Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Red-haired Orphans: A North American Dream

Reading HBD Chick's HBD Day contribution, it occurred to me that both big North American countries have a favorite orphan.  In both cases, she's a girl.  And she's a red-head.  And she's named Anne.

Anne of Green Gables and Little Orphan Annie were, as far as I know, dreamed up completely independently in Canada and the United States.  They are different in many ways but their similarities are equally fascinating: both are about imaginative, charming girls who melt the hearts of both the grownups in the story and, presumably, the audience.  Canada's Anne is a school-teacher and lover of literature; in recent incarnations, America's Annie has been a singer.  Anne's father-figure is a shy, soft-spoken farmer who never married; Annie's is a (perhaps stereotypically) rich, pompous, generous American.

But that is all old hat.  What intrigues me about the stories is that they underscore what appears to me to be a love of orphans that, while surely not unique to the US and Canada, seems to be stronger than average here, if not much stronger.  (The only comparable figure I can think of to these girls is Pippi Longstocking, who seems to clarify the rule: warmth toward orphans is Nordish and/or Celto-Germanic.  But I am not a literature expert so I admit I am out on a limb.)

It is possible for an orphan to have a happy, healthy life anywhere, but in all too many places, it is quite unlikely.  Of course, with many mammals, an orphan could never survive at all--toothless young can't survive on their own and it is quite labor-intensive to raise them.  An unrelated adult or distant cousin has little genetic incentive to raise an orphan.

So, in a sense, a successful adoption, foster family, or even orphanage represents humanity conquering nature.  The same could be said of ascents of Mt. Everest.  It's possible for a human to climb any peak in the Himalayas (and Everest isn't nearly the most dangerous one) ... it's just not likely.  So it makes for exciting drama to make a movie about climbing a mountain, or surviving as an orphan.

Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and therein lies a danger.  Our love of happy, charming, and intelligent orphans (Anne's academic prowess is noted frequently) creates a market for the successful-orphan genre, but as it becomes an entrenched genre it threatens to wash away common sense.  Most orphan stories are much darker, ranging from brutal orphanages to human trafficking.   Anne Shirley thrives partly because her environment is rich in healthy two-parent families brimming with gentle, engaged, masculine fathers and stern, energetic, caring mothers--the sort of environment that is on the wane in much of the West.

Hubris can be blinding, and therein lies the greater danger.  When a climber slips, he thanks his lucky stars that the other men on his tether kept their footing.  If several of them lose their footing at once, they're all likely to die.  Our love of flame-haired, energetic orphan girls is laudable; it's part of our distinct North American charm.  Our ability to understand, nurture, and educate people we're not related to is limited; it's a simple fact.  A preening, self-congratulating hubris tempts us to deny this fact.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

Possibly both Annie and Anne of Green Gables were both influenced by the 1885 poem ""

"Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away" etc, etc.