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books

Empathy and Sympathy in North Carolina

Kasey Thornton’s debut novel Lord The One You Love is Sick takes place in a fictional southern small town called Bethany. That name, and the title of the book, are references to the Biblical story of Lazarus’ resurrection. At one point, the shortest verse in the Bible — also from the story of Lazarus — is referenced by a pastor recruiting for a grief counseling group as, “He wept.” And there is much going on in Bethany to draw tears: addiction, domestic and child abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, suicide. Whether there is new life after the tribulations is left for the book’s ending.

Each character’s predicament intersects with that of several others. A lonely young man sequestered in his mother’s basement renews a grade school friendship when a woman leaves her abusive husband. Another man has a mental breakdown. As the cloud lifts in treatment at the psych ward, he remembers that the nurse is married to the troubled car mechanic in town, and promisees to look in on her and their children.

These are not problems unique to small towns or the south, but Thornton is from North Carolina and fills these stories with details unique to her experience. Wealthy outsiders from the north or big cities are both a source of income and resentful amusement for the locals.

Early in the book, a local talks with her date about her deceased husband, “things used to hurt” him, “he didn’t like watching the news or reading too many books. He had an empathy problem.” Her date, the husband’s would-be replacement, latches on to a break in logic rather than the emotion in her story, and proceeds to define empathy and sympathy for her:

Sympathy means you understand what people go through and you feel bad for their misery. Empathy means you put yourself in the shoes of another person.

Never mind that dictionary definitions differ on these terms, the man has just confessed that he is autistic, so the ironic turn toward mansplaining and away from exhibiting either empathy or sympathy is the point. It is also telling that this man is the only significant character in LTOYLIS from out-of-town. Thornton is concerned with how small towns in the South process grief, what is talked about and what goes unspoken. Outsiders have different ways of avoiding pain.

Sympathy and empathy are important parts of a writer’s toolkit. Thornton puts herself in the shoes of these characters because she has experience with much of what she puts them through.

Lord The One You Love Is Sick came to me through The Nervous Breakdown book club (the book’s inclusion of a nervous breakdown is coincidence, not the club’s literal theme). In an accompanying podcast interview with Brad Listi, Thornton discusses personal experiences that parallel those of characters in the book, including a childhood as a free-range urchin, experiences with the mental health system, alcohol addiction and chronic pain.

Every writer must empathize with their characters’ lives. A reader’s ability to feel sympathy for characters’ misery (or joy) depends on the writer’s ability to do so. Thornton’s ability to get inside the heads of so many characters awed me in this debut. As I turn away from a season of nonfiction election anxiety blogging back to my own novel, Thornton’s debut is inspiring me to explore the interior lives of my characters in new ways, and to consider more deeply the ways their experiences and emotions mirror situations I’ve lived through.


You can support writing like this by buying Lord The One You Love Is Sick by Kasey Thornton on Bookshop.org through this affiliate link.

Categories
books essays film

Why I Didn’t Read ‘Little Women’ Until Age 44

Back in December, I was excited to hear that Greta Gerwig had a new film coming out. One of the first things I heard about the film was that she had departed from the source material in interesting ways, ways that critics described as feminist and innovative. I was excited about this, but embarrassed that I hadn’t read the source material. A gap in my reading history had become an obstacle to my love of film. So I finally read Little Women in the week or two before the film opened in D.C. As I did so, I couldn’t help but ask myself why I’d never read Louisa May Alcott until now.

Many of the ideas that ran through my head are explored thoroughly by Anne Boyd Rioux in “Why Don’t More Boys Read Little Women?” — a book excerpt that LitHub helpfully shared just when I was interrogating myself over the question. The excerpt is worth reading in its entirety (and I’m now curious about the full book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters). After pointing out that boys once read Little Women in far greater numbers, and finding some choice quotes from powerful men praising the book, Rioux cites three main ideas that have conspired to relegate Little Women to a secret rite of passage that girls “read alone with a flashlight under the covers,” rather than part of the canon for boys and girls:

  1. fear of discussing the story’s feminist implications in the classroom,
  2. a push to teach more contemporary texts, including those by women and people of color, and
  3. a focus on solving the crisis in boys’ reading rates by favoring texts perceived to be interesting to boys.

