Story Worlds: Places I’ve Been

 

I’ve never been to Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s, and yet I have.

I’ve never been to 19th century London, nor to a workhouse, and yet I have.

I’ve never been to France during Napoleon’s exile and final days, and yet I have.

Not only have I visited these places, but I’ve met the people there. I learned their histories, their motives, their desires.

I felt their sadness, their anger. Their despair, envy, and pain.

 

I’ve experienced all this because I read To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens), and The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas).

J. B. Lippincott & Co.; Wordsworth Editions

Reading these books was the only way I’d ever see these places or meet these people. The authors brought them to life far more effectively than any textbook could have. (Only long after reading the books did I watch the movies.)

Not only did I empathize with the heroes and heroines, but I learned history as well. The easy way. Living through the characters’ struggles helped me better understand their times. I developed a bigger appreciation for the challenges they had to live through.

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A well-composed book is a magic carpet
on which we are wafted to a world
that we cannot enter in any other way.
— Caroline Gordon, author
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I’ve also been to a land called Suala, ruled by Princess Desmia. And another land called Kildenree. Both kingdoms languished until the rightful ruler could be put in place.

Incidentally, those are young adult (YA) novel-length fairy tales: Palace of Lies (Margaret Peterson Haddix) and The Goose Girl  (Shannon Hale). The former title is the third in a series that began with Just Ella.

Just Ella is an innovative version of the Cinderella story. The Goose Girl is a novelized version of the Grimm brothers title with the same name.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk

Author Gary D. Schmidt captures the life and times of Rumpelstiltskin in a similar way. Straw Into Gold shares another way the little man’s story might have unfolded before the queen makes her last guess about his name.

See? Contemporary authors, all grown up, still love fairy tales! They embellish and develop them. They flesh out the characters until they’re sure you’d recognize them if you met them on the street. Though these stories are considered YA, they’re enjoyable for adults, too.

I love many books, but To Kill A Mockingbird is my all-time favorite classic.

The author’s description make the setting vivid. I taste the dust of dry Maycomb, feel the empty pockets of the Depression. I don’t merely catch a glimpse into characters’ souls; I’m alongside them.

I can see Miss Maudie swoop down on her nut grass like “the Second Battle of Marne.” I’m warm and fed after sitting down to Calpurnia’s fried pork chops and crackling bread. I’m dizzy as I roll in the tire with Scout. My heartbeat speeds up with hers as she steps closer to Boo Radley’s house, or watches Atticus in the courtroom. I’m sweating alongside Tom Robinson, hoping against hope that Mr. Finch can pull through for me.

All of this is why I laugh and cry through this book. My heart is ripped out from the injustice of the times, yet warmed by the hero who champions the weak, no matter the consequences.

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A blessed companion is a book – a book that, fitly chosen,
is a lifelong friend… a book that, at a touch,
pours its heart into our own. 
~Douglas Jerrold
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And this is why my friend Cathy doesn’t put her book down even when cooking supper. She stands in the kitchen, open book in hand, wooden spoon in the other, as she stirs potato soup.

She’s happily lost in the Story World.

The heart of the human experience is bound in its stories–true or imaginary. As a teacher of mine once said, good fiction is just as true as non-fiction.

In creating stories, we take the best and worst of our own life experiences, observations, and ideas and jumble them up into a new entity that takes on a life of its own, with characters who seem to breathe the very same air that we do, and experience the same joys and heartaches.

Thus, truth has a new vehicle for reaching out to hungry hearts.

Besides fairy tales, what story has deeply touched you? Which one will you never forget?

