When I first read Franz Kafka’s classic work Metamorphosis in college as part of Stanford University’s Structured Liberal Education program, I had what is likely a common reaction: “What the heck? This is crazy!” So I was really curious to see what my son Bruce(7) would think of Mary James’s Shoebag, which we are reading as part of my Inspired by SLE Reading list #3 for kids. (By the way, I need to say a BIG “thank you” to blog reader Tracee for suggesting this book to me in the first place.)
Shoebag is indeed the perfect introduction to Kafka for kids… and maybe adults too. It tells the story of a cockroach named Shoebag who one day wakes up and has transformed into a young boy. His cockroach family has no idea what to do with him, and their reactions cover the gamut from compassion, to fear, to disgust and even hatred. Other elements of the story include enabling behavior, selfishness, and money causing family dysfunction.
One of the main Kafka references in Shoebag is that Shoebag’s best friend at school is named Gregor Samsa who (spoiler alert!) is also a cockroach who has turned into a human. Gregor’s real cockroach name is In Bed. It’s possible that the character Tuffy Buck is based on the boarders in Metamorphosis, but that might be a stretch on my part. There is also another character named Pretty Soft, who is a child actress. The whole human family shields her from reality and treats her like she is a different species too.
Of course, to a seven year old like Bruce, Shoebag is really just the story of a cockroach that turns into a human and has to go to school. If you just take this book at face value it is not deep at all. But the more you think about it, the smarter it gets.
This is what I mean. When Bruce and I were talking about Shoebag, I all of a sudden had a huge leap in understanding about Metamorphosis. To me as a mid-thirty year old, both stories are about what happens when somebody in your family makes choices about their life that are so out of the norm for the rest of you that it is almost like that relative turns into a different species. Do you by chance have a person like this in your family?
When somebody you love makes really bad decisions, the rest of the family doesn’t know what to do or what to feel. Emotions might range the gamut from compassion, to fear, to love, to disgust or even hatred. Other elements of the situation might include enabling behavior, selfishness and money. There is also a lot of hurt and a sense of betrayal. Not to get to personal, but there is a relative in my family who has made a lot of bad decisions in the past five years and whom Bruce is very familiar with. Discussing Shoebag together with my son was a great way to help him process what was going on.
My husband chimed into our talk with yet another interpretation of all of this and that is the “mental health” perspective. Maybe in Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa was losing his mind and his family didn’t know to deal with that. Maybe Shoebag didn’t really turn into a little boy. Maybe Relative XYZ is really dealing with ____. Maybe when I sent that person gift cards to Trader Joes periodically, I was like Grete leaving out bits of food for her brother Gregor. Maybe Pretty Soft needed more help dealing with reality on her own, and less enabling. Or maybe money is a bigger part of the plot lines then any of the characters have examined.
That’s some pretty deep stuff to come from a book about a cockroach. My final thought is that Shoebag is the perfect example for one my most important learning goals from my Inspired by SLE Reading List #3 for kids: You can be your own hero. You can either crawl to the back of your bedroom and hide with an apple core in your back until you die like Gregor Samsa did in Metamorphosis, or you can look in the mirror and see your real self like Shoebag, and choose to find a way home to the people who love you.