Wednesday, December 9, 2009

ALLUSION: A Season of Gifts

Dear Heather,

First, thank you SO much for joining us in an online discussion of Richard Peck’s novel, A Season of Gifts. I know that you’ve been enjoying the critical analysis side of your work in the Hamline MFA program, and am glad that you’re able to bring that to a book discussion here at StorySleuths.

Years ago, at an SCBWI conference, Sid Fleischman said that if you want a reader to see something, point to it. This makes a great deal of sense. As writers, we sometimes dance around what we are really trying to say in the interest of being clever or mysterious. Instead of illuminating things for our readers, we leave them in the dark.

What I have loved in A Season of Gifts is the way that Richard Peck does NOT point to things—at least not directly. Instead, he alludes to them.

Before I share an example that really worked for me, let me POINT to why I think this can be such a powerful way of writing, especially for younger readers. In alluding to something rather than pointing to it we engage our readers at a deeper level. We drop clues for them like word-shaped breadcrumbs. The reader follows our trail, and then there is an A-ha! moment when he grasps the point we have been alluding to—he has become a participant in the unfolding of the story. This is a marvelous gift to give a reader, especially a younger reader who winds up not only loving the story, but feeling empowered because he “gets it.”

I’m going to jump all the way to the end of the book and talk about the wedding scene. If you have not finished the book, I’m about to spill some beans . . .

Recall the scene when the homecoming parade is winding its way through town. About the self-appointed homecoming queen, Waynetta, Mrs. Dowdel says, “She looks a little peaked and off her feed. . .And I’ve seen better hair on bacon.” (p. 90)

On my first pass through the book I read this line and thought nothing of it, aside from laughing out loud at the hair comment. Then I reached the scene at the Christmas wedding. In comes Waynetta wearing the same outfit she’d worn on the homecoming float, only it didn’t look as good this time around. “It didn’t fit her as well now. Her dress-up suit strained around the middle.” (p. 155)

Hmmm, she looked peaked, and now the dress is straining around the middle. I wondered, is Peck trying to tell me something here? Soon I learned that Roscoe, the groom, was clearly not at the wedding by choice, “there was panic in his blue-and-green stare. Blind panic.” (p. 157) I learned that the bride’s mother had opted to stay home, feeling a bit ill. Finally, the narrator shared that long after the day of the wedding, he overheard his mother tell his father that instead of “Joy to the World,” perhaps a more appropriate wedding song would have been “For Unto Us a Child is Born.” (p. 157)

I read this book aloud to my boys the first time through, and there was a glimmer of a blush on my thirteen-year-old’s face when he suddenly sat up and announced, “I think Waynetta is pregnant.” He then went on to rattle off all the clues, proud of how he had put it all together.

Again and again in this story Peck packs in subtle clues to allude to the nature of characters or their relationships:

A-ha! So it was Mrs. Dowdel dropping off all those gifts on the porch!
A-ha! So it was Ruth Anne who dressed up as the Kickapoo Princess!

It occurs to me that what I am describing is really an expansion of the concept of showing rather than telling, but the piece of craft that struck me was the way Peck unfolded the showing so slowly, so expertly over the course of many chapters. When full realization hit me, I felt as if I had earned it.

StorySleuths Tip # 32: To deepen a readers experience with a story give them opportunities to figure things out themselves by alluding to things rather than pointing directly at them.