Year Of Important Books: The Yearling

 

[SPOILER ALERT: I can’t see how I can write about this book and not write about the ending.]

The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, was published in 1938 and spent 23 consecutive weeks as the number-one best seller. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.

It seems strange that this book about a young boy living in the Florida scrub land amidst alligators and snakes sometime around the turn of the century had such an appeal to me, a young girl who lived in a northern Canadian city in the 1960s. So much of it was unfamiliar to me. The boy’s name is Jody Baxter, and his father is called Penny. Both of these were girl’s names in my world. But at least they were somewhat familiar names. Jody’s mother’s name is Ory. The Baxter’s nearest neighbours are a riotous clan of boys and men called the Forresters, with such names as Mill-wright and, Jody’s best friend, the crippled boy Fodder-wing. And they way they talked! I can remember struggling to understand the characters’ dialogue, in passages like this, in which Penny is talking to Jody about where Jody has been for the day:

“Tell the truth, Jody,” he said, “and shame the devil. Wa’n’t the bee-tree a fine excuse to go a-ramblin’?”

Jody grinned. 

“The notion takened me, ” he admitted, ‘afore I studied on the bee-tree.”

I never heard anyone talk like that where I lived!

The setting of the novel, the fertile and dangerous Florida backwoods, filled with plants and animals I could hardly imagine, was as exotic to me as the speech and characters.

I have often puzzled over why I loved this book so much, and so it was with some curiosity that I opened the cover and began to read it once more.

The yearling book

My battered copy of The Yearling. I was shocked to discover that this is actually a first edition. 

By the end of the first chapter I was hooked again. That chapter, in which Jody  goes to his secret glen and builds himself a small water-mill to put in the creek that ran from a hidden spring, brings Jody and the land in which he lives to life in such a way that I was brought right back to my childhood, when everything else but the task in which I was absorbed fell away. It’s beautiful and full of the exuberance of spring and of youth.

The novel begins and ends in this glen, and it covers a year in Jody’s life, a year in which he leaves his childhood behind and becomes an adult. The Baxters work hard to survive but from Jody’s eyes, a boy who does not yet understand the threat of starvation that haunts them, it’s a charmed life and Baxter’s Island (an higher plateau in the midst of the scrub) is no better place to Iive in the world.

Jody is an only child, the six siblings that came before him have all died in infancy or early childhood. This is a sorrow that doesn’t touch him, for, like all children, he is mainly self-absorbed. He longs with all his heart for a pet, something of his that he can love. But Ma Baxter sees only the impediment a pet would bring, especially in the sharing of their own thin rations.

The Forresters and the Baxters have a civil relationship, the two families need each other to survive the harsh existence of the scrub, but the Forrester’s boisterous ways are looked upon with disapproval by Jody’s ma. Fodder-wing and Jody are friends, though; the young Forrester is very unlike his brothers and, like Jody, had a love for the creatures of the woods. But unlike Jody, Fodder-wing is allowed to tame some animals and keep them as pets, and Jody has great delight in seeing these wild creatures up close.

The two families cooperate in a bear hunt (Ol’ Slewfoot is a menace to both families’ livestock) and are set at odds over a love triangle involving a mutual friend, Oliver Hutto, and Lem Forrester. The upshot of the fight over the girl, Twink (again, these names!), is that the Forresters steal the Baxter’s pigs and Jody and Penny set out to find them.

Disaster strikes in the form of a rattlesnake:  Penny is bitten and in trying to save his life he kills a deer, using the fresh liver to try to draw out the poison. To Jody’s dismay the doe had a fawn, whom they are forced to leave motherless.

Penny recovers, and Jody persuades his parents to allow him to collect the fawn from the woods and raise it as his own, and Ma has to reluctantly agree, for it was through the sacrifice of the doe that Penny survived.

Fawn-in-grass

And so Jody and the fawn spend a wondrous summer together, even despite the dark things of life that throw shadows on their idyllic existence, such as the continuing tensions between the Forresters and the Baxters, a flood that wipes out their crops and causes a disease among the animals, and, especially, the death of Fodder-Wing.

