Stories About Stories

Among my earliest memories is this book, a nice little dysfunctional family drama published in 1940 and passed down from my mother’s childhood:

Seven Diving Ducks, cover
Seven Diving Ducks, 1940, David McKay Company

See the little guy at the back with the life preserver and bloomers? There’s your conflict. He (naturally—the midcentury default is always male) is the seventh in his brood of seven, and he’s afraid to swim. The book actually opens with the one-duck-short image I’m using in the headline (probably desktop version only), and “Once there were six diving ducks. There was also a seventh little duck. But he wouldn’t dive, SO THEY DIDN’T COUNT HIM.” (emphasis all mine).

Does he get encouragement? Time to discover his own abilities in his own time? No. I think this picture of the first swimming lesson makes it clear enough how this is all going to go down. Note the look on Father Duck’s face as his youngest wades at the shore. The smoke from his pipe feeds a looming cloud of patriarchy.

Seven Diving Ducks: Little Duck's first swimming lesson and Dad's disapproval

That night, Father keeps Little Duck up late, forcing him to practice on a piano stool through exhaustion and tears.

Seven Diving Ducks: Little Duck's piano stool tutorial

Nice tidy home, there, with the piano stool subtly hinting at the darkness inside its walls. I mean, they’re ducks. If they’re fixated on appearances enough to have a piano when they don’t have fingers, imagine the terror a non-conforming duckling would inspire.

So, naturally, Father then shames and threatens him. “‘I won’t have any sissies in my family,’ said Father Duck sternly. ‘You might just as well go and live with the chickens if you can’t learn to swim.'” No lie.

Seven Diving Ducks: Little Duck still trying, still disappointing Dad

Name-calling? Threats of being cut out of the family? Heaven forbid an offspring fail to fit your created story of what constitutes a proper duck. Who put him in that bathing costume, anyway? It’s silly and embarrassing, and none of the other ducklings has to wear one. Is this the duck version of a dunce cap? Does it strike anybody else as old-fashioned in a very specific way? Look closely: that’s 1920s fashion in a 1940s book. Hmmm. Any chance it was Dad’s, that he struggled as well and is working out his own shame issues?

Anyway, in spite of deeply flawed pedagogy, Little Duck does eventually learn to swim. He has no time to savor his triumph, though, because under the glow of gaslight, the goalposts move. Where did you get the idea you had to swim to be in the family? Read the title! We’re DIVING ducks! And catch a fish while you’re down there! When Little Duck resists putting his head in the water, we get this scene:

Seven Diving Ducks: Little Duck's banishment

“’There is no room in a duck family,’ Father Duck said sternly, ‘for a little duck who will not dive.’” See the banishing wing. See Mother’s tears, but also see that Father doesn’t give a shit what she thinks. On the facing page are the siblings.

Seven Diving Ducks: Six duck siblings with mixed reactions to Little Duck's banishment

Oh, I can tell who the bully brother is, all right: far right, with the wicked little gleam in his eye. Don’t trust him one bit. I bet he was the one whispering stories in Little Brother’s ear at night about how he was actually adopted and not a duck at all and that there were monsters under the water waiting for duck impostors like him.

“’The time has come,’ said Father Duck to the seventh little duck, ‘for you to swim across the pond and live with the chickens. Go!’” (One of my mom’s little brothers is responsible for the crayon. I would never.)

Seven Diving Ducks: Dad sends Little Duck, in tears, to live with the chickens

Father suffers no grief for the existential destruction of his child. Mother cries. Five little ducks cry. That’s right—I see you, bully brother at the end, with your too-many tears and that wing to your face to hide a smile.

Seven Diving Ducks: Everybody but Dad watching Little Duck go to the chickens

But then, deus ex machina! An apple falls from a tree overhead, knocking Little Duck’s head under the water, where, conveniently, his beak closes on a fish. All is saved! Little Duck has caught a fish, and Father dad-splains that he was never actually afraid to dive, just afraid to try. (That’s better?)

The book says they all lived happily ever after in the little house in the apple orchard, but I don’t see how. This is not a healthy place. Look at those bloomers pinned to the front of the house as a threat to any future nonconformist.

Seven Diving Ducks: Reported to be happy ever after

I’m cooking up a sequel where Little Duck grows up, recognizes his innate worth, embraces his preference for personal safety and ground-based dining, swears he’ll never treat his kids like that, declares boundaries, and waddles off. In fact (cross-promotion!) he establishes a thriving community that then goes off to save The Biggest Little Farm (2018, NEON Pictures, currently available on Hulu) because ducks are SUPPOSED to eat snails. Not fish. Take that, Dad. Little Duck now lives on a chi-chi organic farm in California and has respect and escargot and residuals to last a lifetime.

Story is powerful. Story, as far as I can tell, is what makes us human. There’s very little else. We are molecular matter, plus the energy consumed and spent to run the whole operation. Everything else—relationships, ownership, religion, science, government, money, our own lives—is story. Every action we take is the product of story.

We reveal ourselves in the stories we create. Seven Diving Ducks tells me things no history book could about the world in which it was written, and gives me a window into the minds of the adults raised on books like it. The words we use, the morality we act out, our expectations of relationships and cause and effect—all of it shows up in stories. I’m FASCINATED by what those stories are, how they got there, what they do, who believes which ones and why, who tells which ones and why.

If asked a year ago, I would have said that what I write about is ordinary people working out their stuff. No villains or monsters, nobody saving the world or discovering another, just people wrestling with the messy business of life in which problems don’t necessarily have a right or wrong solution. But then I noticed that they’re stories about stories. In my first book, a young woman discovers she can’t move forward with the story of her life she’s used so far. In the current one, the narrator tries to heal a trauma by telling herself a new story about an enemy. In the next, a trio of characters collide as they wrestle with the stories they feel have locked them in lives they don’t want.

For me, for now, my word for 2022 is “curiosity.” I want to dig into the dark and follow loose threads and peek behind what’s presented to me. I want to look at a present situation and ask where it came from. I want to dig into the stories under the stories. And I want to try putting away the story about how social media exhausts me and its makers infuriate me, and instead use it to share what I find and see whether anybody else is as into it as I am.

Who knows? A little more curiosity—about ourselves and our stories—might help us all do better. Let’s go, 2022.

2 thoughts on “Stories About Stories

  1. Jean Nunnally says:

    Wonderful dissection of a story that likely molded many young lives. A sad tale that was a product of its time. As Maya Angelou said, “when we know better, we do better.” Writers like you help us grow, see ourselves better, and consequently do better. Keep shining your light with stories so that we can see ourselves and grow from that.
    I’m excited to hear about a “3rd story”! Tell me more!


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