Really, even a very cursory glance at world literature reveals that, from the dawn of time (and earlier, maybe?) mankind has relied on an essentially unchanged plot structure. Stories start with explication, build tension with rising action, resolve the big conflict at the climactic moment, assess the fallout and finally fade into a beautiful and haunting denouement. That’s it. Whether this plays out in a 100,000-year old cave painting or an endless Russian novel from the 19th century, we, as readers, have certain expectations. We want to know that we can trust our storyteller.
Too, I would argue that we are born with this simple plot structure already engraved quite nicely into our little psyches. Though my daughter couldn’t fully articulate her outrage at age 10 months when I first read to her Ms. Heller’s book, I know that she, like her father, felt cheated somehow, as if life did not fully resolve itself the way the universe intended. She, too, checked to see if a page may have accidentally been ripped out of the story.
Ok. Let me explain. From the start, Ms. Heller’s story follows all the usual (correct and timeless) conventions of storytelling. Raggedy Ann’s friend Annie (annoyingly confusing) is planning a picnic and is gathering the edibles into her basket. She has PB & Js, lemonade and cookies (for whatever reasons, Raggedy Ann’ excited about the food…) and tells her mother they’re off while Raggedy Ann and the dog, Patches, wait under a blanket (that part was weird to me, too). So, the set-up’s there: our heroes are called to their adventure by the basic human drive of the picnic on a clear, lovely summer day. Cool. Now, we need tension and obstacles quickly established. And we’ll get it, though it’s clear at this point that our heroine is Raggedy Ann, as soon Annie will (and in my mind, disturbingly) exit stage left.
As soon as the three arrive at the picnic site, Annie sees her real friends off in the distance flying kites and abandons her loser doll and puppy to go hang with the cool kids. In fact, before leaving, Annie dismissively instructs Raggedy Ann and Patches to set-up the picnic itself—blanket, food, napkins and such, while she goes to have real fun. So, like all hangers-ons and wannabes, Raggedy Ann fulfills the popular girl’s demands to the letter, and now she and the smelly dog simply have to wait for Annie to once again acknowledge their existence and maybe even spend some time with them.
But wait: out of nowhere a squirrel emerges to snatch the bag of chocolate chip cookies just as a gust of wind blows the carefully stacked (by Raggedy Ann) napkins all over the park. Oh, my god–what will they do? What happens when Annie comes back and finds that her minions have failed her, have been incapable of satisfying even the most mind-numbingly simple requests? Well, quick-thinking Patches takes after the squirrel as Raggedy Ann scurries to collect all the napkins and make as if nothing has happened–I mean, just in case Annie would deign to treat with her in the near future anyway.
To this point, Ms. Heller’s role as storyteller has been masterful. Every aspect of basic storytelling has been handled deftly, and the young reader has learned a few solid, though emotionally crippling, lessons along the way. Yes, you might think your owner loves you, but you’re just a doll on a shelf (it’ll take Corduroy to change all that) and when something better comes along you’ll be cast aside without a second thought. Nevertheless, you have a job to do and even though she hates you (or, at best, simply tolerates you) you must fulfill her wishes or face dire consequences.
Now, what’s going to happen? How will Raggedy Ann and Patches resolve this tenuous situation? Will Patches catch the speedy, more dextrous and able squirrel, kick its ass and retrieve the cookies? Will Raggedy Ann stack the runaway napkins in time for Annie’s arrival for a perfect picnic. In short, will our heroine and her sidekick, quite literally, save the day? On the first read, I could see my daughter’s forehead knit with tension. She was clearly nervous. Her expectations for the story’s climactic moment needed to be resolved. How will our author let Raggedy Ann and Patches deal with this sticky situation? Well, let’s slowly turn the page, dear daughter, and find out. O, the tension. We both lean closer to the book itself.
Wait, why is it the last page? We see Annie serenely asleep on her pretty pink bed and in the foreground of the scene Raggedy Ann and Patches stare at her, not too creepily, with smug expressions on their little faces. Raggedy Ann turns to Patches and says something profound about how they saved the picnic and the day, apparently both pleasing their master and avoiding a dreadful beating (or worse, a disdainful ignoring) at her hands.
That’s it? Daughter and father feel cheated. I turn back the page, check to see if there’s one stuck to the previous or something. Nothing. We, the reader, must simply take for granted that our heroine triumphed. But how? Of all the elements of plot structure, the climactic moment has always been most important and most absorbed by the audience. Do you remember the 100s of pages of details regarding Fanghorn Forest that clearly, or does your mind keep going back to Frodo’s inability to cast The One Ring back into the fires of Mount Doom? You see my point, then. Ms. Heller simply refused to offer up the single most striking and, dare I say, required, aspect of storytelling. A giant F-you to the reader, really. And I could feel my daughter sensed it, that existential backhand to her innate need for purely structured story.
What was a father to do? In future readings, I allowed myself to provide for the climactic moment. Upon each reading, Raggedy Ann and Patches would persevere and win through different means. Sometimes, cunning and craft would seize the day, in others, Patches’s brute strength would smite the villainous squirrel-bandit. It would work out, and at least my daughter could hear it, if not see it. Though I loved the chance to exercise my imagination (and have my daughter witness my genius), I shouldn’t have had to do Ms. Heller’s most critical piece of work for her.
In future readings of Let’s Have a Picnic, my daughter disappointingly had to content herself with the tactile aspects of the book–the rugged basket, the soft blanket, the slippery napkins, Raggedy Ann’s ropey hair. But I could sense that lack of fulfillment each time we marched through the book. I marveled at my daughter’s optimism, as I imagine with each request to read this bitter disappointment of a story she hoped that Raggedy Ann’s victory would play out visually on the page and not just in that spoken space between one page and the turning to another. But it’s never there. She’s only left with Raggedy Ann’s beatific smile and the sweetly sleeping Annie. If Ms. Heller’s intention was to ensure to her young readers that everything comes out all right in the end, this book has the opposite effect. In fact, the mystery of life becomes even more mysterious, and frightening. That last page harrows the soul.
No wonder my daughter pulls Raggedy Ann’s hair so hard, as if she wants the flat, lifeless character to feel her own anguish. But she never will.