Flood

The illustrations in the book were done by Edward Shenton. This is one that depicts the flood. 

Rawlings has a lovely style of writing.  I was struck by how lean and spare the prose was, even in the midst of her lush descriptions of the Florida scrub. I discovered that her editor also worked with Ernest Hemingway, which immediately shed light on her style.  For example, here is a passage where a bear has come into Baxter’s yard during the time when Penny was recovering from the snake bite and Buck Forrester had come to stay, to help out:

Jody shouted, “Give me the fire-pan, Buck, and you do the shooting’.” 

He felt frightened and incompetent. They exchanged on the run. At the fence the bear turned at bay. He slashed at the dogs. His eyes and teeth shone in the spasmodic light. Then he turned to clamber over the fence. Buck shot. The bear tumbled. The dogs broke into a tumult. Penny came running. The light showed a kill. The dogs made a pretense of having done the job, and bayed and attacked proudly. Buck was smug. 

These short, clipped sentences allow us to see the action with our own mind’s eye, without any long-winded descriptions that slow down the narrative. But the whole book is not quite to that extreme. Throughout the book Rawlings expertly gives us enough to help us see and feel what Jody sees and feels, and then gets out of the way. Here’s another passage, where Jody is reflecting on the loss of Fodder-wing as he watched the racoons play:

The sink-hole lay all in shadow. Suddenly it seemed to Jody that Fodder-wing had only now gone away with the racoons. Something of him had been always where the wild creatures fed and played. Something of him would be always near them. Fodder-wing was like the trees. He was of the earth, as they were earthy, with his gnarled, frail roots deep in the sand. He was like the changing clouds and the setting sun and the rising moon. A part of him had been always outside his twisted body. It had come and gone like the wind. It came to Jody that he need not be lonely for his friend again. He could endure his going. 

Jody is beginning to mature, the rough and tumble of life knocking some of the smooth edges off of his childhood. And then the climax of the book arrives, and we, along with Jody, are swept into his final crisis.

Now, I have read this book many, many times as a child. But I can honestly say that I had forgotten exactly what happened at the end. If you were to ask me I would have said that  the fawn (named Flag by Fodder-wing on his deathbed), grew wilder as he matured and one day he left Jody to return to the wild, and Jody had to accept that his childhood friend was gone forever.

That’s probably how I would have written it, to be honest. So you can imagine my shock when I read that Penny, crippled by rheumatism, orders Jody to kill the fawn, as he has escaped the pen Jody built to keep him in and eaten much of the tender shoots of corn, growing to replace what was lost in the flood.

Jody rebels, his love for Flag, so beautifully described throughout the book, cannot allow him to do it, and he fashions a halter and runs away with the yearling deer. But the fawn grows tired of the trek and breaks the halter, and Jody tracks  him back to Baxter’s Island, where he discovers that Flag has eaten even more of the corn, and some of the cow-peas, as well.

Ma Baxter shoots Flag, wounding him, and Jody is forced to track him into the woods, and put him out of his misery himself.

For the life of me I can’t imagine how I could have forgotten this. It is such a shock, the lack of descriptive emotive words to soften the blow making it almost harder to bear. Our hearts are torn along with Jody’s. In his grief and rage he runs away again, thinking to go to Boston, but he nearly starves to death on his ill-planned journey.

He comes back to Baxter’s Island a couple weeks later a young man, with childhood put away. The lessons learned are summed up by Penny, who says,

I’ve wanted life to be easy for you. Easier’n ’twas for me. A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world. Knowin’ they got to git their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearling’. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then? What’s he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.” 

Oh, how I can relate to this, much more than I did when I read this as a child. Which is why this book was so very popular. Jody’s tale, although specific to this unique time and place, is nevertheless a universal one, a journey we all go through.

