The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Frances and Emmet Find the Yes
I first discovered Russell and Lillian Hoban’s heroine Frances the Badger when I was five. That summer, the library held a reading contest, and my mother took me there in our red wagon to enter it. In the Waldorf school where I’d spent the previous, torturous year, there were rules about how early you were allowed to read. When I’d arrived, a voracious reader, I was too young to be permitted the privilege. I’d been nervous at the school, surrounded by children with much nicer shoes and much nicer lunches. I’d tried to hide my poverty and shame by showing off what I could do; I’d broken the rules by taking books off the shelf and reading them out loud. I was not well liked.
At the public library contest, you earned a gold star for every book you completed, and I pretended modesty when my own stars outstripped my nearest competitor. One of the books that got me a star that summer was Bread and Jam for Frances, story by Russell Hoban, pictures by Lillian Hoban. I fell in love with Frances the way you do with your first best friend, the one who’s just like you, only better at everything, especially at saying what you can’t.
On the face of it, Bread and Jam for Frances is about a kid on a food strike. But, really, it is about how a child attempts to take some control over the things that are beyond her power to change. There is a new baby at home, and Frances can’t change that, but she can certainly refuse to eat eggs. And she can show us exactly how that choice makes her feel. She can be brave enough to say, to sing, about those feelings. She can say no for a long time, until she learns to say yes.
Frances could say no to things in a way I couldn’t. She could sing to her soft-boiled eggs, “I do not like the way you slide/I do not like your soft inside.” Buckling after endless meals where her crafty mother serves only her favorite food, bread and jam, she could announce, “What I am/is tired of jam.” And finally, she could learn to love something new, to separate food and control, her breakthrough causing her to tell her school friend, Albert, “I think it is nice that there are all different kinds of lunches and breakfasts and dinners and snacks. I think eating is nice.”
The summer I first read the book, I had also begun a food strike. I ate chicken with salt, but soured on scrambled eggs, pushing the yellow piles around with my fork while the ketchup congealed. There were things over which I had no power that summer. I had a new home and school, and a new understanding that my family was poorer than other families.
The previous year had seen us move into town, closer to my father’s shop. Before that, we’d lived in the woods, in a farmhouse down a dirt road where our poverty was erased by the isolation of our circumstances. All the things we didn’t have seemed more like aesthetic choices than real lack. I thought that I ran around barefoot because the grass felt good, that my father cut the grass in the backyard with a scythe because it was poetic, that we made our own maple syrup because we wanted a challenge. That we were saving money on shoes, lawn mowers, and sugar never occurred to me.
But in town, we were one family among many, and our neighbors had things we didn’t. At first, we lived in the servant’s quarters at the top of a yellow Victorian mansion. The owners were artists, like my parents, but success or the circumstances of their birth had made their lives very different from ours. Still, they liked to share, and I had free run of their house: walking past the ballroom to the sunroom to mist the ferns with their brass spray can and prop my boots up on the chintz upholstery. I had what they had, when I wanted it, and for free. That didn’t last long, though, and the next house we lived in was nothing like the mansion. It was the first place where the life that my parents could afford was no longer softened by isolation or the wealth of other people. It was a gas station with an apartment above it, a wood shop for my father’s business in the old repair garage, on the corner of a big intersection. There was a public restroom on the side of the house, linoleum in the bedrooms, and a scrub yard where old spark plugs surfaced when you dug down half an inch. That house saw us struggle like we hadn’t anywhere else, with unpaid bills and government cheese, cold winters and endless fighting between my parents. I hated it, and Frances still sang for me, “What I am/is tired of jam,” as tired as I was.
The worse things got, the more the place echoed with our collective fatigue. My parents failed. They got isolated. The got scared. They got sick. Alcoholism crept in, first slinking in and out of the cat door, toying with my mother, and then my father. And then becoming an indoor cat, perching in the middle of the living room and spraying everything. They didn’t get rid of that cat for another ten years.
I didn’t get why things were so bad, but somehow that drinking, those fights were mixed up in my head with choosing art, and then not making it. Succeed and you got the mansion, fail and you got the gas station.
My parents had started their marriage in New York City, living in a shitty walk-up, my father a cameraman, mother an actress. By the time I was born, they had impressive credits on their resumes and invites to all the cool parties. But after I came along, the movie business slumped into recession and they fled to the Berkshires so my dad could make Shaker furniture by hand. It was a risky gamble, one that relied on the support of a group of artists who orbited the famed Alice’s Restaurant, where my mother got a job. But Shaker furniture was a hard sell in the early 70s. My father was no businessman, and the freaks that had called Alice’s home all dispersed to other, more fashionable, places after a few years. My parents were left behind in a rural place with no money, their latest project failing. They had no heart to go back to the city, or to making movies, and my father was beginning to get sick with the kidney disease that would haunt the rest of his life. The gas station was the last stop before he shuttered his business and my parents scrapped any kind of art making for good.
I couldn’t see that coming yet, but in that gas station house, I lay in the dark in my bedroom, and listened to my mother scream at my dad about money, and promised myself I would never write another song or story again, if only my mom would pour all the wine down the sink.
It is a shame that in that moment I did not discover Russell and Lillian Hoban’s other great protagonist, Emmet Otter. Emmet is the star of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, published in 1971, the year I was born.
