by Sherwood Smith
For me, what better way to start off a fresh year than by talking about feel good things? In this case, books.
There is a new Hilary McKay coming out in March for USAn readers. I have craved another ever since Forever Rose was published. For American readers unfamiliar with McKay’s work, the
basic premise is the story of a family of creative types, centering around Rose, the youngest. The parents are painters, and they don’t live together through most of the books. Their children are named after colors–Cadmium, Indigo, Rose, with Saffy, who may or may not be a half sister, but certainly is adopted.
The family is unusual in many of the ways creative families are, their interactions with others are as orthogonal as such can frequently be, and their relations with one another are also often orthogonal to what they mean, what they understand, and what they intend. McKay is writing for a young audience, so she doesn’t delve deeply into alternative thinking, but certain passages made me wonder if at least some of the Cassons are synesthetes; whether they are or are not really doesn’t matter. What does is that the stories are what I think of as “feel good” books.
I put my courtesy cut there because I know that the phrase “feel good” is an automatic turnoff for many, just as “a detailed and realistic examination of hopelessness and despair” is an automatic turnoff for me. I don’t know if anyone wants to talk about “feel good” stories, but in case there might be someone besides me, here are some thoughts.
There are a lot of different kinds of feel good stories. The ones I like have those zing! moments of experiential truth, or insight, and thus banish the boundaries of time, space, ego. The idea of sharing that moment with other people thunderstrikes me right down to the bone marrow. It doesn’t last, it can’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless.
When I was younger, I thought I was the only one who got those moments, and I was embarrassed, because they usually cause a spring of tears, a closed throat, gulping. But when I was nineteen, I was at a friend’s house. Her mother entered the conversation, I don’t remember why, and she told us about the time she was a girl back in Appalachia. She was from a dirt-poor family–she never had shoes until she was fifteen, and got married. Education was regarded as useless, especially for girls, and the kids were encouraged to hide the few times officials came around to check on the number of kids, and whether or not they were getting schooling. One day she was roaming the hills, and had climbed out of their little valley, and just kept climbing, she did not know why. But all of a sudden she burst out of the thick foliage, and discovered she was high on a ridge, looking out over the Shenandoah Valley in the clear late afternoon light. The sight overwhelmed her with such passionate happiness and surprise that she threw her arms out and laughed and danced because at that moment she knew everything. Everything.
I can still hear her voice saying the word “everything”–the second time it was just a whisper, and her expression reflected that exaltation, just a little bit, in the narrowing of her eyes, and the corners of her mouth. She said that the feeling went away with the sunlight, but she never forgot it, and it changed her life because she resolved to get herself a different life. Somehow.
And she did. She wasn’t a maker, and her goals were modest. Mainly having to do with getting out of that situation, and living among artists. She achieved that goal, and also her goal of living in sight of the ocean. I admired her–here was someone who despite tough early circumstances had lived among remarkable people, had danced until dawn on beach terraces to the singing of Frank Sinatra. (If I remember right, he also played the piano, she said.)
We don’t have a word for that in English, though joy comes close. Joy can be explosive, almost blinding, but I want the word that expresses that flinging wide of the arms, the embracing of the universe, that sense of symbiosis. Nabokov expressed this sensation in terms of the zing of truth in reading: The inspiration of genius adds a third ingredient: it is the past and the present and the future (your book) that come together in a sudden flash; thus the entire circle of time is perceived, which is another way of saying that time ceases to exist. It is a combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away with the nonego rushing in from the outside to save the prisoner–who is already dancing in the open.
The thing is, not everyone’s moment matches everyone else’s. For me, pure wish fulfillment–the substitution of sentiment, often labeled wisdom or truth, but it reads more like artificially intensified emotion–doesn’t work, but it does for many readers. The (jut to pick an obvious example) poor orphaned outcast who is handed the keys to the universe just because she suffered isn’t a trope that works for me. Neither is the poor orphaned outcast whose misery is instantly cured by a single touch, no matter how omnipowerful the other characters try to tell me the toucher is. But good money is being made left and right by stories with just those tropes. Obviously it works for some.
I like the McKays not just because they express such generosity of spirit, which is rare enough, but because (except in one of the stories, and she makes it work) the choice of mercy, generosity, of believing the best of people doesn’t automatically whisk away all problems and leave everyone grinning ever after. The father lives away from the family with a girlfriend in a couple of stories. McKay doesn’t opt for the easy out by making the dad conveniently hate-worthy. What she does is show the consequences of choices, incident by incident, always with a light touch, for these are novels aimed at the twelve year old audience.
If I had read these as a child I would have cried hard just because I couldn’t contain or even express that intense and hopeful swoop of joy that the reading experience would have given me. How sharply drawn the characters’ emotions are while never sacrificing that generous spirit and sense of mercy breathing through the whole! C.S. Lewis once said that myth is a lie breathed through silver. I think books like these McKays, and Antonia Forest’s books, and small stories like D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book are emotional and creative truth breathed through silver. They are about human potential in all its variation.
If you want to try McKay, you could pick up the storyline here (these are aimed at maybe sixth through eighth grades in reading level, with some uncompromisingly sophisticated words here and there) but for the best experience, do begin with Saffy’s Angel.
(icon “Permanent Rose” taken from Hilary McKay’s website)