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Paula Fox: a Prize-winning US Literary Great | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Paula Fox offered closely observed portraits of loss and abandonment. It was terrain she knew all too well. Credit Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

New York- With the death of Paula Fox, a distinguished writer for children and adults, in Brooklyn at the age of 93 last week, American literature lost an important figure.

Ms. Fox wrote a half-dozen novels for adults and more than 20 books for young people. What united her output was a cool, elegant style that was haunting in its pared-down economy; minute observation; masterly control of tone and pacing; and an abiding concern with dissolution — of family, of home, of health, of trust.

Her characters are complex, self-contained and often withdrawn, but their ruminative interior states lend the narratives a quiet luminosity.

Ms. Fox’s best-known novel for adults is “Desperate Characters” (1970), about the disintegration of a marriage. It was made into a film of the same title, released the next year and starring Shirley MacLaine and Kenneth Mars.

She was awarded the Newbery Medal, considered the Pulitzer Prize of children’s literature, in 1974 for “The Slave Dancer,” a controversial novel centered on the Atlantic slave trade in the mid-19th century.

Her work also includes two memoirs: “Borrowed Finery” (2001), about her peripatetic childhood, and “The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe” (2005), about her young womanhood.

Ms. Fox’s bibliography took readers from cradle to grave, something few other writers have done. It includes picture books for young children, like “Traces” (2008), a poem, illustrated by Karla Kuskin, about the evanescent signs — think of footprints and vapor trails — left by unseen visitors. It also includes many titles for middle-grade readers and teenagers, among them “Blowfish Live in the Sea” (1970), about a child’s journey to visit the father he has never met; “One-Eyed Cat” (1984), about the painful consequences of a boy’s casual shot with an air rifle; and “The Eagle Kite” (1995), about a boy whose father has AIDS.

Because so much of Ms. Fox’s work was for young people, her fiction for adults was sometimes overlooked. In 1984, The Nation described her as “one of our most intelligent (and least appreciated) contemporary novelists.”

In later years, however, her adult books enjoyed something of a renaissance, thanks largely to the efforts of the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who became an ardent champion after devouring an out-of-print copy of “Desperate Characters” he had come across by chance.

A new edition of “Desperate Characters,” with an introduction by Mr. Franzen, was published by W. W. Norton & Company in 1999. Ms. Fox’s other adult novels — among them “The Widow’s Children,” “A Servant’s Tale” and “The God of Nightmares” — have also been re-released by Norton, with introductions by writers including Frederick Busch, Andrea Barrett and Rosellen Brown.

As a stylist, she was known for her impeccable, almost anatomical, depictions of the material world. In the Paula Fox universe, objects take on heightened importance, as if rearing up to fill the gaps left by characters’ failure to make real connections.

Paula Fox was born in Manhattan on April 22, 1923, to parents who did not want her. Her father, Paul Hervey Fox, was an undistinguished novelist and playwright who earned his living as a script doctor. Her mother, the former Elsie de Sola, of Spanish and Cuban extraction, was young, vain, cold “and ungovernable in her haste to have done with me,” as Ms. Fox wrote in “Borrowed Finery.”

Critical response to Ms. Fox’s work over the years was largely favorable, though there was sometimes dissent. Her Newbery Medal for “The Slave Dancer” inspired a protest at the awards ceremony that year: The novel, which tells the story of a white New Orleans youth conscripted to play the fife on a slave ship in the 1840s, had been condemned by some reviewers for portraying the captured African slaves as a passive, undifferentiated group.

At the end of “Borrowed Finery,” Ms. Fox tells of being reunited with the daughter she had borne at 20, the offspring of a brief liaison after her first marriage had ended. She gave the infant up for adoption, a decision, she wrote, that pained her the rest of her life.

Ms. Fox’s other honors include the Hans Christian Andersen Award, which she received in 1978 for her body of children’s work.

Given the subject matter of Ms. Fox’s books, it is not surprising that some reviewers called them depressing. This did not sit well with her.

The New York Times