Friday, September 26, 2014

Beginning at the End

I just read a life-changing novel. It was written in the flapper era as historical fiction from the Civil War era. It covers the 80 some-odd years of Abbie MacKenzie Deal as she dreams, then dreams of dreaming, then passes those dreams onto her children for an inheritance. She even lives to see the wealthy, ungrateful grandchildren who think her life story is quaint and her work ethic, antique. The writing is amazing, of course, as one would expect from someone named Bess Streeter Aldrich. Everything about this book screams "quaint pioneer book."

On goodreads
So why did I call it life-changing? I guess I'd have to say it was more of a paradigm shift than an actual lifestyle change that it inspired. If you want to experience the paradigm shift yourself, you have to read the book! Today I want to talk about one particular technical aspect of the book that sets it apart.

It didn't start at the beginning. It didn't start in medias res. It started at THE END.

I picked it up and immediately read how Abbie MacKenzie Deal (spoiler right in chapter one as to whom she'll marry) was found dead in her quaint country house, and how all her well-to-do, sophisticated children hurried home in fancy cars and limousines to mourn that she died alone after all she'd done for them.

THE END.

Except that the author had a story to tell, and she wanted us to know certain things about Abbie right off the bat, things we couldn't learn from young Abbie MacKenzie, the Scottish-Irish migrant who dreamed of singing on a stage. Incredibly, to me at least, this knowing the end from the beginning didn't make the story any less impacting. Indeed, the last pages of the book made those first pages more deeply meaningful. How was this accomplished?

First, what we see in the beginning isn't altogether shocking. We know that death for a woman in her eighties is not exactly a twist ending. And her attendance by children who have done well for themselves and become high-functioning members of society is in itself only vaguely interesting. We feel compelled to continue the story, if only to learn why it is that Abbie MacKenzie Deal warrants an entire book. What happened in her life that is so spectacular a book had to be written about it? (Hint: the author has written a great preface about this, as well.)

As we continue reading, we learn that Abbie wasn't always an old woman with fretful, high-society children. She was once a child with dreams of her own--some dreams that came true, and some, which once seemed very important, that never came to fruition. Against the backdrop of the election of Abraham Lincoln (her future father-in-law's odd friend), the Civil War, the martyrdom of President Lincoln, dust, famine, pestilence, and death, Abbie MacKenzie grows up. The choices she makes, the constant ticking of the infernal clock of Time that cannot be stayed, and the tragedy she must face again and again in the deaths of loved ones keep the story as fluid and dynamic as the creek running by her house.

In the last pages, we begin to see signposts, landmarks that remind us we are close to the end... or the beginning, as it were. The entire story becomes a beautiful circle, circumscribing the life of Abbie and all the lives that were touched by hers.

Would I start a story this way, with the main character being found dead? Probably not. I don't think I have the skill to pull it off, much less to make that death somehow beautiful and meaningful in a story that challenges the prejudices of present and future generations. But Bess Streeter Aldrich did it. And I'm an improved person because of it.

Happy Weekend Reading! Read something life-enriching!

3 comments:

  1. Interesting to come across this post at a time that I just started re-reading Lantern! Read it years ago but pulled it off the shelf just the other day :-) It's going to be a good revisit :-)

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    1. Oh, enjoy! I get to attend a ladies' book discussion on this book today, and am really looking forward to it. There's truly much to be learned through Abbie Deal.

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  2. Well now....I think I must get this book, read this book, share this book. Thanks for the recommend!

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