Monday, August 30, 2010

Go Ask Alice

Every summer, my family, like thousands of other Michigan families, would go "Up North" for a vacation. "Up North" is Michigan talk for "anywhere North of Flint", but when each family says that they are going "Up North", they are referring to a different specific city, and you would know which one they meant if you really knew that family. When my family went "Up North", we went to Charlevoix, which is at about the tip of your ring finger, if you are using your left hand to model Michigan.

I clearly remember going to the little grocery store at the end of the street that took you to our cottage in Charlevoix when I was about 8 or 9 years old, and choosing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll from the metal rack that also housed Archie comic books. At the time, it seemed like Alice's Adventures was a solid choice. It was literature, after all, and it was written for children. As such, I should read it. And I tried. But the book that I picked was in the form of a paperback novel, with black and white line drawn illustrations, and it was boring to read on the beach when I could be splashing in the waves or building in the sand. I decided that I was probably still a little young for the book, so I took it home, where it sat on my bookshelf unread, until one day I realized that really, I was too old to read it. It probably wound up in a garage sale when my mom cleaned out my room when I was in college.

Decades later, my book group decided to read Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin, and it became important to me to read Alice's Adventures for once and for all. But now a new dilemma. There are so many versions of it! I started off with the strange idea that the circa 1975 paperback that I had discarded would be available at my local library. Not quite. The library had many versions, all with the same author, but with very different illustrators, and not a single black line drawn illustration among them. After stalking the shelves for a few weeks, I decided on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as illustrated by Michael Foreman. This was the ideal choice for me.

Both Michael Foreman and Melanie Benjamin used the picture of Alice Liddell at the top of this post as the centerpiece of their work. Alice Liddell is the real life person upon whom Charles Dodgson (the real life Lewis Carroll) based the Alice character. The picture at the top of this post was taken of Alice Liddell by Charles Dodgson about three years before the story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was first told. The author, Benjamin, and the illustrator, Foreman, take the subject of this picture in completely different directions, and both are contrary to the image of Alice that has thrived over the past 150 years.

Michael Foreman, as you might have guessed, uses this dark, shortish haired girl as a model for his illustrations, as opposed to the long blond haired girl who is in many versions of Alice's Adventures. It does not seem to cross Foreman's mind that the photograph upon which he bases his Alice could have been entirely inappropriate for the Victorian era in which it was taken, and he may be right. Perhaps Alice's parents, Dean and Mrs. Liddell, commissioned this photo of Alice in her Halloween costume or dressed for a play. Or perhaps Benjamin is right when she implies that this photo may be an early example of high society child pornography.

Alice I Have Been starts with the proposition that Alice and Dodgson had an inappropriate relationship. From there, we watch as that one photo, and possibly a kiss, shape the future of both characters in ways that are dark and haunting. Alice is punished throughout her life for Dodgson's questionable advances, and loses some chances at love while finding others. I kept wondering how Alice could be held responsible for the way a grown man treated her when she was 7, but Benjamin writes the story in a way that makes that accountability seem unavoidable, if not reasonable. Alice herself wonders, as I am sure victims of exploitation do, if she was really the person responsible for all that came after. After what? is the question of the book.

Alice I Have Been is historical fiction, but Benjamin does the reader a great favor by revealing at the end of the story what was true, and what was created. Not much fiction was required to make this an engaging story. The Victorian notions of blame and consequence have carried forward to the twenty first century more than I might have thought. Would you want your son (or daughter) to marry a person who was featured in child pornography when they were younger? Although we feel for the victim, we also want to disassociate ourselves from her. Perhaps we even want to escape to a nicer place, where all one has to do to change is to eat from different sides of the same mushroom.

Particularly poignant for me, although this part may have been entirely Benjamin's creation, was Alice's regret at not reading the story of her adventures earlier. To that, I can relate!

Next Up: Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

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