The idea of travel always seems attractive, doesn’t it? To leave behind our humdrum, everyday world and enjoy life as a tourist. To picture ourselves in an exotic environment and perhaps, be transformed by our time in that place? Fortunes have been made over the years in books on this subject: A Year in Provence; Eat, Pray, LoveandUnder the Tuscan Sunare just three examples. But the fact is, wherever we go, we take ourselves with us and most travelers come back home. Lucy Honeychurch would be the first person to tell you that.
Lucy is one of those Edwardian, English girls who will tell you real travel isn’t the flight of fancy you’d imagine. She’s supposedly on this trip to Italy, to pick up some of the culture and sophistication of the continent but she hardly allowed within speaking distance of anyone truly Italian. Her irritating, old-maid cousin is always at her side, the hotel’s land-lady has a cockney accent and all the other guests there are English as well. To make things worse, the reservations got mixed up and she didn’t get A Room With a View.
That’s the opening situation in E. M Forster’s story of what travel can and can’t do. Lucy is a young woman at the edge of adulthood, about to make life-changing choices. Her cousin and other guests sense it, potential reveals itself when she plays the piano. And all of these good people want her to make the right choices so they try and limit her exposure to the bits of Italy they approve of. But, fate and travel sometimes circumvent the very best-intentioned limits.
Despite her guided tours and chaperone, Lucy witnesses chaos and romance while she’s in Florence and she retreats to England, ready to marry the deeply pretentious Cecil Vyse. (Great name for a silly man, right?) Fate and nature still have a few tricks up their sleeve and Lucy eventually will choose whether she wants the kind of life she’s seen others live or a future that feels right for her.
This sweet tale has been adapted to film a few times, most memorably in 1986 (Have 30 years gone by that fast?) by the Merchant-Ivory company. While I never recommend a film adaptation over a book, this is a beautiful accessory if you want a video version of the story.
Maybe we don’t always have an opportunity to travel. And travel may not always change our lives. But a good travel story can still open our eyes and give us a break from everyday life. And in fiction, we always get A Room With A View.
He was in my very first high school class, a wiry, little guy behind a lectern, with gravity-defying hair and feverish-looking eyes. He wasn’t much taller than the lectern and it probably weighed more than he did. The stranger stared at us briefly before introducing himself as Mr. S___, taking the roll and passing out Literature text books. “Another first-year teacher,” I thought with dismay,”this class will eat him alive.” Then the little man barked out an order and half the class jumped. For a small man, this guy’s voice was loud. “Mr. So-and-So” he boomed at one of the better-behaved boys in class, “What have you got there? Bring it to me.” The poor kid named slunk his way toward the front of the class while I cowered in my seat and revised my opinion of the instructor. This guy would control the class but I didn’t like him and doubted if I’d learn much from him either. Little did I know I was facing the greatest teacher I’ve ever meet.
Mr. S. taught my favorite subject, English, but I never would have told him something that personal. The man was far too intimidating. We were in an era when teachers were supposed to relax a little and relate to the kids but Mr. S. didn’t get the memo. Instead he barked out remarks and questions in class and when he grinned at us from behind his lectern, he looked like a wolf eyeing his prey. He admitted to having daily debates with the “fun” English instructor in school about which was the better teaching tool, trust or fear. Mr. S. held out for fear and it worked; he scared the spit out of me.
Sophomore collection of short stories. Does my high school still want it back?
Funny thing was, this strange little guy taught an interesting class. For one thing, he got us to think about what we read. Instead of focusing on terms like “protagonist” and “plot”, Mr. S. forced us to identify the ideas in stories and then debate those with him in class. Some of those ideas had obvious answers, like, “What would you rather have, security or freedom?” Mr. S. always took the contrary side of an issue like this and, as I recall, he always won the debates. When we insisted Americans preferred freedom, he’d point out the ways our society had opted for security instead. Keeping up in his class meant using your wits and even the most disinterested students started getting involved. Then, he taught us how to listen.
Sometime in my sophomore year, I began to get irritated over the “less-than-excellent” grades I earned in his class. I wasn’t interested in keeping a high GPA but it irked me to get “Bs” in one of the few subjects I usually aced. So, when written tests were given, I tried to write great essays, scouring meaning out of the text and paragraphs out of my soul. Then I’d get another B and someone else’s answer would be read out in class. I sweated blood over the next essay test… and my friend Mindy’s answer was read aloud instead. On the way home, I showed her my paper and asked her why he picked her essay answer over mine. “Mine answered his question.” she said.
