Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘Anthony Doerr’

Just the Facts, Ma’am

And get them straight. Know the difference between stalactites and stalagmites because no one likes tripping over stalactites in a cave – it means they’re traveling bat-like, feet up, and feeling nauseous at being upside down. And if you don’t know the difference between elicit and illicit, you may find yourself punctured by barbs volleyed your way by irritated readers. No one likes reading falsehoods, whether in non-fiction or fiction. People want certain inalienable facts to be correct and well established. Even science fiction should begin here on earth before it spins to the outer edges of the Milky Way.

As a kid I figured a word in print was a word in fact. I’ll always remember the first time I knew that to be wrong. I’d been reading a kid’s book, not one that was famous or remarkable in any way except that it occupied time in my boring life. The main character was a homely girl with few talents who was looking for something to make her shine – the same thing every lonely kid wants. A friend washes homely girl’s long hair and discovers that, wet, her hair is curly. Thing is, wet hair, soaking wet hair, is straight. If curly hair is ever going to hang like iron rods, it’s going to be when the shampoo has just been squeezed out. Curly hair releases its springs as it dries, each tendril winding around its invisible cylinder to make a singular corkscrew among hundreds of corkscrews. I know. I have curly hair. I didn’t trust anything else that happened in the book, and it was one of the last kid’s books I read. (Until I became an adult and realized how outstanding some kids’ books are.) Skepticism isn’t a bad trait to have but how unfortunate to have developed it in an activity – reading – I loved.

A colleague is writing a story that includes a common if potentially dangerous medical condition, one of those events you learn to recognize when taking emergency first aid courses. Once trained, the markers are obvious, the course of action to protect the victim is well established, and the possible outcomes are reliably documented. When her story detoured through a completely inaccurate set of medical events, from onset of crisis to the all-clear sign, I wondered if she was trying to hint at the characters taking control by faking the medical incident in order to confuse the other characters. Discussion proved that the writer simply didn’t know her stuff and made up a scenario that fit her plot. Unfortunately the whole scene threw the book out of kilter and made what was supposed to be climactic, silly. The tone of the book went from thrilling to ridiculous.

One of my books relates a devastating local event that happened in our city when I was a teenager. It forms the backdrop of the story. A very dear friend who lived right next to the event, a huge fire, gave me first hand information based on what she saw, literally right out her window.  She told me things I couldn’t have discovered any other way. But she had one crucial piece of information wrong: the year. I knew the actual year, and it was critical to my story to be accurate. She’d even loaned me the dozen or so saved newspapers with the fire as front page news, the date of the fire on top of every page. It provided a trove of facts and details I’ve incorporated into the story. I chalked up her error and insistence that she was right about the wrong year to stubborn one-ups-man-ship, or to the occasional quicksand of her golden years and her temporal distance from the event. (No, I didn’t argue with her. She was a dear friend and there was no need to point out her one little mistake. I did make it right in my book.)

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the main male character exhibits a gift for building and repairing, later for finding hidden, radios. In the hands of rebels, radio transmissions reveal secret Nazi strategy. Thus conveyed, partisans are scuttling the Axis war machine. Fascinated by the ability of radios to condense time, to breach borders and allegiances, Doerr learned everything he could about their operation, how they’re built, how they can be located, and how they transmit across radio waves. A world of beauty and horror, of innocence and moral redemption, is made palpable through the simple but thorough descriptions of mollusks, birds, diamonds, and radios, all of it dependent on in-depth knowledge of the actual items.

Isabelle Allende is famous for lapsing into magical realism in many of her books, a jaunt into what is physiologically impossible yet essential to the story. In The House of the Spirits, based on historical events in twentieth century Latin America, the violence and abuse of a powerful male figure is juxtaposed by the loving spirituality of the women around him, and eventually leads to his reformation. One woman famously plays piano without lifting the piano lid. The connection to a world outside of science and pragmatism lends a radiant quality that makes the accurately depicted historical events ever more exquisite and horrible and ultimately comprehensible.

The difference between knowing what’s real yet choosing to present what isn’t, and not knowing the difference, is what makes one writer’s works celebrated, the next, criticized. Writers must build on a scaffold of fact and history. We may deviate but before we leap off the beams, best we know the tensile strength of the steel and the likelihood that we will be able to fly. I want to hear my readers gasp as they soar over chasms, to touch rock safely on the opposite side. Or believe they have.



