Asta in the Wings
I got a copy of Asta in the Wings, by Jan Elizabeth Watson, last week for my birthday. It had been on my wish list for four years, ever since I read about it at Boston Bibliophile. I’d forgotten the review that got me interested, so when I started reading it, I couldn’t tell if it was set in a dystopian future with two kids and a mother that had survived a civilization-ending plague, or if the mother was crazy. While the text, spoken in first person by Asta, who is seven, indicates dystopian future, the clues—like the way her mother cuts her hair and eats cookies in front of the starving children—increasingly indicate that the mother is crazy.
It turns out that the mother is actually crazy. One night when she doesn’t come home, Asta and her brother Orion find their way out of the house where Asta has lived most of her life, to find that the world is fine, even though the people they meet don’t seem to be very sensitive to other people’s feelings.
Some of the best parts of this novel are the parts about what Asta imagines about the world, having been exposed to her mother’s stories about the stage and the plague-afflicted outside world, an old Dick-and-Jane-type primer, the Bible, a book about movies, and movies and game shows on TV. She believes the stories about a grandmother being an actress and her mother having stage training, and she takes her mother’s advice about acting as advice about how to live in the world: “being someone else allows you to see the whole of things. You have to look at things upside down or inside out or sideways….I remember how exciting it was, standing there in the wings, waiting for my turn to go onstage.”
Asta and Orion spend their days reading and playing games that they take very seriously. At one point, Asta and Orion put tea and pickle juice on the outside of his legs and then wrap him up in blankets so the tea mixture can heal them. While he is “cooking” in a hamper, she goes back to looking at the Bible: “I’d left it open to a plate of thirteen men competing for elbow room at a long supper table. All the men wore robes, and most seemed to have no legs. I looked from one man to the other, mentally comparing their faces to those of the actors in the Big Movie Book. What ripping silent movies they could make, these men! Perhaps the subtitles would reveal that their legs had been blown off in a battle. Perhaps their legs would have to be restored with the help of herbs applied by a clever little girl who would gladly join them for supper in the end.”
When the starved children first make their way outside, Asta says “not everything I saw was new to me, for the world of books and television had introduced me to more things than one might expect” but she is surprised to find “no human limbs jutting from the snowbanks, thankfully, and no men hauling bodies away. The only horror was not knowing where Mother was.”
Once the children are discovered, Asta is taken to live with an aunt she’s never met and sent to school, which is the only place she sees her brother. She says he is living with a doctor, which may be true, although it’s also true that this same doctor acts in an official capacity when he takes them to see their mother, so Orion may need more intensive therapy than Asta does to be able to come out from the wings and onto the world’s stage. They visit their mother and play their old make-believe games with her, but they are newly conscious of the possibilities for interactions with those in the rest of the world.
The story is charmingly told, with an innocence that belies its smallness. To Asta, the house she grew up in, the neighborhood around it, and the next town over, where she is taken to live, feel like the whole world. Her mother and brother have been her world, and now it is expanding. Even though we see that the mother has been living in her own dystopian fantasy world and that she and Orion have been neglected and mistreated, we also see the magic they have created, the foundation of imaginative possibilities that lines from Shakespeare and images out of novels like The Stand, Earth Abides, and The Scarlet Plague have given these two children.
I loved this book, but had to take a brief interval of mourning for the book I wanted it to be, one about imaginative children who actually do emerge into a post-apocalyptic world.