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When I was a senior in high school in 1960, the young people’s magazine of my denomination (Christian Reformed Church) asked me and several other young people to write a paragraph answering a question that went something like this:
“Should Christians (or young Christians) read novels written by people who are not Christians?”
I don’t remember what I wrote except that I said that they should. But I do remember that as I was struggling to write my answer, my mother gave me Calvin College Professor Henry Zylstra’s collection of essays, Testament of Vision, and that book served me well as I wrote my response.
More importantly, it became a valuable resource four or five years later when as a high school English teacher I had to explain to students or school board members or parents why I was teaching a particular story or novel or play.
Why should the student read this novel? Zylstra would say:
“It satisfies a need in himself, corresponds to a world and life, that is, as God’s reality, outside himself . . .“
“The novelist is doing what Adam did in Paradise. . .I mean the naming of created things. . .”
“When you come to think of it, therefore, you will not so far want to deny your humanity, created and renewed in you, as not to give this world of art, of fiction, its due.”
“This point, that fiction is a form of knowledge, seems worth making.”
Eventually, of course, I found other sources that gave me insights on the role and value of literature in the classroom. Most recently I read this in Eugene Peterson’s book Leap Over the Wall:
Story is the primary way in which the revelation of God is given to us. The Holy Spirit’s literary genre of choice is story. . .Story is the gospel way. Story isn’t imposed on our lives; it invites us into its life. As we enter and imaginatively participate, we find ourselves in a more spacious, freer, and more coherent world. . . Story is the primary means we have for learning what the world is, and what it means to be a human being.
I retired from the literature classroom about fifteen years ago, so why am I writing this now? My original reason is that a few days ago as I was leaving “The Fruited Plain,” my favorite coffee shop, I saw a young man reading what looked like a novel.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“My favorite novel,” he said. “I’m re-reading it. Hannah Coulter.”
Well, I took that as an invitation to sit down and talk a few minutes. After all, Hannah Coulter is one of my favorite novels.
“Why do you like Hannah Coulter so much,” I asked.
“Oh, the main character, Hannah, is wonderful, and I just love the life Wendell Berry shows, where people live quite simply, farms are small, neighbors help each other and watch out for one another. It was just a simpler time.”
“Ah, yes,” I said. “What Berry calls the “beloved community.”
Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter, set in and around the fictional village of Port William during and after World War II, gives us a picture of a strong woman living in a community that is rich in love and neighbor-care and generational interaction. But it also confronts us with war and greed and death and a modern education system that educates people away from community.
We talked and it was a pleasure.
I could have said a good deal more about Berry’s “beloved community,” but instead I mentioned that for me his novels were more effective in presenting his vision of farming and the beloved community than were his many non-fiction books on modern agriculture, the economy and community. To be sure, the non-fiction books are important as a practical explanation of how modern farming and government agricultural policies are destructive to community. But to understand why this is so important to Berry, one has to read the novels.
Professor Henry Zylstra might have agreed with me: “Fiction is form of knowledge,” he might have said. Eugene Peterson would certainly have nodded and said, “Story is our primary way for learning what the world is, and what it means to be a human being.”
I have just finished reading Colson Whitehead’s 2020 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Nickel Boys, a book that provides very little joy or comfort or hope, but a book that draws upon historical school records to depict horrendous White on Black cruelty, such vicious cruelty and hatred, that sometimes I had to put the book down for a while.
I returned to it, however, for right now is the time when it is vital that we acquaint or re-acquaint ourselves with the terrible injustice and cruelty of past racism as well as the racism of today. The stories of our country’s racist history as well as its continuing racism need to be told and re-told, read and re-read.
Whitehead notes in a brief “Acknowledgement” that the characters in the novel are his own but that the story was inspired by detailed newspaper reporting about the Dozier School for Boys, a Reform School in Marianna, Florida. He acknowledges that from time to time he quotes from the actual letters of the boys of that school as he writes about his fictional Nickel School. I have no doubt that Whitehead’s use of these quotations in a fictional context makes his story more powerful.
The opening pages of The Nickel Boys show us just enough of the protagonist–young Elwood Curtis–to make us care about him. He’s a curious lad, reflective, inspired by the speeches of Dr. King, eager to get to high school and learn all there is to learn.
Then, suddenly, we see him at the Nickel School, sent there for some trumped up misdemeanor. Here, it seems, the great sin for a young African American is to display an eagerness to learn. For exhibiting this kind of curiosity, young Elwood is subject to heinous punishments. As I said, at times the book is hard to read. I would put it down for a while, but I couldn’t not pick it up again.
Both The Nickel Boys and Hannah Coulter are novels that could be taught in upper-level high school classes. Hannah Coulter might be considered most relevant in rural areas (though the old verities it holds up are relevant everywhere). But The Nickel Boys would be more than relevant in any school in the country because it exposes some of the horrors of our collective past that need to be acknowledged.
It is a wake-up call. After you have read it, you might even discover that you have awoke.