Sparked by Words

The Sympathy Vote


Observe Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old hero of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  Oskar’s father was killed in the attack on the Twin Towers, and Oskar himself is just as shattered. Alone, he wanders New York for months, seeking the lock for a key he believes was left him by his father, keeping his profound terror at bay by wearing all white clothes and banging on a tambourine. Oskar is a diminutive child with immense impact. Safran Foer takes poetic license as his due and employs suspension of reality as a given. Yet I found Oskar, grieving and determined, completely believable. I’ve raised two sensitive sons who didn’t always do what was expected or take the easy route. They and Oskar advise me to be thoughtful of others whose condition I may have misjudged through my own harsh point of view.

My oldest grandson, hesitant, cautious, brilliant, and imaginative, could be Oskar. My oldest granddaughter, adventurous, independent, creative, and fearless, could be Oskar. I’ve taught and mentored so many children over thirty-plus years, that I know the quirky kid whose lens is smeared, is the one who sees things accurately. Wearing white symbolically projects peace and innocence, while making noise routs the monsters under the stairs and makes them scrabble to darker corners. I read the book ten years ago and still recall many details, imprinted on me because they resounded with me. I care about Oskar enough to have remembered his story. He’s a sympathetic character.

We identify with sympathetic characters. Against the odds, we love these people. We ache for them, cry with them, wish they would wise up, and hope they prevail by the end of the book. They remind us that to be flawed is to be human, to cower is to yearn, to try to be heroic means sometimes we end up an ordinary schlub.

Nothing ordinary about my next sympathetic character. It’s Death, usually portrayed in a hooded cloak covering his entire body, only his skeleton hand showing around the grip of his curved scythe, perhaps a ghoulish grin on his skull face. We all fear him. He has no mercy nor any compassion for the people he takes with a slash of his scythe, nor for the ones he leaves behind.

But this isn’t the Death in Markus Zuzaks’s The Book Thief. Death is a gentle creature who lifts the soul out of the body and carries it away in his arms. In his words:

I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see – the whole spectrum…It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax…

The smiling teddy bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood. A few minutes later, I took my chance. The time was right.

I walked in, loosened his soul, and carried it gently away.

All that was left was the body; the dwindling smell of smoke, and the smiling teddy bear.

…It kills me sometimes how people die.

This Death is an observer who lingers, one who is haunted by the humans whose lives he changes, by those who are left behind. He connects with the people who don’t even know he’s there.

My mom lives in a residence for those who suffer with memory loss so severe they can no longer communicate in any familiar cognitive semblance. I hope that when my mom’s ravaged body finally lets her go, this is the Death who will come for her and lift her soul gently. Oh, I hope it for myself as well one day. And because this Death is so tender and merciful, I feel kinship with him. What a terrible job he does so well, another sympathetic character.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is on its surface a story of the last generation of Chinese girls whose feet were bound, crippling them but making them desirable brides. Lily and Snow Flower are pledged as laotong, improvised sisters by the incidence of the constellations at the time of their birth. Together they suffer the excruciating pain of the foot binding process. They spend hours locked in the women’s room with each other, and when apart send secret letters to the other, written in a poetic cipher called nu shu, inscribed on the pleats of a fan. Lily eventually realizes that she’s been duped into accepting Snow Flower as her better when it was Lily all along who deserved the most honored position.

Or was Snow Flower’s duplicity meant to protect her from a terrible life while convincing Lily of their equal status? Each of these same-same friends looks in a mirror and sees a lie, but each also sees deception where perhaps there was only a wretched social condition thrust upon them by centuries of cultural restrictions so bizarre that little girls’ feet were broken to make them attractive to men. Bound feet, bound lives, secrecy, and imposed social status enslave the girls while their fan reveals their deepest longings.

I kept a diary as a kid, I keep a journal now, and I write stories that expose aspects of my life. Couched as fiction, you’ll never know when I dissemble or lie or if I tell the truth. I’ve had best friends and left some of them behind, painfully, when the relationship changed too much for us to bear. I’m not always honorable, but nearly always beset by flaws. Noble and damaged, Lily and Snow Flower are both sympathetic characters. Were someone to use me as a model for their book, I hope I’d be viewed as tenderly as these laotong.

Books about sympathetic characters are readable because we find ourselves on the pages, sometimes with a guide to redeem our own sorry selves.

See you on the pages in between.



