1. The Child Matures THE STORY about a child growing up, getting his first taste of reality, awakening to new potentialities within himself...
A certain small town had been electrified by the escape of a group of convicts from a nearby prison. At first, unusual precautions were taken. But then a week passed, all but one prisoner had been recaptured, and most of the townspeople considered the danger gone. Not so one young boy. One day he starts off on a solo hiking trip along the railway tracks, thinking hard about what it would be like to run up against the convict, what he would do and say if he did. Before long, at an especially lonely stretch, he comes on a man crouching in a little recess near the train tracks.
From the suspicious, hunted air and disheveled looks of the man, the boy is immediately certain that he is the missing convict. The boy overcomes his impulse to bolt and instead walks confidently up to the man and naively asks him if he is a hobo. The convict remains suspicious and silent, but the boy keeps up the chatter to allay the man's fears. The boy tells the convict that the engineer who runs the train which will soon come along the train tracks is his friend and will stop the train if the boy flags it down. The boy offers to halt the train so that the convict can jump aboard and eventually get across the border into Canada where the boy assures him he will be able to get work.
The train comes along, the boy flags it, and the convict jumps on. The boy tells the engineer, after a moment's hesitation, about the convict, and the engineer makes arrangements at a water stop to have the train met at the boy's home town by the police. When the boy finally sees the convict forcibly removed and sees the look of hate and contempt on the convict's face, he is ashamed of having tricked him. The boy knows his name and picture will be printed in newspapers, that he will be acclaimed as a hero, and for the first time he realizes that the world very often will reward individuals for being dishonorable.
Anyone who thinks this story tame and reasonable doesn't know the slicks. In the field of popular fiction, this is raw meat. Implied and almost stated is a Swiftian condemnation of many aspects of life, if not of life itself. Revealed are the two sides of fame and worldly recognition.
(Suppose the writer were similarly to reveal the two sides of the average marriage, of wartime patriotism, of business success, or any of the other of the most sacred American institutions. What would he have? A "quality" story.) If child-maturing stories like this one are painful or merely sad and poignant, there is always the long-term compensation that the experiences they describe are necessary to the development of the child and leave him better prepared to face the world. Were an adult character to have the moral carpet thus pulled from under him, what would be gained? Disillusionment in no way serves the slick advertiser, editor, or reader. The one story outlined is, of course, an extreme case. It is given here to indicate the lengths a writer may go to in portraying dramas of childhood. More in line with the usual stories of this type is a piece about a young girl just reaching her adolescence.
She is still a tom-boy, and her parents feel it is about time she evinced some signs of femininity. To this end, they insist that she put on a fancy dress for the annual fashion showing to be held at the country club. She gives in to the pressure and, once at the club, the manager of the show chooses her to be the one local belle to join the professional models in the fashion parade. She resists, but is dared into it. The woman in charge of the dressing room gives her a few pointers on carriage and facial expressions, and the girl turns out to be the hit of the show.
She is overwhelmed at the attention and adulation she gets for playing the part of a woman. And her parents, watching her, realize that she has taken the first irrevocable step in growing up, in becoming a lady. She will never be the unself- conscious tom-boy again. They have achieved their purpose more fully than they expected, and their success mixes sadness with their pride.
As a rule which has many exceptions but still which holds often enough to be a rule, the maturing experience of girls consists of realizing and surrendering to their own femininity, while boys mature, usually, through developing a sense of responsibility or self-sufficiency.
An eighteen-year-old boy comes home from his first year at college, quite taken with his own importance. His mother asks him to work at his father's office for the summer, or at least implies that his father would be pleased if he wanted to. The boy doesn't particularly go for the suggestion. He feels, rather, that he should stay free to indulge any whims he might have. Then the mother tells the boy that his father doesn't have long to live and she wants to see that what will probably be his last summer will be the happiest possible. The boy who had always taken his family for granted begins to appreciate his parents and begins to act like an adult.
Stories like this have no suspense, in the usual sense. At the opening, there is merely an atmosphere of impending change. Only at the story's end, when the change occurs, when the child has had the maturing experience, does the story show its intended direction. The piece has achieved a kind of retroactive suspense. Since there is rarely an urgent problem for the story to "work against," the writing often feels "loose" until the very end of the piece. To cotnpensate, the details and business of such stories usually have more color and feeling than stories which can capture interest with a simple problem.