Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Danger of Thunder

Have you ever found yourself shaken to the core by the crash of thunder?

I don't mean short claps of thunder that sound like toy guns going off next door... or a rolling succession of booms far in the distance... but the intense, ear-splitting explosion that goes off inches above your head.

Such a soul-wrenching explosion can steal your breath away... and, somehow, stop your heart, if only for a moment.. before you are able to regain your senses and run in search of shelter.

That's the kind of thunder Shelley Pearsall shapes into a character of sorts in the climax of her newest novel, Crooked River, about a Chippewa accused of murdering a trapper and held captive in the attic of an Ohio settler's cabin in 1812.

At the heart of Crooked River is this clash of cultures, a clash reflected in two different points of view that Pearsall shares with the reader.

The bulk of the story is related in a straight-forward narrative from the "white man's" view as each day two sisters, Rebecca and Laura Carver, climb the stairs in their cabin to bring food to the Chippewa.

But poetic interludes between chapters represent the Chippewa viewpoint.

Each point-of-view occupies a position outside the other's consciousness, as if poetry and prose represent two different worlds.

Gradually, Rebecca comes to see the two worlds, not as separate, but as sharing a common humanity.

As a sign of her growing change of heart toward the Chippewa, she brings him little gifts--a wild flower, an acorn, a leaf--along with his daily meals, and he gives her keepsakes in return--colorful beads, a delicate feather.

And during the trial, when Rebecca realizes that witnesses are lying to compel a guilty verdict from the jury, she decides to act to save Amik, even if it means going against her strong-willed father's beliefs and her own culture's code of conduct.

On the morning before the hanging, Rebecca borrows clothes from her brother and changes into them before dawn. She plans to climb the gallows and cut the hanging rope so it will break once Amik is strung up.

Meanwhile, Amik--imprisoned in the attic the entire story--places his faith in the Thunder Beings (mythical spirits) to rescue him. He is confident of their power, especially since he has seen them in a dream and feels confident that they will save him.

The climax of the story is a remarkable melding of these two arcs--Rebecca's action and Amik's belief in the power of myths and dreams--which have been building beneath the surface of the story all along.

On the morning of the hanging, a terrifying thunder storm erupts, sweeping out of the sky and wiping out the Carver's cornfield. The storm disperses the crowd watching the hanging, but not before they see Amik's limp body placed in the coffin.

After the storm has passed, everyone returns to the gallows and finds the body... gone.

Like the crowd, the reader is left wondering what happened. Did Amik die? Did someone steal his body? Who--or what--may have rescued him? (Don't worry... Pearsall answers these questions before the end of the story)

Some readers may find themselves objecting at this point to a solution that comes from heaven (a deus ex machina resolution).

Others may find themselves frustrated that Rebecca doesn't do more, or that Amik himself doesn't manage to mastermind his own escape (perhaps with the help of his lawyer and friend, Peter Kelley).

But if you look carefully at the "thunderous" conclusion to this tale, you'll see these two solutions reflect the deep division between the two cultures that's at the heart of the story.

One resolution requires Rebecca to cut the rope... and act to save him, compelled by her conscience to do the right thing for a fellow human being.

The other invokes the Thunder Beings... very real creatures in Amik's world... who come to rescue him, blending fantasy and reality in ways that are true to his consciousness.

Together, these different resolutions show us how two views of the world can co-exist, and attest to a common humanity that all of us share, even when the occupants of each world are unaware of their connection.

The next time you hear the rumble of thunder in your story, take care. A plot that relies on external or supernatural forces to resolve itself doesn't always succeed.

But in the hands of an accomplished storyteller like Pearsall, it succeeds because of the dramatic way that she shaped that external force (the Thunder Beings) into the story earlier, creating a character who Amik--and her readers--could believe in.

For more information about Shelley Pearsall and her work, check out her website: http://www.shelleypearsall.com/.

To learn more about the use (and potential pitfalls) of deus ex machine resolutions, check out:
http://noggs.typepad.com/the_reading_experience/2004/05/in_the_maysumme.html
http://www.write-on.org/story/2003/8/1/143429/2740
http://groups.msn.com/romancewritingtips/endings.msnw

1 comment:

jo'r said...

That was a wonderful story device that Pearsall used, interspersing poetic reflections of the Chippewa captive within the main body of the story narrative told from the settlers POV. It seems the most insightful way to imagine the thoughts and emotions of this man whom most of us can only vaguely know.

From what you’ve summarized, Bruce, it also seems that Pearsall may have used the Deus ex Machina device very effectively too. That surely is a hard thing to bring off and I’ll be anxious to read for myself how she did it. I love it when authors find fresh ways to challenge the ‘do not tread’ areas of fiction. I recently read an article in Writers Chronicle exploring various examples of using ‘coincidence’ in fiction. That device, too, has been disparaged in the past, but some authors can pull it off quite well.

Like some famous writer once said, there are only two ironclad rules for writing fiction, and, unfortunately, both of them have long been forgotten. I love that breathing room.