Sunday, November 06, 2005

Ripples in a Stream

Have you ever noticed how the ripples in a stream weave together, then pull apart, only to merge like a braided rope further downstream?

These ripples are the currents--the conflicts, themes, and issues--that pull the reader deeper into the stream of our stories.

You can observe these ripples in Ellen Levine's Catch A Tiger By The Toe, her recent novel about 13 year-old Jamie Morse whose life during the McCarthy years is turned upside-down when her father’s accused of belonging to the Communist Party.

Levine first draws readers into the suspicion, heartache, and despair of these years by showing Jamie struggling with the difficulty of lying about her family to her teachers and friends.

Here’s how the story opens:

All I do is lie. Sometimes I think I’m the world-champion liar. Elaine is my almost-best friend, but I can’t have a real one. How can I? It’s one thing to lie to a teacher or a stranger, but to your best friend?
Someday I’m going to make a movie about lies: The Bronx-1953, Worst Year of My Life.

But Jamie’s struggle with truth and lies isn’t the only current rippling through the story. There are other ripples, too, such as her desire to be part of a normal family, as well as her desire to fit into school and not stand out as unusual because of her parents' political beliefs.

As the story unfolds, these ripples merge together, alternately rising to the surface, then disappearing again, shifting in importance during the story in ways that deepen our sense of Jamie's dilemma.

By the end, these multiple currents merge together into not one but two final scenes... one with Jamie sitting with her family and watching her father on TV stand up to McCarthy:

Nobody said a word for several minutes. Then Grandma sat forward in her chair. She pointed to the screen, then turned to me and said, “Politics do not come to you through mother’s milk. You choose who you become.” She pointed again at the television. “Be proud.”
I think I am.

And then, two pages later, the scene that Jamie imagines as the denouement for her movie:

I’ve got an ending. The camera moves along the barbed wire fence. The Crazy Lady is at the gate, waiting to meet Dad when he’s released. She’s got a million dollars in one-dollar bills in that shopping bag she always carries. “Family is family,” she says as she hands him a fistful of money. She takes his arm and says, “And normal is whatever we are.”

These scenes focus on Jamie’s new-found pride in herself and in her family, as well as on her desire to be normal. Both ripples weave through the story as prominent themes, to be sure. But neither relates to the ripple of truth-telling introduced early on.

Or do they?

Jamie’s struggle with lies appears at first to serve as the story's central theme.

But if you trace that ripple through the story, you'll find it resolves itself by the middle of the story, soon after Jamie’s father is accused publicly of being a Communist.

It's at this point in the story that Jamie can no longer hide the truth from her friends or school mates, or from Mr. Bracton, her teacher and the school's newspaper advisor:

“There’s a Morse in the paper this morning, Jamie. Related to you?” Was he kidding? My ears started ringing. Three kids already in their seats turned to look at me.
“Yes. My dad.”
Mr. Bracton turned away quickly and began to do something with his files.
Seems I’ve learned how not to lie overnight...

What's implied in Jamie's lying from the beginning is her status as an outsider. She knows it's not normal to lie. But she cannot stop lying until this moment.

This is where we begin to feel the current shift and enter the deeper water of Jamie’s struggle to love herself and her family as normal.

By the end of the story her father is the one who must battle McCarthy and his committee. But Jamie must engage in her own battle... to determine if she possesses the courage to declare herself "normal" rather than submit to a definition of "normal" imposed by others.

As you follow the ripples and eddies of your own stories, notice how each ripple adds depth and drama to the stream, coloring the reader's perceptions of major and minor issues at play in it.

If you have a chance, take a look at Ellen Levine's Catch A Tiger By The Toe. It's well worth studying for the way Levine weaves together different currents in compelling and, ultimately, satisfying ways.

No comments: