My very most favorite C.S. Lewis quote is “Everything is connected with everything else: but not all things are connected by the short and straight roads we expected.”
I often see the truth of this statement in my reading. At any given time, I’m reading two or three studious-type non-fiction books, a memoir, a classic, and one or two fiction books, as well as making occasional forays into poetry and letter collections. Sometimes by design, but often by pure, lovely serendipity, the ideas in several volumes in the current stack overlap and dovetail beautifully.
Here’s the story of one recent serendipitous sequence, which reinforced both the connectedness of everything and my belief in the amazing power of words, the strength of story.
My older daughter checked Briar Rose by Jane Yolen out of the library, but something about it spoke to me and I nabbed it while she was at work one day. It recounts a young woman’s quest to discover the truth behind her grandmother’s repeated telling of the story of the sleeping beauty and her insistence, as her mind and body fail, that she is herself Briar Rose. The few clues Becca finds among Gemma’s keepsakes lead her on a long and disturbing journey back to the Europe of the early 1940’s. What struck me about the book is the strength Gemma found in telling the old fairy tale and adapting it in her mind to become her story, and how it enabled her to process and survive horrific evil.
Not long after that, I finally read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which the aforementioned daughter has been waving in front of my face for a couple of years. This book is narrated by Death, and tells of his work during World War II, centering particularly on his repeated brushes with a young girl growing up just outside Munich. Liesel steals her first book before she even knows how to read, on a whim. Books and reading soon become both her anchor in and her escape from the world that is falling apart around her, as well as a means of connecting with people. Another fascinating aspect of this story is how Death reveals himself to be very tender and compassionate.
Literally minutes after finishing The Book Thief, I picked up Brother Sun, Sister Moon – Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, “reimagined” by Katherine Paterson (best known for Bridge to Terabithia) and illustrated by Pamela Dalton. We were walking to the desk to check out at the library when the marvelous cover art and Katherine Paterson’s name caught my eye. Growing up in a non-, even anti-liturgical religious movement, I didn’t know St. Francis existed until I was grown, and I still haven’t read much of his writing. So I didn’t know I was going to find “And though we often fear her, we praise you for our Sister Death, who will usher us at last into your loving presence…” on a two page spread bursting with butterflies ready to soar right out of the book. I might have cried a little. And this, too, demonstrates the enormous power and transcendence of words, to think that something written some 800 years ago still speaks to us, still has the potency to move us.