3 Novels that Taught me Something About Writing

When life becomes chaotic, reading has been one way I’ve found to escape my own trials and lose myself in those of others. Taking a detour from my usual practice of seeking out books I consider to be old friends, I went for three new ones. All three were published fifty or more years ago, but all seem timeless and fresh. They also taught me something about writing.

February’s Road

When I was a child, I read Friday’s Tunnel, which was an entertaining story of the Callendar family, as told by the precocious oldest daughter. Last year I hunted it up and re-read it, and learned for the first time the author had writing an entire series. So this month I searched the used books websites and found the second.

February Callendar, now fourteen, continues her narration of the family’s adventures. This time her father’s wish of modern roads seems like it will come true. Then until learn the first highway is to be built right through the family farm. February, naturally, opposes the road, even more when she begins to suspect crooked dealings behind the scenes. Her efforts at detection promptly land her in trouble with the police.

This book is full of delightful, original characters and the story is told in February’s distinctive voice. Reading her commentary brings back memories of my own middle school years and attitudes.

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Willa Cather’s novel tells the story of Father Latour, who travelled to New Mexico in 1851 to take up his position as Archbishop. The novel spans forty years and covers Father Latour’s efforts to gently spread his faith, in spite of the uncongenial landscape and some less than cooperative priests.

The novel was recommended as an example of showing character through dialogue. One great example of Cather’s skill:

“That was my student, Trinidad,” said [Father] Martinez, “a nephew of my old friend Father Lucero, at Arroyo Hondo. He’s a monk, but we want him to take orders. We sent him to the Seminary in Durango, but he was either too homesick or too stupid to learn anything, so I’m teaching him here. We shall make a priest of him one day.”

Right away we learn, along with Father Latour, that Fr. Martinez is not one to be too particular about promoting the values of the church when it suits him to do otherwise.

But that showing character through dialogue isn’t the book’s only strength. Its descriptions of Santa Fe and New Mexico captured the feel of the place exquisitely; the descriptions mirrored my own memories of the area.

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr rightly is considered a classic of science fiction. In this post-apocalyptic scenario, an order of monks seeks to preserve what writings from the past survived a nuclear holocaust. Miller is a master at making the reader see what they haven’t seen.

In one scene, we only know a character has died because the buzzards are eating. In another, we know the abbot died because the others bury him. In yet another, we learn of a horrible event:

It was the night of the Atlantic assault against the Asian space installations.

In swift retribution, an ancient city died.

In this way Miller shows us the start of another nuclear war without ever using the words.

He also adds some commentary, which seems to be to be relevant to or world today, made all the more chilling, as he write these words 56 years ago:

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needles’ eye and the rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.

Three very different books, yet all provided a rich and satisfying way to spend time.

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