Sam and the Firefly

P.D. Eastman, Wikipedia says, was a protege of Dr. Seuss. His Go, Dog. Go! is a staple of the beginning-to-read set, and his Are You My Mother? is always welcome around my house. But for my money, Sam and the Firefly is not only Eastman’s crowning achievement, it is also a compact, brisk, efficient course in storytelling, a small masterwork of character, plot and dramatic structure, far more accomplished than the much-more-famous, but ultimately-rather-meta The Cat in the Hat, and all achieved with a set of words designed for a 5-year-old to read.

My apologies for the scans; Eastman’s lovely drawings do not merit the treatment they receive at the hands of my slightly-too-small scanner. Clicking on the images should make them large enough to read.

"The moon was up when Sam came out." Most writers, myself included, would have the first sentence of this story read "Sam was an owl," but Eastman goes for the more streamlined, more drop-you-into-the-middle-of-the-story choice of "The moon was up when Sam came out." And in eight words tells you everything you need to know about the protagonist (well, and the picture, of course, which explains that Sam is an owl). Who is the protagonist? The protagonist is Sam, and Sam comes out at night. This is Who He Is. He comes out at night. This, simple as it is, is Character. The fact that Sam comes out at night defines who he is, forms his personality and the range of his choices and will ultimately shape his destiny.

What does the protagonist want? The protagonist is lonely. He wants a friend. He is all alone.

Sam ventures out into the world in pursuit of his goal — but everyone else is asleep. Sam’s nature (he comes out at night) means that he is alone. His very nature is at odds with his pursuit.

"All he could see was the moon and the shine of the moon on the water." What an odd thing to say. Why is the author taking the time to mention this? The word being skated around is, of course, "reflection." And I’ve puzzled over this sentence for a long time, thinking about Sam’s noting the moon and its reflection. It could refer to Sam "reflecting" upon his situation, his solitude, or it could be foreshadowing — Sam, as we will soon see, is not seeking "another" but is, foolishly, looking for a reflection of himself.

Aha, the Inciting Incident. Sam sees a light — is it a friend or an enemy? We don’t know, it’s just a mysterious light. And, as we will come to learn, the light’s mystery forms the spine of the other major character in the story.

Sam, looking for a friend, meets Gus the Firefly. Now then, Gus is not, strictly speaking, an antagonist. As Sam and the Firefly is essentially a love story, we would say that Gus is the love object. And what, based on this one spread, do we know about Gus? We know that he is a trickster. His idea of a greeting is to bop Sam on the top of his head. This is as important as Sam’s loneliness. Sam is lonely and Gus is a scamp. Sam, looking everywhere for a friend, has met another waking creature — yet this creature, from the get-go, is shown to be a mischievous troublemaker.

If the story developed no further from here, Sam might very well say "Well, I’m lonely, but I’ve got better things to do than waste my evenings with a bug who hits me on the head." But then, let’s see what happens.

"Then Sam saw something new!" Gus, it seems, isn’t just a troublemaker — he’s a talented troublemaker. He can makes lines of light in the air. Like a teenage girl falling for a heavy-metal drummer, Sam is about to embark on a thrilling, frightening love affair.

Sam is clearly the smarter and more experienced of the two. "Oh, the things we can do with a trick like that!" he says. Gus has the genius, Sam has the technique. Gus has the fire, Sam has the discipline. It’s like Lennon and McCartney all over again. Look at their attitudes in the above picture. Sam is electrified, Gus reclines like a satisfied pasha. He already thinks he’s God’s gift to the world, it doesn’t surprise him that Sam is going to give him a new trick to add to his arsenal of charm.

Sam, the voice of discipline, literally walks Gus, the voice of genius, through the paces that will turn his talent into art.

So we see that Sam is a frustrated writer, and he’s hoping that Gus will be his pen. Sam could fly in patterns all night if he wanted to, but without Gus’s light no one would ever know there was a message to Sam’s movements. Going back, again, to Sam’s loneliness — he has no one with whom to share his talent, and therefore his talent is meaningless. (And brings up, again, the spectre of that other Sam, Samuel Beckett, whose works are full of these solitary night-dwellers searching endlessly for a creature who might make them feel a little less lonely.)

