No Innovation Without Representation

Although “the holidays” are quickly slipping past, books are a form of holiday that are readily accessible at all times of the year. (You may want to set aside one of your days off to read this post; as fair warning–it’s rather long.) A friend of a friend on Facebook recently posted about “the 10 books that have stayed with me” and, as a result, I started to think about the 10 books that have stayed with me. 

There’s a part of me that would like to be shaped fully by the Western canon, but that wouldn’t do justice to many of the most important themes in my life. Instead, I find that many of the books that have stuck with me the most are “children’s literature,” not really classic literature (though some are deemed “children’s classics”). They are books that present role models, figures whose actions and character traits I can aspire to, but whose inherent characteristics are not so far from my own. It’s not that I need middle-class white American heroines to rule the day, but I am more likely to believe that I, too, could do something wonderful if a character much like myself–even a fictional character–has gone before me and done it.

This is the question of representation, which is a tricky thing to talk about. School often shines a bright light on this issue. In third grade, I was the only non-Catholic in my year, the only non-Catholic out of 75 kids (and one of only a handful in the entire school). Lutheranism is significantly different from a theological standpoint, but the difference is relatively minor in a larger context. Yet it was still clear that I was The Other, and not only during the most overt moments of differentiation like when I would go up to the Eucharist with my arms crossed, mummy-style, over my chest.

In other years, I would feel a different pang when I went to the houses of much wealthier friends. I might be the one getting the starring role in the school play, but I wasn’t the one going home to the two-story columnar aquarium so large that it had to be cleaned by professional scuba divers. Surrounded by a circular marble staircase leading down to the full-size basement arcade. In school, you are not in “the larger context,” you are in a specific group of people and while the metrics change, there is always measuring up.

There is a sense in which I benefit from structural racism as a white person, but this has never been the dominant narrative of my own past as I think of it. Instead, I think of immigration and industrialization. Though my parents both have post-secondary degrees, that’s extremely unusual in my family; many if not most in their generation didn’t go to college at all. Higher education is still a serious question in my extended family, and that’s often stood in stark contrast to the families of many students I’ve been in school with. While that’s not a problem for me, it presents me with a different perspective from many of the people I’ve found to be my peers, as does being female, as does being white, being an American citizen, etc.

It is not necessary to fit the exact same demographic as a fictional character to be able to enjoy their story. Empathy is developed partly by finding links between ourselves and others we perceive to be different from ourselves. The links are always there; we are all human. But part of human nature–in ‘real life’ as in the schoolyard–is finding our own tribes and sticking to them. Fiction can help us be more empathetic. But for hope, and possibly for action, we need to see ourselves in some way.

The books that have really stuck with me have struck a chord in me somehow. Looking over the list, I can see major elements of myself in the various protagonists. At the same time, I find myself stumbling over ideas presented in these narratives in my own real life. I wonder how possible these ideas–and actions–would have been without early naissance in well-written works. Much as I’d like to be able to take credit for my better characteristics, I think a more accurate acknowledgement would go to the people I’ve met and the books I’ve read.

And the books I’ve read? Beginning in 2007 with a New Year’s Resolution I’ve actually managed to keep, I have maintained a list of all the books I have read since then. As I write this, the number is 283. More importantly, I can remember a few of them. But most of the books that seem most influential and most memorable predate this list. There is a thematic pattern of self-sufficiency, independence, social justice, finding one’s relationship with the natural world.

Equally or more important, these books share a pattern of unlikely protagonists. Young, female, outlaw–or all three–describes the main character in each of these books. They’re unlikely and, to some extent, underrepresented. In a demographic sense, all three categories certainly make their way into literature, but often at the expense of positive characterization. Plus, it should be noted that many of these books are not literature in a sense; many aren’t in ‘the canon’ and that speaks as much to what we value within our society as to the quality of the work itself.

