Sachiko: A Story of Hope and Peace

I recently had a conversation with Caren Stelson, the author of Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (Carolrhoda Books, 2016). We had just learned that her book was on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. “I’m flabbergasted,” said Caren when I offered my congratulations. “This is so affirming.”

We met in a Minneapolis suburb at a Panera restaurant amid the big box stores of Home Depot and Costco, a place far away from Nagasaki and Sachiko Yasui. Yet as Caren and I talked, the incredible story of Sachiko began to come alive for me. It was almost as if Sachiko herself were the third person at our small table.

Sachiko, who is now 78, was six years old on August 9, 1945, the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Because she was a child on that day, she wants children everywhere to know her story. “I think it must be very hard for you to feel what happened because you are so very young,” she said to the children of a sixth grade class, “but I’ll try to speak about how strong you can be as a human being when you encounter difficulties in the future.”

Sachiko’s story is told in short chapters that cover fifty years of her life from the day of the bombing, when she went out to play with friends, to the 50th anniversary of the bombing when, at age 56, she was invited to speak to a sixth grade class about her experience as a hibakusha (“explosion-affected people”). Between Sachiko’s chapters are interspersed sections of supplemental material about such topics as the history of World War II, the bombing of Japan, and the long-term effects of radiation.

The writing is straightforward, never preachy, with quick, punchy sentences appropriate to the reading level of young people, yet not condescending, as readers of all levels can appreciate the concrete details that bring the story to life. Camphor trees, cicadas, and Sachiko’s grandmother’s green bowl found in the ruins of their home work as recurring motifs and metaphors to illuminate connections to nature, the past, and re-birth. They also serve as touchstones for the reader to navigate through a fifty-year time span.

The arc of this story takes readers on a journey from great sorrow and massive tragedy to incredible hope and the wish for peace. The story is personal and yet universal as Sachiko, who was inspired not only by her parents, but also by Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, comes to find forgiveness and the courage to tell others about the power of healing. Her talk on the 50th anniversary of the bombing was the beginning of many years of telling her story and advocating for peace. “What happened to me must never happen to you,” she said.

As Sachiko stood before the children on that day, she was reminded of her three brothers and sister. Toshi died the day of the bombing; her brothers Aki and Ichiro, who suffered from extensive radiation injuries, died shortly thereafter; and her sister, Misa, some years later from leukemia. Sachiko herself battled thyroid cancer that took her voice until she fought to regain it. Both her mother and father were gone. She alone had survived.

“This is an important day to talk about peace,” she said. “I hope to give you something to move your heart, to make you think of our peace for the future by telling you about the real misery that happened in the past. To make it happen, I have to share my heart . . . with you.” And so she told the children her story. It began the way this book opens with a six-year-old girl who was hungry because of the long war, who waited for the family hen to lay an egg, and then went out to play with her friends. Above them, the children heard the sound of a B-29. At 11:02 when the bomb exploded, they were just half a mile from the hypocenter. Her world was demolished. “Roaring winds ripped the bark off the camphor trees and split their trunks . . . .Dust erased the lines of the earth. Day turned to night.”

Sochiko lay under the rubble until her uncle found her and pulled her out. That evening the family buried her four friends. Sachiko’s little brother, Toshi, who was killed by a sharp stick to his head, was dead in her mother’s arms. He also was buried near the four friends.

During our conversation, I learned that Caren was inspired to write about Sachiko after hearing her speak at a Minneapolis ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We talked about Caren’s five trips to Nagasaki to interview Sachiko and her extensive research (evident by the notes and bibliography in the back of the book). Sachiko came to find her own voice because of what she learned from Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King—and her father, who said to her, “This is the only world we live in, Sachiko. Never say evil words; otherwise, we’ll not see peace. Hate only produces hate.”

It has been a long time since I’ve been so moved by a story. The book, although written for young people, helped me to better understand a war I was born into. I would have been about the same age as Sachiko’s little brother, Toshi, when the atomic bombs exploded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When we began our conversation, Caren said she had learned how much we don’t know or remember about that horrible day and how the national narrative we are told is not the only one to examine. “We have to be careful,” she said, “about the way we read our history because there is much controversy over the dropping of the bombs. It is relevant today. We must choose our leaders carefully.” By focusing on the story of one person, Sachiko, a habakusha who was shunned, Caren said she could explore how a child of war finds her way to peace.

