Posted in Novels

Family Failings

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Why is it so easy to love our family, but so hard to like them?—–Daphne Moon (Frasier)

On my bookshelf, I have devoted an entire section to books I haven’t read. Unfortunately, I am one of those bibliophiles who compulsively buys 3 books for every 1 finished, so the section simply grows and grows as time passes. When choosing what to read, I have a tendency to base my choice on the amount of free time I have, so the bigger, longer books ends up sitting in this To-Read section for endless months. Intending to break that trend, I challenged myself to pick up Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” despite its hefty size.

Slogging my way through this coming-of-age novel, set in the early 20th century, I became intrigued at its intricate portrait of the Gant family, with all of its trauma and affection, its personality and its pain. Unsurprisingly, it is not a particularly happy story. Then again, the number of us who could claim to have enjoyed a “happy” childhood is undoubtedly small. The children of such families may spend the rest of their life burdened by the mystery of their early life’s unhappiness. 

Don’t get me wrong. After many years of hard work and the help of good friends, I’ve made my peace with the struggles of my childhood. I place myself thoroughly in the camp of individual responsibility when it comes to an adult’s quality of life. I am not the “but my childhood was bad, so I’m excused of my destructive behavior” kind of person. Still, present-day events can easily trigger deep, hidden emotions in me that I thought I had already worked through. And, once again, I’m obsessed with the same questions. What went wrong? Why? How can the people you depend on to care for you hurt you so deeply? Is love still possible, even after the horrible has happened?

“Look Homeward, Angel” explores those questions. With the Gant family, Wolfe introduces us to a husband and wife, their two daughters, and their five sons, including the main protagonist Eugene and his favorite brother, Ben.  The Gant patriarch thunders across the page with his devastating alcoholism and regular rage attacks. The mother nurtures an fixation on accumulating money, land, and buildings. To cope, most of the children take refuge in perpetuating the dysfunction, by either imitating the drunkenness or resorting to martyrdom for the family.

Benjamin and Eugene Gant seem to be the only children who long to rise above it. The youngest son, Eugene, is the primary focus (he is a loose depiction of his author).  His self-satisfied bookish personality quickly earned my irritation, but that’s probably because I identified so closely with him. It soon became obvious that education and literature saved him from his environment, as it had saved me. Yet, it was Ben Gant who slowly won the status of my favorite character. I enjoyed his proud dignity, his sardonic silence in the face of his outrageous family.  Being an older child, he could not benefit from the education opportunities his youngest brother enjoyed, but he still possessed an “aristocratic” nature that hid his lone suffering. 

Interestingly, the only time Ben spoke up about his parents’ failings was to defend Eugene’s life prospects, not his own. Their mother’s penny-pinching led to both physical and emotional neglect, but Ben could not suffer this in silence. Of course, the good-natured woman never does anything explicit to harm her children. Yet, her life’s preoccupation with money subtly hinted to them that she cared more about it than their well-being.

Unfortunately, when people close to you don’t take care of you, you often don’t take good care of yourself. One of the most harrowing moments in the novel occurs when Ben’s contracts an illness that is exacerbated by how poorly he had been watching his health. Tellingly, he refuses to see his mother during the worse period of his sickness. Her concern, her finally understanding him as a person, comes too late, and she’s shattered by his rigid rejection of her belated care.

Eugene clearly sees his mother’s failings, too.  Despite his special place as the youngest, by the end of the novel he has seen his share of domestic brawls, unnecessary monetary deprivation, the shame of his boarder-house living. Still, realizing how deeply she’s failed Ben, their mother almost pleads with her youngest son, “We must try to love one another.” Despite his strong attachment to Ben, Eugene pities his mother’s position. He takes on the role of a maturing adult by trying to reconcile his love for his parents with the blatant fact that they failed him and his siblings so completely, so fundamentally.