This page shows Sam’s loneliness, literally, writ large. He tricks Gus into writing out "GUS AND SAM," in one stroke creating a common experience for them to share and defining that experience as friendship in and of itself.

In the Disney version, this would be the big, soaring musical number — "A Whole New World" from Alladin, for instance, or "Beauty and the Beast" from Beauty and the Beast. Master and pupil, talent and skill, artist and craftsman work hand in hand to create a sky full of words. Sam, one guesses, must feel pretty proud of himself — he’s not only found a friend, he’s found a tool of expression — something he can control. This is the meaning of the "shine of the moon" line — Sam soars through the sky convinced he has found areflection of himself, and this forms a perfect Act I act break.

Sam has the rug pulled out from under him. Where is that creature who had fulfilled Sam’s desires so completely? What’s going on?

Sam’s Gap opens wide. Gus is no friend, Gus is a Frankenstein monster. Sam has given Gus the skill he needs to be a great artist and Gus has run off and used that skill to create anarchy and destruction. Sam, we see, was a fool for thinking Gus was a reflection of himself. Because there was One Thing Sam Had Forgotten, which is that Gus, from the very beginning, announced that it is in his nature to be mischievous. Sam thought he could change Gus’s nature through his idea of friendship (which was only a form of control) and is shocked when the trickster behaves like a trickster.

Sam turns schoolmarmish to Gus, and Gus will not listen. This situation is getting out of control.

Sam, who left his tree looking only for friendship, has instead found betrayal as Gus asserts his nature as an immature, arrogant bastard. This is the essential nature of dramatic writing — you take one character who is like this and another character who is like that and you have them ram into each other. Drama is nothing more than the tension generated by the clash of their conflicting pursuits. Sam was seeking friendship and was so lonely that he mistook Gus for a potential friend, while Gus, we saw clearly, was interested in nothing but acting like a dick. Now Sam has given Gus the tools he needs to be a major league dick, raising the stakes, moving Sam further away from his goal.

How big a dick is Gus? He gets a kick out of watching planes crash. That’s pretty bad, if you ask me. Sam, far from gaining a friend, has enabled an anarchist.

(One might wonder, what does Sam care about the cars and airplanes? He’s an owl. Ah, but don’t forget — he’s a lonely owl. Friendless, Sam is, we see, painfully frightened of the good opinion of others. Although it’s not spelled out, Sam’s anxiety at what others will think of Gus’s anarchy is palpable. Plus, don’t forget, Sam is a writer — he craves an audience. Watching Gus run amok using Sam’s hard-won skill is, for Sam, like a novelist watching a bad movie be made from his book.)

Now, interestingly, Gus’s pranks become smaller. Why does Eastman put the movie theater after the airplanes? How is a bunch of people trying to get into a movie theater higher stakes than a sky full of planes crashing? The answer is that Gus’s pranks are moving, slowly, from the societal to the personal. Having messed with "the system," which is bad but rather abstract, carrying as it does a quasi-political message of anarchy, Gus is now going to mess with individuals, which has no political motivation but rather is just mean-spirited.

Gus hones his mischief down to a pinpoint — he’s no longer throwing sabots into factory gears, he’s decided he’s going to ruin the evening of a single man, a hot-dog vendor simply trying to get through the night.

And here we see results of that action, in a perfect Act II climax. The protagonist created this Frankenstein Monster in Act I, and the whole of Act II has been him recoiling in horror as his creation, in his innocence and arrogance, wreaks havoc. And here we have the End Of Act II Low Point. Sam is further away than ever from his goal of having a friend, and Gus has been caught by a hot dog vendor with a net.

(And of course the adult reader pauses to wonder why the hot dog man doesn’t just squash Gus. Apparently he is a Buddhist hot dog man, or at least morally opposed to capital punishment.)

