I am an admitted read-a-holic. I constantly listen to audiobooks, too. There are worse addictions – like Facebook. (I struggle with that! What a time-sucker!) Anyway, back to reading. I’ve been thinking about it a lot: why it is an important part of my life, how it enriches my thinking, why it finds my heart, and how it straightens me out.
I suppose a friend’s recent comment about books in general and novels in particular stimulated this thinking. She said, “I’m having trouble figuring out how a novel could be useful or helpful for anyone.” And that’s when I remembered the two Ruths. The first Ruth is a young mother I once knew, and the second Ruth is Ruth White, author of Belle Prater’s Boy and many other young adult novels.
The two Ruths came together when I agreed to lead a book discussion as part of a Relief Society monthly meeting. (The “Society” is the Mormon Church’s women’s auxiliary.) The hardest part of this assignment was choosing a quality book that would not shock, bore, or overwhelm the participating women. While many were well-read, some were not, which meant I needed a novel that was not too long, too simplistic, too challenging, or too popular.
Because I was a middle school teacher, it was not hard for me to turn to adolescent literature where I can always find rich options that appeal to young and old alike. The reading levels may not be high, but the subject matter can be multifaceted. I decided upon Belle Prater’s Boy as it features fine writing, likable and unlikable characters, charming humor, plus a complex, heart-wrenching theme about loss.
As I recall, all the women enjoyed the book, and our discussion was filled with excellent insights, diverse viewpoints, and intelligent analyses. My friend Ruth’s response, however, was the most touching, but she did not share it that night. I saw her a few days later at her half-sister’s house, and she pulled me aside to tell me how much she loved the book. Ruth then told me she suffered from dyslexia, and her schooling included special education classes where teachers usually read the novels aloud. Belle Prater’s Boy was the first novel she had personally read from beginning to end. It had taken her the entire month, but Ruth read every word.
If that wasn’t enough to start my waterworks, Ruth then shared her favorite part of the novel. It seems that her mother had taken her own life when Ruth was young, and, of course, the event haunted her. But a passage near the end of the book brought a level of understanding and peace to her heart and mind.
In chapter 23, twelve-year-old Gypsy and her cousin Woodrow go to a treehouse to watch the sunrise and to commemorate the day Woodrow’s mother Belle disappeared the year before. During the conversation about their losses, including the suicide of Gypsy’s father Amos, the two youngsters face the fact that their parents left their children on purpose – not because Belle and Amos did not love the two of them, but because “their pain was bigger than the love.”
That choice encounter has never left me. It is one way a novel can be “useful or helpful” to someone.