A book pivots so forcefully on its main characters that we sometimes remember them more than the plot. I begin this post with descriptions of two characters. At the end, you must identify the stories in which they play a leading role. Because it’s a quiz, I decline to name them but instead present them in their quirky glory.
The first is a young woman who eats her morning granola poured over with rum while she talks about her latest romantic conquest. The second is a man who walks around in red lace women’s panties, not because he is gay or bi or trans, but because he likes the silken feeling against his skin. You know these two memorable characters, I’m sure.
Here then in no order at all are some of the book characters I find most memorable.
The Cat from The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. So naughty and so unpredictable, audacious in his red striped hat and lopsided bow tie, the Cat is a trickster who finds all kinds of things to turn upside down and spread throughout the house in flagrant disorder, making a mess that mother will not like. And he chatters endlessly in verse. Who wouldn’t let the Cat into the house on a boring rainy day?
Ramona Quimby from Ramona the Pest and others by Beverly Cleary. Like the Cat, she makes appearances in several other books as well. And like the Cat, Ramona is independent and makes messes along the way to figuring everything out. Everyone gets angry with her at some point but she also creates endless fun, her imagination so inventive that she could give classes on how to think outside the box – except she’d probably neglect to show up for them. Any kid who has to sit in the corner thinks about what Ramona would do – or what Ramona did to get herself sent to the corner. Every parent wants a bit of Ramona in their kids, but just a very little bit.
Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Holden tells his story while in a sanatorium recovering from a mental breakdown. This is a bitter, troubled teenager who rebels against a hypocritical adult world. He takes off for a week in New York City after getting expelled from school. In many ways, he’s just as phony and foolish as everyone whom he despises, an unreliable narrator whose story is suspect. It’s this quality of being so deeply flawed and confused that many readers, especially teenagers, identify with. The scene of him standing at the edge of a cliff in a field of rye, holding back the littler children so they don’t fall over the edge, is tenderly heartbreaking. He sees himself as their protector but he can’t save himself.
Celie, The Color Purple by Alice Walker. In many ways, Celie is the opposite of Holden Caulfield. A poor, uneducated black girl in the South, she doesn’t have the luxury of teenage angst. She’s trying to survive in a world so violent, so unjust that her children, born of rape, are taken from her. She is chattel, beaten and forced to work for the cruel man she thinks is her father. Over the years, as Celie learns to read and speak articulately, we see that she is intelligent and sensitive. With nothing but raw grit, courage, and belief in her own worth, she wrests herself from the man who’s abused her and builds an independent life of friendship and family. Throughout her life, Celie seeks love and finally, deservedly, finds it. She is a noble person even when forced to live as if she is no more than an animal.
Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. A man for all times, a hero for all people, a father for the entire village, standing so high on the pedestal of human decency, it purportedly took Lee herself to knock him off – though I refuse to read Go Set a Watchman. Seen through the eyes of his young daughter, Scout, Atticus litigates for justice at a time that racial prejudice held more highly regarded traditions in Southern society than the Bible. He defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, a defense seen as betrayal to white superiority. In standing for justice, Atticus shows his children how to stay loyal to one’s values while revealing the truth. If you can’t have this man as your own daddy, you’d be pleased if he’d marry you or your kid.
Trudi Montag, Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi. Trudi, a dwarf who lives in a small German village with her widower father during WWII, is also a hero. A gossipy spinster at the beginning of the book, she eventually refuses to bow to Nazi demands for unexamined loyalty. Her position as a perennial outsider allows her to see how they create an atmosphere of fear and hatred by casting people into the role of despised “other-hood.” Trudi hides Jews in her home, along with a network of trusted villagers, always wary of those who pose a danger to her understanding of human decency. But Trudi herself is also cruel, often telling hurtful stories about her neighbors. As she ages and matures, she turns toward her more virtuous side, saving the stories of allegiance to Nazism that other Germans would like to forget, thus becoming the outspoken moral conscience of her generation.
Gollum, The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Who can forget the hideous little creature, Gollum, crouched on the ground in his crooked frog stance, chanting, my Precious? He talks to himself, about himself, in the royal “we” term. He seeks the ring that he lost decades earlier, the very one that the Fellowship of the Ring has vowed to return to its original fire. Having once been a Hobbit, sweet and loyal, Gollum has been co-opted by the lure of the dangerous ring. Twisted and distorted in his body as his soul, he has morphed into a demon in his quest for a thing of evil and consuming beauty. Muttering wistfully for all he’s lost, trapped in sick pursuit, it’s easy to see what Gollum could have been had he remained true to his original nature as the Hobbit, Smeagol. He is a warning to all: some things are better left alone.
Lily, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See. In the early 1800’s in rural China, Lily’s feet are bound in the traditional, excruciating, mutilating ceremony that marks women as valuable property. She is also a laotong, bound in lifelong sisterly friendship to Snow Flower. Unable to ever walk outside again, forbidden to learn to read or write, bound by ancient traditions as tightly as the foot binding cloths that broke their feet, the two girls create a friendship stronger than the bonds of family or marriage. They even learn the women’s forbidden language of Nu Shu, trading poetry with each other secretly written on the folds of a fan that travels between them. Until, that is, Lily believes that Snow Flower has betrayed her, and rejects her old friend for duplicity. It takes a long period of introspection and Snow Flower’s tearful confession before Lily realizes that whatever deceit Snow Flower engaged in, it was not for gain beyond their laotong relationship, but to assure that the sister bond would survive. Decades after the death of her laotong, Lily realizes it was she who used Snow Flower, she who had the richest life, and she who took advantage of the other’s lesser social status.
Some of these characters are physically deformed, some have not realized their birth potential, others have risen against unbelievable odds, and most are outspoken, brilliant, and rebellious. They are memorable even when you can’t recall all the details of their lives, and they stick with you as much as your own history.
Now, the quiz promised at the beginning of this article. Do you remember who the two characters are?
Thought not. They aren’t from any book, they are from my own life, people I knew when I was in college. The woman with the odd breakfast menu spent much of her life buzzed, trying to forget the three rapes she’d suffered, and rum over cereal helped. The man was the boyfriend of one of my roommates. I walked into my apartment to discover him parading around in my brand new lingerie. I screamed. He laughed and told me to calm down, he’d give them back when he was done. I told him not to bother.
They aren’t characters in any of my books yet, but someday they just may be. In the meantime, we’ve all got plenty to think about.