First published in Young Winter’s Tale 8 in 1978, this would be the first short story for my DWJ reading project. And as with most of the short stories, this is my first read. “Carruthers was a walking stick for beating father with”, starts the story, and goes on to explain how Elizabeth misunderstood the use of Carruthers and came to be in possession of it. Unlike other walking sticks, Carruthers is alive, and eats, hops around, and talks to Elizabeth when it feels like. Elizabeth’s sisters Ruth and Stephanie can see this, but Carruthers is shy around the adults and other children, so everyone else assumes it’s an imaginary friend of Elizabeth’s. Elizabeth “raises” Carruthers in hope that it would finally beat her father, but it always refuses to, preferring the ballet lessons she hates, and eating food and getting her into trouble. The end of the story shows that Carruthers was never a stick to begin with, but a sort of chrysalis for a strange praying mantis-like being – which I thought was very creepy, but maybe that’s because of memories of the insect monster from Buffy resurfacing.
The fantasy elements in this story is a little scary, but at the same time ordinary, something that I love in Diana’s stories. My favourite novels by her contain magic of the more “charming” variety, though, rather than the “creepy” one of “Carruthers.” It reminds me of The Time of the Ghost in that sense. In fact, the siblings and parents in “Carruthers”, too, remind me of The Time of the Ghost.
All of Diana’s stories (as far as I remember) have their share of awful adults, and the parents in “Carruthers” definitely fit into that category. Elizabeth’s father is overbearing and sexist, the sort that refuses to let anyone deviate even just a little from his ideal of what a girl/boy/woman/man should behave. When Elizabeth realises this, she observes that “It’s like being squeezed into the wrong shape” – which is easy for me to relate to, having been that girl child that preferred running around in the forest with my brother and both of us getting all dirty and me being the only one scolded for it, back when I was eight. We lived at the edge of a forest in Bangi back then. The next year we moved back to the city, and my brother wouldn’t let me tag along when we played with his friends anymore, so it was back to dolls and Shakespeare (which is another story to be told another time) for me.
But anyway – Elizabeth’s father is awful, and I wanted him to get beaten by Carruthers or get some other sort of comeuppance, or at least come to a realisation of how wrong he is, but none of these things happen. Instead, Elizabeth gains strength enough to realise what sort of person her father is, and in that learns that he isn’t someone to be feared at all. Which may be my favourite part about this story, really. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t other stuff to like, because as usual, Diana’s depiction of sibling affection and rivalry is brilliant, and I love how different the three girls are, and this bit about Ruth – “Her way of losing her temper was to go icy calm and say the nastiest thing she possibly could” – is so perfect, because, uhm, that’s how I lose my temper and I’ve lost friends over that, and seeing it in someone else in a book is refreshing, somehow.