Newsboy painting courtesy: Karol D. Witkowski, and Wikimedia public domain images



A Is for All the Light We Cannot See


Written by Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See is the story of the siege of Saint-Malo, the citadel used by pirates at the farthest edge of north-western France where the sea crashes against its enormous stone battlements. It had survived two thousand years. Yet American military, facing Nazi refusal to surrender their ground advantage, attacked it relentlessly from the air and burned nearly the entire city to the ground before the final rout of Axis power.

The history of Saint-Malo unfolds from the perspective of two teenagers whose trajectory toward each other is so unlikely that even though I knew they would eventually meet, I was startled when they did. Marie-Laure is a young blind girl who lives with her father, a locksmith at the Paris Museum of Natural History. After the siege of Paris, they flee to presumed safety in Saint-Malo, where they stay at the home of her recluse uncle and his devoted housekeeper. Her father has constructed a small wooden model of the city with such meticulous precision that she can find her way around the real town by walking her fingers through the model. Uncle Etienne, emotionally damaged by the Great War, broadcasts science lessons from his treasured ancient radio to the children of France while hiding on the top floor of the house. On his calmer days, Etienne is able to allow a companionable relationship to develop with his niece.

Werner is a German boy who lives with his beloved sister in an orphanage for children whose fathers died working in the city’s coal mines. The boy’s brilliance with mathematics and mechanics makes him a valuable asset to the Nazis and saves him from being forced into the mines. He is sent to a school where the brightest of young German boys are rigorously trained to be soldiers, inured to sympathy for the enemy and for the weak. Conscripted into the army, he distances himself from the horrors of war by concentrating on the pure science of triangulation algorithms to locate the secret radios the French are using to communicate with the Allies.

Von Rumpel is a German officer as sick in mind as he is in body. Assigned to find and confiscate the great treasures of occupied France for Germany, he is in pursuit of the mythical Sea of Flames, an enormous blue diamond with a fire red center that is said to promise everlasting life. Von Rumpel is convinced the rare gem is hidden in Saint-Malo.

The story is told in short chapters that alternate between Marie-Laure and Werner, and occasionally from the point of view of von Rumple. With a fluid chronology unbound to the calendar, it addresses themes of personal determination versus blind obedience, of courage and redemption. It employs the symbols of blindness (what we choose to see; what we refuse; how visual blindness conveys a comprehensive view), culture (music; Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), communication (mysterious and forbidden radio broadcasts; reading Braille; hidden, coded messages), keys and locks (Marie-Laure’s father is a locksmith; keys and locks show up in many places, including the hearts of people), and fire (the flames of rebellious acts against the Nazis, of the red heart of the diamond, and of the burned city.) The most boundless image is of light, what we see, what we imagine, the inner light or darkness of our souls that guide us to our ultimate fate.

I loved the book for many reasons and have read it three times, though the third was not the last. Doerr’s lyrical facility with description and his mastery of relating a complex story engaged me even when reading difficult chapters about reprehensible acts and the consequences of war. He doesn’t romanticize but he does find beauty in unexpected places. Though I knew the outcome of Saint-Malo, I was still surprised by the depth of reflection of Marie-Laure and Werner as they face their circumstances, by details that made vivid every aspect, and by the choices people make under duress.

My favorite line is first spoken through the radio, heard by Werner at Children’s House, “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

Doer wrote the book in present tense, a format I usually dislike, but he is so accomplished a writer I didn’t even notice until I’d read a significant portion. He spent ten years researching and writing it, which included visiting Saint-Malo and other sites mentioned in the book. His intimate knowledge of the places as well as information about radio transmissions, whelks, birds, German mining towns, the German schools for youth during the war, subversive efforts by common citizens to confound the Nazis, and other subjects make reading the book a revelation on every page. Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction as well as other awards for the book. It is a book that haunts and lifts me, reminding me how to remain human.


Other books that were serious contenders for A:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

All Other Nights by Dara Horn

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg

Atonement by Eon McEwan


I look forward to learning about your favorite A fiction books.


Book cover image courtesy Google images and Scribner