I miss reading novels. AND, I no longer have time to read novels. That’s what I’ve convinced myself of over the past few years.
Since embarking on the journey that resulted in my writing Inheriting the Trade I’ve focused my reading, writing, speaking engagements, and this blog, almost exclusively on issues related to the legacy of slavery, on systemic racism and other forms of oppression that continue to haunt us collectively and individually. The last half dozen or so books I’ve read have all been non-fiction and related to uncovering hidden aspects of history, our damaged relationships with each other (individually and collectively), injustice in its many forms, and how we might offer each other a little grace.
But I miss novels. I miss the vacations from the real world into the imaginary worlds created by talented writers.
After spending several hours one recent afternoon discussing a potential “next project” with some friends that resulted in a rousing burst of creative energy and laughter a light came on in the sometimes dim recesses of my brain. I needed a break from all the heaviness of the subjects I walk hand in hand with daily. I decided to set aside the book I was reading at the time and read the book my wife Lindi had just finished.
When I picked it up and realized it was over 700 pages long I sighed and rolled my eyes. I can’t do this. That was last Sunday night. A few minutes ago I finished Wally Lamb’s latest book The Hour I First Believed. Lindi and I both loved his first two novels, She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True. But this one… whew!
My goal was to escape from brokenness, war, trauma, and inhumanity. Silly me again. It seems the universe continues to throw curve balls. The Hour I First Believed mixes the stories of real-life victims and killers at Columbine High School in 1999 with fictional characters whose lives are forever changed by those traumatic events. Throw in classic mythology, victims of Hurricane Katrina, veterans broken by their experience in Iraq, and generations of a family haunted by harms inflicted and inherited from clear back to the Civil War and it soon became clear that not only was my choice of novels not an escape from what I’ve been confronting the past several years but a step even closer to the demons with whom I’ve been dancing.
At one point Caelum Quirk asks his literature students to study Picasso’s 1935 etching Minotauromachia in which a young girl, holding flowers in one hand and a lit candle in the other, faces a monstrous minotaur. He asks his students to describe what the etching says to them about the human condition and the world we inhabit and share. They wrote of our human capacity for both good and evil, something Ledlie Laughlin spoke about during our journey to Ghana and Cuba in 2001. They also pointed out what myths and stories and life experiences throughout history have taught us: “Life is messy, violent, confusing, and hopeful.”
Next month I’ll travel to Eastern Mennonite University to participate in the Level II Seminar on Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) where I’ll join a couple dozen others wishing to understand more about trauma, its impact on individuals and communities, and how to respond to it in ways that lead to healing. I could not have selected a more appropriate book to read in advance of this weeklong training program.
I invite you to meet Caelum, his wife Maureen, Aunt Lolly, Velvet, Ulysses, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the other characters that have much to teach us about what truly matters in life.
To borrow a phrase from one of Lamb’s earlier novels, I know this much is true:
- 700+ pages fly by in no time when the author is really good
- Wally Lamb is really good
- I’m going to find another novel to read right away