Friday, August 24, 2012

When the Cavalry Ain't Coming

You know what's BS about Pandora's Box? 

You (or at least I) grew up hearing about how she opened the box and let every imaginable evil out into the world - war and death and disease and inner-ear zits and all the rest - but then she closes the box and hey, it's okay, because HOPE is still inside.

Well hold on there, Sparky: if Hope were still in the box, we wouldn't have it out here in the real world, right?

I've always preferred the scholars who translate that word, elpis, as Expectation.  Without Expectation - without actually KNOWING how we're going to die or what-all's going to happen to us in the meantime - we have a chance to go forward optimistically, to live the Eric Idle creed and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life... because hell, you never know; today might really be better than yesterday!

Which is why, when done well, historical fiction can REALLY put your emotional knickers in a twist.

Take this book here: Between Shades of Gray.  (And no, I don't know what Ruta Sepetys thinks about E.L. James, but I would LOVE to see a cage-match for title rights.)  It's about a young Lithuanian girl named Lina, who's taken from her home by Soviet police in the summer of 1941, and condemned to a brutal Siberian labor camp, along with thousands of other political prisoners.  At first glance, it's one of these Very Important Books that get big applause on the YA circuit, because it highlights and humanizes an especially horrendous period in history in a way that's accessible to young folks today.

So there I am, reading along with my 9th-grade tutoring student as the atrocities mount and the body count rises, and I start feeling my old Anne-Frank instincts kicking in.  "Come on, Lina - just hang in there 'til '45, and then G.I. Joe and the Allies are gonna come romping and stomping through there and everything'll be... wait, hold on."

I actually had to go look it up, because - come on, how much did YOU learn about Lithuanian history?

And I tell you what, friends, that one Google search got me right in the breadbox.  No stars and stripes for these poor souls: Lithuania and the other Baltic states were swallowed whole, annexed by the USSR (you remember, those other guys who were so helpful in blowing up the Death Star that we went halfsies on Germany), and the pathetic fraction of those millions of stolen citizens who survived internment weren't pardoned until 1954.   The Baltic states didn't reappear on the world map until *1991*. 

Which means that in all probability, Lina wouldn't live to see her country resurrected.  (No spoilers for the book here - its scope doesn't extend nearly that far.)  She and the millions whose experience she represents would have lived the remainder of their lives as second-class citizens, slowly smothered to death by age and unrelenting censorship. 

But okay, that's maybe not news: if you one-upped me and stayed awake in fourth-period history class, you knew all that already.  You would crack open this same book already knowing how the broader strokes of the story will play out, even if you don't know what will happen to the individual characters.  (There's that Expectation thing again: for the Baltic prisoners as a whole, it's already flown the coop - we know how things will turn out for them - but hey, Lina and her family might still make it somehow!  Turn them pages faster, damn you!)

Instead, what I want to point out is how, when we see tragedy like this in historical fiction, it's so often played in a "damn, just missed it" context.  All Quiet on the Western Front, Grave of the Fireflies, The Plague  - hell, even Titanic sucks you in with this timeless trope, that better days are just around the corner for anyone who can make it that far.

But I think we can get just as much moral mileage, if not more, out of stories on the other side of optimism: when the author (of the novel or the history book, either one) has made it clear that there's not going to be any reinforcements or armistice or vaccine coming - that with the course of history already set, any hope to be had must come from the characters themselves.

Anyway, that's my deep thought for the week, hope you enjoyed it.  And now to bed, cuz tomorrow is going to be exceptionally long on Hope and short on Expectation.

They took me in my nightgown.

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