Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mr. Was Is

I just finished Pete Hautman’s 1996 novel Mr. Was. The story chronicles the life of John (Jack) Lund, which begins in 1979 and ends in 1952. Yes. You read that right. 1979 to 1952. It’s a time travel story that involves a creepy old house, a secret door, and a family saga which cycles back on itself a few times before Jack’s tale is complete.

It’s a fine bit of metafiction, too, set in fictional Memory, MN, which is surrounded by very real and (at least for me) very familiar locations—including my hometown.  Hautman even writes himself into the story, as one simply presentingfor our reviewthe documents contained in an aluminum briefcase his dad found on a North Carolina beach in the early 1950’s (documents Hautman himself supposedly didn’t read until the 1990’s). While this author interaction with the text adds another layer to the narrative (and another chill factory to the story’s “plausibility”), I only wish the possibilities would have been mined a bit further to really explore the effect of story on its writer (or transcriber). Sort of like the way Wes Craven’s New Nightmare investigates (metaphorically) how the horror genre affects those who create it. All things being equal, though, Mr. Was is a much better story than New Nightmare.

Mr. Was is Hautman’s first YA novel. You can read more about it (and its forthcoming new edition) in a post by the author HERE.

Hautman notes that when he wrote Mr. Was, he did not consider it to be a novel for young adults, but Jack's "experiences as a teen made for better storytelling." And so it was published as YA.

It fits the genre. At least, Mr. Was is half a YA novel—both literally and literarily.  Literally because about half the book takes place while Jack is an adolescent. Literarily because Jack’s life teeters between fate and agency.  Agency, for me at least, is a hallmark of YA (or “coming-of-age”) stories. A protagonist must separate himself from the forces that have pushed and pulled him in different directions throughout his childhood and think and act for himself (for better or for worse). So even beyond agency, or the capacity to act, I would argue he must actually act. Jack does just this, making the decision to travel back in time to prevent a tragedy—even though it means he’ll have to wait fifty years for the opportunity to stop it. 

But, as is the case with any good time travel story, there is the question of fate.  Can anything in the past really be altered?  Because if there ever were a time traveler, any difference that he or she makes in history really doesn’t represent a difference at all—it just is. Things that are have always been and will always be.

Whew! That’s getting a little heady for this blog. But my point is, how can anyone exhibit agency (at least in the realm of time travel) when everything that is has always been and will always be? Plus what happens to Jack in the past further strips him of his agency, but we won't get into that (to both save time and avoid spoiling the rest of the novel for you).

This agency/fate split does not represent a flaw in the novel (nor even a mischaracterization of this novel as YA). To the contrary, it makes the novel stronger and more interesting.  Makes us think about these things—agency and fate.  Even—hopefully—makes young readers question the repetition of history. If we know going down a particular road will take us somewhere bad, can’t we choose a different way the next time 'round?

Recommended for ages 15-18.

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