Sunday, January 28, 2007

Listen Deeply

In Stephanie S. Tolan's new novel, Listen!, a wild dog--like a mysterious healing spirit--helps Charley, a 12-year-old girl mourning for her mother, recover from grief and a leg injury that she suffered in a car accident.

It's a slow, frustrating process for Charley, a process that demands that she listen to the world again, a world that she shut out after her mother's death in a plane crash while on assignment for a magazine as a nature photographer.

Tolan develops a reader's sympathy for Charley almost immediately by showing the reader exactly what Charley has lost.

The biggest loss, of course, is the death of her mother, which strikes the core of Charley's being, the root of her spirit.

Then Tolan introduces another loss... a physical injury almost as challenging to Charley as the loss of her mother because this loss steals away her physical foundation. Her injured leg makes life even more wobbly, forcing Charley to rely on others.

But who can Charley rely on? Her friend, Amy, walked away from the accident without a scratch...and then went to tennis camp over the summer, leaving Charley alone with her father and their housekeeper.

Ever since her mother's death, however, her father's been aloof, distant. He works all the time, no longer smiles, no longer has time to play with Charley.

And the housekeeper, Sarita, is somewhat aloof, too, harboring her own grief and memories of a son killed in a motorcycle accident.

So, Tolan opens the story with Charley struggling to return to "normal," even though normal can no longer be, well, normal for her.

And into this world of loss and struggle comes a wild, beautiful dog.

When Charley first sees the dog, she feels "a kind of tremor, as if an electric shock has passed from the dog to her and back again."

Something about this dog--perhaps the dog's independence or the simple fact that he is a survivor--awakens Charley and helps her begin the process of accepting that, despite tragedy, beauty can exist in the world.

As the story progresses, Charley's longing to befriend this dog intensifies, but the dog only becomes harder and harder to tame, resisting all her treats and gifts of food.

Her deep longing for a companion, though, draws Charley into the woods to pursue the dog. And her immersion in the silent woods, a kind of sanctuary where she used to go with her mother, revives memories of their time together and enables Charley to face her loss, as well as the new, painful solitude surrounding her, so she can move beyond the pain.

Tolan is masterful at tracing the subtle changes of grief in this young girl. Not only does Tolan show us Charley healing over time, she lets us see Charley gradually recognize traces of her mother's artistic abilities and vision in herself, as in this passage, when Coyote disappears and Charley worries that she might not find him again:
Charley stops as if she has run into a wall. What if Coyote doesn't come back? What if the image of the road, the cars, was real, and there is nothing left of him now but a body among the weeds, a reason for the vultures that circle overhead to tilt their wings and drop down to the pavement? She never thought, in all these sixty-seven days, to take a picture of him. How could she--Charley Morgan, daughter of Colleen Morgan, nature photographer--not once think to go to her mother's studio, dig through the boxes, find a camera, and take a picture? If he is gone, there will be nothing to show that Coyote ever lived. Nothing--nothing at all--to show for day after day of the effort to tame him, day after day of their growing connection.
This is a story about making connections with the mysterious source of life that runs through every living creature and remains part of the world even after we're gone.

It's about becoming aware of gifts around us, gifts that may be hidden from view, if only because we haven't listened deeply or searched hard enough for them.

In the end, Listen! is about a girl and her dog, each finding a way to overcome solitude and loneliness and share in life's joys together.

As writers, we need to listen like Charley to voices spoken so softly that sometimes we wonder if we're imagining them.

Listen! reminds us to do this: listen more closely to the sound of leaves rustling, waves slapping the shore, our breath moving in and out, a dog's barking.

If we listen closely enough, perhaps we'll hear the sound of a spirit rushing through us, drawing each of us together, carrying us deeper into the mystery of life.

For more information about Stephanie S. Tolan and her work, visit her website at

1 comment:

Jack said...

Nice, the way we get the arc of the story, and can almost feel the thought process of the writer as she develops the problem and its complications, right on through to a satisfying epiphany type of resolution.