Note: I wrote this for the Inlandia Institute blog (which is published on the Press-Enterprise website) and as an article for the Press-Enterprise book section this Sunday. I’m reposting here because I think teens will enjoy Out There.
While this weekend is the official beginning of the season of hysterical consumerism, it is also the dawn of the season of thanks. We’ve just crossed the threshold—Thanksgiving—and will continue in our journey of gratitude through the new year, when loved ones and the less fortunate move us to act on our better impulses.
Those of us who are ‘bookies’ have another group to add to our gratitude list. Writers. Ask most avid readers, and they’ll tell you that books have saved their lives. They aren’t speaking metaphorically. Through the power of others’ words, readers learn first to live, and then to tell, their own stories.
This symbiotic relationship between readers and writers has been detailed in several recent young adult and adult bestsellers. The most popular recent novel in which a reader seeks a writer is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. So pervasive are the book and the movie that I probably don’t need a spoiler alert when I say that that journey doesn’t go as planned. And yet what a transformational journey it is. Up and coming author Rainbow Rowell does a brilliant job of taking her protagonist on the journey from reader to copycat writer and finally, to a young woman telling her own story in Fangirl. Ruth Ozeki transcends space and time in A Tale for the Time Being to bring together an adolescent diarist from Japan and an author living on a remote island off of British Columbia when the girl’s journal, housed in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washes up on the author’s shore.
This season, in an act of gratitude for writers who toil on worthy but lesser-known projects, why not make a promise to dig deeper and make a connection to authors unknown to you? As a starter, I’m recommending Out There by Sarah Stark, published this spring by the independent Leaf Storm Press.
Out There is the story of Jefferson Long Soldier, just home from two tours in the Iraq War. Wearing the high-top sneakers he’s beaded and a headband he’s finger-crocheted from plastic sandwich bags, he nervously walks on his hands in the Albuquerque International Sunport to engender the courage it will take to cross the “security barrier, to the free world, to Esco and Cousin Nigel and home.” Jefferson senses that there are “snipers in the airport, explosive tumbleweeds on the highway, insurgents in stolen minivans, undercover extremists buying lattes in front of him and single mothers wired for explosives behind.” Yes, his war experience has left him with PTSD, but he has a plan for getting better. He knows that reading One Hundred Years of Solitude throughout his service has saved him. He still has the novel strapped to his chest with an Ace bandage, and many of its words seared into his brain, words that he has recited to fellow soldiers, that he reviewed whenever someone he knew—or had just met—died.
Since One Hundred Years of Solitude has saved Jefferson, he knows that he must find its author, Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez—GGM as Jefferson thinks of him—and ask him the big question, Why? He knows GGM will understand all that he has been through because, upon returning from war, the character Colonel Aureliano Buendía is asked where he has been. He replies, “‘Out there,’ an incomprehensible faraway place. As in, You cannot understand where I have been.”
In taking the road trip from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Mexico City by motorcycle, Jefferson doesn’t know if he will achieve his goal. Garcia Marquez is very sick with cancer and a recluse. Jefferson is not sure where he lives. Yet, as we know, the journey itself is often the destination. The danger, beauty and transcendence of the crossing are illuminated with poetic language. Jefferson experiences both people and events as magically real and otherworldly as GGM himself would have enjoyed. And Jefferson will find what he seeks—that “large, unidentified piece of his spirit” that had gone missing, had remained behind in the war.
Jefferson’s reunification with his deeper being is brought about by his ability to take the language of GGM, which “had been a blanket of comfort ever since the night Ramon from Las Cruces was shot in the throat, two feet from Jefferson,” and transform it. He moves from chanting the novel’s lines as a form of eulogy to altering and rearranging those lines until he has created a paean to life and the living.
While most of us have the good fortune not to have gone to war, we have, in other senses, been ‘out there.’ Writers have brought us back with the right words at the right time—words that we inhabit as they inhabit us, until finally, we speak our own language. That’s worth being grateful for.