I have observed that using a child or innocent character as the narrator of a story or book with adult themes can be most powerful. Just think of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, young Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, or seven year old Luke Chandler, narrator of John Grisham’s novel A Painted House, which may not be the classics the other two have become but made an impression on me in large part because of Luke’s narration. In Scout’s case, intelligent but naïve about the evils of the world, she brings a no-nonsense take on the events and people at the center of the story. The right thing to do seems so obvious when she points it out. Without the humor young Frank brings to his tale of growing up in Ireland, Angela’s Ashes has the potential to be one of the most agonizingly depressing books ever written but because of the young boy’s outlook and ability to see the humor in his tragic world, I often found myself laughing through my tears. In A Painted House, the narrator’s youth makes him an unreliable narrator because he cannot understand all that he sees and hears. His unreliability increases the suspense of the novel because the reader sees the events through Luke’s young eyes.
I just finished reading Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and the narrator, Cassandra is another example of the power and wisdom of a young or innocent narrator. Though the novel only encompasses six months in Cassandra’s young life, she loses that innocence and it shows in her narration. In the first section, despite the hardships in her life, Cassandra’s writing is filled with wise and wonderful observations stated with a simplicity that can only come from innocent observers. I Capture the Castle is full of memorable quotes, such as:
“I have noticed that when things happen in one’s imaginings, they never happen in one’s life.”
“I have noticed that rooms which are extra clean feel extra cold.”
“I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.”
But as the story moves forward and Cassandra begins to see the way the world really works and the true natures of the people she loves, her observations lose their humor and simplicity. They also become a little more self-centered as she grows more concerned with her own aching heart than her family and her loved ones or describing the world in which she lives. I guess we’re all like that. As children, we are focused on our family, then our friends, and on learning all we can about our world but when we reach adolescence, our focus is definitely on our own drama (real or imagined). When Cassandra does this, she admits that she loses her keen sense of observation. At her lowest, she fails to take in the city as she walks through the streets of London after leaving her sister. Something she would have relished only a month or two earlier.
Good books always seem to teach us something about ourselves regardless of the point of view. Maybe it is just that young or innocent narrators, like the children in our lives, are better at pointing out truths in the simplest terms than adults are.