Separate Kingdoms creates two distinct worlds between father and son, both through different narrative styles and the visual use of text on the page. The story centers around Colt, a factory worker who has recently lost his thumbs in what may or may not have been an accident at work. While the left-hand column of the story describes the moment-to-moment sufferings of the recently-maimed Colt, only his son Jack’s perspective is told in the first person. This textual strategy highlights the difficulty with which the reader, and Colt’s family, experience in trying to understand the workings of Colt’s mind. We relate to Jack because the author allows us access to his direct thoughts. Colt, on the other hand, is always slightly removed, unable to directly reveal his true feelings to his family or to those reading his story.
Author Valerie Laken uses several instances of onomatopoeia to express emotion, in the case of Colt, and to create a sense of distance between Colt and Jack. When frustrated with a lawyer who suspects Colt may have willingly sacrificed his thumbs to the machine, the injured man shouts “Gaaah!” and then “Zeeeeeeeeeshandagahhh!” These nonsense sounds are the closest Colt ever comes to expressing his true feelings. This device is effectively used by Laken to articulate the frustration, desperation, fear and horror that Colt cannot put into words. In Jack’s world, onomatopoeia is used to create a wall of protective sound between him and his father, and between him and his own feelings about what happened. Laken writes pages of “PAT pater pater pater Pat pater pater pater Pat” in an effort to help Jack disappear into the protective rythms of his drumsticks. But even this repetitive beat on his thigh is not enough to distract or drown out the silent noise of the house.
The separate worlds of Colt and Jack are connected by shared sentences that run across both columns of the page. These instances provide readers with a visual cue that the two worlds are colliding. Colt yells “Take it! Take the goddamn money and the little drummer boy and drive yourselves straight to paradise, set yourselves up! I’m fine right here.” This line is shared by both columns, indicating that it is heard by Jack. At this point in the story, it has been established that Jack is in a separate part of the house, so it becomes clear just how loud Colt would have to yell in order to be heard by Jack. Similarly, the inclusion of “Duh. Guh. Duh Guh Duh Guh Duh Guh Duh Guh” in Colt’s column indicates that he can hear Jack playing the drums. The fact that this line begins with periods and then seems to escalate to faster and faster drum beats, allows the reader to interpret Colt’s reaction to Jack’s playing – he doesn’t like it.
In her story Separate Kingdoms, author Valerie Laken effectively creates two separate worlds within one house through her use of onomatopoeia and shared lines. The reader is able to step into this world while listening to the same soundtrack as the characters. The infrequency with which the two worlds collide, indicated by connected lines on the page, clearly marks the separation between father and son.