Comparison of the Treatment of Childhood in Shadowboxing and In the Skin of a Lion
Shadowboxing, a series of short stories by Tony Birch follows the life of Michael Burn as he grows up in the inner suburbs of Melbourne in the 1960s. Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion narrates the life of Canadian Patrick Lewis throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. While the majority of Ondaatje’s novel focuses on Patrick’s adult life, the first chapter “Little Seeds” recounts his childhood in rural Canada. Both texts focus on the observant nature of children and the keenness with which they see and feel the events and people around them. Both works examine the ways in which events and people experienced during childhood can affect a child, and the lasting impact these factors can have on an individual. Birch depicts childhood as a time in which certain details are both keenly noticed and keenly remembered.
Although young, in the chapter “The Butcher’s Wife”, Michael shows himself to be highly aware of the violence around him. He says “I caught only a glimpse of [the butcher’s wife’s] face as we passed each other, but I noticed [her cuts and bruises] immediately” (Birch 41). Furthermore, when describing the “heavy foundation of powder” (41) this woman uses to cover the bruises caused by her husband, Michael comments “it was probably the same one mum used” (41), showing that he is aware of the abusive situation at home. In fact, the profound and vivid memory of the traumatic events that take place in Michael’s home during his childhood can be seen when he describes the night his father physically abused his mother during her fourth pregnancy, after which “the baby was gone” (43). Michael says “I have not forgotten running into the kitchen, with Katie…and seeing her pinned to the floor beneath him” (42). Ondaatje also emphasizes the ability of children to notice things, through the observant Patrick Lewis, during his isolated childhood living with his emotionally distant father. The first two lines of In the Skin of a Lion depict Patrick as an outside spectator: “the boy sees the men walk past the farmhouse…he stands at the bedroom window and watches” (Ondaatje 7). As he spends a lot of time alone, he becomes an observant, non-judgmental spectator. When watching the loggers outside his window, the boy is fascinated by them and “witnesses this procession and even dreams about it” (8). Furthermore, Patrick also seems very aware of the intricate workings of human relationships, noticing that the loggers must give way to the farmer because they do not “own this land, as the owner of the cows does” (7). Importantly, Patrick does not seem to judge the happenings which he notices, giving no opinion on the fact that the foreigners are seen as lesser than the farmer. Additionally, Patrick does not seek to be associated with “the men”, portraying himself as an outside observer. Patrick’s father is described, presumably from Patrick’s observant perspective, as someone who is “withdrawn from the world around him” (15), and who often behaves “as if flesh and blood did not exist” (15). The use of the phrase “flesh and blood” (15) draws attention the family connection between Hazen and Patrick, suggesting that, as Hazen’s “flesh and blood” (15), Hazen may treat Patrick as though he “did not exist”. This draws attention to how potentially upsetting and problematic it may be for Patrick to have a father who is so withdrawn (15). Consequently, this reluctance to interact with others could most likely stem from having a silent, distant father, who did not seem very interested in interacting with him, suggesting the importance of the observations that individuals make as children.
In Shadowboxing, Birch suggests the lasting impact that the people and situations which children observe around them can have on these individuals as they grow up. However, rather than simply copying what they observe the adults around them doing, Birch focuses on the way children observe the actions of parent figures, observe the consequences, and often choose opposite responses to their parents. Consequently, in Michael’s later life we see that he has made seemingly conscious decisions to be different from his violent and abusive father. During his childhood, there are many times that his father actively tries to forget the past. After Michael’s younger sister, May died, Michael’s mother “tried to talk to [Michael’s father] about May several times, but he either responded with silence, or swore and yelled at her uncontrollably” (Birch, 7) eventually “he would not have [May’s] name spoken in the house” (9). Michael sees the grief that repressing the past causes his mother – “she was desperate”(7) to talk about May. Years later when they are living at the commission flats, his younger sister Katie, asks him “Michael, can you take me down by our old house, and the old street? Show me where it all used to be… You think you’d remember?” and we can see his conscious decision to be different from his father when he replies “Of course I can, Katie. That’s what I’m here for. That’s my job – to remember” (104). Consequently, while Birch depicts childhood as an important and formative time, he also suggests that it is not the situation of one’s childhood that defines the person, but the choices that that person makes, using what they have observed in their childhood.
In the Skin of the Lion focuses on the impact of childhood, while also acknowledging the ability of events in adulthood to alter the traits acquired in childhood. In keeping with the personality formed in his in childhood, Patrick takes with him to the city, a non-judgmental, observant, outsider attitude. In one of his earlier conversations with Alice, he disagrees with her passionate allegiance to her political cause which was, as she phrased it, to “name the enemy [the rich] and destroy their power” (130 Ondaatje). His reluctance to become overly involved and his non-judgmental nature can be seen in his reply that rather than violence, one should “teach him, make him aware”(128). However, when Alice is accidentally killed by a detonator in her bag, Patrick attempts to avenge her death by pursuing her cause, suggesting that this event has awakened in him the ability to harshly judge others, to the point of revenge. Consequently, Ondaatje depicts childhood as a background that affects us, and will always have some influence, but emphasizes the way later events can equally change these predetermined attitudes.
Both Shadowboxing and In the Skin of a Lion examine the time of childhood and its lasting impact upon the individual. Both texts emphasise the ability of children to notice both small and large details and feel and remember these things keenly. However, while Shadowboxing focuses on childhood as a time that stays with you forever, emphasizing the conscious way it can affect a person’s decisions, In the Skin of a Lion has a slightly different focus. Ondaatje seems to contend that while one’s childhood can have a strong effect on an individual, and shape much of one’s character, a person can still be changed later on, by stronger influences than those experienced in childhood.
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Shadowboxing, a series of short stories by Tony Birch follows the life of Michael Burn as he grows up in the inner suburbs of Melbourne in the 1960s. Michael Ondaatje’s […]