“How does one get there?” she said. “How can this help our young people? I had to find the layers. What was happening in her life, the world, the war? I had to explore all the ways one person came to tell this story.” She paused and continued, “I don’t want this to be an apocalyptic story. I want it to be about a child, a story of hope. ”

One of my questions for Caren  related to the name of this blog, “The Joy of Writing.”   “Since I call my blog “The Joy of Writing,” what have been the joys (or not) of writing this book?” I wondered. Our time together ran out before we could talk about my question, but later Caren sent me this note:

It was a pleasure to meet you this afternoon to talk about SACHIKO. I never really answered your question about the joy of writing SACHIKO. The real joy of writing SACHIKO is connecting with others in friendship. I thoroughly enJOYed being with you this afternoon.

Then she added:

I forgot to say—now we have a child’s voice rising up through the three darkest holes of World War II. We have Germany’s Anne Frank and her diary. We have Hiroshima’s Sadako and her thousand paper cranes. And now we have Nagasaki’s Sachiko and her story. I feel in my bones if Anne Frank and Sadako had been allowed to grow to adulthood, they would have become wise peacemakers, like Sachiko, sharing love and hope with the world.

Thank you, Caren Stelson, for bringing Sachiko’s story, this beautiful book of forgiveness and peace, to us.

Sachiko Yasui and Caren Stelson at their first meeting. Nagasaki, 2010

Sachiko Yasui and Caren Stelson at their first meeting. Nagasaki, 2010

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Writing Idea:  No matter what your writing project, try doing research or interviews to connect your story or subject to a larger historical perspective. Another idea: how would you write the story of a difficult time in your life (or another person’s life) for a child you know?

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“When you grow up, remember to tell my story.”  Sachiko Yasui

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

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For the Love of Books

Sometimes I think that my love of books and reading can be a way to avoid writing. It’s so much easier to pick up a book and disappear into another world than it is to pick up my pen and create another world.

Every Sunday, The New York Times Book Review publishes a feature entitled “By the Book” where notable authors and other important people are asked several questions about their current reading. I enjoy the wide variety of answers to questions like “What books are on your nightstand right now?” and “What’s the last great book you read?” Sometimes I wonder how these authors find the time to read so widely and keep up their amazing writing lives at the same time. Maybe they don’t belong to three book groups!

I have to thank these book groups and my writer friends for inspiring me to read books I might not otherwise have chosen. There are also the books for upcoming trips (Hemingway’s A Movable Feast) and books by writers whose workshops I’ll be attending (Kate Moses’s Wintering), not to mention books written by friends (Marge Barrett’s Called: The Making and Unmaking of a Nun). I can hardly keep up.

The books stacked beside me today have given me so much pleasure this summer. As much I love each of them, I’m going to try to put them back on the shelf and concentrate on writing—as soon as I return from my next trip, that is!IMG_0623

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A sampling of my favorites from this summer’s reading:

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

Wonderful exploration of four plants (tulip, apple, marijuana, potato) chosen by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum garden book group led by Toni McNaron, one of my favorite teachers.

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This novel led to one of the liveliest discussions about a book I’ve had in long time. Tears and cheers for chimps!

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Oh, the wonders of reading Jane Austen! This novel gave me so many ideas for the work I need to do on the novel that I’m taking out of the drawer. “Yes, I am going to do that,” she says to herself.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Somewhere along the line I missed reading this classic, which took my breath away. An amazing work of art.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Fun to see what a writer like Anne Tyler does with the original “vinegar girl,” Katherina, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of Shrew.

Called: The Making and Unmaking of a Nun by Marge Barrett

Hats off to my friend, Marge Barrett, for her lovely memoir! So proud of you, my friend. You inspire me to sit down and write!

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In the I-love-to-hear-from-you department: How does your reading affect your writing life? What are you reading this summer?

If (like me) your writing has suffered this summer for whatever reason, try writing three pages a day for the next week in your writer’s notebook. Record your day, your doings, the way the moonlight looks on a July night, your garden as it becomes robust or not, the storm that left you without power for two days, your trip (real or imaginary) to Paris. Three pages and stop. That is enough.

In these stressful times, I hope each of you finds a few hours each week to nurture a rich, creative life—as you seek solace and joy in both your reading and your writing.