And, after much ado about nothing, here is the list:

Matilda, by Roald Dahl

Thinking about books, my mind zooms to Matilda, by Roald Dahl. If you think you know this story based on the movie, you don’t; please go back and read it. The book’s heroine, Matilda, has a sense of inner fortitude and peaceful resistance that, in my opinion anyway, is morphed into something more revengeful in the movie. The plight of Matilda’s favorite teacher is also a more nuanced and profound thing in the book. But that is to be expected.

This is a book about a girl lacking the kind of specialness we tend to see portrayed in female characters. While small and unassuming, though, she also lacks a lot of the vulnerability we often see painted onto female characters. She finds refuge in books and the kindness of her teacher Ms Honey as much as in the telekinetic powers she discovers within herself, yet we also sense that she isn’t necessarily seeking refuge–she does not turn to books in a sort of despair, but rather for the simple pleasure of reading to herself. She is unflustered in the world, and it is this demeanor that always impressed me.

And while the first part of the book is more about Matilda’s life in relation to her family and her school, the second half vividly portrays a certain social injustice–I forget the specifics of the case, but there are essentially a few small factors which add up to Ms Honey being totally impoverished (factors such as unfair inheritance laws, I believe, as well as something relating to her teaching position) and an incredibly cruel headmistress being quite wealthy. There is a profound lesson in there about Ms Honey’s ability to be hospitable on extremely meagre means and an equally profound way of showing that tangible wealth is not always equivalent to goodness of any sort. But of course, since it’s Roald Dahl, these are Lessons, they are simply a very good story.

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George

After Matilda, I had to pause for a moment. I’ve read so many good books! But this isn’t really about good, it’s about what sticks. Have these books influenced me? Or do I recall these books because they reassert values I already align myself with? Surely there is some interchange here. For the books I read when I was very small, surely there must have been some impact on my later thinking. But even now, I have the same sense of exchange, despite the inability to hold a literal dialogue with a book.

I should probably have Walden on this list, but I don’t. While it was the centre of my undergraduate thesis and it is still a text I go back to, I’m not sure I’m ready to have it on a “stuck with me” list. Maybe in a few years. Instead, I’m thinking chronologically again, back to My Side of the Mountain (by Jean Craighead George). I don’t remember many specifics of this book, except that the boy lived in a tree and made everything and went to a public library and the bird was named Frightful.

What I do remember is that this kid made it, alone, and, like Matilda, in a sort of quiet way. As I remember it, it didn’t come across as a particularly dramatic story; it was very plausible and very deliberate. And this sobriety made it seem more real, more doable. I must have read this when I was eight or nine, if that. I was always frustrated by my age–too young! Always too young.

Although there are stories about stand-out youngsters, age matters so much, and in such a particular way when you are young (also, I suspect, when you are old, though I have no experience with this yet!). It is extremely frustrating to find yourself out of sync with others your age, whether you are “ahead” or “behind.” One of my favorite school experiences was having a reading group created just for me one year, so that I could read real chapter books instead of the short texts the rest of the class used. The next year I was in a different school, still reading way above grade level, and I was forced to make just one book last the entire schoolyear. Books like My Side of the Mountain got me through, though I had to read them covertly (when the teacher wasn’t looking).

Throughout my childhood, I often had the sense of being ready for certain things without being allowed to do them. Obvious examples are driving, voting, drinking. There were less-obvious matters, too. When I was 12 or 13, I went with a neighbor family on their summer vacation to babysit their three kids, and in an outdoor market I was mistaken for the kids’ mother. Although totally dependent on the parents to drive and pay the bills, I was put in charge of the kids during the entire holiday. I woke them up, got them dressed, made breakfast, kept them occupied (and covered in sunscreen, no small feat with three blondies under the age of 6 at the beach), made them lunch, started dinner, fed them dinner, cleaned them up, and put them to bed. I felt supremely competent and ready to get out in the world. But of course it would be years before I could even leave home.

My Side of the Mountain was a story about a child being independent–and being competent about it. The beauty of the story for me was in the protagonist’s ability to problem-solve. Over a decade passed since I read that book, but I have found myself working on dugout canoes (as a historic museum interpreter), trying to tan hides, building a raft. These actions have always brought a sense of dèja-vu; I think I can blame that on My Side of the Mountain. For me as profound as Walden, this book came first.