Please add your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura

P.S. Coming next: An author whose Story Worlds are steeped in the Old West or WWII history, some inspired by her ancestors’ lives


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12 thoughts on “Story Worlds: Places I’ve Been

  1. In high school, my fantastic English teacher Mrs. Talley didn’t just want us to read To Kill a Mockingbird. She wanted us to become a part of it. The ballad that I wrote for Tom, pleading for the truth, still runs through my head all these years later.
    But even more important, we had to write another chapter–one that would fit seamlessly somewhere in the story. Mine followed Mrs. Dubose’s death and its affect on Jem. (Of course, seen through the young eyes of Scout, she can’t quite get a handle on her brother’s change of heart.) To Kill a Mockingbird will always have a special place in my heart because of those assignments and their effect on me, both as a writer and as a human being.
    More currently? Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. An incredible story of a young woman with a handicap. (Warning: It will make you cry. It will make you want to throw something. But I guarantee you won’t see people the same way again.)

    1. I love that you wrote a ballad for Tom Robinson and your own chapter about Mrs. Dubose and Jem. When I taught creative writing, we read TKAM, too, and I had the students write an original chapter. They also had to write a letter in the voice of one of the characters, from one character to another. I loved reading what the students came up with, how they grasped the characters so well as they wrote them into different dialogs and situations. I hope that TKAM impacted them the same way that you are still impacted by it all these years later.

  2. I feel like the most poignant stories are the ones with strong settings, which usually come out more in fantasy, sci fi, or historical fiction. I remember reading Louis L’Amour stories as a teenager, which transported me to a new world better than many. I read his book “Last of the Breed” about a man escaping a POW camp across Siberia and remembering feeling the cold the character felt, as well as the desperation to survive.

    1. A strong setting with sensory details can make all the difference in how we experience it as a reader. It helps us identify with the protagonist even more.

  3. I can’t choose just one story!
    From my elementary school years it would be Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. Billy’s determination and hard work to purchase a couple hound dogs of his own stuck in my 4th grade mind. My classroom read it together taking turns reading out loud. There was not a dry eye in the room when the last page was read.
    From my adolescence– Sense and Sensibilities. Yes, I love Jane Austen! I learned much from the characters of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood about the plight of women back in the day when marrying wisely was the best hope for a secure future.
    As as a young mom– The Giver by Lois Lowry. I read this with my oldest son when he was in the 5th grade. I loved the discussion it provoked… I especially loved watching the the dawning in my child’s eyes when he understood the importance of freewill and free-choice.

    1. Both of my girls loved Where the Red Fern Grows, read in their fourth grade class–bringing many tears. On the other hand, my boys and I laughed all through Phantom Tollbooth together. But whatever the book, there were always things to talk about, and those things usually came out in unexpected ways over the next few weeks as they continued to process the stories. I loved that.

  4. There were two stories that came to mind when I read your question. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy and A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens.
    I was never assigned Charles Dickens in school (even when I lived in England!), so I didn’t start reading his books until I was an adult. I found Oliver Twist captivating, and then tried A Tale Of Two Cities, expecting to be delighted. Instead, I almost gave up after the first couple of chapters. The beginning had so many characters jumping in, I was often confused, and I found it tedious to read about a sunset for 2 or 3 pages, and then see the two main characters get married in only 2 or 3 lines.
    However, I persevered, and I am so grateful I did! To this day, I still consider A Tale Of Two Cities to be one of the most beautiful stories of redemption that I have ever read. And I rank it along with Tolstoy’s Resurrection. Perhaps it is that I am so in need of redemption myself, but Tolstoy’s and Dickens’ stories reached deep into my soul.

    1. I’m so glad you persevered! And that it paid off! And nobody was standing over you, making sure you finished. I’ve found that being in a book group sometimes motivates me to finish a book that I don’t particularly like at first. Then the discussion brings out new aspects for each of us that we didn’t see by ourselves. But kudos to you for sticking with Tale of Two Cities. Sounds like you were richly rewarded.

  5. A book that Clem and I recently were exposed to is called Love Does. We decided to read this book together and through the laughter and tears of the life stories of the author Tom Goff, we truly came to realize that love is a verb rather than a noun. This book reinforces the themes of your blog and you will find it so refreshing. You will absolutely love this book!

    1. My daughter read that same book, and I believe she took it to heart. I definitely need to read it. Thanks for sharing the impact it had on you.

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