pledge" and "allegiance" and whatnot? Michaela frowned and was perplexed. "Plege' illegience is plege' illegience," she finally offered. "I know I said it right," she tried again. "I was better than Johnny …"

But James Clavell was no longer there. Instead, he was out in the streets asking "all kinds of people of every age" what they thought the Pledge was all about. Everyone he buttonholed could parrot the words, though "almost always equally blurred," but no one had ever been told what they meant, or seemed even now to have the foggiest. The Children's Story "came into being that day. It was then that I realized how completely vulnerable my child's mind was—any mind for that matter—under controlled circumstances." Unhappily for Clavell, the circumstances of the story's original publication in Ladies Home Journal in 1963 weren't controlled enough.

It's a wee fable, set in a future conquered and supine America, wherein a wily new teacher indoctrinates a first-grade class away from faith in and loyalty to flag, country, honor, family, and God in 23 minutes flat. The kids, you see, were never taught the precise meaning of the Pledge—and are therefore just blobs of putty in the new teacher's clever and presumably Communist hands. A tiny tale but, alas, beyond the comprehension of many Ladies Home Journal readers, at least back then. Of the 2400 who wrote in, a majority denounced The Children's Story as godless, possibly un-American, and probably subversive—as if the author (and LHJ's editors) approved what the new teacher did.

Well. You can imagine the consternation chez Clavell. What was the matter with the country, anyway, that people couldn't recognize simple patriotism—a warning call to steel the minds and hearts of our young against potential alien corruption—right in front of their noses? Certainly nothing could be wrong with the telling of the story (wasn't King Rat a best-seller, wasn't Tai-Pan about to be?), so maybe it was the times that were out of joint or, in this instance, the writer was too far ahead of. Perhaps in 18 years … Somehow Clavell endured the '60s and the '70s—and then, suddenly, Reagan was president, and Clavell very rich and famous, and, what the heck, why not repackage the thing, run it up the pole, and see if this time it would sell out?

Eleanor Friede, Clavell's editor at Delacorte, and famous in her own right for bringing Jonathan Livingston Seagull to commercial attention, thought this was a grand idea. Why—properly packaged and promoted, The Children's Story might even become the Jonathan Livingston Seagull of the '80s! The timing could hardly be more ripe. Individual aspiration of the free human spirit was yesterday's bonanza; today's now-people are into God and national security. Me first then, America first now. Funny how these things go in cycles, and if you look closely seem sort of the same, eternal-veritywise. But that's book biz!

Yet nothing is automatic, success is best arranged, and The Children's Story no criticism intended, would have to be done just right. Thus, to enhance the eternally verified cuteness, nostalgia, and sincerity factors, Clavell would append a hand-written account explaining how the fable burst all-unbidden into consciousness and manuscript, and its purpose. And Michaela Clavell (now Crisman) would be brought in as "an integral part of the book's production" (a small coup, yet redolent with fealty and forgiveness). The book itself would be modestly unpaginated—why should readers fret over publisher's profit per paragraph?—but dressed up smartly with a jacket of red, a cover of white and blue, and six Seagull-like illustrations by Joan Stoliar depicting the swirly, smudgy void, absent a parsing of the Pledge, between our youngster's ears.

But beautiful and moving packaging only begins the promotion and marketing process. The Betsy Nolan Group would be brought in for the public relations job—especially important with reviewers—to emphasize the pluses of the reprint and overcome the minuses. The one big minus, no criticism intended, was the track record—that the whole point of The Children's Story eluded so many readers back in '63. Of course, times have changed, and today the old misunderstanding could be a million-dollar newspeg. Yet the possibility that some influential reviewer (or his/her mom) once subscribed to Ladies Home Journal and even now harbors a sense of insult about the story, should not be over-looked. Alternatively, reviewers tend generally to be liberal in their politics (a few almost willfully so), which, unless properly assuaged, could be another source of unconscious hostility to the product. Clearly, a press kit would be in order. And it would include the following items:

First, a Betsy Nolan letterhead letter stating that The Children's Story "is truly a book for our times" and "not a children's book, but a book for all ages," and that it's to be an alternate of the Literary Guild and 11 other Doubleday clubs, and that LHJ has purchased second serial rights (!), and that 1000 copies have been sent to educators, legislators, and civic and religious leaders whose responses are "incredible."

Second, a picture of the book and James Clavell.

Third, a career biography of James Clavell.

Fourth, a release of the story behind this "parable of freedom," including Mrs. Crisman's involvement.

Fifth, a favorable (if also rather crisp) preview of the book from Publishers Weekly.

Sixth, a "short quiz" on the book, together with the words and legislative history of the Pledge of Allegiance and the last three stanzas of The Star-Spangled Banner.

And seventh, a sidebar item on how Clavell, who likes the number 3, came to select September 3, 1981, which can also be written 9/3/81, as the book's publication date: "9 − 3 × 3.9 + 3 − 12 (and 1 + 2 − 3). 8 + 1 − 9 (which is divisible by 3). Thus the September 3 date is derived from the number 3 in three different ways."