You can tell Sam and the Firefly is a love story because it’s structured as one: Owl Meets Firefly, Owl Loses Firefly, Owl Gets Firefly Back. Rather like Camille, now that I think of it — Sam, in his narcissism, believes that his love for Gus can change him, whereas Gus, in his arrogance, sees no reason to change. Which would make the jar tuberculosis I guess.

As much trouble as Gus has caused him, Sam remains true to his friend — he’ll follow him to the bitter end. Another character might think "Whew, I’m glad that’s taken care of," but Sam, having created Gus’s situation, feels responsible.

Classic Act III beat of a love story. The love object imprisoned, unaware that his suitor is tirelessly working on a solution. Gus, here, has time to reflect (there’s that word again) on his situation — he sees now that his mischief has consequences, not just for others but for himself as well. So we see that one of the characters of Sam and the Firefly is ready to change.

Crisis! And yes, staged and contrived, just as many great Act III crises are. I’m disappointed that this crisis rises out of mechanical failure rather than character (if, for instance, the hot dog man, in his rage and zeal to kidnap Gus, had forgotten to check his gas gauge on his way out of town), but it will do.

And Sam, thinking fast, sees that there is a solution to this crisis. His solution depends on his faith in his friend — Gus must, in his time in the jar, have changed. If Gus performs in the way Sam knows he can, Sam will save the hot dog man, save the train, and perhaps, finally, gain a friend. His faith is couched in an elemental but nevertheless monumental question — can a creature change its essential nature? Can Gus perform in a manner appropriate to the situation? Has he "grown up," or is he still a mischievous, anti-social troublemaker?

Gus comes through. Gus has learned to change, and Sam’s faith has been answered. Gus’s genius and Sam’s tutelage have finally produced not just a useful message, but an appreciative audience as well.

But Sam and Gus don’t stick around for the applause. Why not? Why doesn’t Sam turn to Gus and say "Hey, look at that, we’re heroes! Let’s see if we can parlay this into some free food or a nice house or something?" Because, going back page one, Sam is not looking for adulation — he is looking for a friend. And now he and Gus have finally had the kind of communal experience that forges friendship.

The sun comes up and the adventure is over. It’s time for Sam to sleep and Gus’s light is invisible — the magic they share is gone, or put on hold anyway. The two friends must part and be true to their natures. Sam has gained his friend, his playmate, and Gus has grown up a little.

As a "button," we see, on the last page, that the positions have been reversed. Gus is still a trickster, but he is now the lonely one who can’t wait to wake up his friend for more fun. Sam, we see, is now the love object pursued.

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19 Responses to “Sam and the Firefly”
  1. papajoemambo says:

    Wow – this was a much loved story of my own when I was a wain…

    I’d say it was a formative influence, but I have no idea what its exact effect on me was.

    Nevertheless, I always loved the image of Gus sitting disconsolately on his glowing rump, in the jar, in the back of the truck.

  2. mcbrennan says:

    A most excellent analysis. I have a pretty big collection of vintage books, and several of Eastman’s, but somehow I never got this one, and I’ll have to correct that ASAP. I didn’t realize all these nights I’ve been sitting up alone, I was just waiting for a firefly.

  3. Anonymous says:

    That was a great introduction to a book I’ve never seen before.

    Perhaps the hot dog man doesn’t just squash Gus because he is like a Bond Villain — his mistake is always enjoying the capture and torture of his enemy instead of just killing him.

    And it’s interesting that until Sam meets Gus, no one is awake, but Gus manages to find a whole bunch of people to play tricks on. Sam is so busy chasing after Gus that he doesn’t see how many other people are up all night and available to play.

    No surprise you were drawn to this story of a lonely, responsible, somewhat anxious character and a fun-loving, irresponsible, audience-craving character, both writers who are always up all night. And you posted it after midnight. “Reflection,” indeed.

    • Todd says:

      In that regard, we could say that there really is no Gus, that it’s Sam who’s causing all the mischief, that he has, essentially, created Gus in order to give himself an excuse to be wild, creative, disruptive, subversive, etc. That way, the book is a story about a lonely insomniac learning to be his own best friend — Fight Club with animals.