That book is about Emmet and Ma Otter, who live together in a small shack by the side of a river, in poverty that is near total. Emmet’s Pa, a snake oil salesman, never made any money (because, “Why would anyone want to oil a snake?”), and has recently died. Bereft and broke, the Otters get by doing odd jobs and taking in laundry. They want to make music, but they have no money for instruments, and the story has a sort of Gift of the Magi arc: Ma and Emmet sacrifice what can’t be sacrificed. There’s a music contest in town that could net the winner $50. Ma wants to win it to buy Emmet a guitar, Emmet wants to win it to replace the piano Ma had to sell. Emmet puts a hole in Ma’s only laundry washtub to make a bass to play with his jug band, Ma sells Emmet’s odd job tools so she can get fabric and make a costume for the song she’ll sing. They both enter the contest without telling each other, and they both fail, beaten out by a flashy rock band. But, they get back up, and, finally, they’re rewarded with the golden ticket: steady work.
Emmet might have joined Frances on my short list of best imaginary friends if I’d found him then. The two of them singing in my head, her tired of jam, and him telling me that putting a hole in the washtub to make a bass will turn out alright in the end. Despair and hope in the guise of a badger and an otter.
But, as it was, I didn’t meet Emmet when I was a kid. When I did meet him, at almost 40, I was a mom, sitting in my apartment in a city far away from the Yankee idyll that Emmet and I shared during our early childhoods. I was almost divorced, almost foreclosed on. We were introduced by the bass player in my band, a woman more than ten years younger than I am. She’d grown up on Emmet, not just the Hobans’ Emmet, but Jim Henson’s Emmet. She had been raised on an old VHS copy of the Christmas special Henson made from the book in 1977. The musical Muppet version, with remarkable songs by Paul Williams, was shown on HBO in 1978, then on ABC in 1980, and finally on Nickelodeon in the 1990s, where it colored the childhoods of the kids growing up in that decade. They saw it a lot, and had I been ten years younger, I might have as well. My bass player told me I would love Emmet. She didn’t say much more. “Watch it,” she said, “you’ll understand.”
So, one night, my five-year old son asleep in the next room, the darkened house quiet around me, I queued up Netflix and I watched Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas for the first time. In the first scene, Emmet and Ma row down the cold river to deliver laundry to Waterville and Ma sings, “If you look to the good side/falling down’s a free ride.” It was twee and nerdy and hopeful in that best of Muppet ways. Somewhere deep in my head the Hoban-ness of the Henson puppets pulled up that long-ago bond with Frances. Her sweet face melded with Emmet’s, her fatigue flushed back through me until I remembered being that little girl, lost in the care of parents who had gotten broken somewhere, who had fallen down. And the song of the otters gave me a way to see that when my parents had fallen down, because of the drinking, the illness, the lack of money to cushion their gambles, the exhaustion had won. The hope in the eyes of Emmet and Ma had been absent from theirs. I’d needed Emmet’s hope when I was a kid, and I hadn’t had it. It was the antidote to Frances’s tiredness, my tiredness.
Tired Frances eventually gets to yes at the end of her story. I’m critical of the way her mother takes her there, feeding her endless bread and jam until she cracks at the dinner table, wailing for spaghetti and meatballs. But when she unfolds her napkin at her school desk in the last scene and chats with Albert, her conversion to the joy of saying yes feels necessary. She’s not tired anymore, and the world is full of variety. Emmet and Ma get to yes as well. Their walk home from the talent show is a little sad: they lost out on the cash prize, there’s no washtub at home, there are no tools. But somehow, on the frozen river, they and their new band sing, and there’s joy that isn’t hampered by the coercions of fate that got them there. Standing by the side of the river by chance, the inn owner hears them and gives them a job playing music for regular pay.
When I was a kid, the yes at the end of books was the least interesting part to me. I liked the work you had to go through, not the hope at the end. Watching Emmet and Ma for the first time that night in the middle of my divorce, I was still in the work part of the story. I was broke, squatting in the bank’s property that used to be my lovely condo like it was a kind of weird, 21stcentury version of the otters’ shack, doing a badly-paid freelance hustle that sometimes felt like the weird, 21stcentury version of taking in laundry. But, despite all of that lack, I hadn’t kept the promises I’d made as a kid, those deals with the darkness to never make art again. I wasn’t isolated as my parents had been. I was in a big city, in the ebb and flow of artists who’ve been my family for decades. There was no alcoholism stalking my living room. The illness my father and I shared hadn’t come for me yet. And, even though I remembered the tiredness of Frances in my bones, I could see that it hadn’t been with me as an adult, even when I was falling down. I’d made a life where art and joy, poverty and plenty, existed side by side. My son and I were anything but tired. Emmet and Ma’s hope was already in our eyes.
For the last three Christmases my band and my friends and I have played the music of Jim Henson’s Emmet at the Hideout in Chicago. We’ve sung all the songs and we’ve read the book out loud to packed rooms, and I’ve stood on stage, singing Ma’s part with my son in the audience looking up at me.
I’ve gotten to the yes at the end of the story.
Photos courtesy of Dan McCoy and Joni Kat Anderson.