Perhaps this is the task of all maturing individuals. Far beyond the normal struggles between children and parents, sometimes a mother or a father raises their children in environments detrimental to their well-being, whether physical or emotional. Distress can linger far into the future. Later, when forgiveness, assistance, or even renewed relationships with parents present themselves, adult children may feel tempted to respond with anger, outrage, and resistance. Eugene Gant’s mother suggests a merciful alternative: love and understanding, even when the child may rightly feel betrayed by the people who should’ve love them the most.

Parents are human, so it’s tempting to blame them for all of the evils we face. On the other end, it would be naive to claim that any indifference, neglect, substance abuse, or even physical abuse has no effect at all. Somewhere in the middle lies another solution. Understanding our parents as people, with the same limitations, scars, and faulty societal education that we’ve all undergone, helps us to begin to make sense of our past. And maybe even choose love and forgiveness in the future. 

How have you reconciled your childhood with your present relationship with your parents? Do you have any favorite fictional families that reminds you of the joys and troubles of your own family?

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Posted in Novels, Poetry, Writing Reference

The Mind of the Artist

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On a long plane ride to Atlanta, I finally found time to catch up on a writing reference I’ve been trying to finish. In preparation for the novel contest in November, I’ve been studying the basics on plot, characters, dialogue, and point of view. One of my favorite aspects of studying writing is the many top-notch authors that the books sample. In one fell swoop, I can discover new authors and remember why I appreciate the ones I already know.

On the point-of-view chapter, William Faulkner was referenced, of course. As anybody would know from reading this blog, I’m a pretty big fan of the king of Southern Gothic. In particular, the book talked about his novel “The Sound and the Fury,” but my mind instantly brought up another great one, “As I Lay Dying.” Faulkner’s mastery of point-of-view techniques in that latter book has always struck me because its power revolved around a disturbingly quizzical character, Darl Bundren. Not only is he responsible for the majority of the narrative, but he also represents the mind of an artist, a writer, in particular.

I had been thinking about this a great deal, especially after a recent discovery of John Milton’s “Il Penseroso.” I’ve even written about it on this blog several times. Our culture has a deep and long-lasting trope on the image of the Romantic artist. They are usually eccentric, isolated, dressed in dark clothes, roaming the woods at night, and scribbling furiously into notebooks or drawing pads. And let’s not forget the most important and perhaps most dangerous characteristic…they are usually melancholy at best, outright psychologically disturbed at worse. (For the first part, you can sometimes substitute mathematical or scientific genius, which would satisfy most people’s preconceptions, but the second half almost exclusively belongs to writers, painters, musicians, actors). Artists carry the burden of their culture’s emotions and experiences, and boy, do they show it. As the story goes, it wears on them until they goes completely insane or end their lives. Before they get there, though, they are also horrendous company at the dinner table.

Of course, they would rather be loitering under the stars somewhere, waiting for inspiration to strike, trying to make sense of it all, trying to solve a specific human problem that plagues them and ultimately has no solution.

This is the Darl Bundren of the novel. He’s a character every reader trusts because he is an objective point of view. He sees and hears everything, even things he shouldn’t technically be aware of. Yet, in the world of the novel, he is known for being quiet and even shiftlessly lazy about the place, which leads to the discomfort of the people around him. They think he’s strange because he sees through everyone and everything, but without actively participating in any of it, which makes him a great narrator but a poor social being (i.e. inadequate brother/son/productive member of society). Although he is a failure as a human being, he’s a great writer; a critic attributes to him the mind of an artist because of his poetic ability to paint scenes and understand their deeper significance.

Of course, he “goes crazy” at the end, and we realize that his superb narrator brain was simply a elaborate mask covering deep layers of emotional and psychological pain, suppressed feelings of abandonment, anger, jealousy, and obvious grief from his mother’s rejection of him and her death.

The theme here seems to be that poetic genius stems from psychological conflict, or that damage somehow makes an artist more observant, more intuitive, more perceptive. It’s a cultural trope, so it must be correct, right?

Who knows?

