Link Critiques 'What Once Was Lost' -- Chapter 2
<CHAPTER 2>So here we are, Chapter Two and what have we learned?
- There's an asylum for the rejected and impoverished in 1890s Kansas.
- Willems is a devout Christian who lost her father a year ago.
- There's thirteen people in all.
- Tommy, the blind kid, needs help going to the bathroom.
- The asylum is now on fire.
OK look, I'm perfectly fine with the first chapter ending with an event that drastically change the characters' lives forever. We see it all the time. In Harry Potter, it was when the Dursleys were saddled with Baby!Harry. In The Hunger Games, it was when Katniss learned that her sister was picked to play the deadly games. It's perfectly acceptable. Without Baby!Harry on that porch, or Katniss's sister learning the horrid news, we get no story. Hell, if Dumbledore decided that Harry would be better off living with the Weasleys, we might have had a completely different series all together! Harry and Ron would've been brothers rather than best friends, Ginny certainly wouldn't be Harry's love interest because in this version, she would be his youngest adoptive sister.
But here's the thing: before you royally screw up your characters' lives forever, you've got to let us bond with them first. Let us see how they lived before everything went to hell. As boring as it was, we needed to see Vernon's life before Baby!Harry was put on his family porch. We needed to understand just what kind of man he was, his personal perception on wizards, etc so that when Baby!Harry arrived, we would have an “oh shit” moment. When that happened, we knew it couldn't end well for both parties.
In this case, with the asylum and everyone living in it, I've no earthly idea what their lives are like. Who are they? How do they feel about each other? We got a brief taste of it from Francis who, as we learned, is very grabby at food and hates being Tommy's personal outhouse-escort. Great! So how does he feel about the asylum? Does he like the people there? Does he like Tommy? Does anyone there think him a burden because of his blindness? In order for there to be a bond with the characters, there needs to be time given for the readers to understand them. I'm more interested in what Francis feels because I got insight into his personality.
Rather, the story pulls the same cheap stunt movies do by demanding that I feel bad for these people because they're in such a dire situation. Look, it really sucks and all, but one brief scene isn't enough for me to fully understand who they are and how devastating the asylum fire is to them. It's like those war movies where a soldier pulls out a photo of his wife and newborn, then dies five minutes later. It's sad and tragic and all but...we want to feel the loss. It's doable, but not in this manner. There needed to be time to bond with the people of asylum. Instead it was, “Here are a bunch of homeless people. Look at how happy they are. Oh no, a fire destroys their happiness.”
So instead of feeling the horror and despair they're feeling, I'm left with an awkward “Oh...damn. Sorry about that.” It's like meeting someone for the first time ever, and five minutes in they suddenly reveal to you something deep and traumatic that happened to them years ago. You, a total stranger, are bestowed with this news, leaving you utterly speechless and it's the same thing here. They're total strangers to me.
“Ever heard of empathy?” you ask. Well yes, again, I can imagine it sucks to lose your only place of refuge as they did but beyond that, I'm not emotionally invested in their problem. Emphasis on emotionally invested. I don't know squat about them, there's nothing keeping me interested in their situation.
But on to the next chapter:
Everyone had escaped the fire and after they tearfully reunite. There is something here that I found interesting: Florie and Joe dropped into her lap and clung. Hands patted her shoulders, and fingers clutched at her arms. A chorus of voices -- some crying, others comforting -- filled her ears. In a huddled mass they held on to one another as the wintry wind chilled their frames.
I don't know why, I just like it. It shows me how much they all depend on Willems, how much they need her right now. There's a brief moment where she wished God had answered her prayers to heal her father from his respiratory illness because I need you right now. That was a nice character development for her.
So they all huddle into the barn where we get a brief back story about it. Apparently she and her father moved to this asylum eighteen years prior, after her mother's death. The barn was part of the entire property, but was its own separate building. This had always annoyed her father who wished it had been done the Russian Mennonites way with the barn attached to the house.
This part? I actually liked this part, learning a bit about the history of the property even if it only lasted a few lines.
There's also some character development for Florie who begins to cry when the lantern is struck alight--obviously giving her flashbacks to the horror she and the others had just survived moments before. There is one thing that bothers me, though. After they do a little prayer, Florie tells Christina, “You put all of us in God's hands, but you didn't put you in His hands.” Doesn't this seem strange coming from a seven-year-old girl? I know this is the 1890s, but this sounded like it would come from an older person's voice, not hers. Especially when she's supposed to be traumatized by the whole ‘Almost Burnt To Death In The Fire’ thing.
Anyway, something has to be done. They can't stay in the barn forever.
Louisa McLain leaned close to Christina and whispered, “Rose and I carted out clothes, too, and we can share with Harriet, of course, if need be.
But I got a look at the things Alice brought, and they're mostly for youngsters. None of us thought to grab shoes, and we don't have anything at all for the menfolk, I'm afraid.”
That's not a typo on my part: that's literally how it's written in my Kindle edition. What should be one single strand of words is split into two different paragraphs. This is mostly used when a character is going on for paragraphs and paragraphs and the author doesn't want a solid block of text. The dialogue above doesn't need that as Louisa isn't going on a long-winded speech. She's simply informing Christina of a few things.