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For a taste of Stegner’s profoundly moving prose, here is his narrator Lyman Ward at the end of Angle of Repose:

” ‘What do you mean, ‘Angle of Repose?’ she [Lyman’s estranged wife] asked me [Lyman Ward] when I dreamed we were talking about Grandmother’s life, and I said it was the angle at which a man or woman finally lies down. I suppose it is; and yet it was not that I hoped to find when I began to pry around in Grandmother’s life. I thought when I began, and still think, that there was another angle in all those years when she was growing old and older and very old, and Grandfather was matching her year for year, a separate line that did not intersect with hers. They were vertical people, they lived by pride, and it is only by the ocular illusion of perspective that they can be said to have met. But he had not been dead two months when she lay down and died too, and that may indicate that at that absolute vanishing point they did intersect. They had intersected for years, for more than he himself would ever admit.”

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Also the words on my cup (in the photo):

“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”    (unknown)

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End-of-Year Reading Blitz

One of the pleasures of returning to Sanibel, Florida, where we spend the winters, is visiting the library here and coming home with a huge stack of books to read in the warm days ahead. I’ve given up trying to play golf and tennis. I’ve taken up yoga and walking–and now spend many afternoons and evenings in my chair by the window, reading with my iPhone tuned into Minnesota Public Radio’s classical station. “A winter storm is brewing,” says the Minneapolis announcer. “Expect ten to twelve inches of snow.” It’s almost as if I can be in two places at once: here in sunny Florida and back in snowy Minnesota at the same time.

The books stacked by my chair take me to more than these two places that my physical body now calls home–I should say three, since North Carolina will always be my first home. Right now I’m dipping into books by some of the writers who will be speaking at the 2016 Key West Literary Seminar. These books have taken me from NYC to China and from to Kiev to Montana and Mississippi.

KWLS '16 Writers

KWLS ’16 Writers

In a couple of weeks, my friend Mary and I will make our annual January  pilgrimage to Key West for a delightful feast of literary pleasures. The focus this year is “Short Shorts.” I’ve been reading Thomas McGuane (Crow Fair: Stories), Hilton Als (White Girls), Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans),  Brad Watson (Aliens in the Prime of Their Life) and browsing through books by Daniel Menaker (My Mistake) and Karen Russell (Vampires in the Lemon Grove). So I’m anxious to hear these writers and many others in person, particularly HIlton Als and Gish Jen (Tiger Writing), two of the most thought-provoking writers among those attending.

Yet there is one writer who won’t be in Key West. Her latest book was on the new books shelf of the Sanibel Library, and it is the one I’ve been enjoying the most over the past several weeks:  Shirley Jackson’s Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings.  Shirley Jackson, author of one of the most famous short stories ever, “The Lottery” (1948), was born in 1916, the same year as my mother, so Jackson will be celebrating her 100th birthday this coming year had she not died an early death of heart failure on August 8, 1965, at age 49.

Luckily, besides the many books she published in her short lifetime, she left behind a rich trove of unpublished writings. The new selections in Let Me Tell You (2015) were collected by two of her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt, and bring to readers more of the material found in her archives. Some are serious pieces; some light; some reflect on her life as a writer; many are about her family and children; some are lectures she gave on the craft of writing. In most of the pieces, you can see Jackson’s wicked sense of humor and her interest in the weird, uncanny, mythic elements of life.

One lecture, “How I Write,” contains a single paragraph that sets up how her story, “The Lottery,” came into her head. She writes: “I remember one spring morning I was on my way to the store, pushing my daughter in her stroller, and on my way down the hill I was IMG_9762thinking about my neighbors, the way everyone in a small town does. The night before, I had been reading a book about choosing a victim for a sacrifice, and I was wondering who in our town would be a good choice for such a thing.”

Thus began the kernel for a story that has been read by thousands. Shirley Jackson was simply pushing her daughter in a stroller and thinking about her neighbors and a book she read. She ends this paragraph saying how the story came to be published in The New Yorker and how she received many letters asking how could she ever “think of such a terrible thing.” She says that she was “just thinking about my neighbors, but no one would believe me. Incidentally no one in our small town has ever heard of The New Yorker, much less read my story.”

The importance of this “birth of a story” teaches me a good bit about the writing process:

  • Even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.
  • A flash of inspiration may come in idle moments when I put together two (or more) seemingly unrelated events.
  • So as not to disturb that jolt of inspiration, I can’t worry about where the story/poem/essay/journal entry will end up or how others will react.

Jackson was not thinking about publishing or whether her new story would be good or not. Nor was she concerned about future reactions to her story.

She couldn’t wait to get home to write it.

So enough of this sitting in my chair, reading. I need to put down this book and walk the dog around the neighborhood or clean the kitchen or get cracking on tomorrow night’s dinner party, while letting those writing ideas bang around in my head. Then back to my desk with pen and notebooks!

