Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On reading (and teaching) grown-up novels

I'm thinking about my Fall 2010 syllabus for Native American Literature, and wondering whether I should replace Erdrich's Love Medicine with her novel The Painted Drum. Either one would be excellent, but here's the thing: I feel like the latter is a novel for grown-ups.

Yes, my students are in college, and so they are, technically, grown-ups. Most of them, however, have not had a situation or event that challenged them. You know, the kind that shake you to your core, the kind that make you wonder if you're going to survive. The kind that, if you do survive, you feel like that thing has taken a bite out of you, that you're not the same person you were before it happened. I feel like a person who's been through that will appreciate The Painted Drum. And most people around age 20 have not had that experience yet.

Oddly enough, by the time I was 21, I had. In December of 1983, my step-father was in a near-fatal car accident. Technically speaking, I suppose it was fatal since he died on the way to the hospital. They revived him in the helicopter (after having cut him out of the car, the Ford station wagon I had learned to drive on that was more like a tank). He went through hours of surgery, weeks of being on the brink, months of hospitalization, and years of recovery. He survived. In the fall of 1984, not many months after my step-father came home, we found out that my mother had a massive brain tumor. Again, there was surgery, hospitalization, recovery slow and scary. She survived. Both of them even went back to work for a while.

When we (in my family) tell the story about that year, people commend us on our strength, on getting through one hell of a time. It's true that we had to become stronger in order to cope, that we had to face incredible loss and grapple with horrible fears. And even though we may want to put a happy ending on that story--everything turned out fine, we all made it through and are better for it--while all of those things are true, the fact remains that we all were wounded by it in some way, too. It is true that we are stronger; it is also true that we were all damaged. You don't go through something like that and not have it scar you somehow.

But I have to tell you, I noticed a difference, after that year, between me and other people my age. I felt older than everyone else. I felt like I'd seen Trouble. I felt grown up. Other people my age acted, mostly unconsciously, like they were going to live forever; I knew I could die tomorrow. That knowledge led me to make some changes--I changed my major from computer science, the practical thing with job security, to English, the thing I really loved; my boyfriend and I broke up.

When I was 21, I would have appreciated The Painted Drum, with its characters dealing with trauma, incredible personal loss, regret, survival. I'm just not sure how many of my students will be in the same place this fall...

May you be at peace today with your grown-up life,