Last fall, on an uninspected whim, I changed the syllabus of my children’s-literature seminar, adding William Goldman’s novel “The Princess Bride.” Two days later, I was reading Goldman’s obituary. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do obey them. I began trying to obtain all his other work, and I discovered that he had written a novella that, unlike “The Princess Bride,” really was written for young children. It is called, quite unfortunately, “Wigger.” Published in 1974, and now little-known and difficult-ish to obtain, it is about the love between a seven-year-old girl named Susanna and her pink blankie, Wigger. Goldman is best known either for writing the screenplay of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or for his film adaptation of “The Princess Bride.” He also wrote the screenplays for “All the President’s Men” and “Marathon Man,” adapted from his novel of the same name. He wrote expertly in nearly every genre, and quickly—he started and finished one of his novels in a single week—as if fuelled by an intense rage that was very well sublimated. His father committed suicide before Goldman graduated high school.
In “Wigger,” Susanna’s parents die in a car crash (by page 2); then her grandmother abandons her (by page 6); then each in a series of four aunts fails, in turn, to have sufficient generosity or love in her heart to care for Susanna (by page 7); and, finally, it is decided that she will be put in an orphanage known simply as the Home. Through all this, Susanna doesn’t cry. This is because her blankie, Wigger, repeatedly tells her to keep a smile on, and that “a cheery face is worth diamonds.” None of us would give Susanna this advice, of course. But Wigger and Susanna have the loving, bickering dynamic of an old married couple. When Susanna gets down, Wigger complains about what a beautiful and ravishing pink blanket he once was, before Susanna’s ceaseless pulling and rubbing. “I’m just a pink rag . . . a faded glory gone to seed,” he says. These bits make Susanna laugh and feel better, “which was exactly how Wigger wanted her to feel.”
However, through a series of goofy and tragic events involving a bank robber and a Santa costume, Susanna and Wigger are separated. Now Susanna does cry. A lot. The head of the Home threatens to isolate Susanna in a dark, scary room until she stops crying, and Susanna, holding back the tears, becomes very ill. A specialist is called:
“Well it’s really quite strange. I don’t know exactly how to phrase it,” the Specialist began. “Because, you see, even though I know we have her safely in a bed . . . not in any way near to a river or lake or bay or any other liquid mass . . . The child is drowning.”
By the middle of the book, Susanna is mostly dead. None of the interventions—sternness, the rationality of modern medicine, even the determined companionship of a lovable maker of children’s coffins named Katz—is of any use.
As a parent, I find this, at first, to be a terrifying excess of plot.
My five-year-old daughter often says to me, “Tell me a story about something that was going to be bad but then it turned out good.” (She makes this request on the way to the doctor.) Or, “Tell me a story of something that was going to be good but then it went badly and you were sad.” (She makes this request on the way to school.) Or even, “Tell me about something that was going to be bad but then it was good, but then it was bad, but then it was good, but then it was bad . . . And,” reluctantly, “then it was good.” I find these assignments very difficult, even though she considers losing a favorite sock and then finding it (then losing it again, but then finding it) to be a perfectly acceptable plot. It’s the emotion that is difficult. I find myself longing for something like “It was nice and nothing changed.”
In “The Princess Bride,” Inigo Montoya and Fezzik, the giant, bring beautiful Westley’s corpse to Miracle Max, who explains, “There’s sort of dead, mostly dead, and all dead.” Miracle Max refuses to help them, not for reasons of honor, or even of money, but simply for the petty, prideful reason that it will look bad if he fails. (He does end up helping them, after his wife yells at him; she thinks he could be a big miracle worker again.) The scene at Miracle Max’s is one of the comic peaks of the novel—and is directly related to its fundamental pessimism about human nature. That theme, of pettiness triumphing over even matters as consequential as the life of another man, reappears often in the book. Another comic high is when a minor functionary who’s in charge of carting away Westley’s dead body is looking for a wheelbarrow. “All the wheelbarrows were buried back at the rear wall, behind the hoes and rakes and hedge trimmers,” Goldman writes. “This kind of thing always seemed to happen to him when he was in a hurry . . . extra work, extra work, all the time. Wouldn’t you just know it?”