In that sense it is a timeless story, speaking to us of love and loss, and of the beauty and terror of the world. A simple story about simple people in a simpler time, but full of profound truth. We see that to love is to be cut by the knife of sorrow, and yet the joy of that love is still worth the pain. Hard choices face us in our lives, and the best we can do is to face them with courage and dignity.

And the sadness that we experience does not have to break us, but instead make us stronger by its having touched us.

I am very glad to meet The Yearling again, for in my re-reading of the book these truths came to life for me once more.

And it reminded me that if we are very lucky, we can keep a secret place in our hearts where we can romp with the carefree abandon of a child, a place where the wonder of life can make us spin like a top on a sunny spring afternoon, to fall exhausted and happy on a bed of fresh green grass.


Writing take-away: Write the truth, for even though it is not always safe, the truth is always good. (with apologies to C.S. Lewis).

Bonus: To my very great delight, a few years ago I discovered that one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Andrew Peterson, had written a song called The Ballad of Jody Baxter. It’s as haunting and beautiful as The Yearling, and I leave it for you as a special treat.

Next month: I am going to reluctantly leave Baxter’s Island behind, although I would dearly love to linger there awhile longer. But I’m off to an altogether stranger place, where nothing makes sense, not really. I’ll be revisiting Alice in Wonderland, and I hope you will come down the rabbit hole with me!

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Introducing: The Year of Important Books

So…I have been hinting about this for awhile, but today I am revealing my new series for 2016. Without further ado, I present my Year of Important Books.

If you are a reader of any sort, you will understand me when I say that I have books that I consider old friends. Most of these books on my reading list for this year are ones that I have known for most of my life, in fact longer than any person  except for my family. Hence, Important. At least to me. But why?

These are mostly classic books, read in my childhood (and a couple from my teen years), that have stayed with me all these years. They are books that I read and re-read over and over. They occupy high holy spots in my heart, and I approach them again with a sense of some trepidation.

All of these books are ones that captured me as a child, and I want to revisit them to see if I can determine exactly what it was about them that made them so special to me. I worry that by reading them again I will somehow undo their magic, after all, what if I discover a favourite book of mine, cherished all these years, isn’t really all that good, now that I read it again with adult eyes?

This is a possibility, but am forging ahead anyway. My experience last year of re-reading so many of the books by Lewis that I loved way back when has encouraged me to think that reading these books will only deepen my appreciation of them rather than cause me to turn them aside.

But I don’t know for sure.

One thing I do know. These books played an important part in the making of me. They were books I turned to over and over again, when my stock of library books ran out and I still had a week or more to go before my parents trooped us to the library again. Most of these books were discovered by me in the best kind of treasure hunt, as I searched through dusty bookshelves to find something to read. I had two older siblings (much older, my older sister is about 17 or so years older than me, and my brother a couple years younger than that), and most of these books were theirs, abandoned by them as they moved out of childhood.

These books taught me that you definitely don’t judge a book by it’s cover, for many of them are old and ratty and tatty, but I grew to appreciate the special thrill of finding a wondrous story between battered covers.

librarian books-thumb-296x170-130351

Many of the books I am going to read this year look like this. Just looking at this picture makes me happy.

You have probably read many of these books, but if you haven’t, I hope that you will be inspired to either read them yourself or to buy them for your kids or grandkids. They will thank you for it!

Along with trying to discover why these books wove such magic on me, I will also see if I can learn anything about the writing craft from them. Writers are often given the advice to study books you love to see what makes them work. I won’t be dissecting these books with too sharp of a scalpel, but if there is something in particular that I think I can use as a take-away for my own writing, I will let you know.

My first book will be up on the blog next week, and I’m really excited to share it with you. It’s Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling.

I hope you join me.

 

Re-post: What’s it all about, then? 

Today I’m flying home from sunny climes back to the chill of winter, so I thought I would give my holiday brain a rest and take this opportunity to re-post something from last year. Since I have picked up some new followers over the last few months (thank you, and welcome!) I thought this post about my fantasy trilogy might be a good one to revisit. Enjoy, and I’ll be back with new content next week!


