Monday, 8 July 2019

Is only trouble interesting?

Chilcotin mountain meadow
My students complaint that I never teach any happy books. Last semester, totally by accident (are there any accidents?), I had a cannibalism theme going (The Odyssey, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and a documentary film called Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains). I tell them that only trouble is interesting, or so says John Gardner, maybe, or David Mamet, or some grim American writer with a dim view of human nature. And for the most part, I've found this to be true. Only trouble is interesting. When everything is going smoothly in a book, I ask myself, when's the story going to begin?

But I recently read Heidi, and I thought, maybe this is the kind of book my students mean when they ask why I don't teach happy books. It's a delightful book; that's the word for it. And yet it starts with trouble and more trouble. Heidi is an orphan who is being deserted by her aunt -- left with her grandfather who lives alone on a mountain and has a reputation for being an ogre. Everyone in the village thinks it's cruel to leave her there and that the grandfather will have no idea how to care for a little motherless girl. The reader expects big trouble. But Heidi is so sunny and positive and curious and warm that she opens her grandfather's cold, closed heart and the two turn out to be kindred spirits who love nature and solitude. The book is heart-warming from the start and it's a gentle reminder that most people are essentially good, or at least mean well, and that the natural order of things is probably not to (The Road spoiler alert!) roast your newborn child on a spit over a fire. Most relationships have at the core some spark of tenderness and goodness, however clumsily expressed and a book like Heidi captures that. I think that's what I love about good children's books. Not saccharine, they admit hardship, but they don't stop there.

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