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter

But in more recent times, I’ve read several books about self-sufficiency that I can’t stop thinking about. Farm City (Novella Carpenter), Possum Living (Dolly Freed), and Goatsong (Brad Kessler) all immediately come to mind. Farm City is the book that currently has me on the fence about grad school; I read it several years ago and I’m still inspired by the resourcefulness of Carpenter and her tenacity in pursuing a lifestyle that is in accord with her ideals despite circumstances that many would immediately deem prohibitive. If you’re thinking about urban farming at all, you need to read this book.

Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money by Dolly Freed

And everyone should read Possum Living. The best I can describe it is as a straightforward if exceedingly eccentric primer to life. In its eminent practicality, it is a beautiful thing. Freed goes beyond the realm of commonplace “practicality” and offers solutions to everyday economics that are, in their own way, innovative. She reframes the world. While I don’t plan on fishing for turtles anytime soon, I still recommend this book in a heartbeat.

But of these three, the book closest to my heart is Goat Song. My love of goats should hardly be news to any regular readers of this blog, and that didn’t start with this book. However, Kessler’s account bridged the literary essence of pastoralism and the rudimentary facts of life lived pastorally. In this, two parts of me felt joined: the side that longs to literally roll in the hay and the side that can always be found curled up with a book.

Though I read both Farm City and Goat Song prior to my undergraduate study of Thoreau’s Walden, these works were significant stepping stones on the way to my eventual topic and the way I approached it.

As I thought about this list, it was difficult to avoid association. These books sprang to mind in a cluster, though Goat Song had to edge out The Island Within by Richard Nelson. On another day, The Island Within might have won out. Nelson’s work was another I used in my thesis, but for the purpose of his post I decided on Goat Song in part because it grabbed me outside the context of that project. When I was given the book, I wasn’t ready for the amount of power it would have for me, but it worked, it took hold, and I’m still thinking about it years later (three years later, according to my Excel spreadsheet).

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Another ‘cluster,’ if you will, are To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) and In Cold Blood (Truman Capote). Written by friends, emphasizing justice, and probing for empathy, the are books I also happened to read fairly close together (in July and April of 2009, respectively, though only four books apart as this was a slow year as far as reading went).

What struck me hard when I started reading To Kill a Mockingbird is that I went through a good portion of the book before knowing the gender of the protagonist. “Scout” as a name doesn’t reveal itself easily, but neither does the prose. Although discussion of the book is typically framed around Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, the book is very much told from the perspective of this young girl.

And while reading it, I reacted most strongly to the issues of gender–not race, though I realize that’s a if not the central theme to the work–both in the court case that goes to trial and in the way Scout behaves and characterizes others. With Scout, I found a narrator I could relate to–female, but not really feminine; aware of typical gender constructs and complications without really allowing these to dictate her own beliefs and conduct.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

At the same time, I could also relate to the sense of observation, the perspective of a young person trying to make sense of the world. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was only months away from attending college. I felt more than ready, but I also (and still) felt young, and knew myself to be an outsider to the workings of the larger concerns of the world.

In Cold Blood is a different story. What it showed me more than anything was the value of seeing the other side. There is always an “other side” and almost always the other side is equally human. Criticized for being too sympathetic to the criminals in this story, this book really is toeing a line. It is difficult to have sympathy for criminals, but I think we probably need the most sympathy for people we define as criminals–and I think that largely because of this book. 

What I also find amazing about this book is the richness of the text itself. From an English geek standpoint, it’s a fascinating work. As a work of literary nonfiction, it is a prime example of that genre.

  1. I could easily write several paragraphs in response to this post…and the books you’ve mentioned…but it would all simply boil down to this: You are one of a kind, my dear…and I’m warmed to the toes to know that you exist.

    P.S. If you haven’t read Cider With Rosie (by Laurie Lee), I suggest you give it a look:

    • Emma said:

      Thanks – and thanks for the suggestion. I’m intrigued!

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