Literary genres: a shoebox on the motorway


It’s been a long time since we investigated a literary genre as we did back in April 2014 when Chicken Lady so triumphantly won our “My Horrible Father” competition and scored a return bus trip to Nar Nar Goon. Now it’s time for “A shoebox on the motorway”, the genre named after the sketch in which the Pythons compete for the worst possible childhood.

Once again the Bible established the genre: we think it’s reasonable to include Adam and Eve even though, strictly speaking, they weren’t children. They certainly were babes in the wood who had a nice childhood to start with, and then had to start all over again in the horrible real world. Then there’s Isaac whose father Abraham put him on a pyre with a knife at his throat, a situation that would make any child gloomy, and it’s reasonable to think that even though he survived he kept well out of Abraham’s way after that. And the first-born Herod slaughtered got an even rougher deal than the Pythons.

In classical literature we have the son of Tantalus,  served up as a meal for the gods to see if they could tell the difference between human and godly flesh (an early example of the scientific method), and the children who were made into a gourmet casserole by Atreus. Medea, of course, dismembered her brother and flung the pieces into the sea to delay pursuers as she escaped with Jason, and later murdered the children she and Jason had together, to teach him a lesson. Of course, it’s quite possible that the children had a nice life before it was cut short, literally, by their parents. That isn’t the case for fairy tales, where child abuse is obligatory – Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella….

Moving on to Shakespeare, there’s Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, left out in the wilderness as a snack for bears, the princes in the tower, and Macduff’s children (You egg!). Dickens has any number of poor little creatures from Oliver Twist to Pip to Little Nell to the children in Mr Gradgrind’s school. Charlotte Bronte has Jane Eyre and her friend Helen.

Nasty childhoods go with horrible fathers and mothers, and many of the Horrible Father books come into the Shoebox category too.  Sam Pollitt’s children in The Man Who Loved Children, Lilian in Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story,  young Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, Peggy in Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days which we reviewed here – the list goes on and on and on.

What are your standout Shoebox books?




32 thoughts on “Literary genres: a shoebox on the motorway

  1. I was just taking a break from reading gloomy dismal modern essays for school, and spotted this — surely a much better way to spend my time. But I’ll have to give it some thought because my mind is immersed in angsts that have nothing obvious to do with dreadful childhoods. Thanks for the diversion.

    . . . actually, if you think about it, Jesus Christ was born in a barn, had to runaway to Egypt with his parents soon thereafter and live in exile until old Herod died. I guess it got better after that.

    One of my favorite bad childhoods was The Girl of the Limberlost”” by Gene Stratton Porter. Are you familiar with that book from the turn of the century? It’s a happy ever after ending, but the heroine of course goes through an enormous amount of abuse/neglect first. The setting is not far from where I grew up, and the heroine collected butterflies (as did I). It doesn’t exactly stand the test of time as literature, but for bad childhoods, it has stature.

    I’ll give it some more thought. Thanks — I’ll now return to my scheduled immersions in dreary modern literature and literary criticism.

    1. Yes, half of Gert has read this and it certainly qualifies. I’m not sure from the Pythonic point of view if things turning out well detracts from the horrible factor though…

  2. Dickens has been mentioned but I will never forget the sadness I felt when studying David Copperfield at school. I could never read it again.

    1. That’s interesting, it certainly didn’t have that effect on me. Maybe it’s because I had read quite a few other Dickens before I read that, and perhaps I was inoculated. If you read it as a child, your first Dickens, I can imagine it would stay with you. Jane Eyre got to me more.

      1. Yes, all those cautionary tales would have to be ruled out for that reason, even Matilda who was burned alive and the little boy eaten by a tiger. In fact they are an argument to support the iron discipline of the horrible parents. I must say Leslie has come up with a cracker. Even the Wikipaedia summary is harrowing.

  3. My first thought was Dickens, but you’ve got him on your list. Like Guy, I tend to steer away from this genre as I find it too distressing to read about cruelty to kids….such is life.

      1. Isn’t it just! Have you come across Agota Kristof by any chance? I haven’t read it, but her novel The Notebook strikes me as being in this territory. It’s the first in a trilogy along with The Proof and The Third Lie. I’ve seen several rave reviews/reports but have shied away from picking it up because I fear it would be too harrowing a read for me personally.

  4. Sorry that I made Peggy have such a bad time of it in Our Endless Numbered Days! But I think the prize for the worst literary childhood has to go to Jude from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I’m not sure it gets much worse, but it is a good book.

    1. I haven’t read it for that very reason, and also because I believe it involves sexual abuse, which has got to be a bit of go-to for the horrible childhood these days. Congratulations on your book, I thought it was extraordinary. But judging by some of the suggestions here (including yours) I don’t think it tops the list for horrible childhoods. You’ll have to try harder next time!

    1. Mention away, Cath. As you well know we haven ‘t read it and don’t intend to. Have you read “Flowers in the Attic” suggested by Leslie? Someone told us today it was absolutely looooooved by teenagers. Che???? What is it with young readers that they enjoy this sort of stuff? (I’ll just go back to my crocheting now…)

      1. Yes, vaguely remember giving it a go. Never really liked that disturbing genre that was popular back then. Being of a senstive nature…..

  5. ‘Jane Eyre’ is another. I was going to say any stories of boarding schools, but of course for Harry Potter, boarding school was a welcome break from being forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs, even with the good vs evil backdrop.

    1. Oh yes, I’d forgotten the Beaudelaire children. The events were unfortunate, to say the least. I only read the first in the series. Things turned out OK for them in the end, didn’t they?

      1. They sort of just cope, and sail away. They get out of count Olaf clutches, but it’s not a conventional ending, it seemed there’s always going to be more trouble, but sometimes you need to get rid of the antagonist to move on 😉

  6. I can’t add much to your excellent examples or those of your correspondents but the hard-done-by child is such a staple particularly in children’s books that it seems to stand as a monument to the disturbing notion that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you strong’. Sadly, in real life what doesn’t kill you often utterly messes up the rest of your life.

    On a brighter note, Victorian children’s literature is full of morally uplifting tales of hard-done-by children who make it big, like all good fledgling entrepreneurs and capitalists. (Sorry, a little cynical there.) Little Tom the climbing-boy in The Water-Babies gets a second chance after drowning, because that’s like baptism, isn’t it ( Joan Aiken, the author of modern classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase modelled many of her child protagonists on Dickensian waifs and strays — needless to say they muddle through using their wits, courage and not a little luck.

    That so many modern children’s novels also focus on the overlooked or bullied child suggests to me that, psychologically, this is part of a process of individuation that is so necessarily for each one of us to develop a sense of selfhood. It’s when children are treated, mistreated especially, as somehow ‘other’ or dispensable that we have to start worrying.

    1. And even a whole genre of Scandinavian Noir about the brutal abductions and murders of children. I read a review of a new one recently where a serial killer announces his presence by hanging the murdered bodies of children from trees. Just cannot read them.

  7. “Eric, Or Little by Little” – Frederic W. Farrar, For some reason it was in the school library and looked as if it had been there since publication. And i remember reading a particularly affecting bit of the moral turpitude in domestic science class. The teacher must have been absent so we had to sit in silence and read. Fine by me.)

    And then there’s “The Water Babies” and “Goodnight, Mr.Tom.”

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