Scorpion Stalking Duck
September 8, 2011
Book Review: Stanley Seagull, by Cathy Mazur
by Stephen M. Donahue
Kurt Vonnegut allegedly said that any story can be simplified to the point that it is just another version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It might take a while to figure it out, but all the basic elements can be rooted out of any composition consisting of complete sentences organized into reasonably-sized paragraphs: dysfunctional family, character flaws, failed relationships, death, and ghosts. Consider the movie Top Gun as a good example of this concept. I disagree with the late Mr. Vonnegut, because he has overgeneralized when he said all stories are rewrites of Hamlet. The book I review today is not a variation on the theme of Hamlet, but is more than just a children's story. Stanley Seagull, written by Cathy Mazur and illustrated by Colleen Gedrich, is a delightful children’s book which my children enjoyed having read out loud to them. It does have an underlying theme which may not be obvious to the younger reader, but may interest the adult elocutionist.
In brief, Stanley is a seagull who lives somewhere along the northeast coast of the United States. I thought it was along the coast of New York or New Jersey, probably because Stanley hangs out on the boardwalk. Perhaps it is because I have fond childhood memories of visiting the Boardwalk in Atlantic City in the early 1970's. Stanley thinks only of food: where to get it, where to get more, how to get more. Even his relationships with other birds are dominated by the thought of eating and how to satisfy this one single desire. He obviously is an immature bird, as he has not been invited to feed at the choicest feeding grounds. When he does get invited there, he discovers that it is a dump, a landfill along the shore. He is warned to be careful and be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, but he forgets all caution as he gorges on the many delights spread before him. He ends up trapped in a garbage truck, which takes him far from the ocean. He ends up at a city dump, which looks a lot like the landfill he just left: there is plenty of food and seagulls, but it is colder, and there is no ocean. He misses the ocean.
He meets the other birds; one, named Walter, advises him to stay as the journey back to the ocean is too far. He tries to escape anyway. After flying for a while, he spots what he thinks is the ocean but is actually just the wet pavement of a parking lot. He returns to the garbage dump, dejected. Walter advises Stanley that the only way to return to the ocean is to make the return trip in one of the garbage trucks. It is difficult to sneak aboard, but Stanley accomplishes this. He completes the trip back to the ocean and is reunited with his friends, his cousin Seymor, and his beloved ocean.
For my younger children who sat with me while I read it aloud, this was a pleasant little book which kept them interested for a while. They liked the story as well as the illustrations which went along with it. As I looked over the book, I did start to notice a few themes which struck me, and I shall elaborate on each one briefly. Stanley is more than just a seagull when seen through the eye of metaphor and symbolism.
To begin with, I saw Stanley as a Christ figure. Consider that he enters a cave in which he falls into a deep sleep; this is reminiscent of Christ lying in the tomb after His death on the cross. He goes to a place which may be considered Hell, or Purgatory. The occupants he meets are physically taken care of, but they are separated from what is their true nature; namely, to be living near the sea. Stanley breaks out of this other place, once again having to enter the cave and falling into a deep sleep. He returns to his former, preferred life; he is resurrected from the dead, so to speak. What does not go along with Stanley as a Christ figure is that he does not come back to improve the life of the seagulls in either location; in fact, one would think that those birds representing the Just would be liberated from the city dump along with Stanley. Another problem is that Stanley receives more help than he gives to those in what one might consider Hell or Purgatory.
Two other characters in literature fit Stanley even better: Jonah and Pinocchio. All three characters end up in the hold of a vessel of sorts; for Jonah and Pinocchio, it is the belly of a large fish. For Stanley, his symbolic whale is the hold of a garbage truck. All three end up in this type of prison because of their fallen nature: Jonah disobeys God, Pinocchio is constantly getting into trouble, and Stanley fails to avoid danger while he is busy gorging himself. Finally, all three are chastised and learn, grow from the experience.
However, I think the literary figure Stanley resembles the most is actually Dante Alighieri in Purgatorio. In the Divine Comedy, Dante visits Purgatory and sees how the occupants are forced to perform penances which are related to their particular sin (or sins). In Stanley’s Purgatory, he realizes that his love for food has subordinated his love for self-preservation, and that this is how he ended up in the city dump. He must conquer his overwhelming love for food before he can be free again. He has to return to the garbage truck - his own cave - without enjoying any of the delights which are found within in order to find salvation. Helping Stanley discern his plight - and the solution – is Walter, a bespectacled and feathered rendition of Virgil, who is Dante’s guide through Purgatory. Without his explanation, Stanley would have pined away at the city dump for the rest of his life.
Another theme which is briefly explored is the concept of the protagonist coming of age in the story. Stanley is obviously an immature and inexperienced bird awaiting the opportunity to develop into an adult bird. The scene where Stanley watches Seymor steal a hot dog, and when Stanley is finally invited to feast at the landfill along the shoreline are metaphors for the child on the verge of manhood. Unfortunately, the story does not follow through with this theme after Stanley comes back from the city dump.
In conclusion, Stanley Seagull is a good read for adults as well as children. Whether the author intended to create a metaphor for Dante’s Purgatorio is debatable. What is not debatable is the comment my ten-year old son made about it. He liked the book simply because Stanley found his way back home.
Perhaps it is really a rewrite of The Odyssey?