One of the story’s major preoccupations is the question of power in a girl’s life: who holds it, how it works, and what its effects are. Tyler, who is about ten or eleven years old, struggles to cope with the way power is split between different authority figures who pressure her in different ways. These conflicts raise a question that Tyler wrestles with throughout the story: how to define herself when authority figures are pushing for her to act in ways which support their own definitions of her. In this way, the story shows how the feeling of powerlessness can have a splintering effect on a young woman’s psychology.
By using her power as a mother to pressure her children into affirming her own ego, Tyler’s mother robs her daughter of autonomy, teaching her that she is powerless over her own circumstances. For example, when Tyler’s older brother, Zac, visits their family over Christmas, he repeatedly rebuffs their mother’s attempts to be close to him, leaving as soon as possible. Tyler’s mother copes by badgering Ellie to confirm that her brother was always an “ungrateful little shit.” This shows how children’s mother copes with her personal insecurities by attempting to force those over whom she has power––her daughters––to support her, ignoring their own perspectives in the process. She acts this way with Tyler as well: at one point, she makes Tyler stay home from school in order to help her sew dolls she plans to sell at a local store. She frames this demand as a generous day off, but Tyler writes that she would have actually preferred to go to school. She agrees to stay home only because she knows that refusing her mother’s authority would be disastrous. By projecting her own desires onto Tyler rather than trying to ascertain what Tyler wants for herself, the girl’s mother robs her of the freedom to develop her own opinions and desires. She thereby teaches Tyler not to express herself, weakening the young girl’s ability to speak out and defend herself when Shane attempts to exploit her. In this sense, her mother uses her power over Tyler to render her helpless.
Shane uses his authority to different ends than Tyler’s mother, expressly seeking to control Tyler through fear and manipulation. However, he is protected by Tyler’s mother, which leaves Tyler at the mercy of both adults in her household. Shane sexualizes Tyler from the beginning, asking inappropriate and prying questions about her relationship status and watching her as she sleeps. These behaviors establish his domineering, threatening personality, and cause Tyler to fear him. The amount of time he spends in the house causes Tyler to feel terror in her own home. Moreover, the fact that her mother continually defers to Shane adds to his power over the household, leaving Tyler unsure that anyone would stop him if he tried to attack her. Ultimately, the type of unchecked predatory power that Shane wields leaves Tyler feeling helpless and alone. The necessity of appeasing both Shane and her mother creates a deep conflict in Tyler’s life. On the one hand, Shane makes her fear for her safety; on the other hand, Tyler feels unable to act on this fear by articulating it, since her mother discourages her from expressing any needs that contradict her own desires. The compounded effects of the power these two figures hold over her leaves her torn.
Flanked on all sides by heavy-handed authority figures, Tyler is forced to constantly be on guard, unsafe even inside her own thoughts. At one point in the story, Tyler admits to Ellie that she often dreams she is being hunted by a wolf: “He’s coming for me and his eyes are on fire and he’s looking everywhere for me but he can’t find me.” This dream suggests that she feels hunted by predatory forces she cannot fight––particularly Shane, given that she describes the wolf with male pronouns. She becomes afraid of returning home after school: when her teacher, Mrs Carlyle, offers to personally drive her home one day, Tyler says that home is the last place she wants to go. This consuming terror has a suffocating effect. She finds it impossible to tell even trusted confidantes, like Ellie, about Shane asking for her urine: “just thinking about it makes the stone come up into my chest and neck and it jams my throat shut so I can’t talk, she writes.” This shows that fear and uncertainty have become the dominant emotions of Tyler’s life. These emotions derive from the power others hold over her, severely limiting her autonomy. In this sense, Kennedy, through Tyler, demonstrates how pernicious unchecked power can be in a child’s life––especially when wielded by caregivers. Authority figures who exploit their power can effectively stamp out the vitality of the people they are supposed to guide and nurture, leaving their charges scared, helpless, and floundering.
Power and Powerlessness ThemeTracker
Power and Powerlessness Quotes in Seventy-Two Derwents
Mrs Carlyle has two budgies, a boy and a girl, and they have built a nest. If they have baby budgies and if I’m allowed she will give me one. You have to wait until they’re old enough to leave the nest before you can take them away from their parents because they need special looking after. In my mind I can picture this ... after she says this, when I walk back into class and down to my desk, I feel my skin buzzing like someone stroked it.
Mrs Carlyle told us that when you are training your dog you need to say the same thing over and over until the dog gets it. He wants to do the right thing, he just doesn’t know it at first. She says it’s the same with training a bird to talk, you have to say the same thing again and again so they learn. That’s true and maybe it’s true for people too.
I didn’t know Ellie has bad dreams too. Sometimes I dream of a wolf. He’s coming for me and his eyes are on fire and he’s looking everywhere for me but he can’t find me. I don’t tell Ellie about this but I say sometimes I feel like I have a stone inside my stomach. Ellie doesn’t say anything for a while then she says, hey, what are those pencils called that you like? I tell her Derwents and she says we’ll get you those, you wait.
Just before when I was going to bed Mum said let’s have a secret, you don’t have to go to school tomorrow, Tyler. I will ring up and tell them you are sick and you can stay here and help me finish the Plushies. It is the same as when Shane leans down and whispers, grown-ups can make their voices go all soft and excited like it’s a big special secret to share just with you, they know just how to make kids feel happy but it’s never what you think. I felt the stones in my stomach because I remembered that tomorrow is the first orientation day for Grade 6s to go over to the senior campus to visit but I just said yes.
I said if I put my hand into the nest now would the mother bird bite me? And she looked so sad at me and nodded. We fed the birds and then she drove me back to the mall.
My pencils have student quality written on the packet but the Derwent pencils are for real artists and that is why they’re special. I would feel special and proud to have them, like when Aunty Jacinta wrote in her letter, we think you’re wonderful.