I think I’ve been an unconscious member of the melancholy poet club. I’ve had enough irritating reminders from work colleagues to smile more in the middle of a lunch-time rush when I’m lost in thought, trying to figure out a huge existential issue. Perhaps I’m pondering over serious aspects of our daily lives and I carry an air of pensive sadness, but am I unhappy when I rush away at the first moment to write down what I’ve seen and heard, what I’ve learned? I can be a fulfilled person without smiling all of the time. But to be completely honest, the necessity of psychological trauma, depression, or mania is not a prerequisite to art either.

Artists share their unique sensory experiences of the world (their unique minds). Perhaps it seems more romantic if their genius is accompanied by some fantastical story of their poor, poor lives. What do you think? Do you believe that severe circumstances not only influences how writers think (i.e. differently from the rest of the population), but also produces good art?

Posted in Novels

When Stream Meets Stream…

I recently watched a fictional movie about one of my favorite composers: Frederic Chopin. The movie introduced me to George Sand, the French authoress/colorful character. I decided to read one of her novels to discover if she was only the 19th century version of a celebrity, or if she actually had some grit.

The book was “The Master Pipers.” I was pleasantly surprised at her talent, especially at her piercing insights on human nature. Sand presents us with beautiful young people, falling in love and finding their passion in life. We follow the adventures of the shepherdess-type Brulette and the mule-driver Huriel as they fall in love, then we meet the musical genius Joseph, whose ambitious drive prevents him from being able to connect with anyone on a non-egotist level.

As I followed Brulette and Huriel maturing in order to be worthy of each other’s love and contrasting that with Joseph’s eventual fate, not only could I not put the story down, but I also ran face first into an interesting conundrum:

How do we become better people? What makes us give up the egocentric worldview of our youth and transform to empathetic, productive adults who can sustain satisfying relationships?

How about my story for an example?

It was only after I fell in love that I was introduced to myself.

The memories return to comfort and amuse and astound me eight years later. I felt a connection with another human being and it made me realize my own existence. I remember him through that old fog of non-living. I walked pass him every day and I watched him perk up when I came around and I experienced my own heart palpitations, my own grounded mood lifting. It was astounding because before that I felt absolutely nothing. Week after week passed. Month after month. And I wondered why I couldn’t speak to him. “I must be shy,” I concluded. I had never considered myself as shy before, but it was deeply accurate. In fact, it went even deeper than that. 

I realize now that after people live through emotional trauma, years of unconscious emotional numbing can plague them. Sadly, it can become so pervasive that it turns into a way of life. It is as if they have shut down. During that period, they can unthinkingly harm themselves and other people repeatedly, because they had been injured and had not dealt with it properly.

And I was one of those people. My life had been painful and I had shut down. Then, I met a man and I woke up. I saw myself. I experienced myself as a person. I told myself: “I must be shy.” So, I went to the bookstore and grabbed a book about shyness. I was determined to overcome it so that I could talk to a man I loved. 

If you are rolling your eyes right now, I ask you to stick with me. I am the first to concede that romantic love should not (and probably cannot) be a permanent stimulus to sustain real change. For example, that particular romance did not survive for several hilarious reasons. Yet, I was determined to learn about myself and heal myself, until I had worked through my grievous issues. Now, eight years later, I like to think that I am an emotionally healthier person than I was back then. Even now, the goal of making my life and the lives of those around me better influences the personality changes that I decide to work on.

So, it leads to a pertinent truth about humans: Love makes us want to change, want to be a better version of ourselves, in order to retain and please our love objects.   

Eye-rollers, this love does not have to be romantic; it can be love for your family or your friends. Many people contribute their growth to the desire not to hurt their loved ones anymore. Many people credit their improvement with the support of family or friends who wanted better for them, who expected more from them.

What I loved about Sand’s book was that the two main characters were not previously bad people who went through a complete transformation to become angels. They were regular people who battled a bit selfishness, vanity, and immaturity. Yet, through the help of good friends and the power motivating force of mutual love, they were able to grow up and be what each other needed.

It’s a fundamental truth that relationships help us to grow as individuals.  When a stream meets a stream, a flowing river appears. At least, that’s the ideal…

Either way, I highly recommend George Sand’s novel. I eagerly await reading more from her.

