In preparation for our book club last week, a friend of mine sent out the article Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics? from the New York Times, and the ways that authors Mohsin Hamid and Francine Prose answered the question was fascinating. At the end, Prose writes: “After reading Chekhov, I feel, however briefly, that we are all suffering humans, deserving of sympathy and tenderness. Who knows how our social and political lives might change if we were all persuaded to read at least one Chekhov story each day?”
And perhaps its not Chekov, but she is onto something with this daily reminder. I was walking not long after I read the article to the subway to get to my book club and evening light was just setting in when I turned the corner and saw two of my students laughing at a man’s dog that was jumping and doing tricks. This year at work has felt difficult–partially because that is the nature of being a part of community who wants to teach well, and partially because of the political atmosphere that exists for teachers right now in New York State. It’s easy to feel discouraged, to say the least. But seeing these two students outside the building just laughing and being kids, however cheesy it may sound, made me so happy. It was the reminder I needed, like Prose said. That moment literally turned me from someone feeling rushed, discouraged, and tired back into an inspired, joyful person.
For book club, we read The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, a debut novel by Christopher Scotton. One of our members interviewed him as the book was getting ready for publication and was able to arrange for him to join our book club for a half an hour for a conversation about the book, which was an amazing experience and made me like the book even more. Emily’s interview is a much more beautifully written overview than what I can provide here, but to briefly explain the story, set in the 1980s, a 13 year old Kevin and his grief stricken mother spend the summer in her hometown of Medgar, Kentucky to live her father after the tragic death of Kevin’s brother. Her father becomes the rock that Kevin needs at this critical life juncture and local boy Buzzy the best friend. Scotton pulls together a story that connects the smaller story of grief and growing up with larger threads of social justice connected to Medgar’s mining of the mountains and the town’s struggle to accept difference. For me, it was a book that allowed me to completely escape from my day to day and reminded me of a mix between To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand By Me.
What stuck with me the most from our discussion is the fact that Scotton mentioned he wrote this book with his sons in mind–and how he wanted Pops, the grandfather, to feel like the kind of grandfather kids should have. We extended this conversation afterwards into the idea that this book questions the dominant narrative of what it means to be a man–the poignant picture of Kevin dealing with his grief, and the way the reader sees Pops walk Kevin through the experience while simultaneously sharing his own story of grief over his wife is truly moving.
There is a moment in the story when Kevin and Pops are camping and see the Perseid meteor shower and at the end Kevin says: “I knew that I would never be able to look at the sky the same way again. And everything else I’ve seen since that early morning so many years ago–every waterfall, every canyon, every mountain–is judged by the watermark of what we witnessed that night” (341). We spent a lot of time, then, discussing moments in our lives that felt like touchstones–moments of connectedness and beauty that we can return to for strength. Moments that remind us of what is good and true far into the future. And though watching my students laugh and play with a dog isn’t exactly the same thing, for me this week it was a like a rescue boat and it reminded me to keep my eyes open for the good so that I don’t get swallowed by a life of overwhelm.