I read a book a few months ago that’s not relevant now (in the sense, it’s not on the New York Times bestseller list) and I didn’t think I’d like it. I looked at the cover and thought: No.
I was wrong. You literally cannot judge a book by its cover.
The book is Saving Grace by Lee Smith. It tells the story of a family from the South. They are very poor and very religious. It’s set in the Appalachians and there’s revivals and snake-handling throughout the narrative. The religious fervor of these people, particularly the father, is terrifying. The author puts the reader right in the midst of it and Smith weaves a tale of how religion is everything to the patriarch, as long as it suits him and his agenda.
Florida Grace is a young girl and we see what’s going on in her world through her eyes. Despite her being uneducated and naive, she is very astute, intelligent and observant. She questions why God allows this and doesn’t allow that. She grows up around adults who do many acts in the name of God. Grace’s internal monologue draws the reader in—she questions God, the very thing she’s been taught to revere. She is fearful of this entity fashioned from bits and pieces of the Bible; her father picking and choosing passages that reinforce his beliefs.
From that reverence comes an enormous sense of guilt. So much so, that it stays with her. Her guilt, at times being so weighty, takes her down a destructive path. The ending is heart wrenching.
This isn’t a beach read. It’s a slice of life glimpse into a population that is rarely remembered. Smith dares to go there and she does so, with finesse and empathy.
Florida Grace’s story, so integral to who she is, so interwoven into her life’s path and story, swallows her up.
Striking a Chord
I think we’re all drawn to stories that we can somehow relate to. I’m from the South and perhaps that’s why this resonated with me so much. The point of Smith’s story, as so many great writers try to do, is put the reader in a place where the emotion of a character becomes the reader’s emotion.
This is a great feat and in the hands of a writer who does it so smoothly, it’s like magic. I love being transported to another place and learning, often through fiction, what it would be like to live there, grow up, understand how it could mold me into another form of myself.
One of my favorite quotes is from Rebecca Harding; “One little turn of the rudder and the ship goes to heaven or hell.”
Isn’t that the truth? I always try to think of that before I leap to judge too quickly. I don’t always succeed but I try. The older I get, the more I understand how crucial it is that I do. Things aren’t always what they seem. Neither are human beings. I think we all try to do the best we can with what we have and our “best” is determined by a whole set of variables; all the hows, whys and whats of who we are; our place in the world. My mom always said, “You do better when you know better.”
I think this is relevant now and has been throughout history. We’ve all watched change, some good, some not so good and depending on who you talk to, things are going to hell in a hand basket. To others, it’s about time! But, if you think about the enormous good that has come from upheaval and change over the centuries, it’s amazing.
Change comes from all kinds of individuals from all over this country. It’s not dictated by a particular region or state. It’s made up of a rainbow of voices from every corner.
The Point Please
The point of my post is to invite readers to remember that we all have our stories. Sometimes we forget to listen to others and they forget to listen to ours. The result is a standstill, neither bending or empathizing with the other.
I wrote a paper way back when while attending a small community college. It was sociology and I loved that class. The instructor informed the class that “I got it,” and asked me to read my paper in front of the entire class. Face burning and voice trembling, I did so. I’m sure that’s why I remember it so well. I was singled out for doing something good.
We remember those good things and the worst ones as well. I guess that too, is human behavior.
My paper was about Max Weber and his introduction of the concept of verstehen, which literally means “to understand.” Of course his theories were met with criticism by others, those others believing it’s impossible for one culture to fully understand another.
That may be true to some degree, but I think we can do a good job of it if we really try. That means everyone, even the ones we don’t believe are worthy of respect for whatever reason we’ve deemed them as such. They have their life stories as well. If we try to put ourselves in someone’s else place and look at the world through their eyes, maybe we can understand why they are the way they are and go from there.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort.
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Happy Monday everyone. Have you read any books and stories lately that have moved you? Movies? Have you ever judged a book by its cover (literally or metaphorically) only to find out you were wrong?