  4. dougo says:

    Wow, I think I remember this book. Thanks for excavating another dusty corner of my memory. (I have much clearer memories of Are You My Mother? but this one I had totally forgotten.)

    Does the fact that it takes place entirely at night make it qualify as noir?

    • Todd says:

      In the sequel, Gus betrays Sam and Sam has to track Gus down through the rainy streets of San Francisco and shoot him in the back.

  5. curt_holman says:

    Next, I’d like a economics/class struggle interpretation of “Go, Dog. Go!” that focuses on the “Work, dogs, work” section, particularly the role of the politically symbolic “Yellow Dog.”

  6. Anonymous says:

    Deconstructing Sam And The Firefly?

    You forgot to discuss the sexual symbolism in the hot dog stand cell: Four men standing at the counter, facing forward as if standing at a urinal, a large wiener above their heads with the words “HOT HOT HOT” inside, wieners on the grill (& one nestled snugly in a bun in the hands of one of the men), etc. etc.

    I’m glad one of your readers mentioned film noir. Typical of a screenwriter, you ignored the magnificent twilight imagery of this Eastman classic. Nearly every cell is dark, shadowy — but not with Baudelairian evil. The darkness is alluring, phantasmagoric, suffused with childhood squeals of glee on the one hand & the blissful serenity of Dreamland on the other. “Sam & the Firefly” is like a modern retelling of an E.T.A. Hoffmann tale, but the corrosive fatalism has been replaced with a contemporary antelucan bliss generated by the alternating urban & rural scenes of Sam & Gus’s peripatetic adventures.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Deconstructing Sam And The Firefly?

      Why do you think it was titled “Sam and the Firefly” and not “Sam and Gus” ???

  7. stormwyvern says:

    Please pardon me for commenting on such an old post. Drawn just put up a link to it and this is my first time seeing your thoughts on a book I remember from my own childhood.

    Have you noticed how in this and many other children’s stories, there is only one kind of any given animal? When Sam is noticing all the sleeping creatures, he doesn’t see “the fox family,” “a flock of sheep,” the sow and he piglets.” He sees “the fox,” “the sheep,” and “the hog.” I’ve been thinking over why this is, aside from to simplify the story to its bare essentials. For the purposes of this story, the best I could come up with was that it’s about individuals – “one character who is like this and another character who is like that” as you put it – and the simplest way to show that these characters are very different is to make them different species. If Sam had other owls to play with, he obviously wouldn’t have the problem of trying to find someone who share his nocturnal habits and he wouldn’t have to learn to be friends with someone who is so different from him. (Unless the point was for Sam to learn that not all owls are like him, which would be another story altogether.) Sam learns that finding a friend is not about finding your reflection – another owl, someone exactly like him – but finding someone he shares some qualities with, appreciating each others’ strengths, and learning from one another.

    I can also see something of a parent/child dynamic in Sam and Gus’s relationship. Consider:

    – Child likes to sing and has some talent for it.
    – Parent hones this raw talent by teaching child a song.
    – Child “rewards” parent by singing song at full volume for nine days straight.

    • Todd says:

      That’s interesting — there is one cow, one fox, etc, but apparently and endless supply of people.

      • stormwyvern says:

        I hadn’t thought of that. It might be worth noting that Gus only gets in trouble for his tricks when he goes from causing trouble to depersonalized vehicles or a big crowd to picking on the one hot dog man. Gus doesn’t get caught by and angry mob, just one understandably pissed-off guy.

  8. drawboy says:

    Just Show It

    “The moon was up when Sam came out.” Most writers, myself included, would have the first sentence of this story read “Sam was an owl,”

    Rule #1 of picture book writing – “Don’t write what you can show.”
    It’s a PICTURE book. Don’t waste time writing the “sky was blue, the grass was green”, let the illustrator do that job.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Fantastic Analysis

    Really – I just realized this is over a year ago – but I just read through it and it was a really great, fantastic analysis of a children’s story.

    Thank you so much for putting this together.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Fantastic Analysis

      I just pulled this classic out to read to my 3yo. I remember the illustrations from when I was a child. I love what you’ve written about it!