(P. S. I forgot to mention another great book I recently read and loved:  Euphoria by Lily King. But my favorite book of 2015 was Oliver Sacks’s autobiography, On the Move: A Life.) 

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Writing Idea 

Try taking an ordinary event from your day and kicking it up a notch or two by combining it with something else you’ve observed or you’ve been thinking or reading about.

For example:

In “Here I Am, Washing Dishes Again,” Shirley Jackson tells about how she imagines the lives of the glasses, forks, dish towels, steel wool, floor, curtains, as she cleans the kitchen. She sees the jealousy between her two forks: one with four prongs and one with two.  “My two forks are insanely jealous of each other, and I find that I must take a path of great caution with them. . . .I try to keep them out of their quarrels…but I am always fumbling the delicate balance of power that is all that keeps them from each other’s throats.” She lets her imagination go with this idea, and the short piece lifts off and comes to a revealing ending when she sees herself being flattened and drawn to the magnet that holds the knives in place.

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“One of the nicest things about being a writer is that nothing ever gets wasted. It’s a little like the frugal housewife who carefully tucks away all the odds and ends of string beans and cold bacon and serves them up magnificently in a fancy casserole dish.”
–Shirley Jackson, “How I Write” (from Let Me Tell You)

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Happy holidays to all you writers and readers out there! Here’s to a wonderful, productive 2016!  Stay well.  

Summer and Middlemarch

Here we are nearing the end of July…can it be?  Our California son and his family, who are headed to Ireland for two years, spent this last week with us. We enjoyed many fun days with our four granddaughters, our three adult off-spring and their spouses–plus four dogs! John and I have somehow expanded from a simple pair to a dozen individuals. Going out to eat now together requires a banquet-size table.

Summer twilight on the lake

Summer twilight on the lake

Our soon-to-be Irish family has gone on their way to begin a new adventure. So the house is quiet today and a certain let-down feeling has settled over me as I walk around picking up torn-out pages of coloring books, markers, dog toys, puzzle pieces, and plastic doll dishes. The freezer is full of all the ice cream bars that we didn’t manage to eat, and we have no lettuce. So tonight’s dinner will include an ice cream bar buffet!

Still I have lots to do: preparing for a week-long creative nonfiction workshop with Rebecca McClanahan at St.Olaf College, working on a family memoir, practicing the piano, and reading George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. Now this in itself is a huge undertaking–probably only begun because one of my book groups chose it. But it is making me slow down, way down, as I absorb the details of life in the late 1820s in a small English town, called Middlemarch. I don’t remember reading this novel in my college days, so it is pleasure to dive, or sink, into it now and savor the amazing prose of George Eliot.IMG_7027

People just don’t write this way anymore. I’m not sure readers today would have the patience for the slow pace, the complex sentences, the intrusive narrator. Yet readers in 1871 waited anxiously for the next installation of Middlemarch, the way viewers today anticipate a new season of “Orange Is the New Black.”

I’m also reading  Rebecca Mead’s  My Life in Middlemarch, a perfect companion to the novel.  Mead intertwines her own life and personal history with that of George Eliot as well as with the characters and events of the novel. In doing so, she shows how a single book can illuminate our lives. How often do we immerse ourselves in a book, then return to it at different points in our lives, and then reflect on how it shaped our life or the way we see the world? Such is the power of great literature.

Towards the end of her book, Rebecca Mead spends some time hovering over the last sentence of George Eliot’s novel–a sentence that resonates in my life as I tackle the writing I want to do about my family and especially my mother, Ruth.

Here is the final sentence of Middlemarch:

“But the effect of her being [Dorothea’s} on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 
― George EliotMiddlemarch

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(Non)Writing Idea: So it’s summer–those lazy days (really?) when we have time to read big books and write (or not). Take a few minutes to pause and look out a window. File what you see in your memory bank. Write if you wish–or not. No pressure. Nothing to do. No historic acts. As we faithfully live our hidden lives. As did those before us. It is all so simple.

One more quote from an essay by Eliot: “Love does not say ‘I ought to love’ –it loves. Pity does not say, ‘It is right to be pitiful’–it pities. Justice does not say, ‘I am bound to be just’–it feels justly.” No bright apothegms, George Eliot writes, they leave “little energy for simple emotion”–or for simple living, which summer (with all its comings and goings) is all about.  I hope you’re having a good one!

She loves: Granddaughters at the pool

She loves:
granddaughters at the pool.

