A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka
An eternity ago, we moved to England for work. We lived in a typical row house on a quiet street in a picturesque village about thirty minutes away from my office. Narrowboats wound their way through the canals and old trees towered overhead. This was the village of Shakespeare. We chose to live here instead of the city where I worked because this was the England I had read about and imagined.
I drove various estate agents crazy searching for the right house to rent, rejecting many a beautiful home because they were far too north American. If I was going to live in England, I wanted a proper English house complete with drafty corners, ghosts and tales from long ago, an English garden in the back, and neighbours so close it seemed impossible that just a brick wall separated us.
We settled on a house on Payton Street, close to the market that was commissioned in the 11th century and still in operation. There is something so lovely about history. I’ve searched for it (my own and others) my entire life and feel most comfortable when I’m immersed in it. I was likely meant to live in Europe, among antiquities and tradition. But I’ll save that epiphany for a different blog.
There were no front yards on Payton Street, just one house stacked beside another on the sidewalk. Living room windows, especially those with drawn curtains, were ripe for peering eyes. Yes, mostly mine. I’m not a voyeur, but who could resist? I loved peeking in, seeing, however briefly, how other people lived.
Books offer the same fleeting images. I read for entertainment, sure. But I also read for that one glimpse that helps me understand another human being. This passion of mine to understand goes hand in hand with my love of history. Put these elements together and you have a story. I love stories, especially those that enlighten and move me.
I think of two books I’ve read lately that did just that, but seemed so far from my own life, so far from who I am and what I know it’s difficult to imagine I could relate to the characters in these books. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. I think about the characters as friends I’ve come to know and love. I cheered for them, suffered with them and wanted them to triumph against all odds.
Pak Jun Do (pronounced John Doe) is a young North Korean man trying to survive an oppressive, brutal regime in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. And Saul Indian Horse is the alcoholic Ojibway hero of Richard Wagamese’s novel, Indian Horse. Both books are violent and brutal. The violence is not gratuitous. Instead, it is sewn so closely into the reality of the lives of these characters, there is nothing strong enough to yank them apart. The violence (I abhor and am frightened by it) is necessary to tell these stories. Paraphrasing Kafka and putting my own words in his mouth, a good book is the axe that breaks through to the heart.
Can I relate to being imprisoned or tortured as Pak Jun Do was in The Orphan Master’s Son? How is it possible for me to feel what it must have felt like to be torn away from my family and placed in a residential school as Saul was in Indian Horse? These experiences have not been my reality. But if you ask me if came closer to understanding these characters, their situations and even myself through reading these books, I’d have to say, yes. I’ve had a glimpse into these people’s lives. And there’s no letting them go or forgetting them. They are so much a part of me I look for them in news headlines, on the street, and in other stories.
The Orphan Master’s Son and Indian Horse are books that draw back the curtains and force you to stare just as you might when peeking into a neighbour’s window. The only difference: you are better for having read these books.
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