Sunday, January 3, 2010

More thoughts on stories By Kathleen Delaney

More thoughts on stories

Christmas is over, the packages that were wrapped so intriguingly have been ripped open, the gifts examined, cookies have been decorated and devoured, and only the most intrepid poinsettia is still clinging to life.

It was fun. It’s always fun, and, as always, its left me with some lingering thoughts.

This year, I got one of my granddaughters an American Girl doll. Dalia is eight and wanted one desperately. Her mother is a single mom and just couldn’t afford one. Dalia knew that, and didn’t even ask for one, but both her mother and I knew how much she wanted one. So-Grandma got on ebay, a new and rather scary experience, and Dalia got Felicity, an American Girl who lived in Williamsburg in the eighteenth century.

One of the reasons I wanted this doll was because of Felicity’s story. I have taken Dalia and her brother, Ronaldo, to Kings Mountain and to Cowpen’s national monument. We’ve gone through the museum, watched the movie, examined the manikins wearing the Colonial uniforms and the Indians wearing practically nothing, and have walked the trails. They are fascinated. They know that the battle of Cowpens was during the Revolutionary War, and know, and can tell you, some of the stories about the war. They know where Williamsburg is, mainly because Grandma loves Williamsburg and keeps bringing them back stuff from her trips there, and has promised to take them there as well.

Felicity comes with a book, a story about her life during the Revolutionary war, and Dalia was delighted to think her doll was part of what we had been talking about, and is already reading the book. It makes her doll and the period she represents real and personal.

Which brings me to my real point. Stories. Most of the history I know came from novels. Big fat historical novels, thin little stories with lots of pictures, dramatic sagas of terror and courage, they are what brought history alive. Remember Rabble in Arms? I haven’t read that book in years, but it was what brought the American Revolution to life for me, not droning teachers who made me memorize dates and names. Drama was what I wanted, real people in real trouble and a book that could explain why. Much better than reality TV. Want to know about the Civil War? Gone With The Wind will give you one very strong perspective, and when you visit Savannah or Charleston, you’ll share that genteel life with Scarlet. Then read Roots.

But stories don’t just teach us about history, as fascinating as that is. Staying in the south, think about “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s a close up look at prejudice and what it does to people, and what it does to people who resist its insidious delights. This book looks at a couple of different kinds of prejudice, or maybe not. Maybe prejudice itself is pretty much the same emotion, it just manifests itself a little differently depending on who the victim is.

Stories teach us about people, because that’s what a story is all about. How did the Revolutionary War effect the everyday life of our great great grandparents, if they were living here then, how did they make their decisions which side to back, and how did the stress of war color their lives? Scarlet lets us know how the Civil War colored hers, and that of her family. Roots tells us in no uncertain terms what it was like to be black during a large part of our countries history, and we can go on and on. Fiction plays an unbelievably valuable part in our understanding of our world, and the people who inhabit it. It helps us understand how people react in times of stress, great stress as in war, or more personal stress as in sickness, divorce, or even murder. Maybe that’s why we of the Carolina Conspiracy write mysteries. We can explore how an ordinary person will react to something as terrifying as unexplained death, and how they cope.

One last thought. Coping. When I was little, I read Pollyanna. Every book. Pollyanna isn’t fashionable any more, and she is usually portrayed as a rather sappy little girl who goes around with a holier than thou attitude, trying to do good and making everyone who’s normal want to throw up. But that’s not what those books were about. They’re about coping, about a little girl who has lost her mother and father, is sent to live with a very grumpy aunt, and is just plain scared. But she had already learned to cope. That’s what the whole book is about, and I’m mighty glad I read it, and that I learned from it. There have been a number of times in my life when that coping skill came in real handy, and this last year was certainly among them. So thanks, Pollyanna, and thanks to all you writers out there who have laid out the world, and the people in it, in stories that help us understand our world a little better, and what makes other people tick. Just maybe you help us understand ourselves a little better as well.

A word to those of you who are writers or are trying to be, when you are mapping out your next plot, remember that adversity is a good thing. More than that, it is a part of life we can’t avoid and the stuff that good stories are made of. So think about Pollyanna, and get your characters to sharpen up those coping skills.

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