We the narrator

After a BA and MA in English literature, I figured I’d seen it all in terms of the point of view character. The first person narrator and the third person narrator are old hat, and I’ve both seen and written second person narrators.

(Those are fun: “You walk into the apartment. Flip on the lights. You look around at the mess left behind by your brother and wonder why you let him crash on your couch just for a few days when you know it’s going to end up being months. Again.”)

When we went on vacation, we checked out audio books from the library, one of which was Cheaper by the Dozen. The story of a family with twelve children, it was something I’d read in my own childhood (courtesy of Amy, whom I woke up praying about a few nights ago) and I thought my kids might like it too.

We loved it, but of course I had to analyze the thing while we listened. First, for what made the humor so catching (we were all laughing out loud, and some of the lines have fallen into common usage!) and secondly, for the narrative voice.

Because the narrator? Is “we.”

“We” as in all twelve children.

The book is authored by two of the oldest four children, but other than concentrating on stories involving the oldest, it’s not immediately obvious. The two authors don’t turn themselves into the book’s heroes. The main character of the book is quite obviously their father. But the narrator is always “We.”

“We would pile into the car.” “We were all waiting quietly, so no one noticed when Bill crept into the front seat.” “We used to jostle for a front seat, since with so many of us, it was hard to get time with Mom or Dad alone.”

What I found amazing was that it worked. This communal sense of “we” expands to include the listener. You don’t feel a part of the family, but it feels much more friendly than if the entire book were told from the point of view of Ernestine or Frank Junior alone.

The uncomplicated honesty of the narrator adds to the humor. The long setups, the cleverly-built tension when you can see how things are going to add up, the clear admiration of “we” for the father even when he’s acting a bit absurd (and never any mockery of him, something refreshing in the current environment.)

But a communal narrator. I can’t recall ever reading that before, and yet, it worked like a charm. It’s the story about a family, told from the point of view of the family itself, form perfectly following function.


  1. K.M. Weiland

    Interesting. I wonder how that would work in a fiction vs. a memoir?

  2. Eugenie (aka Heartstart)

    Have you read the children’s novel “The Story of the Treasure Seekers” by Edith Nesbit? It’s about six siblings who are trying to restore their family’s lost fortune.

    The novel is narrated by the oldest brother, Oswald, only he tries (and fails) to write in the “we” style, so that the reader won’t guess which of the siblings is narrating the book. But he brags about “Oswald” so much that it’s blatantly obvious who it is, almost right from the start!

    Anyway, it’s a pretty good book, and I’d recommend it 🙂

  3. cricketB

    A friend read about the father in CbtD. Rather obsessive and demanding in his quest for efficiency, even set rules about how to button your sweater. Start from the bottom and work up, so you know you won’t mis-match the sides.

  4. Pingback: First person, third person « Seven angels, four kids, one family