 

 

Tulips, Books, Gardens, and Dirt

I’m not much of a gardener. Yet when I return to Minnesota and look out at spring trying its best to happen, I want to help things along. The trees are working hard at their new leaves. They make it look so effortless. Mysterious green sprigs are trying to poke through the sodden mulch in our forsaken (for Florida!) flower beds. So maybe that’s why I think: It’s time to do something with dirt.

Good news! My friend Mary and I signed up for a special garden book discussion group with beloved teacher Toni McNaron. I was a student in Toni’s Virginia Woolf classes at the U way back! The group meets once a month at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

How delightful to talk about books and gardens in the glorious surroundings of the Arboretum–where other people create all that color and order! The tulips were absolutely astounding–announcing to the world: “Here we are. We made it through that bad winter. See how strong and bright we are! Can you believe it?”

Tulips at the Arboretum

Tulips at the Arboretum

So as much as I enjoyed the novel we discussed with its focus on Japanese gardens, I must say that it was the real, in-the-moment tulips that live in my mind. Their stunning display of exuberance rather over-whelmed the small brown Japanese garden tucked beside them. Color!

The book under discussion was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Now if you’re looking for a carefully written novel about Japanese gardens, Malaya during and following World War II, internment camps, tattooing, communist guerrilla warfare, kamikaze pilots, memory and forgetfulness, all entwined around two amazing love stories, then you will enjoy this novel.

I certainly did. It is one that invites re-reading and lots of time to unravel a challenging, non-linear plot. I read it in three versions: Kindle, audio, and paper, but I most enjoyed the paper where I could flip back and forth and write in the margins.

Sam: "Which shall I read? Both!"

Sam: “Which shall I read? Both!”

For our next meeting, we’re reading Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, a collection of  seventy-two alphabetized essays full of practical, personal, and witty musings on topics like “Annuals,” “Earthworms,” “Mazes,” “Longevity,” and “Tulips.” This last short essay was one of the first I read after that lovely meeting with the profusion of tulips waiting outside our classroom door.  IMG_2165

After a long section on tulipomania, the origins of the name tulip, and certain tulip disease, Perenyi writes: “Linguistics and unclassifiable diseases aside, tulips are one of the gardener’s joys and I can’t imagine anyone with even a patch of ground not growing them. Unlike most northern gardeners, I’m not much moved by the first crocus, poking its brave little head up among the dead leaves….the tulips are what I wait for.”

So I’m going to search for Perenyi’s tulip reccomendatons in a few on-line gardening catalogs and order striped ones, Darwins, modern Ottomans, Rembrandts (great names) which follow a magical sequence of spring-time blooming. I’m going to dig down deep into the dirt and plant some tulips. Then sit back and hope!

If the tulips don’t appear next spring, at least I will have satisfied my urge to dig in the dirt.

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P. S. If you want to hear a young woman read “Night,” one of the essays in  Green Thoughts, click here. She makes one mistake: the book was first published in 1981. Eleanor Peyenyi, who passed away at age 91, was born in 1918.

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Writing Jumpstart:

Here are a few gardening quotes. If you feel so inspired, take out your writer’s notebook and write about gardens, tulips, dirt, spring–whatever comes to mind.

To garden is to let optimism get the better of judgment.”                                                    — Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

“Then I went out for two hours late in the afternoon and put in a hundred tulips. In itself that would not be a big job, but everywhere I have to clear space for them. . . . I really get to weeding only in the spring and autumn, so I am working through a jungle now. Doing it I feel strenuously happy and at peace. At the end of the afternoon on a gray day, the light is sad and one feels the chill, but the bitter smell of earth is a tonic.”
— May Sarton, 1912-1995, New England poet, author, and feminist
“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
— Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet, and environmentalist

 

Life-changing Books: Continued

We usually think of life-changing events as precipitating actions in the real world, such as a birth or death, marriage or divorce, but to think about how  written words (especially the words of a work of fiction) can have such an effect, well, that gives great power to the imagination.

Often these life-changing books are those we read first as children. Anne Lamott says that since her childhood, she must have read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time a dozen times.Unknown

A Wrinkle in Time saved me,” she says, “because it so captured the grief and sense of isolation I felt as a child. I was 8 years old when it came out, in third grade, and I believed in it — in the plot, the people and the emotional truth of their experience. . . . the book greatly diminished my sense of isolation as great books have done ever since.”