The plan is to go into town for supplies and shelter as the barn doesn't offer a whole lot, and the Asylum proper is just a big stack of limestone filled with noxious smoke. Louisa doesn't like this. Louisa's brow pinched. “I've heard some of the folks in Brambleville weren't too pleased about this fine house being made into a home for the destitute. They might turn us away, just as the innkeeper did to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.”
OK, time out. Why is this? Who did this house belong to before Christina Willems and her dad moved in eleven years ago? Obviously someone rather wealthy if the house were made of limestone, and some of the folks are in a huffy about a bunch of street rats moving in. But that was over a decade ago, I would think the vast majority of the people would've gotten used to it by now.
And is it just because the house is now an asylum for homeless people? While granted I can see how some materialistic folks might not take it too kindly, I would imagine that, again the vast majority would be OK with it. Get the poor and destitute off the streets and into a home. Lower crime, maybe Willems and her group can teach the poor and destitute life skills that would make them productive citizens of Brambleville, how would that be so terrible? How would it be so bad if they just so happen to HQ in a fancy house?
Thirdly, why wouldn't they help? Even if the Josiah Q. Adams of Brambleville were complete dicks, I would trust that even in the 1890s, cities like Brambleville would've had fire stations. There would be places for them to go to seek refuge.
And fourthly, it's implied, at least to my eyes, that the innkeepers rejected Mary and Joseph because they were assholes. In this Episcopalian's humble opinion: the innkeepers weren't assholes. Remember, Mary and Joseph were going to Bethlehem for the annual Roman census, so the city was jammed to the walls with everyone from almost all possible corners of Judea coming. There simply wasn't enough room. And especially since Mary was moments from birthing the baby Jesus, I can understand the hesitation the innkeepers had in terms of accepting them. With all the logistical crap happening, with figuring out where to feed and house everyone in Judea, is it that hard to empathize with those poor people? They probably went, “You two managed to pick the worst possible time to come here, you know that?! I'm ass-deep in trying to feed, clothe, and otherwise tend to my tenants here and you two come in here expecting me to prepare for the coming of an infant!? That's it, I'm going to drink myself to oblivion! Good day, sir!”
At any rate, this scene ends with Christina promising that God will not abandon his children in their time of need. In the meantime, I'm left with questions regarding the history of the estate, who were its former owners, why does no one want it turning into a poor house. I know that you'd want to avoid info-dumping everything, you want to leave the right details in at the right time, but were this chapter (and the first one) longer, more developed, we could've learned about the history of the Asylum. At least enough to know what its original purpose was. Anything to clue me in. Even something like: this house was once the home of the mayor of Brambleville, specifically to the beloved Mayor Matthew McGraw and his pretty wife, Lillian. They protected Brambleville from the ravages of the Civil War, treated well with the Natives, and provided security and prosperity for all who lived within this developing mining/fishing/farming town. Now of course, not like that, in that format, but you know what I mean. What sort of town is Brambleville, a notable recent history of the city and tie it to the Asylum that just burnt down. What do people see when they view this house? Willems sees this as her Asylum. What do they see it as?
Develop it, drop in juicy details that strengthens the setting. Make the Asylum feel real, make Brambleville feel real. Instead, I feel as if they're two separate entities. And we're at the end of Chapter Two.
The last scene of Chapter Two is of Christina driving the wagon out of Brambleville. Inside is the last remaining child inhabitant of the Asylum. Tommy, the blind kid. All the other kids found a place in a boardinghouse. Christina had made a deal with the owners that she (Christina and the other adults of the Asylum) would prepare food for the children in exchange for the children being allowed to stay in a small sleeping room. She's going to the Jonnson Millworks as her last ditch attempt to find Tommy a new home.
So...why can't Tommy stay with the other kids? According to Christina's inner dialogue, people find it easy to turn him away. Scarred, blind Tommy (...) He was just a little boy in need of care. Why did people find it so easy to turn him away? (...) She resented the way people recoiled from Tommy. The boy couldn't see their reaction, but his acute hearing couldn't miss the startled gasps or dismissive snorts. If Mr. Jonnson also turned him away, what would she do? Tommy had already suffered the loss of his sight, been cast aside by his own family, and been rejected by half the town.
Woah, woah, woah, woah, hold the 1890s phones! Seize all the press boys! Tommy's scarred? So what we have here is a ten-year-old blind, scarred boy whose very appearance causes people to gasp in shock or act dismissive? And he's been shunned by his own family?
Tragically, as was all too common back then, many disabled children were deemed embarrassments by their own parents who often locked them up in small rooms or put them away in asylums where they (the parents) could freely pretend that child never existed. So I can see how Tommy's family might shun him aside. But half the town? If we knew a bit more about the town and the people living there, I could get a better understanding of why half the town won't take in a blind kid.
But again, the story seems to imply that the only reason they'd do that to Tommy is because they're all dicks rather than, y'know, people who may not have the resources to look after one more addition to the household. Much less a blind child. Not everyone knows how to take care of a disabled person, so some of the people rejecting Tommy may just be doing it because they feel they'll fail him on some level; nothing against him being blind.
And here's another thing: where are all the adults of the Asylum living? If no one else wants him, why can't Christina just say, “You'll stay with me, Tommy”? After all, they're already going to prepare food for all the children so nothing's really changed only that Tommy will physically be with them, not at the boardinghouse with the other children.
But now we arrive to Mr. Jonnson's home! Next chapter: Willems uses the Disability Card™ to paint Mr. Jonnson as a nasty bigot who hates blind people!
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