Sunday, January 27

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

by Judy Blume
original Penguin edition 1972

Where's the struggle, and what's the resolution of that conflict? What does Peter want, exactly? Is Peter even the main character? Everything I learned last week in lectures and workshops is turned upside down! Grad school has ruined reading for me!

Okay, I'm calm now. But it is an interesting, if serendipitous, choice for me at this time. These collected stories of title character Peter and his younger brother nicknamed Fudge do have a connecting thread throughout, which is a turtle named Dribble that Peter wins at a birthday party on the first page. It would be tempting to make a case that the turtle is the main character for the book but that would be silly. It's Peter's story by virtue of his narration, his view of the world, but it's almost entirely the exploits of Fudge that makes Peter the "nothing" of the title, the ignored older brother. It's an interesting cheat because all Peter wants is the same fawning attention his brother receives but but only gets when Fudge has (again) done something to mess up his life. Peter never solves his own problems and in the end his only growth as a character is that he's come to acknowledge that his baby brother's exploits occasionally net him unasked-for benefits.

Those who care about spoilers, bail out now, I'm about to talk about the ending. Not that it matters because it isn't like it's any sort of real resolution, but to be fair to those who like their surprises...

The book opens and closes with a pet, the turtle Peter wins at a birthday party and the replacement for that turtle who is lost when Fudge swallows it. When Peter gets a puppy its with the wink of humorous understanding that he isn't likely to lose the dog to his brother's gastronomic misadventures, but what the hell sort of a consolation is that? This kid Fudge has knocked out his own teeth by flying off the monkey bars and cut his own hair with -- and Peter makes a point of this -- a pair of very sharp scissors stored under a bed. Hello! This kid may find he can't swallow a puppy but that doesn't mean he isn't potentially a lethal vivisectionist.

But back to the dog. Peter has never mentioned wanting a dog, never really wanted anything but to have his brother not mess up his life, and all we see time and again are a pair of loving parents who don't freak out (which is good) but can't seem to reign in the terror of tiny town. And for all Peter has to put up with he's given a puppy for companionship. After all he's endured throughout the book Peter is essentially told "we love you, but we've got our hands full with your maniacal brother so here's a puppy to give your the companionship we can't give you."

Anyway, structurally it was interesting to see how one could fashion a book out of connected stories, essentially a dual character study of a rambunctious snot and his nothing of an older brother. And that poor tortured turtle.

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