Review of Henrietta, David Mamet’s latest children’s book, about a sow with a red bow around her tail dreams of law school.
David Mamet. Henrietta
Illustrated by Elizabeth Dahlie.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 31 pp. Cloth $ 16.00.
Some little piggies go to market, but in Henrietta, David Mamet’s latest children’s book, a sow with a red bow around her tail dreams of law school. Rejected by a venerable Boston institution (One assumes Harvard), but still ardent to pursue a legal education, Henrietta sneaks into lecture halls, until she is discovered one day and banned from ever returning. Henrietta’s prospects decline, until she offers assistance to an “Old Vagabond.” As she helps him home, she quotes Shakespeare and Thoreau, proving to be as well-read as she is kind. In keeping with the tradition of fairy tales, tile stranger turns out to be the President of the same “Great University” that had originally failed to appreciate Henrietta’s talents. She is admitted to law school at once, where she rises through the ranks to become valedictorian. She has an illustrious career, achieving a seat on the Supreme Court.
Like all of Mamet’s plays and films, this fable, which is matched by Elizabeth Dahlie’s whimsical watercolors, has a strong moral: be self-reliant, persevere and you will succeed in life, for you are the author of your own destiny. It is an admirable lesson to direct to today’s young girls and, on this level, Henrietta is. for Mamet, uncharacteristically “P.C.”
However, the empowering message is undercut by negative associations that one cannot help but make — between pigs and women, pigs and minorities, and pigs and lawyers. The pork links are evident in the Roz Chast-style cartoons, which wind up drawing attention back to the story’s sincerity. Is Henrietta a pig in a poke? The illustration of the porcine heroine in a black gown, posing with (human) Supreme Court justices is disquieting. Although one judge in the group portrait is African-American and a few appear to be women, the image of a very fat-faced pig seems to imply that all lawyers are swine. Are Mamet and Dahlie casting aspersions on America’s highest court? Given the author’s subversive nature and wry sense of humor. one suspects that he intends us to arrive at such inferences. If that’s the case, then what are we to make of Henrietta’s aspirations and accomplishments? How are we to read the slight plot, wispier than the curl in Henrietta’s tail?
The Supreme Court picture encapsulates the unsettling ambiguity of the book. There is something inappropriate about Mamet’s latest foray into the world of children’s literature. The word choice is sophisticated, the tone so worldly that one wonders if Henrietta is really meant for children. Would a young girl understand the sly, urbane wit? Consider the story’s opening:
“Once there was a Pig, and you may remark there was a pig more than once, and all of it is true [T]o Boston, Athens of the North, did our pig go, for Boston sets itself up as our Seat of Learning, and have not the Luminaries in all the fields issued from there these last three hundred years?” The pretentious tone and the awkward sentence structure are familiar: we’ve seen them a hundred times before in Mamet’s essays, where he also adopts a self-mocking voice while simultaneously displaying his erudition. Is Mamet mocking his main character?
Given Mamet’s place in America’s literary pantheon, these “pigadilloes” maybe forgivable in personal essays, but does the approach work in a children’s book? Will the authorial airs in Henrietta come across as silly and make a child giggle with delight, or will the rarified humor fly right over a child’s head?
David Mamet may just be too grown up to write a good story for kids. Despite a certain light-hearted quality, Henrietta is ultimately earthbound, joyless, and, I hesitate to say it, ugly and mean at the core. In “Fortress Mamet,” John Lahr, writing for The New Yorker, quotes Mamet as saying, “My childhood, like many people’s, was not a bundle of laughs. So what?” Can Mamet understand, and relate to, innocence? Joy, optimism, wide-eyed wonder — these traits are lacking in the character of John in the semi-autobiographical play. The Cryptogram; the precocious child thinks and speaks like a little old man.
Mamet may turn to children’s fiction to escape adult agonies, but his irony and need for vengeance carry over. In the children’s play The Poet and the Rent, Aunt George is hit in the face with pies. In Passover, Grandmother tells a tale of violence and destruction to her young granddaughter. Warm and Cold, his first children’s book, is an artful experiment, dedicated to Mamet’s daughter Willa, but it feels like a grownup’s attempt to recreate a childhood he never knew.
Henrietta is Mamet’s best pass yet at children’s literature. but it still doesn’t bring home the bacon. For better examples of porcine delight, try The Marzipan Pig or Green Eggs and Ham.
UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA