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Literature / Life Among the Savages

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Life Among the Savages (1952) and Raising Demons (1957) are a pair of books by Shirley Jackson, compiled out of short stories she wrote for various women's magazines. They constitute a "domestic memoir" — Sharon Marcus calls it "domestic farce" — describing the antics and misadventures of (a presumably somewhat fictionalized version of) her family, and particularly of her children: Laurie, Jannie, Sally, and Barry.

Life Among the Savages begins when the family (consisting of the unnamed narrator, her likewise-unnamed husband, three-year-old Laurie, and baby Jannie) abruptly find themselves on the verge of being evicted from their city apartment and frantically search for a new home in the country. A series of misadventures leads them to settling down in a Big Fancy House in a small New England village, where they soon have a new child, Sally, who promises to be the most challenging of all. The narrator barely manages to keep the chaos in check single-handedly (as her husband is nearly useless in all matters domestic), while the children go off on their own adventures, occasionally even informing their parents. The story ends with the birth of a fourth and final child, Barry.


In the second installment, Raising Demons, the family suddenly realizes that they have outgrown their previous home. Another frantic search for a bigger house ("There is no bigger house," insists the narrator's husband) leads them to an accommodating home at the edge of the village...if only they can convince the current tenants that they've bought the place, and the moving men to return their furniture. The children, older now, have developed into four well-defined, independent individuals who each bring their own brand of chaos and comedy to the table. Their mother records their adventures with combined exasperation, fondness and wonder, mixed with the bittersweetness of knowing that childhood eventually ends.

Sound a little too saccharine? Not hardly. This is Shirley Jackson we're talking about, after all. The memoirs are full of laugh-out-loud hilarity and wicked wit, with an incredible eye for the quirks of childhood.


These books contain examples of:

