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,


  1. Maybe you could look at this differently, since the general trend these days is that most people in our piece of the world (culturally speaking, sociologically speaking) don't meet the curse/blessing of big life-altering trauma by the time they are 30 or even 40. At 35 most of my 35yo peers have still had it way easier in the trauma department than you and I. Consider that you might be giving your students a gift if you do teach them this book while they have their time with you. Consider that they might not read it otherwise, and might need its lessons down the road.

  2. Hey, Keet. Thanks for the encouragement... I might do that, in part for the reasons you say here. But I think that it won't make an impact on them, they won't remember it, or...? I don't know how to express it; it's almost like it might touch them, but it won't shove them the way it does if you've had that life-altering experience. I felt like this novel absolutely shoved me, pushed me down and made me know it was real.

    I'll keep mulling over this decision, and how to express what I mean. Thanks!

  3. Hi Karen,

    I've been mostly lucky in the trauma department - probably the worst thing I've been through was with Keet and our daughter, which (although it was completely terrifying at the time) I felt like we were mostly over after a year.

    One of the things that always made me feel odd was when friends and colleagues would commend me on my bravery. "I just don't know how you manage to get through this," they'd say, or words to that effect. And I always asked them, "What's the alternative?" I visited my kid in the hospital, I got up and went to work, and in between I tried to keep from losing my mind. I'm not sure that really qualifies as bravery. It's just survival, and most people are better at it than they realize.

  4. Hey, Sam. (I just love that you're Uncle Sam.) :)

    Yes, you're right: what is the alternative? You can have fall-apart moments, but at some point you have to get up and do your thing. I guess you have to find some peace with the unknown, with leaving the things you can't control--even though you have the biggest stake in them imaginable--at the foot of Allah, or God, or Jesus, or Mother Earth, or Fate, or whomever.

    By the way, I hereby declare that you & Keet have had more than enough of your share of Big Scary Moments in this lifetime. (Here's where Capt. Picard says "make it so!")

    And perhaps it goes without saying, but you guys might appreciate the book...

  5. I say, teach it. Don't forget that this (my) generation has been through tragedy as a whole--9/11 got to everyone, in some way. I know kids who are in high school now and were very young at the time, but who were shaken very badly by the whole 9/11 experience (especially any kids from the East Coast or even Ohio).

    Personally? I had a lot of trauma strike me before I had even graduated high school and that was a large part of why transitioning into college (and appreciating the college experience) was so hard for me. When you're a teenager, *everything* is traumatic. Some of that tragedy is more tangible to outsiders than other tragedy... there are many, MANY people I know now who have not been struck thoroughly by personal traumas, but because of the 9/11 tragedy, and because of how they relate to me and to my own dealings, I feel that they have a much greater depth of understanding for these traumatic experiences than others might believe or give them credit for. And, for what it's worth: maybe many of your students have been through similar experiences and they just... don't know how to recognize them and/or deal with them. I certainly didn't realize how traumatic my father's heart attack was until a year later... nor do I still have any idea how my family managed to trudge through that. That being said... maybe reading this book would open a lot of doors and avenues for students on an emotional level that they wouldn't expect.

    (just the two cents from this end of the academic spectrum :))

  6. Thanks, geogaea, for sharing your comment. It's worth a lot more than two cents! :)

    You know, the other thing that's absolutely remarkable about this novel is that, reading it this time around, after having lived on the rez for a month last year, I *recognized* the people in the chapters at the end of the book. Erdrich is writing about a different reservation, but it felt so familiar to me; the characters in those chapters were people I'd met, cousins or daughters or uncles of people I knew... I am in awe of her talent! Yes, I think I'll be revising my syllabus for that section of the semester.

    I've been thinking about a cheerier post for this week. Let's see if I can pull it off. :)

  7. I was initially going to say that I have the sense that so many college students today are spoiled and have the helicopter parents and so on and so they probably couldn't relate.

    But I also know that there are so many people in this world who are severely damaged in childhood. I write and talk about my dad's suicide attempts, and I think because of this, people tend to confide in me. There's a lot of suicide in families and people don't talk about it. By the time I was 20, my dad had tried twice. And if you'd asked me, I'd have said that no, I'd never experienced any big trauma - because my family just didn't ever talk about it, so we didn't know that we were traumatized. Even not knowing it, I've always attracted people who had survived big trauma, because we just really connected. There are a lot of them around.

    All this to say, there are more people out there than you think, even by age 20. They maybe haven't seen life or death firsthand, but a lot of your students have probably dealt with something. I agree with geogaea above - it could be therapautic for them. It might be an exhausting experience for you, though?

    And thanks for reminding me of Louise Erdrich. I haven't read anything by her in years - I think the last book was The Antelope Wife. She's so amazingly talented.

  8. I've always loved Louise Erdrich, ever since Dr. Lewes assigned Love Medicine to my women's lit class way back when (this is Terra, btw... in case you couldn't connect the names). So thanks for passing along another recommendation! Lemon Gloria does bring up a good point... don't let an experience like teaching this novel exhaust you! I think, if it's therapeutic for the students, it should be on a personal level, not one that takes place in the classroom... most English majors absorb books in that way, anyhow. But you could definitely be the spiritual guide who points them in the right direction! So many students need that these days...

    P.S. I'm going to order those two New Mexico-ish books you had recommended to me a few weeks ago so that I can read them on the plane/while I'm in Albuquerque (it turns out that we take a side-trip up into the mountains right by Jemez Pueblo, so I'll be sure to read that one first!) I'm also reading East of Eden this summer on the recommendation of a friend... all that, combined with the Bhagavad Gita and a few Greek philosophy books should keep me busy for awhile, but do you have any other recommendations? :-)