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Elizabeth Graver

Dora, Barbie, and the recalls

I'VE READ the paper, listened to the news. Now I circle, open drawers, lift cushions. I find plastic gewgaws: necklaces, fake plastic teeth, rhinestone rings.

Our kids don't watch TV and we maintain some (our own, not theirs) aesthetic standards, so we're in short supply of Dora and Bob the Builder toys, as well as Barbie's cats and dogs, but there's still plenty to get rid of and I'm on a tear. Soon my husband joins me, then our daughters, 4 and 7. One cries briefly at the loss of a favorite bracelet, but they quickly rally, discarding, unsentimental, driven by what? A desire to pare down? My promise to buy them a piece of "real" jewelry? Fear? As for me, I'm at least half-prompted by a sudden need to clean out, to purge - in a cluttered house, in a cluttered world. Who knows what's leaded, what's not? In solidarity with the girls, I toss a fistful of cheap bracelets I haven't worn in years.

That night, I go online and find myself signing up for a daily e-mail notification from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. The next morning, the first list:

Children's charm bracelets sold by Buy-Rite recalled due to risk of lead exposure.

Thomas and Friends, Curious George, and other spinning tops and tin pails recalled by Schylling Associates due to violation of lead paint standard.

Martin Designs Inc. recalls SpongeBob SquarePants character address books and journals due to violation of lead paint standard.

On the second day, another:

Basic Editions girls' clothing sets recalled by Kmart; drawstrings at waist pose entrapment hazard.

CPSC, Stokke announce recall of Sleepi Crib Foam Mattresses due to entrapment hazard.

J.C. Penney recalls spindle-back chairs due to fall hazard.

As I read the recalls, I remember a moment in Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway": "She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day." Like Clarissa Dalloway, I'm a Nervous Nelly. I knock on wood. As a child, I hung back at busy intersections for so long that my mother had to carry me across the street before the light changed.

Still, the recalls, condensed together like this, strike me as a bit ludicrous, many of them driven more by a fear of lawsuits than by considerable risk. So sometimes we fall out of our chairs. Might the blame lie partly with our own clumsiness, or antics, or sheer bad luck? Didn't babies used to sleep perfectly well in dresser drawers (though, yes, if I had a baby in a crib, I'd run to check; is she entrapped?)? I think back to my childhood in the mid-'60s, my first years spent in a peeling Victorian house. Do I wish my girls were growing up in an era when kids rattled around the backseat of the car, and you'd get so sunburned that you'd peel the skin, deliciously, from each other's backs, and water came straight from the tap?

Not that there weren't protocols; they just were different ones, and fewer. Put the baby to sleep on its stomach. Don't eat before you swim.

Would I let my daughters ride in a car without a car seat? Not on their lives. When our older child was a year old, we spent thousands of dollars getting our house de-leaded after she tested borderline high for lead, her level elevated not from Bob or Dora, not from Barbie's dinner plates, but because our mid-18th-century farmhouse was, as Pottery Barn would put it, "distressed." I bought plastic (made in China?) shields for the outlets and a lock for the toilet seat, though we never installed it. Our daughters were not dive-in-the-toilet types, and the directions were elaborate, and we were tired.

Now, for several nights, I roam the house after the girls are in bed and troll for more plastic junk - some of it made in China or of uncertain origin, all of it suddenly offensive, almost neon, to my eye.

While I'm glad to be cleaning out the house and relieved that my girls are taking it in stride, it saddens me to think of all the kids whose toys will be taken away, and of all the families who won't even know to check.

Even more, it saddens me to think about global capitalism - the glut and the cheapness, the labor and profit, the tainted toothpaste for the prisoners and mentally ill, the unknowing and the knowing, both here and abroad. The buy buy buy, the want want want. Dangerous, yes, these times - and not primarily because we might fall out of our chairs.

What, I wonder, will happen to the millions of recalled toys - some returned to the companies, most thrown out? They can't be recycled, too toxic. Will they be buried in some impoverished, under- or overpopulated corner of the world, or sent to outer space: Adios, Dora? Or - this the most likely scenario - left to (not) rot in dumps and landfills near my home, near yours?

Recall. 1) To cancel, revoke, according to the dictionary. 2) To call back. 3) To restore, revive, remember.

Elizabeth Graver is author of the novels " The Honey Thief," "Unravelling," and "Awake." She teaches at Boston College.

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