Posted in Novels

The World’s Greatest

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Once again, I find myself lost in the depths of a great story. For the second time in my life, I’ve picked up Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. My first attempt didn’t end well. Not only was I bored by the character Levin’s part of the story, but I didn’t have any deep emotional connections to the other integral parts. Years later, I have the help of life experiences. All of my romantic triumphs and woes created a place of empathy in me for the story. I realized how balancing Levin and Kitty’s sections were to the plot. I am now completely enthralled.

I’ve stated before how maturity helps a reader appreciate literature better. I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood, but I find that I am a completely different reader as I age. For one thing, I have a compulsive urge to research what others have written about whatever interesting book I’m reading. In the midst of reading Anna Karenina, I continually encounter the fact that it’s considered one of the best books in the world.

I must confess: those prolific “100 Greatest Books” lists have always aroused my interest. On one level, I’m interested in how many of them I have read. On another, I like to argue with the lists, shaking my head in disbelief that one book was rated higher than another or that a certain book was listed at all. The biggest conundrum I fall into, though, is the question of what makes a book great in the first place and who gets to determine that?

When I scroll to the bottom of whatever webpage, I notice that many of the lists claim that they only poll literary experts, scholars, authors, professors, you know, people who know their stuff. Of course, there are the reader polls, but serious lists tend to ignore those, fearing the appearances of the occasional Twilights or Harry Potters that might skew the field. In some ways, I agree with this take, but in another, I am a bit wary. Not every book is great because some smart person said so. And there are many books out there, I am sure, that are absolutely genius, and no one ever mentions those.

How about we come up with our own criteria, huh? I’m sure that the readers of my blog have their own standards when it comes to reading, and we must keep these in mind, even when we are perusing what intelligent scholars say we should read. Here are mine:

1) Characters: The people who populate the stories I read must be believable. They must be well-rounded, easily identifiable, realistic people. Of course, there are the rare exceptions to this rule, especially depending on the genre (for example, adventure stories don’t spend a lot of time expositing the psychological background of their hero). Still, they must be likeable and authentic. I like to like the person I’m reading about, even see a piece of myself in them. (Jane Eyre is my muse for the moment.)

2) Setting: The location of the action can become a character in itself. A great story takes the time to lay out the places where the characters move, talk, live and die. One of my sisters teased me that she couldn’t get through a Thomas Hardy novel because of his pages-long exposition on the heaths of England. Yet, it’s necessary. Wuthering Heights would not have the same power if Emily Bronte did not create the world around the characters that mirrored the turmoil of the story.

3) Plot: Some people would argue that the plot makes a story. In fact, most beginning writer courses drill it into students that the question, “What happens next?” will either make or break a story, depending on how a writer creates the sequence of events. In normal speak, how many of us have been so engaged in a novel that we cannot put it down, even if we have somewhere to be, or a certain strict bedtime, not to mention other homework/housework/secular work that we should be during? For me, I think of anything Dostoevsky has written, especially those scenes between the main character Raskolnikov and the detective, Porfiry, in Crime and Punishment.

4) Theme: In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of a good story is the overarching “take-away”. A good story does not only entertain the reader, but it also educates them about the inner-workings of the world around them. A good story reveals, discusses or shows something important about humanity, the world, our existence. In William Faulkner’s Light in August, we’re shown how racism rips society apart, both the perpetrators and the victims. We learn how society treats outsiders. We learn how we lock up our true selves from those around us and even our own consciousness. Most great novels shine a bright torch on some facet of existence that the secular world endeavors to keeps hidden.

5) Dialogue: Probably one of the hardest ones to master, but a great story pulls it off: how do real people actually talk to each other? The trick is, real people and fictional characters hardly ever say what they mean or mean what they say (which is not the same, according to Alice in Wonderland). A good scene of dialogue says so much and so little, revealing little gems of insight on situations and characters that a reader could never get otherwise. Irish author Elizabeth Bowen’s novels will have you perusing scenes again and again trying to understand what her characters are trying to hide, what farce they’re trying to perpetuate, and the horrible failures of communication that takes place.

