I Review Children's Books: Sailaway Home
Degen, Bruce. Sailaway Home. New York, Scholastic Hardcover, 1996.
Bruce Degen is perhaps best known for Jamberry, a beloved children’s classic about a berry-loving hobo bear--but it’s the lesser-known Sailaway Home that is Degen’s real masterpiece. First published in 1996, just two years after Jeanette Winterson’s tour de force Written on the Body, Sailaway Home relies on the same narrative device as Winterson’s critically acclaimed work. In Winterson’s novel the nameless and genderless speaker is heartbroken over ending an affair with a married woman; it is thus up to the reader to decide whether to read the erotic relationship at the heart of the text as heterosexual or homosexual, or to entertain both readings simultaneously.
In Sailaway Home, the use of third person allows the omission of all gender pronouns. Moreover, Degen’s playful illustrations of a pig family see Winterson’s gender-ambiguous narrator and raise her: not only does Degen skillfully manage gender ambiguous illustrations, not only does he leave the piglet protagonist’s gender open to interpretation, but he also leaves one of the pig parents gender-ambiguous. The parents’ facial features and figures are identically pig-like, so only their clothes mark gender. While one parent wears clothing distinctly coded “feminine,” (a pink dress with a long, flowing skirt) the other wears a purple button-down shirt, a pair of khaki trousers, smoking flats, and a vest: a decidedly androgynous costume.
As with Written on the Body, at first the reader’s own internalized hegemonic narratives -- heterosexual family structure; cissexist, binary gender norms -- may predispose them towards a particular reading of the family as a mother, a father, and a little boy. Closer analysis reveals a narrative radically open to interpretation.* It’s true that the little pig’s shorts are reminiscent of lederhosen, traditionally a boy’s garment; it’s true that boats and planes are coded “boyish,” as are fighting pirates and imagining “battles won.” But the piglet also wears a macintosh that looks like a dress, imagines riding a butterfly through a patch of flowers, and pretends to be Amelia Earhart.
Thus, readers might easily choose see a pig family composed of two devoted sows raising a sensitive boy, a heteronormative sow-boar couple raising a brave and imaginative little girl, or, indeed a trans, intersex, or androgynous child not clearly fitting into a binary gender system. Just as Winterson challenged readers to consider how the essentials of erotic love that transcend gender, Degen challenges readers to see how family and childhood transcend any particular gender performance.
The result is a delightful, multi-faceted piece of postmodern children’s literature.** Each “chapter” sees the little pig inspired to a flight of fancy by a toy or environment, entering a daydream, then returning home: a small boat takes them out to sea in a storm; a stick horse and a sandbox take them into a pirate den; the garden gate takes them into the woods (where they imagine riding a butterfly while dressed as a bee!). The child is, by turns, strong, playful, brave, fanciful, independent; that the narrative itself focuses on the act of daydreaming alternate selves reinforces the ambiguities of the characters’ gender expression. In the final chapter of the story, the piglet climbs into their treehouse with a knapsack filled with the fetishes that sparked their imagination. They replay the day’s many adventures (“runaway, runaway, happy alone!”)--and then the little introvert, having fortified themself with time alone for contemplation, rushes back to their parents because “there’s someone to tell if you run away home!”.
Representation: Gender is performed with nuance and complexity; parents will have substantial room to offer their child the representation they most need: want to show an introverted boy, a trans girl OR boy, a child with same sex parents, a fierce and brave girl--the list goes on-- that there are other kids like him, like her, like them? This little pig can easily be presented in any of these ways. I have a little girl who is still young enough that I’m not sure how she’ll choose to perform femininity; reading Sailaway Home as the story of a little girl with two mothers supplies three different, complex models of femininity for her to consider and emulate as she sees fit. All the pigs are pink, able-bodied, and normatively pig-sized.
Should you buy it: Buy it immediately.
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* Susan S. Lanser, "Sexing the Narrative: Propriety, Desire, and the Engendering of Narratology."Narrative 3, no. 1 (1995): 85-94. Lanser argues that because the narrator’s sex is not disclosed, multiple narratives are simultaneously produced by the reader, and that where the reader does not immediately recognize this, his or her assumptions about gender and sex are revealed.
** Lindenmeyer, Antje. "Postmodern concepts of the body in Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body." Feminist Review 63, no. 1 (1999): 48-63.Lindenmeyer argues that the self, in Winterson’s hands, becomes a sort of “virtual room”, where the (lack of) boundaries is emphasized over the contents, as “[Winterson] opens up the classical dichotomies between . . . body surface and interiority.”