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?