ASK PAM: A Note on “The Themes of Mostly Happy”

Mostly Happy CoverA few tasty questions in the ole inbox this last week. This one came from the Facebook page for Mostly Happy.

Hello Pam Bustin, I love your book and I’m writing about it in my highschool summative. Could you tell me your main messages/ themes for that you want the audience to know in the novel Mostly Happy. Or just the themes that are in hidden in the book. Thank you so much. – R

I am loving these questions from students who are studying the book.

I love hearing from readers and I’m glad they can find me.

I’ve had this question about THEMES a few times recently (must be the time of year that people are writing assignments). I’ve also noticed a few searches for “Themes of Mostly Happy” it in the statistics here, so I decided to take a stab at…. something that might be useful.

First off – I hereby confess that I never set out with a THEME or specific MESSAGE in mind when I write. I start with the characters… or they start with me, to be more precise.  I’m one of those crazy people who hears voices. Characters start talking in my head, keeping me awake at night, bugging me until I sit down to work out their story. Bean was no exception.

I’m also not too solid on this whole idea of CAPITOL T Theme when it comes to books. That might sound crazy, but bear with me.  What I really mean, I suppose, is that I don’t believe that there is ever just ONE THEME for a book or a play or even a short story.  It think that things with one theme are more like… a pamphlet selling you something, or propaganda (though even propaganda can contain many themes…)

For me, Theme is… that almost intangible thing that you take away with you after you have finished a book or a story. It is like… the scent that lingers in the air after a good meal, or the way the smell of lilacs take us back to summertime – no matter when we smell them. Theme is… the thing that remains.  The THINGS that remain.

I know that, for myself as a reader – the thing I take away from a book, the thing that lingers long after the book has been closed tends to… vary. I’m a re-reader. And I find different things each time I read one of my favourites. Books or stories like… To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse Five, People You’d Trust Your Life To, A Perfect Day for Bananafish (go HERE to find a most excellent post on Salinger), To Esme With Love and Squalor…. and so on….

I remember the first time I read TKAM (To Kill a Mockingbird). I was 10. I re-read it every few years, and each time… something new pops for me. That is a good book. That is a book with layers and depth and truth. And I am VERY aware that what I would name as the “Themes” of TKAM aren’t necessarily what others would have at the top of their list. See… sometimes I ALMOST forget about the whole trial thing…the racism… and all that. For me – TKAM is a book about friendship. It is about Scout and Dill and Jem… and sometimes, it is about Atticus being an honourable man. It is about a father I would love to have. It is about Boo Radley and his protection of the children. I do remember the trial.  I remember Atticus standing up for something when everyone else in town seems to be against him, and that line… that fabulous moment … when Scout is up in the balcony with the “coloured folk” and the preacher says “Stand up. Your father’s passing.” The respect for Atticus brings a tear to my eye every time. TKAM is about courage and integrity and justice and the importance of a moral education and…. Well… perhaps you see my point. There are innumerable themes that we can grab onto and explore. That is part of what makes it such a good book.

Now… am I crazy enough to think that Mostly Happy is on par with TKAM. Oh don’t I WISH?!? But that isn’t what I’m really saying. I’m just hoping that MH engages readers in a personal way and that they find a variety of themes in it. And, yes, I also hope that some readers will return to the book… more than once.

So… I guess I am hesitant to talk about the Themes in Mostly Happy. Knowing that, whatever I may have MEANT to convey to the reader… what they really take from the book will be entirely personal and unique. And, I hope that if they ever return to the book … they will find something completely different.  Something more.  Something that will make them want to read it again…in a few more years.

That said… I have talked with readers about some interesting themes that they have found. Threads they have traced through the book. Things they have taken away with them.

So – to help those of you who chose to read Mostly Happy for school and have an assignment due where you have to talk about THEME… I offer up some of those as a way to start you on your way to finding out which themes resonate the most with you. Sound fair?

Here we go… some Themes in Mostly Happy….

Happiness: The meaning of happiness; why Bean is “Mostly happy” as opposed to “Almost happy” (Almost= she would be happy if ONLY she had this or that…. Mostly= she really is pretty much happy)

Survival: How and why Bean manages to survive her rather dark and twisty childhood (don’t want any spoilers on here, so I won’t get specific)

Friendship: Why Bean and Goose click and what holds them together over the years

Sexuality: Bean’s, Goose’s, Prissy’s…. all different, all interesting.

Guilt: What is the guilt Bean carries at the opening of the novel? Has the weight lifted or shifted by the end of her story?

Coming of Age: What does Bean learn along the way? How does she grow and change throughout the novel?

Mother/Daughter Relationship: Bean and Prissy…. what is going on there? Prissy and Dee?

Survivor/Victim – Taking a look at how Bean moves through the world, compare/contrast it to how Dee and Prissy move through the world. See anything interesting?

Language: Bean’s language evolves throughout the book. It isn’t just that she is growing up. How does language and the way we speak, the way we put our thoughts together reflect who we are in the world?

The Things We Carry: What are the things – tangible items, memories, scars or joys that we carry through our lives? Why is it important to stop at some point in our life and LOOK at these things? Are we free to decide what we choose to carry?

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly (Photo credit: steveburt1947)

Butterflies: There is a whole thread to be followed here too… The Monarchs… what is UP with those butterflies?

Spirituality: Bean’s relationship with God, with the church….

and so on and so on and so on….

Does this help?

Or make it even more confusing?

And…After all that… let me say this…

What do I hope people will take away from reading Mostly Happy?

It’s simple, I suppose…

I hope that they will see Bean as a complete person.

That they will understand that being a survivor of abuse is only PART of who she is.

I hope that if someone (a girl or a boy) is in a dark time when they find the book, that it will help lead them out of the shadow and into the light.

That’s the bottom line.

I also hope that people find courage and hope and strength in the book. That they laugh and cry… and give the book away to a pal… and then buy another copy for themselves. Heh heh.

I really do hope this helps.

If you have any more questions, please drop me a line. I promise not to ramble on so much next time.

go easy ~ p

PS – NEW thoughts on the Themes of Mostly Happy

from readers…

Sandy B: “The theme that stuck out for me was poverty. I just reread it and yes, many things came up, mostly how child poverty shapes you for the rest of your life.”

John R:  “For me, it was the strength that Bean had. Looking after everyone, including herself…It shows how resilient children are and that even at such a young age, children figure out how to cope. It is later in life that they have to figure things out…when they are strong enough to be able to deal with abusive childhoods they have had.”

2 Comments on “ASK PAM: A Note on “The Themes of Mostly Happy”

    • Thank you, Sir John!

      It’s a bit of a tough one. I don’t want to “tell people what to think” and yet… I wanted to offer up something to start people thinking about “theme”….

      Thanks for stopping by to check it out.

      go easy ~p

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Because there's never enough time to do it right the first time but there's always enough time to do it over

Ailish Sinclair

Stories and photos from Scotland

Cathy Standiford

Historical fiction, poetry, essays

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