Observe Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old hero of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Oskar’s father was killed in the attack on the Twin Towers and Oskar himself is just as shattered. Alone, he wanders New York for months, seeking the lock for a key he believes was left him by his father, keeping his profound terror at bay by wearing all white clothes and banging on a tambourine. Oskar is a diminutive child with immense impact. Safran Foer takes poetic license as his due and employs suspension of reality as a given. Yet I found Oskar, grieving and determined, completely believable. I’ve raised two sensitive sons who didn’t always do what was expected or take the easy route. They and Oskar remind me often how to be thoughtful of others whose condition I may have judged through my own harsh point of view.
My oldest grandson, hesitant, cautious, brilliant, and imaginative, could be Oskar. My oldest granddaughter, reckless, independent, creative, and fearless, could be Oskar. I’ve taught and mentored so many children over thirty-plus years, that I know the quirky kid whose lens is smeared, is the one who sees things accurately. Wearing white is a symbol of projecting peace while making noise routs the monsters under the stairs and makes them scrabble to darker corners. I read the book ten years ago and still recall many details, imprinted on me because they resounded with me. I care about Oskar enough to have remembered his story. He’s a sympathetic character.
We identify with sympathetic characters. Against the odds, we love these people. We ache for them, cry with them, wish they would wise up, and hope they prevail by the end of the book. They remind us that to be flawed is to be human, to cower is to yearn, to try to be heroic we sometimes end up an ordinary schlub.
Nothing ordinary about my next sympathetic character. It’s Death, usually portrayed in a hooded cloak covering his entire body, only his skeleton hand showing around the grip of his curved scythe, perhaps a ghoulish grin on his skull face. We all fear him. He has no mercy nor any compassion for the people he takes with a slash of his scythe, nor for the ones he leaves behind.
But this isn’t the Death in Markus Zuzaks’s The Book Thief. Death is a gentle creature who lifts the soul out of the body and carries it away in his arms. In his words:
I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see – the whole spectrum…It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax…
The smiling teddy bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood. A few minutes later, I took my chance. The time was right.
I walked in, loosened his soul, and carried it gently away.
All that was left was the body; the dwindling smell of smoke, and the smiling teddy bear.
…It kills me sometimes how people die.
This Death is an observer who lingers, one who is haunted by the humans whose lives he changes, for those who are left behind. He connects with the people who don’t even know he’s there. My mom lives in a residence for those who suffer with memory loss so severe they can no longer communicate in any familiar cognitive semblance. I hope that when my mom’s ravaged body finally lets her go, this is the Death who comes for her and lifts her soul gently. Oh, I hope it for myself as well one day. And because this Death is so tender and merciful, I feel kinship with him. What a terrible job he does so well, another sympathetic character.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is on its surface a story of the last generation of Chinese girls whose feet were bound, crippling them but making them desirable brides. Lily and Snow Flower are pledged as laotong, improvised sisters by the incidence of the constellations at the time of their birth. They suffer together the excruciating pain of the binding process. They spend hours with each other locked in the women’s room, and when apart send each other secret letters inscribed on the pleats of a fan, written in a poetic cipher called nu shu. Lily eventually realizes that she’s been duped into accepting Snow Flower as her better when it was Lily all along who deserved the most honored position.
Or was Snow Flower’s duplicity meant to protect herself from a terrible life while convincing Lily of their equal status? Each of these same-same friends looks in a mirror and sees a lie, but each also sees deception where perhaps there was only a miserable social condition thrust upon them by centuries of cultural restrictions so bizarre that little girls’ feet were broken to make them attractive to men. Bound feet, bound lives, secrecy, and social position enslave the girls while their fan hides their deepest longings. I kept a diary as a kid, a journal now, and I write stories that reveal aspects of my life. Couched as fiction, you’ll never know when I dissemble or lie or if I tell the truth. I’ve had best friends and left some of them behind, painfully, when the relationship changed too much for us to bear. I’m not always honorable, but nearly always beset by flaws. Noble and damaged, Lily and Snow Flower are both sympathetic characters.
Books about sympathetic characters are readable because we find ourselves on the pages, sometimes with a guide to redeem our own sorry selves.
See you on the pages in between.