|Angel Waiting, |
by Todd Krasovetz
Both this and a story I plan to review for tomorrow as a runup to Christmas, have a background theme of homelessness. At this time of year, many of us are 'driving home for Christmas'. I have personally been homeless on more than one occasion. I know that people who are 'homeless' are often not people you would expect to have trouble getting housed. This month, as I gratefully plan for a merry Christmas with my young daughter and our cats in a safe warm happy home, I am donating to a local homeless charity. I hope the small donation helps someone be warm and safe even if only for a couple of days.
Not content with depicting difficulties of homelessness on the streets of North America, Tara Neale has picked the even tougher topic of ex military homelessness. An Angel's Wish starts with a single mother of a child with cerebral palsy. When Keisha asks Breanne what she wants for Christmas, her child says she wants them to have a marine to the house for a day; to feed him and give him some new clothes. Her father was also a marine, although he was killed in action before Keisha could tell him she was pregnant, so Breanne has never seen her father. (Keisha is also not entitled to any military pension to help her bring Breanne up.)
Tara Neale doesn't shy from depicting the harsh reality of homeless ex-military: the behaviour which results from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the problems coping with ordinary relationships which mean veterans may desert their families, feeling they can only let other people down. Her depiction of Travis Baker as a character is uncompromisingly realistic, so much so that several veterans have commented how true to life the story is, as well as admitting it brought a tear to their eye.
Nor does romance enter into the story where you might expect. Travis and Keisha do not fall in love and give Breanne a new dad for Christmas. The romantic writing is mainly in the depiction of Breanne, who might be the 'Angel' of the title. There are also some improbable twists in the story. We can take in our reading stride that Travis is the Sergeant to whom Breanne's father had given a last love letter for Keisha, to be delivered if the worst should happen to him. However, the ending of the story needs some thought. We have invested in G.I. Joe as a 'realist' character, an old veteran suffering worse PTSD than Travis, so to have him romantically transformed into the angelic spirit of Breanne's father - whose wish is to see Keisha and his daughter - is hard to take. The twist from the story being about Breanne's wish to being about her lost father's wish is nice, it just needs a bit more work.
The difficulties of Breanne's cerebral palsy are well sketched, with good understanding of the kinds of issues someone with this condition faces. The romantic Tiny Tim sweetness of her character may be lending the story much of its appeal to readers; especially at this time of year, when we want to read a heart-warming story about goodness. However, in my experience, kids going through a tough time often take that out in bad behaviour towards their mothers. Maybe if Breanne was depicted as sometimes being contrary with Keisha, this might even add to the story. Keisha might argue with Breanne's idea of taking in a marine - "Breanne, you make things so difficult sometimes!" then slowly come to realise Breanne means it and is not just suggesting this to get her mother going.
I'm going to tentatively compare the romantic characterisation here to a different and harshly real bit of characterisation. In his famous study of creative writing: Mimesis, Erich Auerbach takes a number of pieces of writing through the ages and explores how they represent the world. One of the pieces he writes about forms part of a fifteenth century French work: Le Réconfort de Madame de Fresnes. It is the heart-wrenching story of Seigneur and Mme de Chastel, whose young son has been given in hostage to the Black Prince, notorious for contravening the chivalrous edicts of the time in pursuit of pragmatic victory. The son is about to be killed by the Black Prince.
The agony of the parents is vividly conveyed, and so too is the character of the young child. The author of this medieval piece eschews describing a noble child who goes to his death a willing sacrifice. So painful is the depiction that he has to soften it. He reports it through the words of a herald rather than directly describe the child's struggles and cries for help. He does the opposite of what we normally argue writers should do: he tells, not shows.
What is the purpose of a story of such stark anguish? This is framed as a story told to a mother who recently lost her own child. Its aim is to be cathartic, to give the reader a means of purging our emotions through what Auerbach calls 'a starkly creatural realism which does not shun but actually savors crass effects’.(By 'creatural realism', Auerbach means a combination of passionate emotion - as in the Passion of Christ on the cross - and mundane domesticity.) The stark visceral horror of the events offers no optimistic vision of humanity, but rather gives an opportunity for epideisis: for teaching us how to behave through example. The mother demonstrates extraordinary loyalty to her husband and understanding of his dilemma when he is faced with the choice between giving up his people and city, or leaving his own son to be sacrificed. The realistic representation of the son's suffering raises the stakes, making it brutally apparent how agonising is the situation in which Seigneur de Chastel is obliged to decide what to do.
It is a literary choice whether to represent a character in a romantic way as a sweet selfless child, or to write a realist representation. The former makes of the child a trope: a figure in the story on whom plot development turns; the latter focuses on the child's character as an integral part of what we are reading about in the story, the story is the emotional work we do in reading such a character. Tara Neale demonstrates considerable writing finesse in combining realist with romantic characterisation. Since she is such a good writer, I would be interested to see what she could write about a child living in poverty with physical disabilities, as well as a veteran and a single mother, characterised with realism. But perhaps that's another story ....