I realize that there are many reading this blog – most, actually, who only have a vague idea of what my trilogy, tentatively titled, The Traveller’s Path, is all about. Some, or maybe all, of the following are likely what you have surmised is included in my books:

Dark Ages
fantasy
time travel
something about monks?
are there faeries in there?
I confess that I have kept the details of my novel pretty close to my chest. There are a couple reasons for this. First of all, I know this about myself: if I started talking to people about this “great idea” for a story and even just one person said, “That sounds really dumb”, then that would have been it. Especially at the beginning of my writing journey. Lack of confidence in my own abilities and in my story wasn’t here, and so I would have been stopped before I even started. To avoid talking about your story until you are sure of it is advice often given to writers, and I think it’s good advice.

The truth is, most story ideas need a lot of fleshing out before they can stand on their own. This one was certainly one of them. The first nugget of my novel came from two things: the privilege of seeing in person the exquisite Lindisfarne Gospels, made by monks on Lindisfarne Island in the 7th century AD, and the book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill. Seeing the Gospels, so much more fantastic in person then in any illustration I’ve seen in books, struck a spark of curiosity in me about the incredible talent and artistry of these monks, and about their devotion that produced one of the most beautiful works of art ever made. All done by one monk, in a cold drafty building at the edge of the known world. Cahill’s book opened my eyes to the importance of these monks in preserving the wisdom and literature of ancient civilizations after the fall of the Roman Empire and disseminating them again throughout the Continent after the chaos of the early Medieval period.

Seeing the Gospels and reading Cahill’s book happened years apart, and it was years after that when I first started typing my novel’s beginning. The final propulsion for beginning the book came from another author, the wonderful Diana Gabaldon. I was a huge fan of her Outlander series, and so was delighted to read her Outlandish Companion, a book she wrote about the “behind the scenes” of her books – more information on the characters, setting, and most importantly to me, her writing process and an account of how she wrote the book! She revealed that she wrote the first one just to see if she could. Writing a book was something I always wanted to do, too, and so I finally screwed up my courage and began. Online workshops, lots or reading, and practicing writing by writing short stories followed, all with the goal of getting some competence in the craft before starting a novel. I gained some confidence and got some stories published along the way.

And then it was now or never; time to get started. Thanks to Cahill’s book and the Gospels, I knew I wanted to write “something” about those two things. But what? And of course, I love fantasy – how to fit that in, too? I have always loved “portal” fantasy – books where the main character is someone from one time/place who is mysteriously transported to another. Especially ones where the main character is someone from our world. So, time travel of some sort was going to be needed.

Those were the three elements that I began with, and it was enough to get me going. I am definitely a “pantser” , a term for someone who writes by the seat of their pants. In other words, no outlining, just get the words down. I have huge admiration for outliners, and I have learned to do this more as I’ve gone along, but my best writing comes when I’m just as mystified as anyone else as to how the whole thing is going to end.

Time travel. Irish monks. Dark Ages Britain. Research, research, and more research. I found fascinating tidbits along the way that fit my story perfectly. For example, at first, a major storyline of my book was going to be the preservation of an important literary work, saved from the destruction of the library of Alexandria and brought to the monks at Lindisfarne. So, I had to have my story start just after its destruction in 642 AD (yes, I know, there is scholarly disagreement about this, but that’s for another day. Or blog post.).

I discovered that Northumbria, where Lindisfarne is located, was a very interesting place that year. Oswald, Bretwalda (High King) of Britain, had just been killed in battle after reigning some ten years. His half-brother, Oswy, had managed to get enough support from the high-class thegns and earldomen to take Oswald’s throne. Hmm. A new king? The old order disrupted? An ambitious rival, the pagan king Penda, flush with victory after killing the powerful Oswald, rumbling along Oswy’s border? Uncertain times make for a great setting for a novel, don’t you think?

