Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Can Great Literature Save Lives?

As we were reading the passage about lighting the fireplace at Mary Lennox's room, my young friend asked: "How did they start the fire in The Secret Garden? Do you know if they had matches?" I wasn’t sure, we had to look it up, but that question led to a more general discussion about inventions.
This is only one example of the many issues that we cover (and discover). Reading aloud is a great opportunity for instruction and delight: we think of and develop ideas, discuss our opinions and share personal stories.
In the last couple of years I have been reading books with a young friend whose eleventh birthday will be coming soon. She doesn’t like to read, but she loves to get to know the characters in our books, and to explore the motives behind their actions.
Recently we read Sunday's Child by the German author Gudrun Mebs. This book is a variation on the genre of the boarding school novel. But Sunday's Child is told from the point of view of an eight year old girl who lives in an orphanage, she is the protagonist and the narrator.
Every Sunday many children are taken out for the day by families, and this girl (who remains nameless) is longing to have a family as well. At one point in the story a single woman, a writer of children books, becomes her Sunday mother.
 When they first meet the girls notes how different that woman, Ola, is from the other Sunday mothers. But when Ola takes off her glasses and the girl looks into her brown eyes, she suddenly realizes that Ola's eyes are just like the buttons eyes of her beloved stuffed bunny.
I asked my friend what was the purpose of this comparison? She answered that comparing the strange woman to the bunny made it easier for the girl to connect to Ola and to love her. I was speechless.
Telling the story in the first person and from the point of view of the young child,  allowed me to introduce my young friend  to the concepts of the unreliable narrator and the implicit author. It was easy to look for instances when the girl’s perception and understanding of reality were different from what actually had taken place, and to remember similar examples from our own experience. 
Personally I am convinced that literature offers the best preparation for life. In other words, it supplies the essential life skills.* Literature enriches the repertoire of responses and provides tools to analyze the world. Since literature is made of examples—stories with characters and situations, it is a much better guide for the young and the perplexed than philosophy for example. Moreover, literature is a great training for recognizing nuances and  understanding subtexts.
This morning while I was skating I listened to the episode Act V in This American Life
The entire program was devoted to a theater production of Hamlet Act V by inmates in a high- security facility in Missouri. It seems that Shakespeare’s lines penetrated the shields of the toughest prisoners and brought about change. Thus, the actors/prisoners were able to connect to the characters in the play from the depth of their own experiences. 
This program reminded me of another important quality of literature. For years I believed that, unlike medicine for example, literature could not save lives. But recently I had a change of heart.
My father in-law, an old fashioned family doctor, believed that a cup of tea and three days off work were the best cure for most complaints. In a way, reading good literature with my young friend is that type of medicine. But I feel that experiences like the Hamlet production at the Missouri prison, could literally save lives.
And in case you wonder, in 1911 when The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was published, matches were used to light a fire.

*In the home page of Unicef, life skills are those  that enable individuals to deal effectively 
 the demands and challenges of everyday life. They are loosely grouped into three  broad categories of skills: cognitive skills for analyzing and using information, personal skills for developing personal agency and managing oneself, and inter-personal skills for communicating and interacting effectively with others."

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