I just finished working on Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief with my group in English. It’s always a great unit — very few students haven’t loved it — and I mean that sincerely, I can probably count them on one hand. We were wrapping things up last week in a very loose fashion — essentially the gist of the conversation went something like this: Tell me why this book matters to you…
I got a lot of the typical answers: Because it’s just so visual, and Because I could see the characters and relate to them, and Because I fell in love with Rudy (there’s at least one each semester who just swoons over him…), Because I’ve never heard anything from this perspective…
Each time I’ve read it, I’ve focused on something different throughout the reading. This semester’s reading was no different — for some reason, the image of the accordion, its bellows filled with air, Hans pumping life in to it, Rosa unable to play it, just really hit me hard — and it’s just so incredibly visual to me. I brought this up during the discussion and was refreshed to be challenged by a student who said that this only happens in fiction — that it’s only in fiction that our imaginations are allowed to freely flow.
It took me a second of reflection to realize that, for the most part, his comment made perfect sense. Truthfully, we don’t do a good enough job in our teaching of non-fiction. We choose pieces that are dry and factual and lack any real imagery within their stories. We’ve failed our students in this sense. It also got me to thinking about what pieces of non-fiction have truly left an impression on me. Honestly, I’m not a big non-fiction fan in my personal reading. Immediately, only Night (which I couldn’t really reference with the students yet as we are two units away from reading it) and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild were the pieces that came to mind.
In the same way that great fiction has left a lasting impression on me, so has some great non-fiction. Sometimes it’s right there in front of us and sometimes we luck upon it. I walked past Strayed’s Wild many times in the bookstore before finally giving in to that big old hiking boot on the front cover. And she got me right from the start. But it wasn’t until page 267 that I really got IT – that part where I felt as if she were writing only FOR and TO ME:
“But it was too late now, I knew, and there was only my dead, insular overly optimistic, non-college- preparing, occasionally-child-abandoning, mom to blame. She had failed. She had failed. She had so profoundly failed me.
Fuck her, I thought, so mad that I stopped walking.
And then I wailed. No tears came, just a series of loud brays that coursed through my body so hard I couldn’t stand up. I had to bend over, keening, while bracing my hands on my knees, my pack so heavy on top of me, my ski pole clanging out behind me in the dirt, the whole stupid life I’d had coming out my throat.
It was wrong. It was so relentlessly awful that my mother had been taken from me. I couldn’t even hate her properly. I didn’t get to grow up and pull away from her and bitch about her with my friends and confront her about the things I wished she’d done differently and then get older and understand that she had done the best she could and realize that what she had done was pretty damn good and take her fully back into my arms again. Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off. She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.
Fuck her, I chanted as I marched on over the next few miles, my pace quickened by my rage, but soon I slowed and stopped to sit on a boulder. A gathering of low flowers grew at my feet, their barely pink petals edging the rocks. Crocus, I thought, the name coming into my mind because my mother had given it to me. These same flowers grew in the dirt where I’d spread her ashes. I reached out and touched the petals of one, feeling my anger drain out of my body.
By the time I rose and started walking again, I didn’t begrudge my mother a thing. The truth was, in spite of that, she’d been a spectacular mom. I knew it as I was growing up. I knew it in the days that she was dying. I knew it now. And I knew that was something. That it was a lot. I had plenty of friends who had moms who — no matter how long they lived — would never give them the all-encompassing love that my mother had given me. My mother considered that love her greatest achievement. It was what she banked on when she understood that she really was going to die and die soon, the thing that made it just barely okay for her to leave me and Karen and Leif behind.”
Yes, Zusak nailed it with his fictional piece featuring a sarcastic death as his narrator — but so did Strayed when speaking of her own troubles and tribulations in her non-fiction piece.