  • All Cloth Unravels: In Raising Demons, on a family trip to New York, 6-year-old Sally ties the loose thread of her knitted hat to a seat in the train before getting off: "I'd like to see that train get away," she says. Things don't get really challenging until the hotel turns out to have a revolving door.
  • Big Applesauce: In Raising Demons, Jackson details how to wrangle four rambunctious kids in the big city (answer: with great difficulty).
    The two nervous creatures hovering in the background, making small futile gestures and tending to laugh weakly, are, of course, unmistakable. They are there to help with the luggage.
  • Child Mage: Several of the family stories show Sally as one. Jackson herself studied witchcraft and it's possible the "Sally's Magic" stories started with Sally imitating Mommy's spells.
  • Corporal Punishment: Often threatened but never delivered in the text itself. A memorable moment comes when both Laurie and Janie are acting out in public; Jackson takes them both aside and hisses that if they don't straighten up, Laurie will be spanked right there, where everyone can see and laugh at him, while Janie will be spanked in private, where no one will hear her.
  • Daylight Horror: The "gas from the refrigerator" incident in Life Among the Savages... including the fact that she managed to get a sparkling new remodeled kitchen out of her husband in the following weeks.
  • The '50s: Jackson had a talent for both invoking and successfully skewering the popular culture of the time, such as "Birthday Party". Preteen Jannie's slumber party fills the house with the sounds of Elvis Presley while jazz-loving oldest son Laurie retreats to the den with his trumpet. Meanwhile, little Barry cranks his "Spacemen on the Moon" record ("5—4—3—2—1...BLAST OFF!!!")note  and his sister Sally joins in with a recording of Peter and the Wolf. After a few repetitions of The King, both parents give their son permission to start practicing, with Dad telling him to "play the loudest".
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble:
    • Sanguine: Laurie, the boastful, exuberant, natural leader who throws himself into dozens of projects and hobbies and surrounds himself with groups and teams.
    • Melancholic: Jannie, Future Homemaker of America, member of the Starlight 4-H Club and all-around Girly Girl who is the most conventional and sociable (and later the most romantic-minded) of the four.
    • Choleric: Sally, the challenging, stubborn, mischievous, self-defined imp who marches to her own drummer.
    • Phlegmatic: Barry, the youngest, described as a "dogged little foot soldier." He's a bit too young to have a personality of his own just yet, but what little he displays is easy-going, patient, and almost wearily amused by his siblings (and often his parents).
  • Free-Range Children: Jackson paints a picture of a world where children essentially go off to live their own lives as soon as they step out their front doors. Sometimes this childhood freedom is idealized and sometimes it's played for drama (as when Laurie rides his bike into an oncoming car — this really happened) and sometimes even both at once.
  • Housewife: Jackson appears as a housewife in her family collections, albeit an often wry and coolly cynical one.
  • Imaginary Friend: Life Among the Savages describes a shopping trip with Laurie, Jannie, and Jannie's seven daughters, all named Martha, whom Jannie has adopted after their real parents killed each other.
    • Inextricably intertwined here with I Have Many Names: Jannie's real name is Joanne, after one of her parents wanted to name her Anne and the other Jean: "Her brother calls her Honey, Sis, and Dopey, Sally calls her Nannie, and she calls herself, variously, Jean, Jane, Anne, Linda, Barbara, Estelle, Josephine, Geraldinenote , Sarah, Sally, Lauranote , Margaretnote , Marilyn, Susan, and — imposingly — Mrs. Ellenoy. The second Mrs. Ellenoy." Mrs. Ellenoy's seven daughters all use these names as well, in a "constant bewildering shifting", so that "it is sometimes very difficult to remember whether you are addressing Janey Ellenoy or a small girl with seven daughters named Martha."
    • Sally and Barry, a few years later, engage in Worldbuilding. Gunnywapitat is the paracosm unifying all the places we associate with fairy tales. Located under a huge tree (causing Sally's father to ask "Yggdrasil?"), it's presided over by someone named Pudge (now you have to turn around three times). Jackson plays this one to the hilt. Sally and Barry subsequently disappear for a few hours and Jackson gets frantic, while everyone calmly reassures her "they're in Pudge's tree". A huge tub of flowers appears on the porch the next morning, with an elegantly written card signed by Pudge.
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: Hyman is both terrified and grimly resigned when he learns his taxes are being audited, encouraging his children to be brave even as he tells them they'll be living in a tent in the park from now on (an idea the kids greet with enthusiasm).
  • Kids Are Cruel: Jackson's representations of her own children are not immune from this interpretation (although it's usually Played for Laughs).
  • Let Us Never Speak of This Again: Hyman is portrayed as putting his foot down over several incidents, such as the time "Charles" was in Laurie's kindergarten class, the time Sally magicked the sticking refrigerator door and Hyman subsequently ripped it right off the hinges ("Jeekers! I went and unstuck the wrong side!") and an accident in which two boxes of coins—one counterfeit, one real—arrived by mail, mixed. This is also why we don't know what Sally did to the clock.
  • New House, New Problems: Both books kick off this way.
    • In Life Among the Savages, the New Problem is finding the new house. The realtor keeps showing them houses with no electrical wiring, no roof, or houses far out of their price range, while ignoring the one house in town that meets all their requirements plus comes with a roof. (It turns out to be haunted with an attic full of bats, but it's better than the alternatives, especially after the owner "fixed her up some", making it frankly beautiful. Shirley says "It's a good old house," and the painter says "Can always tell by the cats.")
    • In Raising Demons, they find the New House immediately, but can't convince the four other families currently residing there to leave so they can move in. Once the squatters are gone, the struggle becomes getting the movers to return their furniture.
  • Noodle Incident: It's never made quite clear exactly what Sally and her magic did to the clock: everyone in the family has agreed to speak no more of it. Jannie can still tell time on the clock, sort of, but Jannie is left-handed anyway.
  • Picky Eater: Sally is the standout in this department, but an ongoing struggle is to find a single meal made up of elements that all the children (plus the husband) will actually eat. The one food everybody has in common is peanut butter.
    • Jackson is dying to try out a new recipe, but once she's done eliminating ingredients, all that remains is "a hamburger studded with cashew nuts".
    • Barry turns out to be the one kid in the family who won't eat pudding, but prefers eggs.
  • The Scrooge: The children's father, who greets everything from the price of grapefruits to the cost of a new car with equal disapproval. There are several laughs at his expense when his attempts at penny-pinching end up costing even more money in repairs, or when his wife or children manages to trick him into paying for necessities.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: At a PTA meeting, Shirley is desperately keen to meet mother of the classroom troublemaker Charles, whose legendary misdeeds Laurie has told her about. She scans each face, but sees no one who looks frazzled enough to be mother to a Charles. Meanwhile she wonders why all the other mothers keep staring at her. In the end she finds out there is no Charles...
  • Verbal Tic:
    • In Raising Demons, Jackson describes Sally going through a phase, at about four, where she repeated the key word in every sentence: "Well, I told Amy's mother that I did not have any breakfast, breakfast, because my mommy did not wake up and give it to me, mommy. And Amy's mother said I was a poor baby, baby, and she gave me cereal and fruit, cereal, and she said there, dear, and she gave me chocolate milk, and I did remember to say thank you, remember." (Jackson was gifted at capturing the Verbal Tic s of small children's speech: "You bad bad webbis.")
    • Amy is even worse. She repeats entire sentences. "Can Sally come out and play? Is Sally here so she can play with me?"
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The majority of the incidents in the memoirs really happened to the Hyman family (in letters to her parents, Jackson often admits that her parents can either read her letters for news of the grandchildren or just pick up the next book) but Jackson often puts a spin on them for maximum funny value. Allegedly, even her adult children aren't sure which of their childhood memories really happened and which their mother invented.
  • Wham Line: In the short story "Charles" (later included in Life Among the Savages), Jackson's son Laurie, a new kindergartener, is constantly telling stories about a mischievous classmate Charles whose inventively naughty behavior fascinates both parents. The narrator sets out for her first parent-teacher conference eager to meet Charles' mother. The teacher remarks that Laurie has had some trouble adjusting and his mother blames it on Charles' influence. The teacher is confused:
    "Laurie usually adjusts very quickly," I said. "I suppose this time it's Charles' influence."
    "Yes," I said, laughing, "you must have your hands full in that kindergarten, with Charles."
    "Charles?" she said. "We don't have any Charles in the kindergarten."

Alternative Title(s): Raising Demons