Friday, October 27, 2006

Good Stories: An interview with my family

Several weeks ago, I posted a favorite Theodore Roosevelt quote: “I am in the mood for a good story. Of course, I am always in the mood for a good story.”

As I posted it, I began to wonder “what is a good story?” It was a question I’d never really pondered before. I know I love a good story, but the qualities that define a good story have never really come into the forefront of my thoughts.

I decided to do a little survey of my family members. Interestingly, no one brushed me off saying, “who cares?” or “it doesn’t really matter”. Story is important to us.

First I headed to my bedroom, where sister Tine was busy typing up her latest tale. She didn’t hesitate at all to answer my question, emphatically stating: “A good story is exciting. It has a little bit of everything—something funny, something serious. It’s true to life. It doesn’t make you wish you lived somewhere else. But fairies are OK sometimes. Most mysteries I don’t like. I write my books the way I wish other books had been written.” She turned back to her own story.

This was promising! I left to get my mother’s opinion. It was characteristically brief: “A good story is humorous and true to life.”

I had to dig a little to get taciturn Matt to answer, but once he did, he expressed ideas that are a common thread throughout all the responses I’ve received so far: “ It’s intriguing and holds your interest. It has a good plot and storyline. Not boring!”

I had to giggle when I heard Timmy’s ideas: “No kissing. No walking around talking about nothing. There should be bears and snowballs.” How like all little boys!

This was too good to keep to myself. I was telling Mommy about it when Daddy walked in. Pencil in hand, I again asked “what makes a good story?” He didn’t have to think long: “A good story has human interest. It stirs your emotions.” Probing, I asked which ones. “You’ll get a good laugh. Be moved with compassion.” The conversation took a lofty turn. “A good story shows you the brevity and value of life. You experience life’s joys. A good story takes you to places you’ve never been to meet people you’d not otherwise meet.”

It was the next day before I could ask busy college-going brother A. It was possibly a reflection of his current workload when he immediately said, A good story keeps me awake. It has a combination of good dialogue, mystery, adventure, comedy, tragedy, and love.” (We’re not talking to a 9-year-old now!) “A story has to have all elements of life. Love and hate. You can’t understand one without the other."

Being an interviewer is fun. You can ask all the questions you want, and never have to give any answers. I won’t be so provoking as that. However, I will postpone the moment of my own answer!

It’s time for you, my reader, to respond. What features of a story draw you in? What are things that make you want to read a book again? Negatively, what things about a story repel you? I’m thinking of fiction in particular, but the question could apply to nearly any type of book. Remember, “story” is simply a connected series of events.

The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter

Gene Stratton-Porter didn’t know that this would be the last book she’d write. She couldn’t have known that shortly after finishing the last draft she would die tragically in a trolley-car collision in Los Angeles.

Yet somehow as I read “Keeper” I felt as if she was preaching her last sermon. Anyone who reads Porter’s books knows that her personal beliefs about home, family and life are clearly seen. But perhaps never so thinly clad behind the storybook characters as here. She speaks passionately on topics ranging from belief in God and prayer to healthy eating and premarital chastity.

There’s a lot about bees, too. In fact, the main character, James Lewis MacFarlane, spends a great deal of time tending hives and listening to the fascinating tales of bee life told by his young partner, little Scout.

As the story opens, Jamie is a sickly, disillusioned soldier recuperating from injuries received in the Great War. Although his physical body is very frail, his spiritual body is suffering even more. Bitter at the suffering he’d seen and experienced in war, he has nearly forgotten God and is completely and morbidly absorbed in himself.

Convinced he is about to die, when the chance comes to do one last deed for someone else, he accepts it readily. And this selfless act is the beginning of his Great Adventure.

Often, there is an overly melodramatic and sentimental tone which I dislike in books of this period (1900-1925). Despite this stylistic fault, I found the book to be pleasantly thought provoking and worth my time. I finished reading it more appreciative of nature and with some issues to ponder.

If you’ve never experienced the unique books of Gene Stratton-Porter, start with Laddie or Freckles first. These are the books which I consider to be her masterpieces. Once you’ve read them, don’t neglect The Keeper of the Bees!