Going Ashore by Mavis Gallant, 1954
The magic trick:
Showing Emma in situations that both illustrate her childlike naivete and her adult wisdom
SSMT obsessives (Are there any out there? Hmmm) may recall “Train” by Joy Williams, another story featuring transportation and adults putting children in adult situations through their own immature behavior. In “Going Ashore,” the means of motion is a cruiseliner and the child being poorly parented is named Emma.
Gallant does an excellent job of putting Emma in different situations that show her to be alternately advanced beyond her years and hopelessly naïve. The naiveté is to be expected. She is 12 years old, after all. She misses the adult social cues going on in Eddy’s behavior and only focuses on her schoolgirl crush. She falls for the vendor’s sales pitch that the toy tiger is somehow special and maybe even magical. These are moments when she seems appropriately innocent.
The moments when Emma is forced to play the role of adult then stand in sharp contrast. When her mother cries about the state of her life, it’s on Emma to tell her it will all be OK. When her mother is too wrapped up in her own sorrows to notice the weather, it’s on Emma to remind her to wear her scarf. When her mother is too depressed to get out of bed, it’s on Emma to drag her ashore to see Africa.
It’s all very sad, and a very knowing portrait of a child who has to play the role of parent to her own mother far too often. And that’s quite a trick on Gallant’s part.
“Bring a scarf for your head,” said Emma. “Please, let’s go.”
They got the last two places in the launch. Mrs. Ellenger bent and shuddered and covered her eyes; the boat was a terrible ordeal, windy and smelling of oil. She felt chilled and vomitous. “Oh, Emma,” she moaned.
Emma put an arm about her, reassuring. “It’s only a minute,” she said. “We’re nearly there now. Please look up. Why don’t you look? The sun’s come out.”
“I’m going to be sick,” Mrs. Ellenger said.
“No, you’re not.”