Tuesday, July 10, 2012



                   Village School, Lacock Great Britain    Photo by Henry Pratt

     Do you remember long afternoons of childhood when all you could think about was tossing a stone into a pattern that you and your friends had chalked on the pavement? It was a sweet kind of agony, trying to hop through squares and rectangles without putting your other foot down or stepping on a crack. In New York City your stone is called a “potsy.” In Boston, it’s a “puck,” and in Bolivia you just toss an orange peel. Your scratches or chalk marks were originally called “scotches” from an old French verb, “to cut.”  So, you are hopping over your scotches.
    When I sat down to write about eight-year old Clare’s hopscotch game, I didn’t know that hopping used to be synonymous with being lame, though later on  in my novel she is lamed  when distracted from her watch by a stone that will make a perfect potsy.  In the end, her passion for hopscotch shapes her whole destiny.  
     Here’s a basic hopscotch game, in which your stone is called a “puck” and you have merciful opportunities to rest from hopping on squares 3 and 4, 6 and 7; though at the top you have to leap around and land on both feet without touching any cracks before returning “home” to 1.

     Setting forth, struggling through the squares, turning around dangerously and then making your way home—there’s a whole story in even this simplest version.  Numbered games used to be less common than patterns with named spaces. Some of these are based on folklore, like this British hopscotch with earth at the outset, heaven as the goal, and squares in between inscribed with a rhyme about magpies:         
One for sorrow
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.


“History of the Game of Hop-Scotch” in  A Children’s Games Anthology.  NY: Arno Press(1972) 
 Many old patterns take the hopper on a religious pilgrimage. Brian Sutton-Smith says that “The game seems to have some meaning also as the progress of the soul from earth to heaven and was perhaps even an early form of dancing.
In German it is called himmel-und-holle (umlaut); in Norway paradisehopping, and Denmarkhoppe paradis. In his anthology of Children’s games he includes these sketches provided by . J.W. Crombie (left click to enlarge them)                                                                   

 For Clare’s  game, I melded some of these  patterns:
 Children are extraordinarily conservative about their game rhymes and their rules of play, to the extent that there are skip rope rhymes dating back to ancient Egypt!  Hopscotch is slightly more recent, deriving from classic Roman military drill which British children adapted. Roman soldiers marked  100 foot long courses along their roads, which they hopped through fully armed in a kind of boot camp exercise  for  fleet-footedness.
My impulse for using hopscotch in The Marshlanders, along with a whole cornucopia of historical children’s pastimes, began as sheer relief after I escaped the nerve-wracking combat of academe.   I didn’t have any profound reason for researching children’s games—I was just, for once in my life, feeling playful. It was fun to participate vicariously with all those children throwing themselves headlong into their pastimes.  But the games took on a weird life of their own. They became so integral to my plot that I named each part of my novel for one of them.  Then I  realized that my whole trilogy was an infinite game  I was playing.
 Around the time I threw my full professorship out the window, a delightfully fey Wisconsin friend gave me her copy of Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, by James P. Carse.   Looked at his way, my colleagues’ mean spirited, gotcha competitions about the correctness of the theories they favored were “finite games,” “played for the purpose of winning.”   I had no objection to their fascination with these theories; I just preferred my own.  But there was no room for anyone who didn’t participate in their universe.  I was attacked as a heretic and censored from offering my courses.  So I quit.
When I had gladly put academe gladly behind me and began rushing to my computer every morning to see what Clare would get up to that day, I found myself engaged in the more “infinite” kind of game. “The finite play for life is serious,” writes Carse, “the infinite play of life is joyous. Infinite play resounds throughout with a kind of laughter.”  
If I am as cheerful as all that, why do I let so many bad things happen to Clare; why is there so much tragedy going on around her? The bad things spring from the Marshlanders’ enemies, whose greed for money and land makes them relentlessly competitive, “finite” in their conviction that if they are going to get what they want, a lot of other people must lose their livelihoods.   Clare and the communities that succor her have a more open view of living.  Even when their last battle is upon them, they maintain an infinite outlook:  Or, as Carse puts it, “It is not a laughter at others who have come to an unexpected end…It is laughter with others with whom we have discovered that the end we thought we were coming to has unexpectedly opened.”
                                  As it has for me.