I have a tough time reading books with horrific real life problems mixed with fantasy; too often the fantasy boils down to wish fulfillment, with an undertone of “I was given mega-powers because I was a mega-victim.”
I should say that books that convey this message can be very comforting, especially to young readers who have troubled home lives. I’d like to talk about books that don’t use fantasy in that particular way.
Back in the late seventies, my spouse (then boyfriend) worked with runaways who ended up in Hollywood and discovered what is the horrible truth for far too many runaways: that for teens there are basically three ways to survive, theft, drug-dealing, and prostitution, and all three can get you killed fast.
Especially if you fall into the hands of some powerful adult who convinces you that what little safety you might grasp is all controlled by him, as long as he can use you to make money. And if you ran in the first place because your home was not safe, for whatever reason, this “logic” can make perfect sense in a world you have swiftly discovered is harsh to those who possess nothing but youth.
This book brought up those memories as Danny’s mom, who sounds bipolar, moves in with a new boyfriend, Myron. Myron has a son living with him named Eryx. At first Eryx hates Danny, and Myron seems cool, but very soon Danny finds out that Myron’s security cams all over the house (including in his bathroom, bedroom, and shower) are actually taking photos for a porn site. What’s more, Myron sells Eryx to visiting men, and now it’s Danny’s turn. And his mom refuses to believe any evil of Myron.
Danny and Eryx run away, ending up in Florida, where they meet a homeless girl names Irene who introduces them to Lucian, who manages a sleazy hotel. And, it turns out, sells the kids working for him.
Meanwhile, in his journal Danny has begun writing a story based on Greek mythology, about Ganymede, beloved cup bearer of Zeus. Ganymede’s adventures reflect Ganymede’s as things with Lucian get really grim, and Irene, Eryx, and Danny cling together.
Running away has only made Danny’s life worse, and so he runs in his imagination, given all kinds of powers by Zeus, and life is terrific. Everyone admires him, Zeus loves him (sometimes), and when Zeus is busy elsewhere, Ganymede gradually makes friends with Eros and Iris.
Back and forth between the myths and Danny’s life we switch, as he tries to figure out his own sexuality, and where choice ends and begins. He discovers how powerful people morally justify their abuse of others, and encounters coping worldviews in homeless people, not all of which are ugly, ungenerous, or crazed.
The fantasy element is more magical realism, which can sometimes be interpreted in different ways–real or delusional being two–something that I thought worked well here, especially as the ‘magical’ interpretation was well earned. Danny gains insight into the nature of love, trust, and power before regaining control of his life.
I particularly liked how Harper handled the three main characters, totally bypassing the somewhat generic adversarial and competitive “love triangle” that has become the backbone of many YA novels. Harper is a high school teacher in real life, and his sympathy with, and understanding of, how teens think and regard the world resonated strongly through the book.
It’s always interesting to talk writing with another writer, especially one who is also a fellow teacher. I put a few questions to him, and here are his responses.
Beware, though, this discussion is very spoilery: it was impossible to talk about the book in detail without referring to incidents and emotional arcs, and how the mythology fits with the real world story.
SMITH: My initial thought was that it is so difficult to meld fantasy and real life problems, especially ones as dire as child abuse, and not sink into wish fulfillment. I liked the way Danny had to earn his ability to break the nasty pattern. And I loved the emotional steps he had to take to get there, and who he listened to, and why. How much of this was conscious?
HARPER: DANNY was a rare book, in that I didn’t have the exact end in mind when I started. Usually I know every step of the plot along the way, but this one I had to work out as I went. I do make a conscious effort for my characters to earn their endings, even ones they deserve. Danny needed to have a good ending after everything he goes through, but our fictional characters, of course, also need to earn it. Danny needed to learn to accept himself–all facets of himself–as well as what happens to him and accept the fact that the world isn’t fair or just before he’s able to earn his ending. I think there was a little wish-fulfillment though—Danny finally takes some advice from an adult: June. She has to go through some fairly radical steps to get his attention, but in the end he finally listens to her. A teenager who listens to an adult’s advice—wish fulfillment for a high school teacher like me!
SMITH: Re June: I loved that she had to shock him into listening. That is so true for so many teens, who are smart people but live in the moment, especially when they are in extremis.
One thing that stood out for me was the use of mythology, the blend of recognizable Greek mythological characters and a modern teen’s view. I especially noted the earlier sections wherein Ganymede was “special” and that excused so much that otherwise he might question. That is a tough part of the teen psyche, that sense that “the rules don’t apply to me because I’m special”—which I think is a necessary element in motivating a young person to break habitual patterns and venture into the world.
The psychological underpinnings to Ganymede’s adventures and how they complemented Danny’s story is what really made the book stand out for me. How much of that was conscious, that is, deliberate choices on your part?
HARPER: Almost all of that was careful choice and planning. Danny and Ganymede’s stories were meant to complement each other from the start, and then meld in (to the reader) unexpected ways. At one point, I realized I had the two stories out of sync. Ganymede’s story was too far behind Danny’s. It was a disaster! I couldn’t solve it with a little cut and paste—Danny reacts to Ganymede, who reacts to Danny, who reacts to Ganymede, and it’s all intertwined. I had pull apart and retrofit about a quarter of the novel so the timing of both stories would come out right in the end. Banging my head against a cement wall would have been a lot less painful.
We grow up in a society that tends to teach each of us that we’re all special, and everyone is because no one is exactly like anyone else. Eventually, everyone (or almost everyone) has to learn that being special only means that you deserve to be accepted for who you are, and that’s about it.
You don’t get privileges. Learning that “special” doesn’t mean “privileged” or even “unique” often feels like a betrayal, and Ganymede definitely feels betrayed by Zeus when he learns that Zeus has more than one “favorite.” Ganymede has realize that people do lie and that you should indeed question someone else’s motives when they make an offer to you. Zeus is selfish and lies to get what he wants. Eros also betrays Danny early in the book, though for completely different reasons. I always felt sorry for Eros, both in the original myths and in this book. He’s always stuck as a sidekick to his own mother. What kind of life is that?
SMITH: Yeah, there are some interesting emotional quirks to the myths that hint at cultural patterns of interaction.
But your point about Eros (who I also think gets short shrift) brings me to the two other teens, Eryx and Irene—Eros and Iris. One of the easiest emotional plot motivators these days in YA is the triangle, especially the “good” bad boy and the “bad” bad boy. Further, there is a sense that there must always be an adversarial tension and a competition. I loved the fact that you did not go there, that Irene and Eryx got their layers of complexity even though we are seeing them through Danny’s eyes. And how, broken as they are, they manage to save themselves by finding one another.
I hope that teens will find this book for that—not that all will fall into triangles, or even that they should. But to feel that it is okay to figure out who you are, and that developing relationships, with all their passions and volatile misunderstandings and pitfalls, do not have to be adversarial, or competitions, I think could be extraordinarily helpful. (Besides, it tells a smashing good story.)
HARPER: Thank you! Writing the three-way relationship was difficult. I wanted to avoid exactly what you mention—the feeling there has to be a competition and/or adversary. It was difficult to slide through that without making anyone look bad and meeting each character’s needs. There aren’t very many role models in fiction–one person in a triangle is always the “wrong” choice or ends up being the “loser” in books—and I had to figure everything out as I went, basically do what made sense to me and my knowledge of teenagers. (One advantage of teaching high school for twenty years.) I wanted their relationship to save all of them, not hurt any of them. That’s what relationships should do.