So many of the very best stories for children are almost too dark for adults (or this adult) to bear. In Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen,” the main character, Mickey, nearly gets baked into a batter that’s being mixed by three chubby chefs with Hitler mustaches. He is placed inside an oven, and the Kosher salt is visible nearby to make the association complete. Mickey escapes by making a propeller plane out of rising batter. He also smiles through it all—it’s an adventure. The jealous, bitter, poisonous creatures in William Steig’s “Rotten Island” all end up killing one another, and this clears the way for a happy ending. A rainbow emerges over the new, uninhabited island, which is now in bloom. (Steig’s books often have something of the famous Kafka line: “There is plenty of hope . . . only not for us.”) Sendak, Steig, and Goldman all published their work for children around the same time. (Steig was older, but he started writing for children at a later age.) All were Jews born before the war. All had difficult childhoods, and all were miraculously funny.
“I can read this to you,” I tell my daughter, of “Wigger.” “But, a lot of very sad things happen in it. Are you O.K. with that?” I’m not sure why I ask her this. Sad things happen in children’s books often. But, somehow, this book, with all its silliness, seems far sadder to me.
“Read it,” she says. She’s bullish about tales of children facing immense adversity on their own, even though she’s terrified when I step out to the hallway to throw a bottle into the recycling—or maybe because she’s terrified when I step out to the hallway to throw a bottle into the recycling.
So, Susanna is still in the hospital; Wigger is in far-off Switzerland. An artist saves the day! Sort of. A self-pitying, egotistical artist type finds an abandoned pink rag—the beloved Wigger—and climbs up a mountain with it, as his sort of refusenik art project, on Christmas Eve. A cold wind blows the blankie away. Across the globe, Katz the coffin-maker’s two helpers—a big guy and a little guy—come into Susanna’s room to load her into a small coffin. The little guy notices a rag in the dead girl’s hand and tries to pull it out. Then he tries again; then the big guy tries.
“I’ll tell you something,” the big coffin man said. “That kid sure
don’t wanna let go of that pink rag.”
Susanna slapped their hands.
“I’ll tell you something,” the little coffin man said. “That kid
I intimated that I don’t like dark books for children, but that is untrue: I admire and fear them, and I seek them out. “Wigger” satisfies both my daughter’s longing for zigs and zags and my longing for the straightest line possible: the story ends exactly where it begins. “And Wigger was still all she had,” Goldman writes. “But that was enough.”
When the novella is over, my daughter asks me what happened next. What about when Susanna gets older? “I don’t know,” I tell her.
“Do we have the next book in the series?”
“It’s just this one book.”
One detail of “The Princess Bride” that surprised me—that I had not noticed when I had read it, as a teen-ager—was that the framing character, named Goldman, is written as, basically, a Hollywood jerk. He calls his young son fat and lazy. He flirts with a young aspiring actress while his wife keeps calling from New York about their son’s birthday. (The gift that Goldman is trying to find for his son is a book that his immigrant father had read to him as a child—“The Princess Bride,” by S. Morgenstern.) When I read this as an adult, the cruel comments he makes about his child were so upsetting that—I am embarrassed to admit this—I looked into it, in what we collectively agree is reality, and was relieved to discover that Goldman never had a son at all. He did have two daughters, one of them named Susanna. “Wigger” is dedicated to “the real Susanna, and the real Wigger, too.” It’s a different kind of dark that he wrote a book with a central character named after his daughter, and that he killed off that character’s parents within two pages.
“It’s a happy ending,” I pointed out to my daughter, “because they are reunited. Her and her blanket.”
“It’s a good story,” she said, dismissing me. She then asked for a story in which Donald Duck is a detective and Minnie is missing and he finds her, “but it has to take a long time.”
I sometimes think that children have premonitions of their terrifying strength: their ability to survive, and even find love and companionship, without us.