Eighteen years ago, I heard that a young bookstore employee from my area -- metro Detroit -- had published his first children's book.
The author's name was David Skinner and the curious title of his novel was YOU MUST KISS A WHALE.
I bought a copy of the brief -- less than 100 pages -- book as soon as it was published, read it in one sitting, then put the volume down and said, "What the heck?"
Or words to that effect.
I had found the story totally incomprehensible.
How could this be? The book was written for kids eleven and up! It was chosen as a Junior Literary Guild selection. It had received positive reviews from leading journals. Newbery winner Joan Blos had even provided a blurb for the back cover.
The story concerns thirteen-year-old Evelyn, whose mother -- after her husband's death or disappearance -- has moved the family to a huge battered house in the middle of a desert: "our house has rooms like an onion has rings, and every month the outer rooms, the ones on the fringe, are chewed up and spat out" due to a storm that "circles through this desert once every month, as it has forever, always the same, always along the same path." Evelyn's mother has come to the desert to "define and map" this storm but has now become so obsessed with creating an "Ultimate Raincoat" that she neglects both Evelyn and her infant brother. Exploring the broken-down house, Evelyn discovers a short story that was written by her father many years earlier. This story, which is interwoven throughout the book, tells of a ten-year-old boy who receives a mysterious letter containing the directive, "You must kiss a whale." Or maybe it says, "You must kill a whale" -- the writing is hard to decipher. Young Kevin travels to a coastal town where he discovers a whale has beached itself on the shore. A scruffy man, who describes himself as "an omniscient bum" tells Kevin that he wrote the letter, but doesn't explain why. In fact, Kevin's story ends right at that point...in a very unsatisfactory way. Evelyn's story also reaches an odd conclusion when her mother invents "a raincoat that isn't there because only a person who isn't there can wear a raincoat that isn't there." Okay, whatevva. Mother's epiphany somehow leads to a moment of rapprochement with Evelyn and an epilogue -- set years later when Evelyn is in college -- shows that the family has left the desert and embarked on a less turbulent way of life.
Clear as mud, right?
I must admit I've always been a bit embarrassed that I didn't understand this book. I mean, it was published for ages eleven and up...and I'm clearly older than eleven. No one else seemed to have trouble with it.
Publishers Weekly noted the book's "surreal qualities" but called YOU MUST KISS A WHALE "as compelling and disturbing as a story by Borges."
School Library Journal called it "a thought-provoking experience for mature readers, and a bridge to adult books."
The most phenomenal praise of all came from Patty Campbell, who wrote a column in the Horn Book pairing YOU MUST KISS A WHALE with, of all books, THE GIVER!
Listen to this:
Once in a long while a book comes along that takes hardened young-adult reviewers by surprise, a book so unlike what has gone before, so rich in levels of meaning, so daring in complexity of symbol and metaphor, so challenging in the ambiguity of its conclusion, that we are left with all our neat little everyday categories and judgments hanging useless. Books like Robert Cormier’s I AM THE CHEESE and Terry Davis’s MYSTERIOUS WAYS are examples of these rare treasures. But after the smoke of our personal enthusiasm has cleared, we are left with uneasy thoughts. Will young adults understand it? Will the intricate subtleties that so delight us as adult critics go right over their heads? Will the questions posed by the ending leave them puzzled and annoyed, rather than thoughtful and intrigued? It all depends –- on the maturity of the particular young adult, on how well we introduce the book and follow up with discussion, and on certain qualities in the book itself. In the past year young-adult literature has been blessed with two such extraordinary works: THE GIVER by Lois Lowry and YOU MUST KISS A WHALE by David Skinner.
On a personal level, though, I became disheartened when I read Ms. Campbell's piece. Especially when she asked that series of questions:
"Will young adults understand it?"
This adult didn't understand it.
"Will the intricate subtleties that so delight us as adult critics go right over their heads?"
Hey, they went over mine.
"Will the questions posed by the ending leave them puzzled and annoyed, rather than thougtful and intrigued?"
However, I'm not sure I agree with Ms. Campbell deconstruction of the story elements either.
For example, she says: "The central metaphor of the storm and the house, of course, refer to the turmoil of the female monthly cycle. The womblike house sheds its walls in the storm, and the storm itself is ‘like an unhealing sore in the sky,' and ‘as permanent as the sun and the moon.’”
Don't you love how she tosses in that "of course" to strengthen her argument? In truth, I don't think her interpretation of the metaphor is all that evident to readers -- especially not to male readers. ...At least it wasn't to this male reader. And I truly doubt that any eleven- or twelve-year-old boy would read it that way.
I'm not convinced that she's got it right when she switches to the male perspective either: "The father’s story about Kevin and the whale, on the other hand, can dimly be seen as evoking the male principle with its ambivalence about 'kill or kiss' and the useless power of the stranded leviathan."
I don't know what kind of guys Patty hangs out with, but I'm not familiar with any male who struggles with a "kill or kiss" dilemma...well, outside of inmates serving time on death row.
But I do think Ms. Campbell's piece reaches a valid conclusion:
Perhaps the solution is to enjoy the book for its own mysterious absurdity, and not try to force every bit of it into some larger scheme of meaning –- beloved as such games are to literary critics. As young adults seem to understand instinctively, it is not necessary to hold symbols up to the light of day to feel their underlying power in a well-told tale.
She could be right. I read this book as an adult -- first in my early thirties and then again this past week -- and really struggled with it. Maybe if I'd read it as a child I would have been able to embrace it emotionally without trying to puzzle out its myriad meanings. Perhaps I'm now too old, too pragmatic, and too practical to really let go and kiss the whale.
Have you read YOU MUST KISS A WHALE?
Did you "get" it?
Was your enjoyment of the novel dependent on whether you understood the storyline?
Are there any other well-regarded books for young readers out there that you...just...don't...get?