Angel sculpture courtesy Google images, Pixabay







Comments on: "The Sympathy Vote" (30)

  1. A very tender post filled with insight and compassion.


  2. Your final thought, Shari, is exactly right. I think that’s why testimonials work so well at reaching folks. We need to know we aren’t alone and someone else shares an experience. Great write, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Couched as fiction, you’ll never know when I dissemble or lie or if I tell the truth.” Spoken like a true writer 🙂


  4. As a writer (who’s also super sensitive) I suffer when people don’t sympathize with my characters because I feel they wouldn’t sympathize with me. What a lonely feeling.

    Monday blues, I guess.


  5. “quirky kid whose lens is smeared”–that’s my son! He never fails to amaze me. Good article.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s fascinating to me Shari that we find “ourselves” reflected much more easily in the “characters” of books, plays and movies than we do in living and breathing people.

    Perhaps it is too close, too frightening, when we see our strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears face to face. Perhaps books and the like give us enough distance and privacy to recognize who we are.

    Thanks for another thought provoking read.


  7. What is it about our lives that make us want to write about them, yet keep the truth of them hidden? Sure, we do not want to be ridiculed, hated, or worse, which are all good reasons to hide truth through fiction. However, I know that there is probably an underlying reason for the deception I put in my writing, yet cannot quite put my finger on it. How about you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I want my stories to be more universal than just about me. Sometimes I’m not writing about me but people I know. I don’t want to expose myself to lawsuit. Maybe I simply lack imagination.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I, mostly, write about people I have known but twist things around so much so no one knows who I am writing about. As I stated, I know I do this because I try to protect myself. Yet, I feel there is another reason lurking in there someplace. Maybe it is a way to make the story universal, as you mentioned. But that is just a maybe.


      • Yes, yes, and yes. At least I think so.


  8. Great one
    Brilliant composition
    Visit mine


  9. Sharon, these are the most heartfelt book reviews I’ve read and you enhance the books by bringing in your personal experiences. Your grandchildren sound wonderful and I understand how Oskar won such a place in your heart that the book lives with you ten years later. I’ve now ordered this book and look forward to reading it soon…from your description I know it will be very special.

    I read The Book Thief a few years ago and found it extraordinary and not at all what I expected…a true classic. I remember you talked about your mother before with such warmth and love…your words about her end must be impossibly hard to write and fathom but again written with overwhelming consideration. Maybe this is the way for all of us to go..with our souls lifting gently.

    Your last review is another one that I now long to read and have read many similar ones years ago…going on my wish list! Yep, see you in the pages in between where fiction and reality merge! ❤️


    • Thank you so much for your reply, Annika. When I started writing reviews about my favorite books, I wanted to approach them differently from the typical reviews on the Internet. Each book selected meant something deeply personal to me, so I adopted the goal of writing how they affected me, not only when first read, but as continuing inspiration. I think you’re the first person who actually noted this. Please let me know what you think about any of the books you read because of my reviews. I hope you also love Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

      On Monday, September 11, I’m starting a new series, one post a week. It’s about Alzheimer’s disease and how this illness affects the families who are left behind. My mom’s struggle is the inspiration, and I hope my love for her will echo in each post. Enjoy your day – which I think is half over, you being on the other side of the pond.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m with you Sharon that the death that is gentle and caring is the one that I hope to meet at the end. I can understand you writing about yourself and probably others you know yet disguising it as fiction because you probably conflate events, add fictional elements and maybe add places and people to events that weren’t there – but the fact that you are writing what you know gives your writing authenticity and the message you are hoping to impart becomes stronger and has greater impact because of this sense of truth.
    I am currently reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (based on a recommendation from yourself) and I am thoroughly enjoying it.


    • Folks nearly always ask if the person who has passed had a gentle death. It’s a plea for that to be true as much as a genuine question. Zusak’s book presents death in a remarkably compassionate guise. BTW, Zusak is Australian and lives in Sydney.

      Snow Flower is Lisa See’s best book, but I’ve enjoyed her other books as well. I’m glad to know you’re liking it also.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. jimenobaeznarvaez said:

    Snow Flower is Lisa See’s best book, but I’ve enjoyed her other(a) books as well.


  12. […] Flower and the Secret Fan  by Lisa See was a recommended read by blogging friend Sharon Bonin-Pratt. who reviews it in the post linked here. I found this an informative glimpse of life for a middle […]


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