Happy last day of September! After a busy couple of weeks that included an author Skype visit for my seventh and eighth grade students with Katie Quirk, who wrote our summer reading book A Girl Called Problem; a two-part interview about my YA novel on L. Marie’s wonderful blog (here’s part 1 and part 2); and the purchase of a new car, I’m (finally) back to share the next strategy for crafting an engagingly fallible narrator.
In recent posts, I’ve gone over how writers can use narrative distance, audience and purpose, and syntax and diction to reveal the limits in a first-person narrator’s perspective. Today, I’d like to talk about omission. It turns out that writers can encourage readers to see our first-person narrators as fallible through what we leave out as well as what we include.
In his historical novel Gold Dust, Chris Lynch uses omission to emphasize his narrator Richard’s vulnerability and to show distortions in Richard’s point of view. (Warning: this discussion of Gold Dust is going to include a spoiler, so if you want to remain spoiler-free, you shouldn’t read the sixth paragraph. Although if you’re anything like me, being told to skip a paragraph probably ensures that you’ll read it, and immediately. Oh well. At least I tried to spare you.) Anyway, Gold Dust takes place in 1975 Boston, where the government has instituted a plan to desegregate schools by busing students out of district. The book opens when Napoleon Charlie Ellis, a black boy from Dominica, joins Richard’s school and doesn’t exactly receive a warm welcome from many of his white classmates. Throughout the novel, Richard wants Napoleon to embrace life in Boston and Richard’s favorite sport: baseball. He criticizes Napoleon for seeing racism everywhere and claims that Napoleon could be happy if he did not insist upon looking for negatives.
However, Lynch equips readers to realize that Richard’s views aren’t quite reliable, in part by omitting any real discussion of Richard’s family. When Napoleon asks Richard about his family, Richard resorts to self-deprecating humor and distancing sports talk: “Oh, no, this was really not my idea of chat. No batter, no batter. Humm, baby. I got it, I got it. That’s my idea of a personal statement” (52). This internal monologue shows that Richard uses baseball to connect with other people and is uncomfortable opening up.
Richard not only refuses to tell Napoleon about his family, but he also refuses to confide in the reader. By the end of the novel, we know countless details about Richard’s approach to hitting and his devotion to the Red Sox, but all we know for sure about his family is that he lives with only his father. We get the idea that Richard’s father might be racist because Richard doesn’t think his dad would want to meet Napoleon, but we don’t get any details.
Lynch also leaves readers to infer that Richard’s mom has died in an accident based on one indirect comment. Richard tries to articulate how he felt when Napoleon forced him to acknowledge that the crowd at Fenway Park cheered more enthusiastically for a white player than for a black one. He explains: “You know the moment. Like when an important paper comes back with a large F on it. When your father tells you he has searched everywhere but it seems the dog just won’t be coming back. Or there’s a phone call and you’re the only one home, and the person on the other end is sorry but there has been an accident” (185). Up until this point, Richard has not mentioned his mother or offered any reasons for her absence, and even here, he distances himself from the revelation, posing it almost as a hypothetical situation and then returning to his talk of baseball.
Lynch’s omissions of family details make Richard a sympathetic character: a wounded boy with little adult guidance. But these omissions also signal that readers should be wary of Richard’s views because Richard is not always able to open up and he doesn’t like to confront what is difficult.
If you are writing a first-person novel, consider whether your narrator might have hot-button issues that are too intense for him to get into, and be on the lookout for hot-button issues as you read first-person novels. When writers keep a topic off-limits, that can alert young readers to a character’s emotional wounds, making the character sympathetic while also encouraging readers to consider the accuracy of his perspectives.
Lynch, Chris. Gold Dust. 2000. New York: Scholastic, 2002. Print.