Monday, May 17, 2010

STORIES AS SCAFFOLDING: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon Post #4

Dear Allyson and Heather,

Every once in a while an author scaffolds a narrative on a structural element that perfectly complements the content. Think Holes, scaffolded by Louis Sachar on the curse put on Stanley’s great-great-grandfather. Think When You Reach Me, scaffolded by Rebecca Stead on the mysterious notes left for Miranda. Think Secret Water, scaffolded by Arthur Ransome on the sketchy outline map given by their father to John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Bridget. Think Love, Ruby Lavender, scaffolded by Deborah Wiles on letters sent between Ruby and her grandmother. And now, think Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, scaffolded by Grace Lin on stories inspired by Chinese folk tales told primarily to Minli, but also, tellingly, to other characters as well. It’s these stories that I’ll focus on in this post, stories that enrich, enliven, deepen, and illuminate the narrative of Minli’s quest.

Each of the 16 stories is set off from the main narrative by a title, in color, bracketed by two colored medallions with mini-images from that story, introduced by a drop cap in color, and typeset in a typeface different from the typeface of the main narrative (I’m not savvy enough to know which typesets they are, and I couldn’t find the different typefaces identified in the book). Each story ends with a centered medallion, similar to those in the border of the full page illustration on page 186. These visual elements serve to separate the stories from the narrative and from one another, as well as to link them together with one another.

As the stories complement the text, together they serve to drop clues for Minli, for her parents, for other characters, and of course for us readers as well. As an indication of how important the stories are, they all have titles, whereas the chapters themselves are simply numbered and do not have titles.

I’ll focus on 3 of the stories-- the first (The Story of Fruitless Mountain), the third (The Story of the Dragon), and the last (The Story that Ma Told)--and on how Lin uses them to drive the plot, develop important symbols, and clarify character change.

Stories drive the plot

The first story, “The Story of Fruitless Mountain,” appears in Chapter 1. It kicks off the story action and provides the motivation for Minli’s quest.

Even before the first story appears in the text Lin prepares a story space for it. Lin preps readers for something special and important--something not only with the power to transform Minli’s life, but with the power to reenergize her father and even to make her impatient mother smile.

What kept Minli from becoming dull and brown like the rest of the village were the stories her father told her every night at dinner. She glowed with such wonder and excitement that even Ma would smile, though she would shake her head at the same time. Ba seemed to drop his gray and work weariness--his black eyes sparkled like raindrops in the sun when he began a story. (p. 3)
In addition, it’s clear that Minli has heard not only this story, but many stories, before:
"Ba, tell me the story about Fruitless Mountain again,” Minli would say as her mother spooned their plain rice into bowls. “Tell me again why nothing grows on it.” (p. 3)

“The Story of Fruitless Mountain” describes how Fruitless Mountain can become fruitful again--when “Jade Dragon is no longer lonely and is reunited with at least one of her children” (p. 8). Following the story, Minli asks, “Why doesn’t someone bring the water of the four great rivers to the mountain?” If it were that simple, there wouldn’t be much of a quest! Minli’s subsequent question, “How will Fruitless Mountain ever grow green again?” can only be answered, her father said, by the Old Man of the Moon.

“Someday, I will ask him,” Minli declared. (p. 9)
By the end of Chapter 1, Minli has set her course--based on information presented in the story.

Stories develop symbols

Chapters 4 through 10 are devoid of stories, focusing instead on Minli’s unannounced departure on her quest to find the Old Man of the Moon and on her parents’ desperate search for her. When, in Chapter 11, Minli frees a dragon who cannot fly and asks him his name, he responds with the third story, “The Story of the Dragon.” This story includes an important reference to a small prop--an inking stone--that has major significance to Minli as she searches for the way that Fruitless Mountain will grow green again. In The Passionate, Accurate Story: Making Your Heart's Truth into Literature, Carol Bly suggests using a small prop three times--once to introduce it to the reader, a second time so the reader remembers it, and the third time so it becomes a symbol for something important in the story. (p. 159).

Ma first mentions the inking stone in Chapter 1. When Minli’s father says that a man tired to reunite Jade Dragon with her children by taking stones from the mountain to the rivers, Minli’s mother cut in:

“My grandmother told me he was an artist. He took the mountain rock to carve into inking stones” (p. 9).

The inkstone is mentioned for the second time in the dragon’s story:

When I was born, I remember two voices speaking.

“Master,” one voice said. “This is magnificent--the dragon is almost alive!”

“Add more water to the inkstone,” another voice said. (p. 51)

Later in the dragon’s story, the inkstone is described in more detail:

“Clean the brushes and take great care with my special inkstone. It is one of a kind, the only inkstone that was able to be made from a rock my master cut from a mountain far from here. He never told anyone which mountain, so we can never make another.” (p. 53)
In addition, the illustration on page 50 above the Chapter 11 heading is of an inkstone, emphasizing its importance.

The inkstone is mentioned a third time when, at the end of her quest, Minli is the one who puts the puzzle pieces together, realizing that the inking stone is the connection between the Jade Dragon and her dragon child, who has returned to her.

Perhaps Dragon was born from an inkstone made of Fruitless Mountain, the heart of Jade Dragon. Then perhaps he was one of Jade Dragon’s children. And by bringing him to Fruitless Mountain, Minli had discovered how to make Fruitless Mountain grow green again. (pp. 269-270)

Stories clarify character change

The last story, “The Story that Ma Told,” illustrates the transformation in Ma, from her skepticism and rejection of Ba’s stories, to finally telling him one of her own. Ma described a woman whose daughter had left home to find fortune for her family:

For without her daughter, the house became too large and empty, and she was not hungry for the extra rice. As the days passed in loneliness, fear, and worry, the woman cursed herself for her selfishness and foolishness. How lucky she had been! ....The woman wept tears for which there was no comfort. For all the time that she had been longing for treasures, she had already had the one most precious. (p. 254)
Her story, told to Ba, describes her recognition of the effects of her own actions, and precipitates her apology to Ba.

StorySleuths Tip # 71: Consider scaffolding your narrative on a structural element, such as stories, to drive the plot, deepen the symbols, and clarify character development.