The power and the truth in literary fiction

 

(The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday, December 13, 2017)

My own view is that winter fathers and their kids should get free movie tickets on weekends. For Sunday matinees, free popcorn should be added. Yes, free movies for the winter fathers of the world. Someone should start a petition.

Winter fathers are fathers who are separated or divorced or widowed. They’re all around. I grew up under the care of a winter father. He was a single father to one girl and one boy for a season that, at times, must have seemed like a long winter.

A winter father is also a father like Peter, a fictitious character in the Andre Dubus short story of that same name, “The Winter Father.” Peter also has one girl and one boy.

My father was a widower. Peter is divorced. It amounts to the same thing. No matter how many people are near, you feel chillingly alone.

Peter spends a winter season trying to figure it all out, his new life. On weekends he sees his two children, who still love him dearly even through his faults. He takes them wherever the snowy roads may lead, and often enough they lead to the local movie theatre.

For my father it was an old marquee theatre in St. Catharines called The Lincoln. There, it was “Snow White” and “The Aristocats” and “Bambi” and then, good Lord, “The Ten Commandments.” I’d sit beside him, my father, so close to his long sideburns and corduroy and aftershave.

But the larger showing of movies to my small, broken family came through the ABC Movie for a Sunday Afternoon. The three of us would lie half asleep in front of the TV virtually every Sunday afternoon. All year long. Nothing else, not even lunch, mattered. It was our ritual for years. Somehow there was healing in it.

Healing, after all, is the nature of story.

This is why the ancient Greeks would write “A Healing Place for the Soul” at the entrance to their libraries. It’s why if you go to the Bloomsbury district of London, you can visit The School of Life, a bookstore of so-called bibliotherapy. There, like a doctor offering a prescription for your disease — that is your ‘dis-ease’ — a bibliotherapist will prescribe for you a certain story to read.

This is the power and truth that’s often found in literary fiction.

I am not a winter father. After living in Africa for so many years, I barely remember what winter is, what a snow tire looks like. The Ugandan roads of those many years threw up dust, not snow, lots of dust during our weekday, hour-long commutes to the children’s school.

This is when we listened to stories. One after another. Morning after morning. The sun was barely over the Ugandan horizon and we were all barely awake, but the children would listen to stories.

One story that came our way on those dusty roads was “Wonder.” It revolves around the boy August, a Grade 5 boy with a deformed face. He has a DNA anomaly. Recently, I took the children to watch the newly-released movie version of “Wonder.” A week later, I saw it again, this time with the children’s mother.

One can’t imagine a finer story on the power of kindness in a broken world. But it’s an especially fine story because it invites you to see yourself in it. Yes, you’re the one who’s deformed in your DNA. Or maybe you’re the schoolyard bully, or the frenemy, and you need to confront your mistakes in your life.

No, this is not just a story about a boy with a summer name and a facial deformity. It’s whatever you make it. This is good art. And good art is where healing comes from.

Of course, there are worthless movies out there just like there are worthless books. Also, I’m guessing that the Gender Neutrality Police would question free movie tickets for winter fathers only. What about the mothers? The entire free movie tickets idea would have some hurdles.

But this is about something else, anyway. It’s about giving credit where it’s due. It’s about helping one another brave the elements. And finding some wonder in it all.

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