Good Ground

Young adult literature gives me hope.  The quality, speaking for a guy who grew up in a small town with limited choices, has improved astronomically over the past several years.  One of my favorite (adult) novels is Wuthering Heights, and so it’s no surprise that I found Christy Lenzi’s debut novel Stone Field quite engaging.  Set in a different time and place, and with a younger readership in mind, it retells the story of forbidden love based on xenophobia.  The message has never been more relevant.  Although it avoids explicit language, it does include adult situations and features a strong female protagonist in an age of explicit gender inequality.  During the chaos leading up to the Civil War, star-crossed lovers are set against one another because prejudice is a most effective poison.

While not a religious story, the iconic Bible plays a large role in it.  One of the main characters is a preacher, but even without him Catrina Dickinson’s family and friends are ready to quote the Good Book as unquestioningly as a Republican (with my apologies to fiscally conservative friends untainted by this aberration).  This is beyond a realistic portrayal of American life of the 1860s, it reflects the way that many people continue to think of Scripture.  Nevertheless, in one crucial episode of the story set in the church at Roubidoux, Missouri, the iconic role of the Bible becomes clear.  It is deftly woven throughout the story in a way that might serve as a lesson for modern writers seeking verisimilitude.  Many authors fear to address religion, but the Good Book is alive and well in these post-frontier days.

Often the desire to avoid religious motivations leads to stories that lack a key element of the social fabric.  In my own attempts at fiction religion is seldom absent.  It is the way average people live.  Lenzi presents Cat as being aware of but unwilling to be cowed by the Bible.  Indeed, as the story unfolds with several tragic events (remember, Wuthering Heights) she demonstrates that Catrina knows but doesn’t accept the strictures of Scripture.  The issue of theodicy hangs heavily in the atmosphere of the novel.  To me, this makes stories appear more life-like than tales that simply suppose religion doesn’t impact people.  When tragedy strikes, many people question what God, or their stand-in for the divine, is doing.  Anyone who’s asked “why me?” has directed that question into the world of theodicy, whether intentionally or not.  Reading this story while going through a family illness may have drawn this to the surface, but it underscores just how effective it may be for a realism that is otherwise lacking, whether in fact or young adult fiction.

Classic Education

A few months ago now, just after moving, our garage flooded.  Our books, unpacked, were stored there at the time, resulting in many casualties.  As I sorted through what was destroyed—a process still ongoing—I decided that if I replaced books I would re-read them as I did so.  Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was the first replaced, and therefore re-read, volume.  For those who never had the opportunity to attend seminary, I would note that it is the ideal time for reading.  One of my professors, Harrell Beck, although he taught Old Testament, encouraged wide reading.  The Bible, he suggested, didn’t stop at the last verse of Revelation.  It was in seminary that I discovered the Brontë sisters and their remarkable literary achievements.

Wuthering Heights is fine autumnal literature and Heathcliff one of the greatest protagonist villains of literature.  An interloper among the privileged classes, Heathcliff finds delight in making others share in his suffering.  One of the more memorable characters is Joseph, the Bible-toting, Bible-quoting caretaker who sees nothing good in the younger generation.  Even Emily Brontë, the daughter of a clergyman herself, spies the hypocrisy so clear in the lives of literalists.  Joseph enjoys scolding as much as reading Scripture, and even the other servants find him tiresome.  Born in the year Frankenstein was published, Emily had Gothic sensibilities.  With the protracted death scenes and atmosphere  of loss and mourning, this classic can be a restorative in an era such as ours.  In more than one way.

Since Wuthering Heights is a classic, there’s no need to recount the story of lost love and damaged human beings.  What is important is to realize that we continue to support a social structure that repeats the sins of nineteenth-century England.  And like that setting, we do it firmly believing we are a “Christian” nation.  Joseph would surely nod in agreement.  Stripping the safety nets from the vulnerable so that the privileged classes might enjoy more of their ill-gotten gain, we live the hypocrisy of the self-righteous.  It the era of the Brontë sisters, women were not encouraged to write.  They, like the servants of the wealthy, were believed to exist for the comfort and pleasure of the master.  Not paying attention to the classics, we’ve come back to that era, claiming that wealthy white men are the true victims in all of this.  The denizens of the swamp will find their place in history next to Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Benito Mussolini.  Wuthering Heights, like 1984, will, however, remain a classic that sees through hypocrisy.

Be It Resolved

I’m not a believer in New Years Resolutions.  A constant and critical self-monitor, when I notice a bad behavior I try to correct it right away.  Sometimes I’m actually successful.  Now that I’ve finally removed all books from the garage—some were being held high above the water-line on plastic boxes—I’ve started to sort through systematically what is beyond redemption.  A comment of occasional visitors, however, has goaded me into a resolution; you see, people sometimes ask “Are you going to read those again?”  While aching to address the mindset betrayed by that very question, I cede a point; if I’m going to the expense of replacing a non-reference book, I should want to read it again.  My resolution—when I buy another copy, I will read it then and there.

One of the stinging parts of this resolution is that some of the books were read by me just this past year, or even earlier this year.  Jude the Obscure, although I enjoyed it, cost me a quarter year of my life of evening reading time.  On that basis alone I should replace it, but if I’m not going to reread it why should I incur the expense?  (Moving is anything but cheap.)   I will also face rereading old favorites that have been put aside for a while.  No house, for example, should be without Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights, although I read it again just months back, or so it feels.  

This is perhaps a way of making lemonade from a cloud.  Or finding the silver lining on a lemon.  Whichever it is, I sense that it will figure toward my reading goal for next year.  As I’ve spent the rainy weekend unpacking books, literacy is on my mind.  For those who see my literomania as some kind of disease, I was cheered to note just how many of the books on display I had indeed read.  The same goes true for a number of the academic books in the study, but, I must confess, while pulling them from their boxes I thought how boring most of them are.  Boring, however, doesn’t equate to useless when it comes to books.  Given their price points some of them may take years to replace.  That’s the point of a resolution, in any case.  It can cause some pain.  As I stuff the moldy, distorted tomes into their body-bags I hope that rereading their replacements will bring them back to life.  After all, resolution and resurrection are not so far apart.