15 October 2012

English Orphans

It's gotten to be a little private joke between me and the girl. I'll pull out a book to read to her, and she'll say "what's it about?". "Well", I say, "the main character is an English orphan." And then we howl with laughter about those pesky orphans.

In point of fact, a few of them haven't been English orphans - Anne Shirley is Canadian, Dorothy Gale is from Kansas, Pippi, Hugo. But that's splitting hairs, I think. What's with all the orphans in children's literature?

Here's a few of the books I'm thinking of:

What's it all about? No parents to guide you mean you need to find your way in the world much earlier. Get rid of the parents and the powerless-ness of the child is catapulted into high relief. Grow up kids, parents just get in the way. It's kind of a sad message, but yet, these are some of my favorite books. The spunky children in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Secret Garden are fabulous. Pippi Longstocking is the embodiment of question authority. The orphans triumph over adversity, letting the little children tucked into mama's arms see that life is not so bad, and it'll be easier with parents in the background.

Can you think of some more English orphans?

21 comments:

Swistle said...

Were the Boxcar Children orphans? I think they weren't English anyway.

I remember from childhood pretend games: you always have to get rid of the parents first! Otherwise it would be a game about brushing our teeth and going to bed on time. LAME.

Lady M said...

Even Frodo was an orphan.

readersguide said...

The children who lived in a barn (I think the parents aren't dead, and eventually come back, but they are certainly gone for a while.)

readersguide said...

Thief Lord, Inkheart, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Lemony Snicket stories, -- really, it's more common to be an orphan than not. Mysterious Benedict Society.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Lyra in His Dark Materials. And then there are the functional orphans -- kids sent away from their parents to go to school or take a vacation or escape the Blitz. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte Sometimes. What Katy Did at School, too, but that one's American. And a bunch of the Susan Cooper books (also American). It's all about autonomy.

City Twins Chicago said...

Weren't those creepy Flowers in the Attic kids orphans?My kids kind-of look like the twins on the back cover. Creeps me out.

readersguide said...

Stewart Little twice over, and really, the pig (Wilbur?) in Charlotte's web, again, twice over -- his real parents and then Charlotte.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

In Jane Austen's Emma, Emma is motherless; Frank Churchill is motherless & "give up" to his aunt; and Jane Fairfax is an orphan raised by work friends of her father.

There's also Burnett's A Little Princess. And Huck Finn. And Jane Eyre.

anymommy said...

Oh I am such a fan of "English orphan" tales. All the best childhood strife and adventure happens to orphans. I always assumed that in order to really live you had to get those pesky parents out of the way!

Jeanne said...

Sometimes it's one dead parent and the other parent off at work all day. That's the story in Edward Eager's Half Magic and the new Jeanne Birdsall Penderwicks series.

Eager was influenced by E. Nesbit, who supported her children as a single mother by writing stories all day, giving them ample opportunity for adventure...

jo(e) said...

The Melendy kids in the Elizabeth Enright books. Their mother was dead, and the father off working somewhere.

Pretty much all of the "Shoes" books.

liz said...

James from James and the Giant Peach. Matilda is functionally an orphan, though she lives with her parents.

I read a wonderful intro to The Secret Garden about this, which talked about how though Mary's parents die horribly in the first chapter, and you'd think it would traumatize kids when they read it, her parents are so awful and she herself is so awful, that it's more "serves them right!" then "How sad!"

liz said...

Ah, I see that you had James. I elided over it when reading the list.

I love that first paragraph in which his parents are killed.

Kizz said...

You see it in all the Fairy Tales, too. Even the best of it, like Beauty & the Beast, it's a dead parent and one who checks out. If they didn't, though, then the kids wouldn't be in a position to stand up and make their own decisions - good and bad! As much as it might seem like parent-focused aggression it's just a literary device and helps kids think about how to make decisions on their own...now if only there were some other category of fiction that taught parents the best ways to step back enough (without dying!) for kids to learn to make their own decisions.

susan said...

Eva Ibbotson's The Secret of Platform 13 (she was born in Austria, not England, but still....). Bambi. Cinderella.

Kelly Beckman-Crabtree said...

We love The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. Orphans who were raised by wolves are awesome!

Anonymous said...

Daddy Long Legs. A great read.

antropologa said...

Did Christopher Robin have parents? You know, it seems like even if characters have parents, they're often not in the story. I guess child protagonists can get up to a lot more adventure without parents in the way.

Hm...add The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe...

kathy a. said...

nancy drew (mother dead; father away). dr. doolittle's tribe (cognizant animals). robinson crusoe. entire rafts of disney stories. every adventure story ever told is about losing one's usual support system, and finding a way to get along anyhow.

i loved those kinds of stories, too. spent ever so many nights and years imagining how i could get by if i somehow ended up in the wilderness, or whatever.

i'm not sure the message is so much "parents get in the way" as "start building your tools, because sometimes things happen."

kathy a. said...

a bit above the girlie's age level, but lord of the flies is the counterpoint: everything going to hell without rules. all the kid-level books assume there is good out there, and the trick is finding it; the rules that matter are still there. (well, mostly.)

Joybells said...

My youngest and I had a similar routine about how mothers always die, or are already dead, in Disney movies. So I'd suggest a movie and she'd ask with a big grin, "Does the mother die IN the movie, or before?"