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the autofiction of eleanor estes

As the world continues to feel the impact of covid, and we reach the two-year marker of this cataclysm, I keep returning to trusted stories that lifted me up and engaged me earlier in my life to distance myself from the chaos.

One of my favorite books when I was younger was The Moffats by Eleanor Estes. There are four books about the Moffats; they were all published by Harcourt Brace & Company (later Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and now Harcourt, Inc.). The Moffats was released in 1941, The Middle Moffat in 1942, Rufus M. in 1943, and much later, The Moffat Museum in 1983. The first three were illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, who renders the scenes and the people in them often with just outlines, but there’s a warmth and roundness to each image, which are delightful. The Moffat Museum was illustrated by Estes herself (Slobodkin passed away in 1975), and her illustrations are rather whimsical as well.

My first copy of The Moffats was published by Scholastic Books in 1969. I acquired many Scholastic books when I was in elementary school; these were some of the first books that were mine alone, and they firmly established my love of collecting books to create my own library. Although Scholastic books were cheaply produced, these paperbacks were some of the first affordable books intended for a young audience; they reached millions of children around the country. Paperbacks were first introduced in the United States in 1938, an initiative that later emerged as the publisher Pocket Books. When Pocket Books started to collaborate with Scholastic Magazine in 1945, paperback books finally had a large distribution to schoolchildren. I was always so excited to place my Scholastic book order with my teacher; then I could anticipate the day when they would arrive and she would place my books on my desk and they would be mine to hold and devour and keep.

I have since acquired another copy of The Moffats, and the other three titles, as well. My “new” copy of The Moffats, ordered off of, is a hardcover (a 1987 reprint) with a brown dust jacket with yellow trim, a different illustration playing out across the space than the Scholastic cover, which is blue and shows Jane skipping, her hands clutching schoolbooks. This new copy was a library book—a shiny clear cover extends across the dust jacket, and the spine still lists the classification “Fic Est,” which determines where this book would have been shelved. I also have brand new copies of The Middle Moffat and Rufus M. as had to cancel the order of The Middle Moffat (the bookseller apparently did not respond in the required 72 hours), and Rufus M. is on a long journey from a bookseller in New Zealand, something I failed to notice when I was placing the order. So, I ordered copies from Amazon so that I could have them quickly in order to write this post. Both of these were published by Harcourt, Inc. in 2001. While the text still displays the Slobodkin illustrations, the covers on each of these sport illustrations by Tricia Tusa.

The Moffat family, a mother and four children, live in the fictional Cranbury, CT, in the early 1900s. There are still horses and buggies, but cars are starting to appear as well. The family heats their home with coal and lights their rooms at night with kerosene lamps, but some people in the town are beginning to install electricity. One day Jane stops to watch a plane flying overhead and marvels at the sight. They live on New Dollar Street, in a yellow house that they rent. The father has passed away before the story begins, and the mother earns money by sewing for the women of the town, so they have a limited income. The middle child, Jane, who is nine years old in the first book, is the main protagonist in this and two of the other books; the narrator tells the story of the Moffat family from her perspective. She has an older sister Sylvie, an older brother Joey, and a younger brother, Rufus.

I was curious to learn more about the author of these books, their publishing history, and the story behind the stories.

Estes was born in 1906 and grew up in West Haven, CT. In her 20s, already working as a children's librarian, she attended the Pratt Institute library school in New York City and continued to work as a children's librarian in the City for many years afterward. In 1941, she had tuberculosis, and to pass the time while she was recuperating, she began writing down stories about her family: she was one of several children, her father had died when she was young, and her mother was a seamstress and worked to keep the family together. In her stories, her family became The Moffats, and West Haven became Cranbury.

I was quite enchanted with the Moffat family when I first read these books, and I still am.

The Moffats, the first book, opens with Jane watching her mother deftly peel apples; she’s going to make applesauce. I used to watch my Mom do the same thing when she made an apple pie, and I, too, marveled at how effortlessly she created the curls that spun from each apple in an endless stream. Both Jane and I doubted that we would ever be able to do this ourselves.

I know that as a kid I read historical accounts of real people; I remember writing a number of book reports about biographies of famous people for school. But reading The Moffats was my first foray into reading fiction set in a different time than the one I was living in. And I was fascinated by the accounts of people living their daily lives without the things that I took completely for granted—electricity, central heating, cars, TV, and I was surprised to find that you could learn about history through a fictional story. But I think what struck me the most was that even with the great remove of time and technology between Jane’s world and mine, we nevertheless had a lot in common: we were the same age, we each had a best friend, we each had roller skates, we each watched our mothers peel apples. Somehow, Estes recreated much of my world in this story about her own family set many decades earlier.

I think it’s true that just as often as authors may entirely imagine and fabricate characters and plots, they also write their fiction based on people they know and experiences they themselves have lived, just as Estes did. I recently finished reading I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, by Claire Vaye Watkins, and I noted on the back of the dust jacket that this work is described as “autofiction.” As I read more about the author online, I realized that some of the more sensational parts of the story are in fact true (like the part about her father being an acolyte of Charles Manson’s at one point in his life). I began to consider The Moffat series as autofiction, and I liked this distinction.

Autofiction as a genre, however, has been contested. In this piece that came out in Publisher’s Weekly on January 8, 2021, Brooke Warner, indie publisher, podcaster, TEDx speaker, and writing coach, argues that there is no such thing as autofiction. She states:

“Just because memoir must start with truth doesn’t mean that fiction doesn’t start there, too. Fiction does not mean ‘not true’ just because the characters are portrayals and the scenes are ostensibly made up. Fiction is often drawn more from the imagination than lived experience, but the characters who populate novels are not fake (they’re always drawn from the author’s understanding of their own world), and fiction has always been a vehicle for poignant observation about real people, human dynamics, and societal and cultural dilemmas.”

Warner goes on to say that autofiction is not in fact used as a category by either Amazon or BISAC (the subject codes issued by the Book Industry Study Group that bookstores use to shelve their stock), which in both cases are really a blend of genre and subject. Works of autofiction are considered novels and are shelved accordingly. (Surprisingly, the Library of Congress Subject headings, which are used to catalog subject terms for published works, does list “Autobiographical fiction” as a subject term, and I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness lists this as a subject of the book on its cataloging-in-publication page. This is the only subject listed—I see autofiction as a genre, instead, and the subjects that might actually connect a reader with this book, like the “American West’” and “families,” are not listed at all.)

I guess as much as the classifier in me would like to distinguish between autofiction and fiction that is entirely imagined, this term doesn’t really help make things more precise, because the market is so saturated today with both memoirs and fiction-like memoirs—so much of it is autofiction.

But it does make me like The Moffat books even more, knowing that they are based on the real life lived by Eleanor Estes when she was a child. The authenticity that sits behind all the different stories told in the books makes them real for me in a way that an entirely fictional tale does not (i.e., I have never been a fan of fantasy). This is, I think, what I liked about these books when I first read them, and this is why I keep returning to them now as an adult. Real lives have fantasy and longing and uncertainty in them, as well, and it was irresistible to me as a child to find this paralleled in someone else’s depiction of the world they lived in.

Image is 1987 reprint cover of the 1941 edition with illustrations by Louis Slobodkin.


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