The View from the Chipmunk Seat (Part One)

For…um…reasons*, I don’t currently have a working phone.

It’s been fine, except for the fact that I can’t post photographs; also, I worry a little that the bus won’t show up, leaving me stranded along a stretch of poorly maintained highway without any sort of communications link to the rest of humanity.

So, until I come up with an alternative, I guess I’ll be illustrating my posts, like so —

"chipmunk seat"

Yes, I know. Chipmunks do not look anything like this. But I can’t draw, so we’re going to pretend they do.

ANYWAY.

Continuing my theme of Writing Things That Turn Out To Be Something Else Entirely, The Ninth Child started out as a short story.

The inspiration came from my own childhood: I have a lot of siblings, so many that I’m not sure my parents would have noticed had one of us gone missing**…at least, not immediately. Nor, I imagine, would they have batted an eyelash if an EXTRA kid had suddenly appeared.

Actually, sometimes extra kids DID appear — usually, they were friends who thought it was more interesting to hang out at our house, or (as we got older) friends who, for one reason or another, couldn’t go home…at least, not until “things died down a little.” But yes, strays turned up on our doorstep and, as my mother always said (usually with a shrug) “What’s one more?”

This probably has EVERYTHING to do with why I am the co-parent of six cats, plus a mangy Boxhound. Because, in my experience, the front stoop or the side of the road or behind a dumpster are all perfectly legitimate places to look if you’re thinking of expanding your family. If we ever “decide” to raise a human child, it’ll probably be because somebody leaves one on our porch.***

Et voila. The premise: in a family of eight rowdy kids, what happens when a ninth child suddenly shows up? And not in the form of a new baby or a step-sibling or a latchkey cousin, but rather a total stranger — and a really creepy one at that?

I was intrigued by the idea, not only because of my own experiences but also because — in my experience — books, television shows, films, what-have-you always got it wrong. They made it seem at once more fun and less dysfunctional than it inevitably is.

Nothing I encountered anywhere in the media ever showed large families for what they are, i.e. the battlefields on which Darwinian struggles for survival are waged, a zero-sum symphony of physical and emotional carnage in which only one genetic variation on a theme can and will make itself heard over the tumult.

At least, that’s how it felt at the time.

Mind you, it’s entirely possible that my outlook was shaped by my mother’s parenting philosophy, if you can call it that, which is best summed up by the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

With that in mind, I wrote a story about a group of siblings who, even though they kind of hate each other, manage to find a common enemy whom they hate even more — a surplus child whose presence introduces additional competition for already scarce resources: food, toys, parental love, the list goes on. Moreover, this child is determined to carve out place for himself in this family, even if it means replacing somebody else.

And when I finished writing this story — in which the siblings are successful in fending off the interloper, a sort of changeling child — I read it over and thought: you know, everything happens a bit too quickly; all the various loose ends get tied up a bit too neatly.

It reads like a folktale, I realized. Were I so inclined, I could probably pick out every motif and assign it a number from the Aarne-Thompson tale type index – which, for those of you who aren’t librarians or folklorists, is kind of like an analog precursor to TV Tropes.  You know, things like “supernatural adversaries” and “hero(ine) rescues siblings and self” or “contest in words” or “the truth comes to light.”

And so, because families are complicated things, I went back and I complicated things.

I’ll explain this in more detail tomorrow.

 

*Money, basically.
**I know this for a fact because it happened to me. Seething from some rank injustice or other, I once ran away with a backpack containing, if I recall correctly, my Kermit the Frog doll and a sleeve of saltine crackers and that’s it. I must have spent HOURS building my new lean-to home out of fallen branches in the woods before I decided, all right, I’ll give my mom ONE MORE CHANCE to repent and be a good parent, versus a mean and totally unfair one. I trudged home — all of, idk, 20 yards away, and rang the doorbell. When my mom answered the door, I outlined my plan. Puzzled. she looked at me and said, “Oh, were you gone?”
***All told, ours is a good gaff: plenty of food, plus comfy places to nap and no cops or perverts. I don’t know. Other things, too, maybe? What makes a good home? I’m just spitballing, here.
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