Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lurlene's Birthright

So today, in addition to the staggering accomplishment of finally finishing The Name of the Rose after 3 months of reading it (I think this book disproved the existence of God, like as an aside at the last minute), I read A Summer to Die, by Lois Lowry. This was a classic of my youth--I remember reading it a few times, and how much I loved it. When I thought of it the other day, I had to look up the author, and I was surprised to find that it was Lois Lowry, who wrote a lot of respected books--The Giver, Number the Stars--and that this was her first book.

So it wasn't the teen tragedy melo-queen, Lurlene McDaniels (Too Young To Die, I Don't Want To Die, Too Young To Want To Die, How Old Is Old Enough To Die?). It's really a much better book than any of hers, because it's not about the acute experience of illness, but rather a more slice-of-life story, in which death is just a part of the changing that goes on in general. It's really kind of a mood-setting story. And it's still very good.

Another interesting thing is that it was written in the late 70s. The sister's illness, which isn't named specifically till the end of the book, is leukemia, and there's a real sense that the reader is expected never to have heard of it. It talks throughout the book about her hair falling out, her face getting rounder, etc., and it's clear that she's undergoing chemotherapy, but that word is never used, either, and the symptoms are presented as though they would be unfamiliar to you, instead of being a recognizable vocabulary of illness. Because of course, chemo was brand new in the 70s, and leukemia had just barely entered the realm of curable.

Another thing this book made me think of is something I've always found interesting to look at--the qualities that make a good protagonist and a good narrator. Meg, the healthy sister, is both in this book. I've always thought that a good narrator should be someone slightly outside the norm, and maybe even outside the action--we should be watching things through the eyes of someone who is not necessarily the center of things. I don't know if that's always true, or even mostly, but I feel like you get a broader picture from such a character. Or maybe it's just that someone who fits that description is likely to start out ignorant, which makes them a good vehicle for the reader, who also begins that way.

The protagonist is also usually someone special--that just makes sense, if only because someone's bothering to tell a story about this person. So even if the person isn't innately great, or interesting, or evil, something different or special is likely to happen to them. Or maybe it's just that we're living with the person, and inside our heads, each of us is special, different, interesting.

There's also the interesting category where you get both--you get the narrator (say, Nick Carraway) who is slightly outside the action, and the protagonist (oh, let's say, Gatsby), who's something different and special and worth watching. A Summer to Die isn't really one of those books, but it feels like one, because, although the whole point is to follow Meg's transformation, that takes place through the act of watching her sister, observing her, comparing herself to her. I haven't fully thought out how this is different, or how it affects her as a narrator, but I think it's interesting in terms of these categories I set up or imagined a long time ago.

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