A little while ago I posted about my uneasy relationship with the academic world over the pursuit of three university degrees. Oddly, throughout all those years spent in classes and reading (or skimming) textbooks, I have not a moment’s hesitancy in saying that 85% of everything I know, I learned from reading novels.
A well-written, well-researched novel can open doors into a time or a place that you could never visit in real life — and even if you could, you’d never see it through the eyes of someone born and belonging there. Novels open the door to professions and problems that are only words on a page until you enter into the experience of people who live with them every day. I passionately believe stories are important, more important than textbooks which can only give you the skeleton of truth. We need flesh and blood and muscle, which is what stories provide.
Recently I picked up, one after another and with no particular plan in mind, three novels set during the second world war. Now, I know my World War Two — I teach it every year in World History. But each of these novels opened a layer of that incredibly complex six year period in history that I either knew nothing, or very little about. Nora Gallagher’s Changing Light brought me into the world of the physicists who worked on a project at once scientifically exciting and morally troubling — America’s first atomic bomb. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet showed me the internment of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. from the perspective of a young Chinese boy whose Japanese friend is taken away from him. And The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, vividly depicted the struggles and suffering of the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey while German forces occupied the Channel Islands.
Each of these was unexplored territory to me. But, of course, learning about the real world through novels only works if the novels are good (which all three of these were) — if the author has managed to make me care about the characters and become involved in their world. If that hasn’t happened, I’d be better off reading a textbook, because the facts are all there but without the emotional engagement they don’t come alive.
This is relevant to me, of course, because in By the Rivers of Brooklyn I want to tell the story of the 75,000 Newfoundlanders who once lived in Brooklyn, New York. They are remembered here, of course — whenever I tell people I’ve written a novel about Newfoundlanders in Brooklyn they tell me stories about an uncle or grandmother or father who went there, maybe died there. In Brooklyn they have disappeared without a trace, forgotten in that borough of immigrant communities who came and put down roots during the early years of the 20th century. I want to bring those stories alive, but in order to do that I have to bring the specific story of my characters to life. If I can’t make you care about Rose’s desperate desire for freedom, or the terrible dilemma Ethel faces when her plans for the future are shattered, or the reasons Annie stays behind when all her family move away — then it doesn’t matter what I have to say about the larger story of Newfoundlanders in Brooklyn.
When a novel works, it works better (I believe) than any textbook ever can, to reveal some previously hidden layer of human experience. But it only works on that level, if it works first as a story, about people, that real people can read and laugh at and cry over.
So far the people who’ve read By the Rivers of Brooklyn are mainly friends and family, or else they work for my publisher, so they can’t be considered unbiased. Now that it’s out there in the real world, on bookstore shelves, I’ll get to find out if it really works, on either level, the way I want it to.