So much for lingering liberalism. As for the ancient charges of godlessness and subversion, the following endorsements would be gotten out (I read them in New York): From the Boy Scouts of America: "The moral [is] that we must all be vigilant." From Ayn Rand: "Very skillful." From Senator Strom Thurmond: "An incident [that] could actually happen." And from the White House, where the Clavells have been to dinner, in the words of Betsy Nolan: "The president said it's a book he and Nancy will talk about."

Well.

So far, I've dealt with the objective facts. Now I must get personal. I have several problems with The Children's Story. These range from minor to major, from aesthetic to philosophic. A minor aesthetic problem, for instance, is the Stoliar illustrations, which look to me like outer space as seen by Voyager II while its camera was on the blink, or microcosmic activity in a garbage dump. But this could be a moral problem, like I could have done them myself with a little charcoal on my toe. (I know, I know—they said the same thing about Malevitch.) Are the insides of children's heads really this murky and bleak? I, for one, don't think so—and you see how the problems intermix and multiply. I think God programmed five-year-olds better, anyway more vividly, than Stoliar suggests. And I think Clavell thinks so, too.

Then there's the matter of beauty within the story. If there's one thing Clavell's kids appreciate, it's pulchritude. In the story, their old teacher was a middle-ager gone physically to pot. Their new teacher is a young vivacious knockout. She's also efficient, knows every name right away. Plus she's intelligent, actually engages the class in philosophic argument, and makes it exciting and fun. Plus she doesn't lie; she even lets the kids in on the game of rewards. In short, there's a kind of radiance about her that the old teacher, apparently a real ignorant and insensitive grump, entirely lacked. This raises all sorts of issues like are all Communist Finlandicizers the terrific, and is Shanker's union detrimental to quality education? Clavell writes that he likes his story because "it keeps asking questions." But so do Charlie's Angels.

I have a problem, too, with the Pledge. I mean, I'm all for it on the one hand, community spirit and sense of commitment and oath and honor, one for all and all for one and whatnot—it's important—but, on the other hand, I think the truth these days is that all nations are indivisible, and that local allegiance is therefore rather complicated. It's a secular humanist view, perhaps, but seems to me realistic as well as scary. And I bet the president thinks so, too—even though we plainly disagree on the 1954 (thank you, Betsy Nolan!) addition to the Pledge of the rubric "under God," which for me ruins the poetic rhythm I grew up with. (In my book, poetic rhythm is right up there with the First Amendment. Pitch, too. I wish our anthem were singable by normal folk, like "Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles," "Rule, Britannia," or "You Deserve a Break Today.")

And then there's the question of what five-year-olds, or any of us, can or should take in, and when and how. Unlike Clavell, I have this faith that some good things are appropriately accomplished by osmosis. I'm all for precise meanings of words. But that isn't all to experience, or to the war against sociopathological phenomena and other invading evils. In fact, I'm practically a Reaganite on rote. Some things must be learned by infants and toddlers and five-year-olds that cannot be fully understood until later, if ever. 9 − 3 × 3 is one example. Don't bite is another. Dimes are not in endless supply is still another (and one that Michaels and her father's accountant may recall.)

And freedom? Independence? Conscience? Loyalty? Morality and God? The flag? These things come by all means, intellectual and otherwise, and I think mostly otherwise in very young children, and perhaps throughout our lives. This isn't to denigrate; it expresses an optimism about the Almighty and His balanced plan. The trouble with the Pledge of Allegiance is not that it's learned by heart without detail comprehension, or even that it has no plot, but that it's so small, and worse, doesn't scan. You want real (though supposedly nonsensical) fidelity to duty, country, and family against the foreign foe, read Jabberwocky. Compared to which, I have to say, the Pledge seems strictly tumtum, and The Children's Story both overly momewrathy and outgrabe. But that's by the bye—except that the freedom of captiousness is one I trust Clavell holds dear.

Thus a multitude of problems, and in the end too much one is asked to take on trust. That, for instance, Clavell knows any beans at all about how children learn, or what the dangers are, or how readers may react to a murky tale that can signify anything and seems, beneath the production hooplah and assuaging hype, to mean exactly zilch. In my handy desk dictionary, the third definition of "fable" is "falsehood." Here's why I bring this up.

According to Clavell's account, little Michaela not only didn't know the meaning of the Pledge, but, as she recited, spelled it wrong. Yet "plege' illegience" seems to me his mistake. Or commercial plan. I'm a stickler for words, but think on it: Being quite young, not yet fully in control of her motor coordination, and extremely eager to please her father and show off her most recent wonderful accomplishment, she might have burbled "eyeplejuleejense" or some such. But she wasn't dictating, and there's no record of a hiccup in the text, and I think the apostrophe, at least, is something Clavell made up.

And so, with deference to Friede, Nolan, et alia, I think The Children's Story stinks. The publication story is, of course, another matter, and no one said freedom, including of enterprise, doesn't sometimes smell, as well as keep things moving and people who need jobs employed.

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This section contains 2,128 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Eliot Fremont-Smith
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