6) Craft: The last is the best. A great story contains a certain je ne sais quoi that shrouds the book, because of a writer’s genius in their command of the language. The way their sentences can wrap around your tongue and release a flood of images in your brain. Their special syntax, the poetry of their sentences, their sense of pacing and suspense, their knack for humor. Their profound insight into the soul of a human. It is often of the sort that you cannot help but close the book and feel changed, and the world suddenly receives its wonder and beauty again. This quality is unquantifiable, but every sincere reader knows what it is. I think of James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, a wistful tale about family, art, human weakness, and human hope.

These are my criteria for what makes a book great. What are your “greatest” books? And what determines its “greatness” in your eyes?

Posted in Novels

Paging Doctor Bennet

What prescription does Elizabeth Bennet have for me?
What prescription does Elizabeth Bennet have for me?

Maturity, to many, is ultimately the realization that there’s a world outside of yourself. Sometimes that outside reality can be sharply different from what we think it is, which prompts a range of reactions from slight annoyance to nervous breakdowns.

Hmm…but assuming we keep our sanity, there’s something to be said about integrating different viewpoints into ourselves. We become more whole, more rounded, even a bit more dynamic. Yet, this idea can seem hard to implement for certain people. Why?

Well, if you’re like me, there are probably huge aspects of yourself that are not the “ideal” according to our western society. For a culture that appreciates intelligence and creativity, there is not always a market for what usually accompanies those qualities, like a temperament that is more quiet, reflective, observant, and sensitive. Although the members of our society might have a lot to contribute when it comes to art, music, writing, even relationships, they sometimes receive a lot of flak for not being more outgoing, more quick-on-their-toes in conversations, more talkative and outwardly energetic.

Have you noticed that?

So, of course, here comes the “counter-culture” with their blaring horns, telling us ‘to be proud of your introversion’, and ‘don’t let anyone change you.’ And that’s good, trying to give people self-esteem when society doesn’t really value them. Yet, it can cause people to get locked in certain behaviors and stereotypes when they can learn a lot from the other side of the table.

This is maturity, people. When you can be proud by who you are, and still realize that your dominant personality can be improved and modified by it’s complete opposite. Within reason, of course.

I began thinking a lot about this when I sat with my younger sister one day. She was watching that abhorrent reality show, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” (trust me, this is a rare time that I will mention such pop nonsense). Quite innocently, she mentioned to me that our family reminded us of them, because they were all sisters and there are four sisters in my family. Seeing that my sister is a bit of a diva, I realized that she was more impressed with their fashion sense than anything else, but I protested that there had to be better role models for us.

I would say, we are more like Jane Austen’s Bennets. Elizabeth Bennet, in particular, drew my attention. What a literary marvel she is! She is not an unattractive woman, but most of the emphasis rests on her personality, her intelligence, her wit, her understanding…her humor. She was definitely an extrovert.

Now, before my male readers go running for the hills at mention of the Kardashians and the Bennets, the point is the power literary role models can have for us. These are well-written characters who possess some pertinent aspects that we ourselves are lacking.

I don’t know, the last couple of years of my life have been tough. Sometimes, you enter a period of your life when everything seems to be falling apart and you have no idea of who you are and what you should do. Still, I think a bit of humor, a bit of stubbornness, could’ve really helped me. I tend to take things a bit too seriously, but even the most serious issues in the world can be lightened by a playful attitude, an inner confidence that everything is going to be alright. I thought of Elizabeth Bennet. What would she do? Probably laugh and dig her heels in the ground.

Maturity: realizing that sometimes the way you handle things is not always the best way, then trying something new.

So, I try to inject a bit of humor in every situation now. I try not to take things so seriously. I don’t romanticize the ‘brooding artist’ bit as much anymore. Life should be enjoyed every now and then. That’s what I learned from Ms. Elizabeth Bennet. She was like a doctor, evaluating exactly what was wrong with my outlook on life and prescribing a cure.

