Sample Comment Sheet
Author: Shawn Rubenfeld
Title: Ripples From the Harbor
Linear: The story (excerpt) is chronological, with a clear and straightforward beginning, middle, and end. It can be graphed on the Freitag triangle that Bell describes in Narrative Design. The momentum of the narrative is mostly a function of time, as evidenced by the word “eventually” in the opening line. Madison explains that “plot is the primary structural element in this [the Freitag] pattern” (Bell 29). This is true for “Ripples From the Harbor,” in which the tension of the story is derived primarily through the development of the plot. For example, when Morgan found the pictures in the box I immediately found myself asking “What is he going to do next?” I wanted to know how the story would move forward.
Morgan reaches middle school and his expectations of more freedom and and more recognition are dashed by various obstacles: his brother is going to college, which demands family attention, his teachers, in particular Mrs. Goldman/Stewart, are unlikeable, and he keeps getting into trouble. After an altercation in Stewart/Goldman’s class he and his friend Nicole walk to her home. While there Morgan discovers pornographic pictures of her, which lead him to believe that her father has been sexually abusing her. Her father arrives, Morgan leaves, and his relationship with Nicole, as well as others, is visibly altered. Nicole confronts him, she confesses to him, and a resolution seems to be on the horizon with the final conversation between Morgan and his history teacher, who is ironically the only adult who doesn’t seem completely oblivious.
Morgan is the main character, but I found that I was infinitely more interested in Nicole. I actually see Morgan as telling me Nicole’s story, sort of like Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby. So, even though Nicole is preeminent in my mind, I still recognize that he is the narrator, and therefore the story is (psychologically) about him.
I do not see Nicole as simply a child victim of sexual abuse. She has agency, as can be seen when her father arrives home unexpectedly and she challenges him by saying “How was I supposed to know you were gonna be home early?” In this respect she reminds me of Nabokov’s Lolita, whose identity is never completely subsumed by Humbert Humbert, try as he might. This provides her with some depth and keeps her from being an SVU type sketch of a persona. I feel that Nicole is more of an adult than Morgan, not simply because she is more serious about her school work, but because she is duplicitous. Is it simply a coincidence that she directed Morgan to the master bathroom? I don’t buy it. She knows that he’s going to find the pictures; that’s why her hands are shaking when he returns. When Morgan tells us that “It was more of a challenge than a statement,” it alerts us that Nicole is capable of saying one thing and meaning another, which is how adults speak. When Morgan speaks he says what he means. Every statement Nicole makes after that revelation, then, has double meaning. When she says “I’m impressed, but don’t be long please,” she isn’t talking about the answer key -- she’s talking about Morgan’s reaction to his discovery. The same goes for when she says “Did you get it?” and “Did you want to talk to me or not?” and “What happened when you were at my house the other day?” If we accept that she is is somewhat duplicitous, which I do, then she cannot only be looking to Morgan for help. If she knew Morgan was going to find the pictures and she knew his reaction would be cowardice (“I knew you weren’t actually going”) then she is making him complicit in her abuse. And if Morgan is complicit, then so are we, the audience.
Mrs. Stewart/Goldman’s character acts as somewhat of a red herring. At first it seems that she is in serious need of some sensitivity training: her interactions with Morgan are completely inappropriate. There is something of the uncanny in her, epitomized on page 2 when she looks down at Morgan, grinning. She reminds me of Trunchbull from Matilda. But, with the closing of the excerpt we find that she is actually the only adult who recognizes that something is wrong. The other teachers and even Morgan’s own father are all disastrously clueless.
The most vivd imagery is associated with the father. He sports a “long trench coat” and his hair is “dark.” He always seems surrounded by smoke. Tellingly, he sells cigarettes, which are very masculine, very phallic, very adult objects which are associated with various illegal things: cuban cigars, the Italian mob, etc.
As mentioned above, the dialogue is more complex than it at first appears, but that is an extension of Nicole’s characterization. Morgan’s dialogue, on the other hand, seems perfectly appropriate for a middle school boy. There is a differentiation between his dialogue and the narration, which makes me wonder if this story is being told by an older Morgan looking back on a specific moment of his childhood.
The failure of adults to understand or recognize the problems faced by children (no adult notices that something is wrong); a kind of validation of meaning or purpose in the lives of children (all the real suspense and action takes place between Nicole and Morgan); general corruption in the adult world. In these ways the story reminds me very much of The Catcher in the Rye -- is this gong to be a young adult novel?
There are several instances where the influence of cinema is apparent in the technique used to convey information. I think this lends itself well to suspense. The audience for this will probably be very acculturated to cinema, and so when Morgan’s imagination crops up and he fancies himself as a boxer pumping himself up for a fight, or when he suddenly “[sees] her arms strapped to the ground...” the images he conjures up and their effects on him are immediately communicated.
Page 13: “I wanted to keep secrets too.” I love this sentence because it is so perverse. Nicole’s secret is that she is being sexually abused by her father and Morgan’s response is that he wants one too! It shows that he is transitioning into adulthood because his desires are no longer just not wanting to have so much homework, but are becoming more complex and ambiguous in their origins and in their ability to be fulfilled.
- Why did you choose to make the historyy teacher concerned about global warming instead of the science teacher?
- Did you mix up the teacher’s name on ppurpose so as to make her character even stranger?
- On page 2, the sentence “As other teacchers had before...” I was confused by the metaphor of “the footprints.” I’m not sure what is being said.
- I especially admire your use of the woord “dripped” (page 6) in describing Nicole’s blouse. It gives so much texture to the garment, even more so than the word “thick.”