Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘magical realism’

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

 

 

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R is for The River Midnight

Time grows short at the end of century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which…Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future. But shh, we can’t talk, now. The story is about to start.*

Thus opens the curtain on Lilian Nattel’s The River Midnight, a grand tale about the fictional Jewish shtetl (little town) of Blaszka at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a year of ritual and miracle, of friendship and betrayal, of yearning and fulfillment. Also the lifetime of a Jewish community surviving the struggles of existence on the spiked tail of Russian-occupied Poland.

At the heart of this story are four vilda hayas, the young wild girls with dreams of freedom, love, and the future. Hanna-Leah, Faygela, Zisa-Sara, and Misha run to the woods outside the village to dance, sing, collect wild mushrooms, and share secrets, untamable as teenagers everywhere. As they grow up they accept their places in the community, each with an outlook reflecting her position.

Hanna-Leah, a talented cook who always does what is right, marries the butcher but is unable to bear children. She is envious of her best friend, Faygela, the would-be intellectual who has six children as the wife of the baker. Always kind-hearted Zisa-Sara follows her husband to New York where they both die in a terrible factory fire. Their orphaned children, daughter Emma and a son, return to Blaszka to be raised by the sensible Alta-Fruma. Misha, the most outspoken and independent of the four vilda hayas who flaunts disdain at all useless rules, divorces after a brief marriage. She lives alone near the river, becoming the village midwife and the person to whom everyone turns when they desire a potion for special needs of inciting romance, building strength, or overcoming illness.

Blaszka is also populated by rabbis, water carriers, busybodies, prophets, gypsies, drunkards, mysterious strangers, the vulgar, and the refined. Some folk are noble, some are vulnerable, and some pious. Each contributes an essential, memorable element, no matter how small. You will recognize all of them.

It’s soon discovered that Misha is pregnant by a man she refuses to identify. Gossip moves along the lifeline of the village as certainly as the meandering current of the adjacent river. Villagers speculate who might be the father but are met by her silence. Misha’s painful labor provides a tender scene at the end of the story. I haven’t spoiled it by telling you that much because what ensues is a bit of a miracle in itself, given that the birth falls on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

At times the book reads like a fairy tale, rich with Jewish nuance and superstition. At other places it resonates with the history of Jewish Europe.  In some passages it blares like a bawdy song one might hear in a saloon where the drunkards mingle with those who might be prostitutes, angels, or conmen. Its scenes of magical realism will remind readers of the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I. L. Peretz, or Sholem Aleichem who also wrote of the European Jewish communities lost to World War II. Always, Nattel’s sensitivity to universal relevance is captured within the intimacy of a place so small that only a few hundred souls live there.

Nattel based her book on the stories her family told when they emigrated from Poland to Canada. She researched for years, reading dozens of relevant books, and included a glossary at the end to help the reader understand the Yiddish dispersed throughout. The glossary is essential for those unfamiliar with the mixing of two languages. I was also raised with Yiddish words and phrases sprinkled by my family as well as stories about shtetl life, and I still found it illuminating.

This is one of the very few books I’ve read six times (the other is To Kill a Mockingbird) and I’ll one day read it again. The quality of Nattel’s writing and the strength of her characters draw me back to the pages to follow the vilda hayas’ hilarious shenanigans and harrowing predicaments. At each reading, I’ve tried to determine who are the Director, the Traveler, and the Boss, and every time I’ve reached a different conclusion. The first time I read the book I had just completed writing the “final” draft of a novel that also tells the story of a fictional Polish shtetl and the strong women who live in it. (My story is in no way even wanly derivative of Nattel’s book, by plot or characters. My “final” draft was in no way final, either.)

The very last words of the book are once upon a time. How enchanting is that?

The River Midnight won the Martin and Beatrice Fisher Jewish Book Award in Fiction in 1999.

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

 

*Just so you know, this passage is the very beginning and the very end of the prologue of the book.

 

 

Other books that were serious contenders for R:

 

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

The Reader by Bernard Schlink

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Pony John Steinbeck

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Room by Emma Donoghue

Roots by Alex Haley

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Run by Ann Patchett,

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Scribner