In my last post I wrote how humor in the historical fiction Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis helped make a serious story appealing to a broader readership.
It’s the “spoonful of sugar” idea that humor can make it easier for a reader to take the “medicine” of a serious theme or a sad event. It also can make the serious part hit harder, which can be a good thing.
Last week I attended a play that was billed as a comedy. For the most part it was. However, there was one very sad bit. I wasn’t expecting it, and it hit me harder than if I’d been ready. I was angry. Why?
Because I’d been blindsided.
But comedies can deal with serious plots or themes without making their readers/viewers angry. Serious stories can include humor to help the reader/viewers process difficult things.
1. For a serious story, give the point of view character or narrator a humorous voice from page one. Like Elijah in Elijah of Buxton. The topic deals with slavery. Not funny–at all.
Yet, Elijah has the voice of an innocent child who tries, often unsuccessfully and humorously, to figure out the adults around him. The humor draws us in at the beginning, and we can’t help but follow–and hurt with–Elijah as the story becomes more serious.
2. For a comedy, make sure there is plenty of foreshadowing of serious events or themes.
3. Keep pacing in mind. Humor can give the reader or viewer small breaks in-between the intense scenes–like the times a roller coaster climbs the hills, giving riders a chance to take a breath before they start screaming again. Sprinkling humor in-between intense parts also helps keep the humor from being insensitive to tragedy.
Let’s look at the recent Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier as a case study. The movie’s premise is serious. The hidden bad guys plan to take over the world by eliminating millions of people who they deem to be future problems. However, the movie uses lots of humor, especially banter, at the beginning. As the stakes ramp up, there is less humor.
Then, before the final battle, Stan Lee makes a cameo as a museum security guard who discovers Cap’s uniform is missing, and he says, “Oh, man. I’m so fired.” This tiny injection of humor gives viewers a place to take a breath before plunging into the most intense scenes.
What are examples of comedies that handle serious elements well? What are other examples of serious stories that include humor appropriately and effectively?
I’ve challenged myself to read, and blog about, every winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. By focusing on one each month, it will take me more than three years. My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge book for this month is the 2008 winner, Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis.
It’s set in Canada in a community of free, but mostly former black slaves from America, just prior to the American Civil War. Elijah, the main character, is the first free boy to be born in Buxton. Even though he hears stories from his parents and the other grown ups, he is still a little sheltered from the horrors of slavery. He feels responsible when money to be used to buy a family from slavery is stolen, and he and a friend set out to get the money back, even though it means risking capture in America.
Use humor. Historical fiction tends to be sincere, heartfelt, and serious. Elijah of Buxton deals with the very weighty topics of slavery and injustice, but the novel has a lot of humor in it. Especially the first half. The humor helps us laugh with Elijah, causing us to bond with him, so we let ourselves feel with him as he encounters more serious things. Humor makes it fun to read, causing us to let our guard down, and then the serious parts hit us harder.
Yes, it can be hard to find humor in certain eras and settings. But, children have a way of finding things to laugh about. They, like Elijah, make observations, try to make sense of things, and end up pointing out the ironic.
I love to read humor, but I have a hard time writing humor. I’m in the sincere, heartfelt camp. However, perhaps historical fiction would appeal to more readers if we included more humor.
Buxton Mission/Elgin Settlement, Ontario, Canada. In the late 1840s, the Rev. William King inherited black slaves from his late wife’s family in the American South–except Rev. King opposed slavery. He wanted to set the slaves free, but knew it wasn’t a good option in the South. In fact, even in the American North, fugitive slaves could be captured and sent back into slavery. So, they weren’t free until they crossed into Canada. So when the Presbyterian Church sent Rev. King to Canada, the church and the Elgin Association helped Rev. King buy 9,000 acres in Canada and establish the community of free blacks.
There were other communities of free blacks in Canada, but Buxton/Elgin was distinguished by its rules and its school. The residents had to purchase and work land, build a specific style of home, complete with flower and vegetable gardens, and the children had to attend school. The school earned a such a high reputation for its quality that many white and native neighbors chose to send their children to the Buxton school.
My favorite quote:
“If you go at it ‘specting something bad to happen, all you gunn do is draw that bad thing to you. You caint be timid ’bout nothing you do, you got to go at it like you ‘specting good things to come out of it.” –Mr. Leroy
For more info, see:
Join me Feb. 24, 2015, to talk about the 1992 Scott O’Dell Award winner, Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn.
Do you have family stories connected to Buxton or other similar communities? Have you read other books about Buxton? What other kids’ historical fiction combine humor with serious topics? How do you feel about the combination of serious and humorous in stories?