Verushka and a Child's Perspective

reading like a writer

Jan Stinchcomb's Verushka is about an evil, but also sympathetic, entity named Verushka who stalks a family through three generations. The book includes multiple POVs, including those of various family members, as well as Verushka herself. Early in the novel, we even get the perspective of a child who is not quite four years old. 

I want to look at the first time we get Devon's perspective, as a very small child. At this point in the story, we've just heard from Devon's mother and know that the family's home was destroyed in a fire, and they have moved temporarily to a secluded house in the wilderness that they call the chalet. 

Devon has witches and fairies and ghosts in her world. They come at different times. At night she sees them in the dark corners, and in the daylight she sees them in the trees. Parks are good. Grass is great. 

She loves the chalet. A whole new world greeted her when they drove up to the property the first time. 

Her feet feel better on the ground. She loves dirt and rocks. There is nothing like a handful of soil. It has a particular smell (and taste—don't tell her mother). When she is older, she will learn this is called terroir. She starts collecting plants in a little bag. She counts weeds as plants and is only deterred by the ones with prickles. Anything with a flower is notable.

She likes to raise her face to the sky, to the sun. Her daddy tells her about the planets. So far she has seen Jupiter and Venus. The stars are something to eat and to wrap around oneself. Their shape keeps appearing in her world. She had a dream where she was wearing a black dress covered in stars, and in the morning she cried because it was gone. Her mother promised her she would buy her a star dress if she ever saw one.

There is something untruthful about her mother.

The line about the untruthful mother has haunted me since I read it. Devon doesn't trust the person who is most supposed to protect her. That is devastating, but it also shows wisdom to this child, along with the vulnerability. "There is something" feels both hazy and certain, telling us the distrust is intuited, rather than evidenced. 

What ways of knowing does this child have?

Devon's particular way of knowing is what I'm interested in–the way the book takes me into a perspective that is very different from a standard adult one, but is described in a way that allows for nuance and complexity. 

I want to note that it's possible, and often necessary, to write from a small child's perspective without using a child's words. A child's experience can be more complex than their language skills might allow them to explain, and illuminating that experience is often more important and more meaningful than mimicking their speech. 

In this case, the first few sentences are quite simple in structure, and might be spoken by a child. But they don't at all feel like baby talk, with the expected grammatical errors, silly words, or choppiness. They are more like fairy tale language, not because Devon mentions fairies, but because they are distilled to make vivid the most important parts. The sentences are simple, but they are correct and clear and vibrant.

The parenthetical, "(and taste—don't tell her mother)" confirms we are all the way inside Devon's head, rather than simply observing her from the outside and making guesses, with only the slight distance of a third-limited perspective. But then we do zoom out, in the very next sentence, to the future, which Devon can't yet know: "When she is older, she will learn this is called terroir." This shift in narrative distance helps us know what the voice is capable of: it's in Devon's head and knows her thoughts, but can also help the reader to process those thoughts and understand them more clearly. It makes clear that she can experience things before she has the words for them. Of course, a small child can know this taste of earth, before she knows what it is called. 

The next paragraph takes us deeper into Devon's perspective, while adding complexity to the sentences and sophistication to the word choice. "The stars are something to eat and to wrap around oneself. Their shape keeps appearing in her world." "Oneself," for example, is not in the lexicon of most small children. And the sentence is elevated slightly beyond the expected "Devon wants to eat the stars." The stars become the subject of the sentence, instead of Devon, which feels slightly more mature, somehow. But the idea of eating and wrapping stars is not only lyrical and strange–it is all the way inside this child's reality. If Stinchcomb did not use this slightly more advanced language, the reader might not understand Devon's experience of the world so clearly.

The passage blurs the line between dream and wakefulness through paragraphing. Even though short paragraphs are frequent in the book, we don't get a new one when we cross into and out of dream. The stars that Devon sees awake are present when she sleeps, and a dream loss has emotional consequences in the waking world. 

Instead, the paragraphs break at the border between the earth, with its dirt and the plants that grow in it, and the sky, with its stars and planets. This categorization feels real in a different way--a child's way--than the divide between conscious and sleeping or between reality and imagination.

The whole passage bursts with sensory details--that dirt and those stars, and the way we get not only their appearance but their taste and smell and texture. We jump somewhat disjointedly from image to image in a way that feels childlike and full of wonder. The way we learn that parks are good and grass is great turns the whole passage into a list of what is pleasurable to this child. So does her desire to physically touch and consume elements of the natural world. And this joy has strangely wonderful consequences to the narrative. Later on, Devon encounters bad things, frightening things–things an adult reader knows are dangerous–but through her perspective, they are still tinged with breathless awe.

No spoilers, but this matters to the later story.

At this point in the novel, we don't yet know if magic is real. But in Devon's experience, it is, and that's what's important in this moment. Whether or not anything is real, we can know her keen powers of observation and learn to trust her. It's crucial that we trust her, I think. She's going to encounter Verushka. 

The story is told out of order. Later on, we'll dip into the past to find out about Devon's father's encounter with Verushka, and then her grandmother's. We'll even get Verushka's childhood, hundreds of years ago. But it's remarkable to first meet Verushka through this child's wondrous and breathless sensibility, set up in these first few passages and creating this incredible world between science and magic, between dreaming and being awake. 

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