March 20th, 2013
Not to say our favorite book-friends are perfect—their shortcomings are what make them intriguing. Their struggles become our struggles, as we hope, page after page, that they find some way through the morass of difficulty the writer has so insidiously laid out for them. We want them to succeed—even triumph—over their own inadequacies as much as over the external conflicts they face.
I would be friendly with June Cleaver, sure. She’d probably know the best pediatrician, Bundt cake recipe and vacuum repair shop in town. But after a while her lack of issues would get to me. (Also her perennially perfect hair, her conflict-free marriage, and utter complacency about cooking a healthy meal every freakin’ night of the week.) I would be friendly, yes, but I wouldn’t be looking to hang with June.
I’d hang with Janie Mae Crawford from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Bridget Jones of Diary fame, Major Pettigrew while he makes his Last Stand, or Danny Coughlin of The Given Day. Flawed—yes; issues—many. But each with an essential goodness, however challenged, that makes them redeemable.
Redemption from our faults. Isn’t that what we all long for?
Following these characters into the deep end of their own maladaptive tendencies as they face multi-pronged offensives against their happiness is a thrill ride fiction lovers can’t get enough of, precisely because we feel like we are with them. We’re there. It’s real. Well, we know it’s not really real, but in the best page-turning moments, it sure feels like it, doesn’t it?
And sometimes, it’s all too real. We’ve been wounded by the very same losses, suffered the consequences of the same personal failings. Maybe we’re even facing them at the same time we’re reading the book.
Being with a character who’s wading through a similar swamp of disillusionment, fear, heartbreak and/or cosmic spanking can be instructive. It can bolster our belief in the possibility of redemption and make us feel less alone. It can actually help to heal up some of the many, tiny, inevitable lacerations on our own hearts.
My favorite book as a child was The Boxcar Children. It’s a story about a family whose parents die suddenly. The four kids are supposed to go live with their grandfather, but they don’t know him at all, and so they set off on their own. They find a boxcar in the woods, clean it out, scavenge old household items from a nearby dump and make it a home.
I first read it when I was about 9, soon after my parents’ divorce. No, I was not orphaned. But I felt the loss of my father from the house profoundly, as well as the loss of my mother to sadness over the failure of her marriage. I was not homeless, but I felt completely untethered as I traveled between the two “homes” backpack in hand, usually missing some critical item like underwear or overdue homework.
As the oldest, I was expected to lead my younger sisters through this fresh misery. I certainly wasn’t as patient or ingenious as Henry Alden, the oldest boxcar kid. But I did my best, cognizant of the fact that while my life had taken a turn for the worse, Henry’s shoulders were far more burdened than my own.
The Boxcar Children gave me hope that, though my young life felt sad and hard, good things could come. Happy surprises might await. That turned out to be true, and I didn’t even have to go live in a boxcar for it to happen.
As an author, nothing—not the shock and joy of seeing my first book on the shelves of an actual bookstore, nor the all-but-incomprehensible realization that people who don’t even know me are reading and enjoying something I wrote—compares to hearing from a reader who says, “Your book helped me.”
My first novel, Shelter Me, is about a woman whose husband dies suddenly and she’s left to rebuild her life with her two small children. After it was published, I heard from many widows. Often they just wanted to tell me their own stories, commenting on how good it felt to “share” the experience with a (fictional) person who “understood.”
One memorable email came from a woman whose sister had given her Shelter Me on the third anniversary of her husband’s death. She was mad at her sister. “Didn’t she know it would only dredge up all those old thoughts and feelings?” She ended up reading it anyway. “It helped me to realize some things about myself and my actions and see some things in a different light as well. Also, because my sister purchased a copy for herself, it has helped her understand somewhat better of what I went through. That in itself is helpful beyond measure.”
After a recent book signing for my latest novel, The Shortest Way Home, an older man came up to me and said, “I am Da.” Da is the father of the main character who, after many years absent from the family due to alcoholism, shows up newly sober, wanting to reconnect.
The man explained, “I lost my kids for 20 years because of my drinking. I know just what he was going through.” Then, with no small pride, he asked me to sign a book for his daughter.
This, I believe, is why we write fiction, and why we read it. For the thrill of “experiencing” –or re-experiencing—the trials and troubles of fictional friends, and for those healing moments of redemption when they pass through the storm, leading us to safety in their wake.