In my junior year but I started paying attention to Mr. S.’s lectures and I realized something; we might debate profound ideas in the text but the subject we studied was literature and he tested us on specific literary techniques and criteria we discussed during class. I started paying attention to what the man said he wanted in an answer. I wrote responses to his questions. I started getting As.
One of the last books in the lit. syllabus I never forgot it or the teacher.
By my senior year, I had relaxed enough to appreciate Mr. S.’s teaching methods and he seemed to unbend just a bit. His grins weren’t just a demanding instructor’s delight in catching students unprepared, he loved seeing us use our brains. Although some of his formality remained, we began to glimpse his sense of humor and we learned he loved when we’d “forget” to return our text books at the end of term. He said he measured a book’s popularity by how few copies came back to the school. (Mr. S., if you see this, I still have two of my short-story collections as well as my copy of Candide. I still love them and read them; I just have to be careful because the pages are brittle and some of the covers are gone.) Then, Mr. S. left our school system the same spring that our class graduated. I never found the chance or nerve to thank him for the impact he had on me. But I’ve felt his influence ever since.
Over the years, I’ve attended more than a dozen schools and probably studied under a hundred different teachers. Most were bright, some were kind and I even made friends with a few. But the greatest teacher I ever met taught me to fall in love with a subject. He changed me from someone who enjoyed reading as entertainment to one who reveres prose as an art.
Families are such funny things. Find a man in his late thirties or early forties surrounded by his kids. Around them, he is the paterfamilias. The Father. The Ultimate Authority (besides Mom). Now transfer him to his family of origin and watch him interact with them. There he’s not recognized as a dad but as a brother or child and the definition has an effect on his personality. His air of authority is gone. Maybe an old squabble is raked up with a sibling. If his children are watching, they have a rare glimpse of their Dad as a boy, momentarily spinning like an electron from their immediate family into the family of their grandparents. Around the molecules of generations, Dad becomes a covelant bond.
As a writer, Anne Tyler knows this better than most and the idea stands out in her novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. This is the story of the Whitshanks, another eccentric Baltimore family (Anne is the literary patron saint of both the city and eccentric families) with an recurring, dynamic. Each generation has one member with the drive to attain a goal above their expectations even though success will not make them happy. Every generation also has at least one “sympathizer” member who negotiates their way through family frictions and the rest have their own coping skills. Whenever holidays or family emergencies pull the grown siblings back together we see how much or little they’ve learned about being adults while they were apart.
This story also throws in something extra. After chapters of seeing Red and Abby function as the heads of the Whitshank clan, coping with their children and grandchildren, a flashback takes us to their adolescence and we see the young people they once were dominated by their patriarch, Junior. We even see the events that influence Junior.
In many ways, A Spool of Blue Thread is also the story of the family home, a house in an affluent neighborhood that Junior Whitshank built and coveted. The house goes from Junior’s talisman of success to the legacy Red and Abby will care for and the symbol of favoritism their sons will crave. As the house witnesses each successive generation’s secrets, resentments and hopes, we learn what drives this family and what they need to let go of in the end.
Since the prospect of Thanksgiving is looming, with the chance we’ll spend time with extended family, take a second for the Whitshanks clan. Remember we are all covelant bonds in the family of Mankind and we all have a role to play. May your next family gathering be like the beautiful spool of blue thread, that appears just when it’s needed.
The relationship between writers and readers is an odd one. The writer sits in a garret (or on the top of Mount Parnassus, depending on your point of view) and labors to create a work of lasting value. If it’s good enough and all the stars align, the readers let the work of an author’s imagination into their own and reward the author with praise, treasure and enough allegiance to read writer’s next story, as long as the author keeps the the writer-reader contract.
