She’d been my junior editor all along, listening to various iterations and offering suggestions. Sometimes I followed her suggestions faithfully. Other times I had to follow my own light. This was especially true when it came to death of characters in the book.
I was reading from Chapter 26, “We must fly, Song of the Wind!” said Mr. Nichols. “Everything depends on speed! Don’t look back, lad, and don’t let Gracie look.” As they sped along the dirt road from the house, the sound of a terrible explosion came from behind. It shook the very ground around them. . .”
“You can’t do that, Grammy! You just can’t do that.”
“But people did die. Sometimes life was really hard for them,” I reasoned. “I didn’t want them to die, but it happened.”
She was insistent. “Okay,” I said. “Tell you what. I’ll see what I can do, but I don’t make any promises.” The result was “The Beautiful Hills.”
In writing it, I drew on my experience leading a doctoral seminar on spirituality and children’s literature at Teachers College, Columbia University. Children from all faith and non-faith perspectives seem to find conceptions of an after-life surrounded by light, love, and family to be emotionally satisfying. When I read my draft of the chapter to her, my granddaughter was satisfied. Interestingly enough, many children tell me it is a favorite chapter.
After one of my friends finished reading The Black Alabaster Box, she e-mailed me.“I loved it. . . I must say that you are very brave, because I couldn’t kill off some of my favorite characters.”
It’s true. Some of my favorite characters experience the harsh reality of life on the Santa Fe Trail. Two die of small pox and four are murdered. (I won’t say which ones–you’ll have to read the book to find out!) I was terribly sorry to see them go. But I was determined to be true to a history in which few people traveled the trails without being witness to or experiencing its grim realities. And, while an author is in control of what happens, sometimes it feels as if the characters and context are calling the moves.
I don’t recommend the Trilogy to youngsters under about ten-years-old. It can be a great read-aloud for a nine-year-old, within the safety of family or schoolroom.
Disease was arguably the greatest killer on the trails, although many people were shot by accident. People drowned in dangerous river crossings as well. Traveling west was not a six week-long camping holiday. And the greatest threat to wagon trains was not American Indians, though there were instances of violent clashes between wagon trains and native tribes.
Youngsters are exposed to an enormous amount of violence on their devices, in movies and on television. But it is one thing to see Batman and Robin going “Bif!” “Pow!” “Shezam!” as they kill off the bad guys and quite another to think about what you’d do if someone in your own family died.
A good story can raise important and difficult issues in ways that can be discussed thoughtfully and with sensitivity at school or at home. It can become a cataylist for “What would you do if…?”
A wise teacher will suggest that if her students have not talked through the “What would you do if? question with their parents, they should do so. It is psychologically important for children and young people to know that should the worst happen, their parents or caretakers have made a plan for how to deal with it. Of course, disaster is not predictable. Plans can be disrupted. It isn’t possible to forsee the future. Hence, discussions are all the more important. Children should know “go-to” people they can rely on, how reach them, and if circumstances prevent them from reaching their “go-to” people, safe contacts.
It is hard for author and readers to accept death of favorite characters in a story. It is even harder to face the certainties of death in the midst of life. But we do it as part of living and learning how to go on. A good story can help us along the way–especially if a caring adult is there to share the experience when favorite characters die.