At first I sailed along with the idea that my main character, Thomas, just “somehow” arrived in Dark Ages Britain. He’s fallen and hit his head and he doesn’t remember what happened. Yes, bad, bad, I know. But thrilled with all the other aspects of my story I went with this for a little while until my inner reader sat up and took notice. “Wait a minute,” she said. “You have to explain how Thomas got there. Never mind all that bosh that it’s too hard to figure it out. Are you a writer or not?”

Gauntlet thrown. Think, think. And one day the solution presented itself, which happened to be the answer to another question that I had thought idly about here and there for a long time. But, as Riversong* would say, “Spoilers!” so I’ll leave that out for now. Suffice to say the Fey invaded my story and then things really got interesting.

So.

Dark Ages
fantasy
time travel
something about monks
the Fey with all their sneaky, subtle, shenanigans, but with a little twist
Now you know a little more about my books. Yes, there is more than one. I got to the end of the “first” one and realized I had written enough for three. That darn “pantsing” thing again.

I will post again about some of the characters and more about the story, but that will wait for another day!

*For those who don’t know, Riversong is a character from Dr. Who, one of my favourite TV shows.

Picture credit: “Autumn” by Alice Popkorn, on Flickr. The cross and the crows….this is such a perfect picture for my book, I can’t even tell you!

Have any of you followed your dreams and done something you have always wanted to do? Tell me about it!

Year of Reading Lewis: wrap up

It’s been quite the year journeying through old favourites from C.S. Lewis and discovering a new one. I’m wrapping up this series, but before I leave Lewis I wanted to give you my final reflections as I look back over the year.

  1. Profound gratitude that I discovered C.S. Lewis in my early, formative faith years. I did not grow up in the faith. My parents could charitably be described as agnostic. Religion was never discussed in my house, I never set foot in a church service until I did of my own volition when I was in junior high, through a series of events too complicated to describe here. But once I had made that leap of faith, I turned to books to make sense of what Christianity was all about. The Bible, of course, but being a reader, I naturally searched for other voices who could extend a hand to me as I took my first steps in this new country I found myself in. I knew very little about Christianity but I knew enough to know that perhaps the best place to start would be with the classics, the tried-and-true teachers whose works had stood the test of time. So I read Bonhoeffer, J.I. Packer, Watchman Nee, even Bunyan. And in the midst of my reading I stumbled across Mere Christianity, and found my lifelong mentor in C.S. Lewis. His explorations of Christianity felt so much like my own, and it was refreshing to journey with him through the philosophical groundings of the Christian faith. He helped me to see that my faith could interact with reason and intellect and not be left wanting. This was really important to me, as I couldn’t just accept something because someone told me to. It had to make sense to me in a way I could defend to myself and others outside of a religious context. Lewis gave me the permission and the framework to be able to do this. He also helped me to understand that my faith, to be authentic, could not be just something tacked on to my life, but the very ground on which I stood and the lense through which I saw. As he says,“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

2. The enduring relevance of his work. Lewis’ books of  fiction, philosophy, and faith are still popular today, because he speaks to us in a way that we can all understand, using imagery that brings difficult concepts to life in an accessible manner. The Screwtape Letters could have been written as a  non-fiction treatise on temptation, for example, detailing what to avoid and why. Thankfully Lewis gave us Screwtape and the Lower Hierarchy of Hell instead. The same with Perelandra, and it’s exotic presentation of a pristine world where sin is “crouching at the door”. And there is no debating the impact that Narnia and its great Lion have had on so very many people. In the twelve books I read this year, there was only once where I could see that people could dismiss his words as being old-fashioned or out of touch, and that was the section in Mere Christianity on marriage. However, in reading A Grief Observed I suspect that the reality of his marriage to Joy Davidman tempered those theoretical words he wrote some years before.

The sheer volume and diversity of his body of work. C.S. Lewis was one of those rare authors who could write academic works, non-fiction, and fiction and make it all interesting and compelling. This is no small feat.  He had a busy life outside of writing – he was an academic who was furthering his career, teaching and writing academic papers, mentoring students, etc and yet he also managed to write an astonishing 74 books (some published after his death).