What, you thought what I just described was the writer-reader contract? Au contrair, mes amis! That is merely the description. The writer-reader contract is an old and long one that is modified only as literature evolves. One of the basic tenets of this implied agreement is that, however complex the plot or intricate the fictional universe in the story is, the author knows everything that is going on in the story and can explain how this imaginary world makes sense. For example:
Like most of the reading planet, I adored J. K. Rowling’s fantastic Harry Potter series. It’s a mammoth accomplishment and a brilliantly planned series. Elements of the entire saga start appearing immediately although their importance is played down. (Spoilers abound here so if you spent the last quarter century living under a rock to avoiding the Potter phenomenon, read a different one of my posts). In the first chapter, we get the primary premise that magic-is-real set out and we learn a baby Harry somehow defeated an evil, magically powerful being named Voldemort. The soul souvenir of Voldemort’s attack, a scar on Harry’s forehead, is mentioned in passing on the first chapter but Potter fans don’t learn the full significance of scar until the end of the series, seven years and a million words later. Still, virtually every bit of information JKR drops in the early part of the series forms part of the bigger picture later on, from Hagrid’s motorbike to Dumbledore’s evasive answers to personal questions. (“What do you see in the mirror, Professor?”) JKR doesn’t tell the audience everything immediately, she can’t, but she tells us what we need to know when we need to know it. She honors the contract.
Another splendid example of an author knowing everything is Louis Sachar’s Holes. This is a case of non-linear storytelling at its best since most of the narrative is about perpetually unlucky Stanley Yelnats IV, a good kid in a bad situation. Stanley can’t know that his fate was tied to Camp Green Lake and a kid named Hector Zeroni generations before he was born but that’s because there are “holes” in his family history. The reader’s fun comes from finding the information filling those holes at different parts of the story. It’s a masterful fulfillment of the Writer-Reader Contract.
Now compare these to Lemony Snicket’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. As usual we have an unfortunate child (well, 3 of them: Violet, Klaus and Sunny); a wicked, overarching villain who pursues them through the series (Count Olaf) and a bunch of mysterious clues and circumstances the kids encounter along the way. But, contrary to the implied contract, many of the mysteries in the story are never solved! Readers never find out what was in that blasted sugar bowl or details about the schism that split the V. F. D. into fire-starters and fire-fighters! (Speaking of which, there are so many entities in the series with the initials V. F. D. it’s hard to keep them straight.) Instead of resolving key mysteries that have been building through the series, the author states in the last book that not every question can or will be answered. That is true of real life, but it’s a weak excuse to readers who waded through 170 chapters of alliterative names and silly puns to find out what really happened to all of the Baudelaire family. It is a break in the writer-reader contract.
So, if you know someone struggling to write a novel this month, be kind to them. Bring them encouragement and hot drinks as needed and assure them that they can always get through one more revision. But remind them of the writer-reader contract and how they need to know everything in their fictional universe. It’s a part of the contract.
There’s a moment in Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys when an exasperated (female) teacher declares:
“History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind…with a bucket.”
I can’t help but wonder if Jane Hardstaff had this quote in mind when she wrote her excellent children’s novel, The Executioner’s Daughter. It may be fiction, but our heroine is forced to trudge through the disasters of history and scoop up the mess left behind with her basket.
Meet Moss, an eleven-year-old girl and permanent resident of The Tower of London. On good days, her father is the blacksmith in the tower, creating and repairing any piece of metal needed for Henry VIII’s court and government and Moss stays in the forge. On bad days, execution days, her father wields the ax. If judicial murder and the blood lust of the crowd aren’t bad enough, Moss has be present at each death. Her job is to stand below the executioner’s block and catch the prisoner’s head in her basket once her father cuts it off. One execution would be enough to traumatize a child but because of the King’s battle with the Catholic Church (aka The English Reformation) Moss has to witness this horror again and again and each execution makes her want to rebel.
The Executioner’s Daughterworks on many levels, not the least of which is how it points out that the Tower of London functioned a separate, often self-sufficient, entity. Yes, the castle was a prison but it was also a strong-hold, a Royal Residence and the large, full-time staff that maintained it also lived within those walls. The Tower had few exits and Moss’s father limits her freedom to its outer walls, making his daughter, in effect, another prisoner. Preteen readers can identify with Moss’s feelings of resentment and her need to expand her horizons beyond her father’s world. Parents will appreciate her loving father, a man forced to make terrible choices in order to keep his daughter safe. And everyone will like Salter, the Artful Dodger like trickster that shows Moss there are harder destinies than being the executioner’s daughter and how to outwit fate.
Fascinating, adventurous and full of historical insight, The Executioner’s Daughter is a delight for junior-high readers and up and it can make someone glad they’re just a cleaning-woman in the annals of history.