Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A (Bad) Grammar Lesson

Years ago, decades in fact, in the first year of our book group we read Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. In the 25 years since, we have never discussed reading another of her books. Many of the more recent ones have been mysteries involving a cat. But she has been a prolific writer and when I saw a slim volume The Sand Castle in the library I decided to see how she had developed as an author – a bad choice but not for the reason that I would have expected.

On the surface this is the story of a day’s outing to the beach on the Chesapeake Bay in 1952. The travelers are two sisters (known affectionately as Juts and Wheezie, more formally as Julia and Louise), Juts’ 7-year old daughter Nickel and Wheezie’s 8-year-old grandson Leroy. Apparently the sisters and Nickel have appeared in some of Brown’s previous books. To describe Nickel as precocious is being too kind: she is a brat, repeatedly teasing and frightening her cousin, no doubt sensing his special vulnerability due to the recent death of his mother.

The title comes from the magnificent structure that engages them all, although the children are restricted to hauling sand and water while the sisters act as architects and engineers. The sand castle comes complete with flags and a drawbridge, not like any that I ever built as a child.

Perhaps because the book is so short and because I hadn’t read any of the previous books in which these sisters appear, I just could not understand them – particularly Juts. On the one hand she has taught Nickel a refinement of manners almost unheard of today. Here is Nickel speaking: “ “Are you hungry?” I’d learned not to ask for food but to politely ask if the other person needed some.” On the other hand, not only does Juts smoke cigarettes herself, she introduces them to her daughter (“Gotta learn to do it” - remember Nickel is 7 years old) and has a vocabulary of swearing and cursing that is unrestrained in her daughter’s presence.

But none of that is the reason for my criticism. What really upsets me is the bad grammar: from a well-known author and a respected publisher Grove Press.

Here is Nickel again: “ “Well…” Mother fudged, since she didn’t want Leroy and I to know what a devil she was…” This was the first instance. When I got over the shock I tried to think of a reason that Brown would make such an obvious error. Perhaps, as this is Nickel speaking, she Nickel at age 7 might make this mistake, hence Brown wrote it this way.

But when it happened again, I was in despair. Here is Julia speaking: “ “I don’t know, kid. When you’re little—seven or eight is still little compared to Wheezie and I,” she said…”

Am I missing something here? I know that people make this grammatical mistake all the time but is that a reason to reinforce the error in print? An author of Brown’s stature would serve her readers better (and not have alienated this one) by writing the dialogue in a way to avoid the problem. So, that’s what I will remember about this book, not the lesson of a family coping with an early death or a child’s harsh introduction to the realities of the adult world.

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