Monday, September 29, 2014

The Divine Forest

Stories have to be told or they die, 
and when they die, 
we can't remember who we are, 
or why we're here.  

 Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

If you've been paying attention, you know that I, along with a few select members of my book club, recently read When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe.  Inspired by her father's firsthand accounts of life in the Philippines during WWII, Ms. Holthe introduces readers to the fictitious Karangalan family.  At the novel's open, the Karangalans, along with several of their neighbors, have moved into the cellar of their home in hopes of evading the Japanese soldiers marauding the islands.  During the few days that lapse over the course of the novel, WWII is drawing to a close around the globe, but the situation in the Philippines remains dire as the Filipino people await the much anticipated return of Douglas MacArthur. 

The novel's structure is quite interesting.  There are three different first-person narrators.  The opening & closing sections are narrated by the Karangalan's eldest son, Alejandro.  The second section is narrated by Alejandro's sister, Isabelle.  The third section is narrated by Domingo Matapang, a Filipino guerilla fighter whom the Karangalans have taken into their home despite the danger his presence poses were he to be discovered by the Japanese.  Within each section, the author imbeds stories told by various members of the motley crew gathered in the depths of the Karangalan's home.  The fancy term for these stories is embedded narrative.  Using these stories, Ms. Holthe weaves years of the history & culture of the Filipino people into her novel.  

I must admit I was highly skeptical of this book when I first began reading.  Actually, highly skeptical is a nice way of saying I did not like it at all at the outset.  At the conclusion of the first big section of the novel that Alejandro narrates, I was close to calling it quits, but I kept pushing.  I may be a slacker in other areas, but I am a devoted member of my book club, & these ladies have humored me & my book suggestions more than once in the past.  When I wanted to quit reading, I reminded myself of other book club reads that I initially found a bit dull, such as Rebecca & The Book Thief, but that, once read in their entirety, I absolutely loved.  Plus, I don't want to strand a novel in book purgatory on Goodreads, never moving it from the "currently reading" to the "read" column.

Hoping for a payoff in the end, & with a book club meeting looming large, I read.  My biggest issue with the novel was (that's was, in the past tense) what I thought was a gross overuse of embedded narratives.  I think authors should approach the use of this literary device with caution.  It's not that I don't enjoy a good story, but it takes skill to ease the reader from present to past, often from one narrative voice to another, & then back again.  Ms. Holthe does this repeatedly.  Story after story, new voice after new voice.  I was incredibly annoyed by critical of the repeated shifts, both in time & voice.  I may've sent a whiny text message or two to various book club members.  The entirety of The Great Gatsby is an embedded narrative, but there is one voice throughout, & few time shifts.  When the novel opens, we meet Nick Carraway in a reflective mood, & soon thereafter he begins to relate the events of the time he spent with Jay Gatsby.  Nick's fascination with Gatsby is easily transferred to the reader, & you quickly become engrossed in the story Nick tells.

In addition to my initial criticism of her novel's structure, I was desperate to become attached to at least one of Ms. Holthe's narrators.  When I read, it is imperative that I quickly begin to care about the narrator, or at least develop a sense of curiosity about his or her motives, or things bog down fast.  I easily forgive a slowly developing plot if someone interesting is leading me on the (initially) ho-hum journey.  I didn't feel much of a connection with Alejandro.  During his first section of narration, there are two lengthy embedded narratives, & so Alejandro's voice is silenced for many pages.  I did feel more of a pull to his sister, Isabelle, & her narrative section of the novel was a quick read for me, though it too is interspersed with the stories of others.  

I did read the book in its entirety.  It wasn't until I was a few pages from the end that I stepped back & began to see the patterns in the tapestry Ms. Holthe had been intricately knitting right under my nose, page after page.  I almost missed the story she tells.  You might say I almost missed the forest because I was super busy analyzing the trees.  Every story she embeds within the narrative of the Karangalan family serves as both a warning to the characters who're sitting & listening to the storyteller, & as a history lesson to the characters in her novel, as well as the reader.  Ms. Holthe wastes no words; there is purpose to each story told.  I of all people should appreciate that sometimes, many words are needed to arrive at one's goal.

Throughout the novel there is tension between Domingo Matapang, the guerilla fighter who urges his people to stand & fight, those who rebuff Domingo & wish to remain in hiding, hoping the Americans will soon arrive & drive out the Japanese, & those Filipinos who are sympathetic to the Japanese.  Before I read this book, I knew little about the history of the Philippines, save a few lectures about the fighting in the Pacific I heard in my WWII class in college.  In this little gem of historical fiction, Ms. Holthe, via the stories her characters tell, spans years & years of Filipino history.  I think my favorite of all the stories is one told by an elderly gentleman who was a teen during a fraction of the time the Spanish ruled the Philippines (the Spanish colonization of the Philippines lasted over three-hundred years).  The story he tells relates the tensions between the Spanish & the Filipino people, including the imposing role of the Catholic Church as an arm of the law.  As they await MacArthur's return in a crowded, dark cellar, these Filipinos explore their past, & in doing so eventually make decisions about their future, as individuals, & as a people who are forced by world war (as were so many), to forge a different way of life in the aftermath of WWII.

