17 March 2011

Candles in the dark

Last Friday, when we downed tools and congregated for our end-of-week wine, we didn't expect to end up clutching our glasses, huddled round a computer, glued to live footage of tsunamis devastating northern Japan.

Lili Wilkinson has a simple, eloquent post that articulates well what we have been feeling in the week since then.

Sometimes, in the face of terrible events about which you can do nothing, it's hard to keep going with the everyday things. It's easy to come to work and ask, who cares about this comma? Why is this cover important? What do books matter when so many people's worlds have fallen apart?

But then we rally, and we remember that every day life is for living full and well, and that books can offer great comfort in difficult times.

We're thinking not of the warm, easy, old-slippers kind of comfort books - although we love them too - but rather the books that deal with hard things and offer hope. Hope of survival. Hope of rebirth. Hope of ... well, just a little flickering hope. The books that remind us that dark times end, that the human spirit is strong, and that there can even be beauty in great sadness.

Here is a list of a few books that we think are candles in the dark.

Good Night, Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian
As a child I tried to ban anything sad from the house. Books. Movies. Music. Dad wasn't even allowed to sing Oh My Darling Clementine. The fact that it's supposed to be a funny song made no difference. Poor old Clementine being lost and gone forever = TOO SAD.

Good Night, Mr Tom - the story of how small and broken evacuee William, and gruff and broken old Mr Tom transform each other with friendship - was one of the first books that taught me the importance of allowing yourself to be sad. The book has many layers of sadness and many layers of happiness. And just when you think it's all going to end well, the rug is pulled out from under you. And you cry and cry and cry. And then when you can't cry any more, you're given a quiet, softly burning hope. A memory. An acceptance.

The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy
The first of these books - The Good Master - paints an idyllic picture of life on a big ranch in rural Hungary. But in The Singing Tree, World War I rips that idyl to shreds. The Good Master himself, Marton, and his brother, Sandor, are called to fight. Anti-semitism threatens to poison village life. The farmhouse shelters German evacuees and Russian prisoners, and Jansci and Kate bravely shoulder new responsibilities.

But the saddest, most illuminating part is when your mother explains to you that Marton and Sandor - who you have been hoping and hoping with everything you have come home safe and sound - would have been 'enemies' of Australia. And you can never again see war in black and white, but only in greys and muddy browns and blood reds. But also you are comforted that sides don't matter, that 'everywhere eyes of men, women, and children were turning to the same light of hope.'

Very close to the bone for anyone who lives in or loves Melbourne - the shock of reading about the State Library being bombed is profound! But Glenda's writing is luminous, her characters dance on the page - literally and metaphorically - and there is love and friendship and compassion and community even in the wreckage of all else.

The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis
'There is a lion in our village and it is carrying away our children.' The lion in Binti's village is AIDS. And it's not just the children that are dying. The situation is bleak almost beyond reckoning, but the book is warm and funny and matter-of-fact, and Rosanna Vecchio's beautiful cover illustration captures the quality of this light.

Old Pig by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks
Old Pig is dying. But carefully, gently, lovingly she prepares her granddaughter. The colours are soft and the mood is calm. Many of Ron Brooks's books pour the terrible beauty of sadness straight onto the page. I'm thinking of Fox, of John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat and of the Bunyip of Berkley's Creek, which ends with such glorious promise - another bunyip! All may be right with the world after all.

I Am David by Anne Holm
I read this book a squillion years ago, and the finer details of David's journey from the concentration camp are long lost in the warm fog of books read and loved, and kept close to my heart. What remains is the powerful emotion the title evokes. I am David. Yes. A candle. In the dark.

Hana's Suitcase by Karen Levine
This is the only true story on this list. When Fumiko Ishioka, the head of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre, asks the Auschwitz Museum to send her a few objects to help her explain the holocaust to children what arrives is a brown suitcase with the name Hanna Brady on it in white paint. But who was Hanna (really spelled Hana)? And what happened to her? Fumiko's investigation takes her around the world, to Europe, to Canada, to great sadness, but also joy. This book is filled with beautiful photos that bring you very close to Hana, Fumiko and the Japanese children that visit Hana's suitcase.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson
There is a passage in this beautiful book about friendship and grief that basically sums up what we're trying to say in this post. So we'll give the last word to Jesse:
'Now it occurred to him that Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn't Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world - huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile?'


A latte beckons said...

Beautiful books. Beautiful post. Thank you.

Lilybett said...

I Am David and Bridge to Terabithia are both books I read in school and somehow *ahem* failed to return to the book depository at the end of the year. Both made bells chime inside my primary-school head.