Is there any literary character that you admire even though you found they were your complete opposite?

Posted in Novels

Dickens is My Funny Friend

Friendship

“Everyone has to be a snob about something,” I said in conversation to one of my friends. We were discussing the merits of different brands of coffee, along with various people we knew who went to great lengths and dollars to attain their high standards of the drink. She, not a serious coffee drinker, didn’t get it.

The conversation led on to people being snobs about clothing and shoes, food, music, cars, art, etc. The list continues, but the important thing is: snobs are able to discern the nuances of their area while the rest of us are content with the cheaper versions.For the moment, the snob feels slightly important at their deeper knowledge and expertise, without taking into account that the other parties probably couldn’t care less about it.

I wondered if I was a snob about anything.

You might snicker, because we know that self-reflection hardly ever yields true criticism. But I guessed the existence of this blog highlighted that I am a book snob.

Case in point: While getting to know a great friend of mine, we soon realized that we were both avid readers. Our delight grew as we continued to name the typical favorites: Jane Austen, the Brontes, even the Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. At some point, she told me how she was presently engrossed with the new “Divergent” series. I stopped dead. The dream was over. Chuckling about it in my mind, I concluded that she had suddenly loss all credibility. “Would you like to read it when I’m done?” She asked me. I think I could’ve answered with absolute certainty that I could spend my entire life without ever cracking the cover (or Kindle) on “Divergent” or anything like it.

Alright, I know that I am a book snob. I prefer heavier, artsier, more meaningful fare when I read. Many people read to be entertained, but I read to learn, to marvel, to be shocked, to understand, to grieve, to rejoice, in addition to being entertained. So I have a bit higher standards (not knocking you “Divergent” or “Hunger Games” or whatever fans out there.) If I want quick plot, quick character, quick action, I can go to see a movie. If I am going to make a solid investment of time and energy on a creative work, it has to mean something.

So, instead of discussing how one becomes a coffee snob, or a social snob, or a clothes’ snob, let’s ask, “How does one become a book snob?”

Maybe I can explain my path. It was simply to save my life.

When the world fails us at a young age, disaster can be diverted by several specific means. Many will agree that the most optimal situation is an adult (at least one) who cares enough to bring you through it. When that doesn’t occur, the next best thing is to find a friend or two who understands you, shows you who you are, reveals to you new things. Sometimes that doesn’t happen either, or your friends are just as lost as you are, so they take you down a dark way towards destruction.

I was saved by my love of reading. I found friends there, good people, you know, the people who wrote the books and the people they wrote about. Or if they wrote about bad, lost people, I found I was not alone and I shared in the writers’ indignation, their sensitivity, even their joys. I think of Shakespeare’s language that touched my young heart, not to mention his human insights. I think of Hardy’s fatalistic plots, his jaw-dropping tragedies. Oh, I can’t list them all, and all of the new ones I’ve discovered over the years! They became friends to me. They made me realized that I was not alone. They made my life various, interesting, special.

Oh, I’ve got “real” friends now, but I cannot forget what sustained me through a dark period of my life. And I still consider them friends, because of the influence they can still wrought upon me.

As I was carrying around a book of critical essays on “Faulkner,” one of my workmates who is also an avid reader commented that he was depressing. After amusedly reflecting on her statement, I decided that for all of my snobbery I do read many dim novels, which doesn’t always reflect well on my mood. I’m not one of those people who has to be happy all of the time, but I do spend the great majority of my hours brooding on the meaning of life and the reason for so much suffering in the world.

Ha, so just like one takes a break from his moody friend to cheer up with his goofy friend, I decided that it was time that I picked up Charles Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop.” And, boy, what a great time I’m having. I’ve loved Dickens since childhood for his beautiful prose, but the funny thing is, I would really concentrate on his discription in my intense manner, when I would be suddenly shocked by humor, a sudden line that catches me off guard, and my spirits  lift right off the ground. The power of a good friend.

