10 February 2007

On Katherine Paterson

The Lizard Queen recently brought to my attention that, in anticipation of the release of the film version of Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (how's that for a complex system of genitives?!), the book-banners are out in force against Paterson's work. Their criticisms range from "you shouldn't use 'Lord' as an expletive!" to "this book promotes witchcraft!" to "it's just too depressing for the kids!"

Hearing these objections took me back to my own readings of Paterson's work -- and also made me realize again why I respect her more than just about any other author I've ever read.

I must begin with a caveat: I have read only three of Paterson's novels. I have, however, enjoyed them enormously, and I'm planning to read as many of her other books as I can once I'm out of school. And besides, most of those who are against Paterson seem to have read virtually none of her work, so I would consider myself at least as well qualified to comment on it as they are.

The first Paterson novel I ever read was Bridge to Terabithia at the age of eleven. I got the book for Christmas from my Grandma Clarke, and I remember being a little annoyed; my younger brothers had received personalized stories and songs on tape, which I thought was pretty cool, but all I got was a Newbery-winning book. C'est la vie.

As soon as I started reading the book, my annoyance melted away. It was a marvelous story; I could tell that from the very first chapter, when Jesse goes for a run before sunrise. I loved the realistic style and the many details that Paterson used to move her narrative along. It was like Dickens, but simpler and cleaner, somehow. And, unlike Dickens, she never imposed her own voice on the narrative; it was all Jesse.

I finished the book with a broken heart on New Year's Eve. I won't tell you what drove me to such depths of sadness because if you've read the book you already know, and if you haven't, you need to. But I will say that Paterson deals with tragedy in a straightforward, caring way, and she leaves room for hope even in the darkest moments of her writing.

Fast-forward to my senior year in college. I was 21, and I had enrolled in an adolescent literature class because I wanted something easy to go along with my Honors Colloquium and History Thesis hours. The teacher, Anne Phillips, was marvelous and very stimulating, and in retrospect, I would gladly have taken the class even if it had been much more difficult than it was.

At this stage of my life, I was beginning serious struggles within myself about issues of faith and reason. I had some very disturbing experiences that shook my belief to its core, and meanwhile, I was becoming more and more familiar with what St. Paul calls "the World." In the midst of these crises and experiences (that seemed so important at the time), I read Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved for my adolescent lit. class.

It was a phenomenal book. It gripped me and guided me through questions of predestination, choice, and what it means to be a human individual. It made me realize how difficult life can be, and how sometimes we just don't have the ability to get what we want most. Most importantly, it, like Bridge to Terabithia, showed me hope in dark places. It explored painful corners of human existence in a genuine and intellectually honest way and, in the end, portrayed a deep, unaccountable peace despite disappointment.

While reading Jacob Have I Loved, I realized that Paterson's views toward religion were very understated. Indeed, she seemed almost to skirt the issue. This was fascinating to me, because I identified very strongly as a theologically conservative Christian, and in my mind, those who were in that particular religious tradition would make it obvious that they were. From some of what Paterson wrote, I thought I could see glimpses of the Christian principles that I held, but it certainly wasn't obvious if you weren't looking for it. This puzzled me a great deal at the time.

Fast forward once more to January of this year. My wife was listening to Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins on CD, and I managed to catch most of the story. I was once more thrilled by Paterson's writing, but Gilly's language sometimes shocked me. The story made me think again about Paterson's religious position. In Gilly, Paterson writes a few things that sound very Christian, but if that's the case, then how can she allow the character of Gilly, who is so profane and opposed to religion -- and, it would seem, moral behavior in general -- to flow freely from her pen?

The Great Gilly Hopkins is, any way you look at it, a funny and entertaining book, but it isn't without its requisite dose of heartache. Again, Paterson's message is that pain happens in this life; you just can't avoid it. And, infuriatingly, not everything can be fixed once it's broken. Our actions always have consequences, and sometimes other people's actions have consequences that we simply can't overcome.

After hearing The Great Gilly Hopkins, I was so curious about Paterson's convictions that I went to her Web site and looked for anything that might clue me in about her beliefs and her aesthetic approach to children's literature. Here's what I found:
I think it was Lewis who said something like: "The book cannot be what the writer is not." What you are will shape your book whether you want it to or not. I am Christian, so that conviction will pervade the book even when I make no conscious effort to teach or preach. Grace and hope will inform everything I write. ...

We live in a Post-Christian society. Therefore, not many [children's book] writers will be Christians or adherents of any of the traditional faiths. Self-consciously Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) writing will be sectarian and tend to propaganda and therefore have very little to say to persons outside that particular faith community. The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like fancy dress. ...

Gilly is a lost child who lies, steals, bullies, despises those who are different or perceived to be weaker —- a child like this does not say "fiddlesticks" when frustrated. I could not duplicate her real speech with out drowning out the story in obscenity, but I had to hint at her language. She would not be real if her mouth did not match her behavior.
I love this approach to fiction, and it's one that I would like to emulate if I ever write seriously. Paterson is committed to realistic storytelling, and although she recognizes that her ideology informs her writing style, she also resists the urge to turn her art into propaganda. The reason her writing "feels" Christian to me is because it is -- but its Christian identity is present in the "bones and sinews," not paraded on the outside like "fancy dress."

I'm a sucker for stories with happy endings, but I love Paterson even though the endings of her stories could rarely be called "happy." People are hurt, hearts are broken, dreams are crushed... but ultimately, there is a peace, a grace, and a hope in a place deeper than outward circumstances, and that is what makes her writing so very effective for readers like me.


Unknown said...

sady, I've only read about the great gilly.

Perhaps I will find the time to read the others.

Anonymous said...

I love Katherine Paterson! Gilly would be my favorite of her book's, but maybe it's just because I'm a foster parent. As I was reading this, I was about to suggest the next one you read would be Gilly, but I am glad to see you have already read it!