4. The bright ring of truth. C.S. Lewis is popular not only because he can write so very well about topics that are difficult for us to understand in the hands of lesser writers, but because you can hardly go two or three sentences before something he writes strikes you – whether as an affirmation of something you knew but could hardly articulate, or as a challenge to an assumption you didn’t know you had, or as a fresh new truth that you had no idea was there but was so very obvious once he presented it. Lewis presents to us a God who is very much a lover of mankind, one who gave us His only Son to woo us, and yet one whose love for us demands nothing but the best from us in response, because ultimately that is for our good.  As he says,“The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that  God will make us good because He loves us.” This is the God of the Bible, difficult and mysterious at times, yet always the God who can be found for those who seek for Him. Lewis doesn’t let us get away with platitudes, he forces us to examine what we really believe and why. He brings us to truth, and makes us realize that truth for its own sake is all very well and good, but it is worth nothing until it becomes a truth that changes your life.

I am not done with C.S. Lewis. There were too many books of his that I didn’t get to read this year. I forsee a Year of Reading Lewis, Part 2, probably in 2017. But for this year I am taking on a new series….tune in next week for the Great Reveal!

 

A Year of Reading Lewis: The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce was first published in the Anglican newspaper The Guardian as a serial in 1944 and 1945, and was published soon afterwards. The title refers to William Blake’s poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Lewis has this to say in his preface, which touches on some of the themes to be found in the book:

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum can be put right:but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, ‘with backwards mutterings of dissevering power’ – or else not. It is still ‘either-or’. If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.

CSLewis_TheGreatDivorce

The cover of the first edition.

The novel begins with a man (who is never given a name) wandering through a grey and dingy city, ending up in a queue at a bus stop. The people waiting with him are by turns quarrelsome and disagreeable. By and by a bus appears and after more grumbling the passengers alight.

To the man’s astonishment the bus begins to rise up and up, passing between huge cliffs and hours later finally settling on their tops, into the Bright Country, where the truth is revealed that all the passengers are in fact Ghosts, including the man, and that the bus has brought them from Hell and has arrived in Heaven.

It is a difficult country for the Ghosts to navigate, as their insubstantial forms have a hard time coping with the hard reality of Heaven – the grass is too sharp for their feet, and a leaf is heavier than a sack of coal. Far out on the horizon our Ghost sees a High Country, a great range of mountains behind which the sun is starting to rise, throwing long shadows behind everything in the lower country. From the heights of the mountains a procession of bright, solid people come down to meet the Ghosts, and the rest of the novel basically consists of the conversations the Ghosts have with the Bright Spirits, who are there to meet the Ghosts and escort them to the High Country, if they are willing.

And there is the rub. Most are not. The Ghosts give various excuses to the Bright Spirits why they do not wish to accompany the Spirits, and in these  conversations Lewis presents to us the choices that we all make every day that lead us towards Heaven or Hell.

great-divorce-3

The narrator has his own Bright Spirit come to meet him, who is revealed as the author George MacDonald. If you know anything about C.S. Lewis, you will know that this author had a profound influence on his writing and on his spiritual life. In fact, Lewis himself said, “I don’t think I have ever written a book where I did not quote from him.” MacDonald appears in this book as a type of Virgil to Lewis’ Dante – a guide through the regions of the Afterlife in which the Ghost finds himself.

This is a clever, clever book, at turns funny and tragic, and always thought-provoking. I was uncomfortably aware that some of the Ghosts resemble me. Their prevarications and excuses strike close to home. And I realize that  I have heard one form or another of these conversations all my life. To give you a taste of this, here is part of a conversation between one of the Ghosts and a Bright Spirit, who, while he was alive, murdered a common acquaintance of them both:

“…If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that’s their look out ,”[said the Ghost]. “But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I?  I don’t’ want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.”