Oh, I already know how it ends, you naysayers, but you get the point. Now, what about you? Are you a book snob? If so, how did that come about?

Posted in Novels

Cynics Are The Biggest Softies

Gaines

Recently, I read a post where a couple of experienced bloggers explained what made them continue to read certain books. Others they would abandon for various reasons, but some held them to the end. It made me consider why I choose to finish certain books, and some I toss backward right in the middle of them.

I must identify with the protagonist. I must sense in their strengths and weaknesses their humanity, and therefore my own. I must leave a book knowing more about the world and myself. The protagonist doesn’t have to be anyone who anything like me in physicality, race, gender, age, or culture. I must, only, see me when I read; I must see us all.

I recently read a short novel by Earnest J. Gaines called “A Lesson Before Dying.” I don’t know if there’s something about first-person narratives that aids our identification with the main character, but I felt immediate recognition with Grant Wiggins. Why? He is not your typical good guy.

The novel centers on this black elementary school teacher in the poor South during the oppressing Jim Crow days. A big case comes up: one of Grant’s acquaintances (Jefferson) gets caught up with the bad crowd and ends up the only one alive after a failed robbery attempt and a shoot-out. Naturally, the all-white jury finds him guilty of murdering the white store owner, although he was innocent. and he is sentenced to death. This is all business as usual, though. The real kicker comes from Jefferson’s state appointed lawyer, who claims that Jefferson should be set free because he knows no better than a pig and it would be wrong to kill an ignorant pig, right?

We’re talking about a human being here. We realize that there was not only something wrong with the legal system back then, but also the prevailing mindset of an entire generation of Americans (or pick any culture that dehumanizes others because they are different). So, Grant’s auntie and Jefferson’s grandmother tries to convince Grant Wiggins to teach Jefferson that he is not a stupid animal, but a man, before he dies. A hero would’ve taken on this assignment with courage and gusto, but Grant Wiggins is not a hero. He’s a cynic. He wants nothing to do with any of it.

That’s what got me.

Grant lived in a world where idealism could not thrive. As a teacher, as a young black man, he’s witnessed generations repeatedly fall into the same death-courting traps. No sign of relenting appears on the horizon. A strong, powerful system prevented his people from rising above their abject state, and he watched his people flounder in it. Once again, another type of man would’ve found the impetuous to fight the system, or at least do what he could to help the individual people around him. Not Grant. He’s over-educated, unhappy, frustrated, simmering with resentment, completely insensitive to the needs and desires of the very people he cares about.

He was human. It’s what happens to us when we really believe in something, when we really want something, when we want to correct a prevailing injustice, and we can’t. We are hurt. We stop caring. We become self-centered, sarcastic, cynical. The truth is, though, the worse we become reflects how much we initially cared. The point of this novel, then, was not so much the education of Jefferson (who ends up the real hero of the novel) but the education of Grant, and his getting his concern, love, and humanity back.

Cynicism is not, then, a position of strength; it is a scared, defensive position. It is not courage; it’s diametrically opposed to courage. The hurt person becomes afraid to care too much, afraid to be engulfed by the pain of fighting for a cause that will fight you back, make you bleed. So, what’s the cure? It begins, Gaines seems to show us, with trying to teach or convince others of some truth that you’re struggling to believe, that you’ve given up on.

Perhaps it works even when the other person does not respond. I tried the cure. I was attracted to a person who I believed was just like me: hurt, defensive, cynical. Even now, I believe that we loved each other on some level. I didn’t trust relationships, though. Growing up with the emotional dearth that I did, I initially had no hopes. But I begin to think, if I could just convince him that it was possible to trust again then maybe I would begin to believe, too. He could not respond. I was disappointed, but I realized that I had grown. I believed again. It will still be a long, hard road, but I would make it.

Even though I have moved past our relationship, I don’t blame him for not responding. I respect the hurts of others. I only pray that one day he feels the hope and happiness that I feel now that I’ve let go of cynicism and embraced courage and empathy.

What about you? What qualities of your favorite characters have you identified with?