Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Learning from Your Characters

When last we met, we were at the Frederick Douglass Branch of the Detroit Public Library (see prior entry), and I was holding hands with Millicent while looking deeply into her richly detailed face. Shortly before this moment, I had done a reading and Q&A with the group who had gathered that afternoon, followed by a book signing. C, the branch manager, had put her granddaughter (maybe 12-13 years old?)  in charge of the book sales and money collection. When the selling and signing were finished (but before that moment with Millicent), C came over to do a tally of books sold and money collected. And she discovered that one book was missing. Now here was what the scene looked like: C was standing on one side of me as I sat at the signing table, and the granddaughter was standing on the other side of me. What had only moment ago been a celebratory scene turned serious. C became stern.
     "When I give you a job to do," she said to her granddaughter, "I expect you to take it seriously." The granddaughter looked chastened, sorry, but did not say anything.  
     I felt uncomfortable sitting between them (no one likes to be scolded), and besides, I had a whole bunch of books in the trunk of the car, so it would have been very easy for me to make up the missing book. I felt tempted to make it light, say something like, "Oh, don't worry. It's not a big deal." But then I remembered the scene in my book where Harry (the main character) is in the midst of his (somewhat ill-fated) bicycle giveaway. In particular I was thinking of him trying to give a bike to a little girl who really wants the bike, but her grandmother does not like the situation (free handouts to the underprivileged, is how she might have been thinking of it), and she tells her granddaughter she cannot have the bicycle. Harry tries to joke with her, make light of it, get her to loosen up, and overall, the exchange does not go well, and I'm not sure whether Harry ever understood why. When I wrote that scene, I'm not sure I even fully understood why. 
     But at that moment, in the library, I kept my mouth shut. I realized (learning from Harry's mistake) that C had a lesson she wanted to teach her granddaughter, and it was not my business to intervene. Who am I to say what lessons that young girl needs to learn for her life, what challenges she will face, and who she may need to answer to? So I didn't say anything.
When all that was finished, I went to talk to Millicent.

4 comments: said...

Grandma was embarrassed by her granddaughter's error and may have felt it reflected on stereotypical thoughts about the entire race.

Kudos to you for thinking on your feet during a delicate moment!

Susan Messer said...

Well, you never know. It could also be that in the life she (they) lead, there's no room for error. Or some combination or your theory and mine. Differences in parenting style comes up in my book as a theme--part of an ongoing conversation between Harry and Curtis.

Jim Poznak said...

How neat that you learned from Harry, your own fictional creation.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks, luv.