We seek leadership from each other, and the cautionary Girl at War (Sara Novic)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

We are, in this country, in a state of profound bewilderment—or the vast majority of us are. Ours has become a land of unloosed epithet throwers, flame tossers, defacers, chanters, emboldened murderers...and the millions and millions of the rest of us who are saying no, this is not who we are, this is not what we want, this is not what our fathers and brothers and sisters and mothers have fought for, this is not the United States, this is not leadership, this is not even remotely "fine."

Without leadership from the top, we seek leadership from each other.

I teach in the spring at the University of Pennsylvania. I take solace, on those Tuesdays, from the students who sit with me—the students who go deep, take risks, find the words, remind me of the future, the students who, in times of great moral peril, remain willing to imagine and empathize and tell the truth.

But I'll have to wait until January to meet them, and between now and then I find myself spinning, lost, then regaining traction through the books that I am reading. Camille T. Dungy's Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History has been alerting, and helpful. Edwidge Danticat's The Art of Death. CeCe Bell's El Deafo. Nina Riggs's The Bright Hour. And, read over a long period of time so that it would not come too soon to its end, Sara Novic's Girl at War.

Novic's much-lauded novel begins with the story of a ten-year-old girl living a tomboy's life in Croatia's capital. Things aren't perfect there, hardly—her baby sister is sick, money is tight, her father and mother are sometimes at odds. But there are still simple pleasures like bike rides with a best friend and the stories her father tells at night. All of which swiftly changes as war settles into this civilized place. Shattered buildings. Underground shelters. Plumes of war smoke watched from a balcony.

On the left, the twin peaks of Zagreb Katedrala stretched taller than all the surrounding buildings. I couldn't remember a time when the cathedral wasn't at least partly swathed in scaffolding and tarps, but that only added to its sense of majesty, its wounds a physical manifestation of the sorrows and confessions of the city. In nights before the war, two spotlights lit the stone towers in dual rushes of warm gold. Now, with the lights quelled in anticipation of a blackout, it was difficult to pinpoint the boundary between the spires and the night sky.

And things are about to get worse, as Ana's baby sister is sent away for medical help, a car blockade derails Ana's life, and Ana finds herself in a safe house learning the mechanics of warfare. Later Ana will be secretly ushered to the United States. She'll struggle to live with her buried past. She'll finally return to the country that was broken by war.

While not an autobiographical novel, Girl at War is an utterly authentic one—a story Novic began writing as an 18 year-old in a college classroom. She pursued the facts in long months spent in Croatia. She kept writing until she found its arc.

The result is vivid, heartbreaking, and not just historical. It is alive with the cautions of what happens when communities allow minor and major differences (a desire for new roads, a hatred for cultural differences) to tear themselves apart. It seemed to me, as I finished reading yesterday, to be an exemplary cautionary tale.

If we let ourselves devolve into the fractions the white supremacists hope we will, we will become a country even more at war with itself. We must, then, lead from within. Lead each other.

I'm teaching literary middle grade and young adult literature next spring at Penn—the writing of books for and about the young that sear into our minds and hearts by virtue of their organic concerns and crafted structures. Sara Novic, whose adult Girl at War won an Alex Award (books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18) will be coming to Penn on March 13, 2018, as part of my curriculum.

(As always, I have Julia Bloch and Jessica Lowenthal to thank for making my guest-list dreams come true.)

I know that seems like a long way off. I know we can't imagine who we will be, as a nation, at that time.  No matter what, mark your calendars. Read her book in the meantime.


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