 

John Irving was a little older when he read Great Expectations, the book that he says changed his life:

“I was 15. It made me want to be able to write a novel like that. It was very visual — I saw everything, exactly — and the characters were more vivid than any I had heretofore met on the page. I had only met characters like that onstage, and not just in any play — mainly in Shakespeare. Fully rendered characters, but also mysterious. I loved the secrets in Dickens — the contrasting foreshadowing, but not of everything. You both saw what was coming and you didn’t. Hardy had that effect on me, too, but when I was older. And Melville, but also when I was older.”

 

Richard Ford says that the book that changed his life and served as the inspiration for his novel The Sportswriter was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.  Ford views The Moviegoer as “a renewing experience” and Binx as a hero “headed toward the light” and “trying find a vocabulary for affirmation, trying to find the institutions in life that will let him like life better and be better at it.”Unknown-1

Ira Glass dedicated a This American Life radio show to  “The Book That Changed Your Life.” (Click on the highlight to hear the program.) This show (which includes a segment by David Sedaris) is a wonderful illustration of the many ways a book can change a person’s life.

So how did hearing Miss Caine read Les Meserables to our seventh grade class change my life? She and the novel were links to another world–a world radically different and far away from a hot classroom in southeastern North Carolina in the fifties, a world with great conflicts and moral issues, a world that explored the nature of love, compassion, justice, revenge and the effects of poverty. Of course, I didn’t think about these great themes at the time. I was just a kid who loved a good story and was happy to avoid diagramming sentences. But when Miss Caine read to us, I left the classroom behind and saw the people and the story in my mind. I was literally lifted out of myself.

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“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
― Emily DickinsonSelected Letters

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Writing Jumpstart: Do you remember being read to? What are you reading now? What do you want to read? Have you read something that calls you into some sort of action or that inspires you to write in a certain way?  Go for ten minutes.

A Book That Changed My Life

A few evenings ago at a lovely dinner party during one of those conversations that move easily from topic to topic (errant fire alarms to parking fines) and place to place (an ATM in Burma to a burly motorcycle officer in Germany), my friend Susan talked about David Brooks’s lecture at the Chautaugua Institute she attended in July. When Brooks asked his students at Yale University about the last time they read a book that changed their lives, they stared at him.

David Brooks, Chautaugua, 8/16/13

David Brooks, Chautaugua,
8/16/13

“You’ve got to understand that we don’t really read that way,” they told him. “We read to get through the class, but the deep, penetrative reading, we just don’t have time for.”

This made me think:  Could I do that? Could I name one book that changed my life? My first challenge was trying to remember all the important books I’ve read over the years. But then it hit me: if a book changed my life, how could I ever forget it?

Finally I did remember one book. And so I wrote the following riff on that book. In a future blog, I hope to talk more about why and how that book changed my life.images

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Miss Caine Reads Les Miserables to Our Seventh Grade Class (April 1955)

There you are, Miss Caine,
the most beautiful woman we have ever seen.
Your dark hair curls almost to your shoulders
and springs up around your face in tendrils
that your long fingers can never tame.
Your pencil skirt pulls across your hips
and a white blouse with a small collar
reveals your long neck. You wear
nylons and black pumps and sit with legs crossed
on your desk. The book is in your lap.

After lunch, we enter your classroom
all sweaty from running around the playground.
Some of us have begun to pair up.
I’m in love with Robert Owens.
My friend Donna Kirby isn’t sure,
but she thinks that James likes her.
Our first dance is in a few weeks.
My mother is making me a pink taffeta dress
with a layer of net over the full skirt.
Last night I turned as Mother measured
and marked the hem with her chalk.

But today as we return from lunch
still smelling like wax paper and milk cartons,
you open the big book and start to read.
We settle into our wooden desks.
Some cross their arms and
lower shoulders onto desk tops.
Miss Caine doesn’t seem to mind.
She is caught up in the lives
of Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette.
French street fighting explodes around our heads
and we know the meaning of the eternal chase
and we know what it means to be an orphan
even though we are as secure as we will ever be.

The bell will ring in three hours.
I will walk home and have peanut butter crackers
and half a small Coke with my mother
as we watch Edge of Night.
But for now, Miss Caine reads
Les Miserables and we will
never be quite the same again.

–Vicky Lettmann (8/19/13)

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Writing Jumpstart: A Book That Changed Your Life. Go for ten minutes.

I enjoy reading your jumpstart writings. So send me one of yours. Please limit to 500 words.  (See contact page.) I plan to publish a few on the site. Thanks!