The other shook his head. “You can never do it like that,” he said. “Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.” Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it. 

“What isn’t true?”asked the Ghost sulkily. 

“You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter. There is no need to go into it all now.” 

“You!” gasped the Ghost. “You have the face to tell me I wasn’t a decent chap?” 

“Of course. Must I go into all that? I will tell you one thing to begin with. Murdering old Jack wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment and I was half mad when I did it. But I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. I used to lie awake at night thinking what I’d do to you if I ever got the chance. That is why I have been sent to you now: to ask your forgiveness and to be your servant as long as you need one, and longer if it pleases you. I was the worst. But all the men who worked under you felt the same. You made it hard for us, you know. And you made it hard for your wife too and for your children.” 

” You mind your own business, young man,” said the Ghost. “None of your lip, see? Because I’m not taking any impudence from you about my private affairs.” 

“There are no private affairs,” said the other. 

 Ouch.

Besides these conversations, which contain many layers of meanings, the other thing I really love about this book is the picture of the Afterlife Lewis presents here. He is very careful in the preface to state that this is a work of fiction, and that nothing in the book is meant to be an absolute authority on what Heaven or Hell is really like. But the concepts here intrigue me. Hell is the place where all the worst of humanity is found – not so much the violence and evil we might think (although that is there but in a slightly sad and desperate way) but the pure egoistic selfishness that results in the Ghosts continually moving further and further away from each other, so that the ones who arrived first are the furthest out in the fringes of that country, all alone and as far away from the others as they can be.

Lewis likes to play with the idea of time in his novels, we saw that a bit in the Space Trilogy, and especially in Narnia, where the Pevensie children grow up to adults in that country but when they go through the wardrobe they are back to being the children they were when they first entered the wardrobe. In the Narnia books this is a nod to the idea often seen in fairy tales, that time works differently in fairy-land.

In this novel, George MacDonald tries to help the Ghost understand that time is an altogether different thing in Heaven, and that thinking in temporal terms about spiritual matters is not helpful. As he says,

“Son,’he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, : and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”

The Ghost questions MacDonald about the seemingly unfair reality of Hell – why does God send some there and not others? MacDonald helps the Ghost to see that it is not God who sends people to Hell, but the people themselves choose it for themselves (which is made clear in the novel, as most of the Ghosts find Heaven a most disagreeable place for one reason or another and get back on the bus):

“Everyone who wishes it does. Never fear. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

He explains that God is not silent, He is entreating the lost to turn towards Heaven, but they are deaf to it:

“Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.”
As I read this book I found myself remembering little snippets of it, concepts that have stuck with me.  These ideas of Lewis’ –  the backwards-transformative nature of eternity, how we all choose Heaven or Hell as opposed to being “sent” to one place or another, the hard reality of Heaven as opposed to the insubstantial nature of reality as we know it now – these are ideas that I knew I had picked up from Lewis somewhere and was delighted to find all in one place, in The Great Divorce. It shows you the impact this book had on me the first time I read it, when I was a young adult, and I am pleased to say it was just as thought-provoking and spiritually rich this time around as well.

A great read, with profound insights. Highly recommended.


Well, somehow the year has flown by and here we are in December, heading to the close of my series. I do so with a mixture of sadness and satisfaction. Sadness that the series is coming to a close, and yet satisfaction that I had the chance to both revisit books by C.S. Lewis that I had previously read and discover a new one. I thought I would read more of the ones I haven’t read yet…the year slipped by so quickly and I got enthused about re-reading books I had loved in the past, so the only “new” one to me was The Abolition of Man. But that one gave me lots to chew on!

I will do one more post on this series – it will be a reflection on my experience of reading C.S. Lewis, and as well I will introduce my new series for 2016. I hope you will stick with me!

Thank you so much to all of you who have journeyed with me through the works of this marvellous author, I hope in some small way I have encouraged you to pick up some of his books for yourself. I can’t imagine you will be sorry if you do.