So, what have I learned (aside from some Spanish colonial trivia)?  First, I was reminded of the trust a reader must place in an author.  My time to sit & read is so limited, & I prefer to spend every second of it engrossed in a novel I simply cannot put down.  When you're unfamiliar with an author, you have to blindly keep reading, trusting that she has a plan, & that the seemingly irrelevant fifty-page story you just read is somehow important in the novel's overall scheme (or that her long & rambling blog post about an obscure novel has a point).  I was so ridiculously skeptical of Ms. Holthe's ability to pull off repeatedly embedding narratives (that I deemed nonsensical) that I almost missed the beauty of the way she masterfully embeds narratives in When the Elephants Dance, telling not only the story of the Karangalan family during a few crucial war-torn days, but also the story of the Filipino's years long struggle to find an identity of their own, politically, culturally, linguistically, & religiously.    

Second, I was reminded of the power of storytelling.  The significance of stories cannot be overstated.  Oral tellings & retellings were once the only way to pass on a shared history, but even today, despite the many technological options for preserving stories, it is important to sit & listen to people.  Sometimes people just need to talk, but often, if  you pay attention, they will teach you something, & suddenly you both benefit, & no one feels their time has been wasted.  Listen to people.  I cannot leave this paragraph without quoting Ernest Hemingway, who once offered this advice: "When people talk, listen completely.  Most people never listen."  

Thirdly, I learned a lesson in perspective.  More precisely, it is imperative at times that you honestly try to see the world through other's eyes.  My Papaw is eighty-eight years old.  He served during WWII.  He chides me (& Trey & my sister) for driving Japanese cars, or rather, cars that are made by a company headquartered in Japan.  My last three cars have been a Honda Accord, a Honda Civic, & currently I drive a Toyota Highlander.  Trey drives a Tundra, & my sister drives a Camry.  Our automobiles are a source of consternation for him, & I've always just laughed off his comments because, really, it's 2014 & WWII is such old news.  You know what?  I get it now.  I have no concept of a world in which the Japanese pose an immediate & real danger, but he does.  The Holocaust & Hitler's many atrocities across Europe are almost always the focus of WWII-related anything, be it a documentary, or a novel, or even a history text.  You know what?  The Japanese were brutal with a capital B.  I applaud their capitalistic efforts & general peaceableness since WWII, but more than ever before, I now understand why my grandfather is bothered by my Highlander.  A great way to slip into someone else's shoes, to see the world through fresh eyes, is to read.  Sometimes statistics aren't convicting.  Statistics are often sad, they're sobering, but they don't make you weep the way one person's story can.       

Lastly, I suggest to you, & to my future literate children who may find themselves reading this, that if your journey as a Christian is a book (which I admit is a metaphor that makes me a little giddy), try to step back & simply trust the author.  You will want to quit at times.  There will be detours that seem to deviate from the plot in unthinkable ways, but keep reading.  Keep pushing.  

If your story is not unfolding as you'd hoped, I have two suggestions.  First, take an honest look at who's writing it.  Are you wresting the pen away from God, or are you genuinely making an effort to cede control of your story to Him?  If He is indeed your ghostwriter, then take a breath, & another, & calm down, & trust Him.  You may not be thrilled with every aspect of the manuscript, but remember that as the author, He sees the overall structure, & you may simply be mired in the middle of a lengthy, seemingly pointless, chapter that you will later realize was a crucial element, perhaps crucial to your development as a character.  Let Him write.  Remember, the ending is written.  He wrote it first, before you were born.  Trust His authorial judgment, & know that while all you may see is an ominous tree, He is erecting a divine forest in which you will thrive, & your happy ending is engraved on his nail-scarred hands.

I have a few trees I need to chop down myself.  I still don't know anything about Henry's blood work, though I should soon.  So, next time we chat I'll either have news to share, or I'll have a great story to tell you about the time I made an irate phone call to the Pediatric Research folks over in Jackson.  Thankfully, after reading yet another war book that left us all emotionally stunted, the book club is reading The Selection series by Kiera Cass for the month of October.  There are three books in the series, & I'm about halfway through the first one, & let me tell you, it is pure fluff & I am loving it.  There has been little to no thinking required so far, & no sign of any embedded narratives.  It is of course possible that buried in the pages of Ms. Cass's series are deep universal truths that I am overlooking, but I think this month I'll leave all analysis up to the book club ladies while I eat the Mexican feast I've been told is coming my way when we meet at the end of October.  That's not a metaphor for anything.


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