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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 12, 2007


Beyond barbed wire and the diving bell

Why do we tell stories, why do we write them down and publish them for others to read"

These questions occurred to us as we sat recently in a Farnsworth Middle School classroom, listening to bright and insightful students query an author they admired.

Jennifer Roy has written a stunning story based on her elderly aunt’s recollections of her childhood years in the Lodz ghetto. She was one of only 12 children to survive the Nazi onslaught there.

What makes the book, Yellow Star, so riveting is the way the story is told — in the voice of a child.

Roy was a teacher and has written more than 30 books for children and young adults, including a series on how to write. She ably discussed the mechanics of her craft — the use of similes and metaphors and symbolism; how and why she chose the first-person voice and the poetic form.

But her book goes beyond the quantifiable or the easily describable. Roy creates a child in a cruel world, surrounded by horror and evil — home and possessions gone, food scarce to the point of starvation, playmates killed and her own life threatened — who is sustained by a force greater than the evil of Nazi oppression.

Love of family.

That wasn’t one of the symbols or literary devices that the author talked about to the Farnsworth students, but it is there on every page, palpable if mute, centering the young Syvia’s view of the world.

Time and time again, Syvia is sustained by her family. Her father saves her life by hiding with her in a cemetery; her mother brings her broth as she lays sick and feverish, hidden in a cellar; her sister steps in front of her as they face German soldiers.

The needs her family fulfills, though, under the most difficult circumstances aren’t just physical — that of protection and survival — they are also spiritual and emotional. Syvia lives for their care of her and grows and takes pleasure in being able, in turn, to care and provide for them. Something as simple as picking a pear for her sister becomes an act of heroism.

The story rings true not because it actually happened, which it did, but because of the way it is told.

Another true story we’ve recently read also embodies an indomitable human spirit. Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor-in-chief of the French fashion magazine, Elle, suffered a stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome when he was 43 years old.

He could not walk or talk or move any part of his body except to blink his left eye. Through painstakingly blinking letters of the alphabet, Bauby was able to communicate and write an uplifting memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

He died two days after his book was published.

Bauby was trapped in his body as surely as Syvia’s family had been trapped by the barbed wire and Nazi soldiers in the ghetto. Yet he, too, transcended his horrible circumstance. He did it by tapping into his memories and using his imagination.

"My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving bell holds my whole body prisoner," he writes. His diving bell becomes less oppressive, though, when his mind "takes flight like a butterfly."

Bauby is forced to take his nourishment from a brownish fluid through a feeding tube. But he can turn to a vivid memory of tastes and smells for pleasure to nourish his soul.

Rather than complaint and bitterness, we hear wit and share joy.

"Once, I was a master at recycling leftovers. Now I cultivate the art of simmering memories," Bauby writes. "You can sit down to a meal at any hour, with no fuss or ceremony. If it’s a restaurant, no need to call ahead. If I do the cooking, it is always a success. The boeuf bourguignon is tender, the boeuf en gelée translucent, the apricot pie possesses just the requisite tartness...."

Consciousness liberates a trapped man. And his story, well told, informs humanity.

The inquisitive Farnsworth students questioned Roy about her reasons for writing. She hadn’t wanted to write about the Holocaust, she said. It scared her. "But, listening to my aunt, I thought, ‘This has to be told. If I don’t do it, who will"’" she said.

Roy’s twin sister, also an author, had one of her books made into a Disney movie, which impressed the kids. But Roy told them that, despite her sister’s brush with fame and the "ton of awards" her Yellow Star has won, "Both of us agree none of this stuff is important. We took what was in our heads and put it down on paper. That’s what matters. I took my family history and put it in a book."

She encouraged the students to write their own stories. We hope they take her advice. Once in a while, with a great deal of care and courage, a story is created that informs and uplifts us all.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor


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