I have only the vaguest memories of Little Women from my childhood. My mother is a writer. I can picture her speaking of the book fondly, perhaps suggesting it as a book she’d like my brother and I to know and be able to discuss with her. Why didn’t I read it? In these hazy memories, the title and cover played a role. The culture had taught me that there were boys’ books and girls’ books. Yellow spines on Nancy Drew stories. Blue spines on Hardy Boys mysteries. Was I a product of the “crisis in boys reading” educators are so concerned about? I don’t think so. I remember devouring anything that was assigned and getting placed in a seperate “gifted” reading group that met outside of my usual classroom. But, yes I was more excited about after-school cartoons. Given a choice, I picked dubbed Japanese space adventures like Voltron and Robotech over a nineteenth century family drama like Little House on the Prairie (which I assume remains perpetually in syndicated daytime reruns in Minnesota today).

None of my teachers assigned Little Women. At home, my parents periodically made sure that reading something for fun was part of my brother and I’s summer, but this usually meant a trip to the library or bookstore to pick whatever we were excicted about. One exception was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn which my parents assigned one summer ahead of an educational family road trip down the Mississippi (Mark Twain’s classics are a good foil for Little Women in Rioux’s exploration above, since they are from the same time period and widely taught tales of a typical American boys’ experience assigned to both boys and girls).

As I got older, there must have been a popular renewal of interest in Alcott in 1994 when Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Little Women starring Winona Ryder came out. I have no recollection of such a wave then either. I was busy in college that year at the suburban/small town campus of the University of Wisconsin—River Falls. I was meeting new friends who introduced me to the books they were excited about, taking classes on literary theory and the modern novel. My reading list was dominated by the influence of those friends and professors for the next decade. They were mostly men: the friends, the professors, and the imparted canon of influences (I remember men teaching literature and women teaching writing in that English department). Beat writers, the Russians (Dostoevsky and Tolstoy mainly), and some tangents I explored on my own like Camus and Beckett and Ellison. To be sure, there were exceptions. Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison come to mind. But no Little Women.

I also recall girlfriends referencing Jo, or talking about the book with their girl friends. But by then we were all struggling to be adults — or at least I was — and making “serious” reading lists of new writers or heavy classics was part of the program. How to make room for a child’s book titled Little Women? Surely whatever lessons a book like that holds are not important to twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings or forty-somethings more than a century later, I might have thought when the book came up.

In the couple of decades since then, it’s become clear that limiting your cultural diet to the perspective of one type of person, just dudes, just white western dudes, is a kind of starvation. It should be obvious, but reading and seeing the world from the perspective of someone with a different body, a different relationship to power will inform your actions towards people unlike you. This is true on both sides of any such difference.

When I wrote more frequently about film in the mid-2000s (something I suppose I’m dipping my toes in to again with this post), I quickly joined in the culture writer’s hobby of list-keeping, ranking filmmakers and films, naming favorites and creating top tens. Once I started down this road, it quickly bled over in to my music and book habits. Once you’ve put ten filmmakers, ten musicians, or ten authors in your journal or spreadsheet, it is hard not to notice your blind spots. Either you decide you are someone who lives and dies by Tarantino and Kubrick, Trent Reznor and Mick Jagger, David Foster Wallace and Charles Bukowski — or you ask what is missing from your list, what your cultural blind spots are, what other people have on their lists that you haven’t yet stopped to consider. Maybe Agnes Varda, Patti Smith, and Margaret Atwood should be in the mix. Maybe they’re closer to the top of the list. What else is missing? Can I dig deeper? What can I learn?

Many of my friends — especially women — who grew up under the same kinds of influences I’ve just outlined now avoid reading men altogether, or are in book clubs organized around doing so. After a year or two of consciously alternating between books by those who don’t identify as male and those who do, I’ve taken a more fluid approach. I know that if I blindly take in acclaimed books and films and pursue threads of reference from one artist to the next, the scale quickly tips towards perspectives and backgrounds I’ve heard plenty from in my life. So I keep lists in notebooks and in Goodreads (and Lightbox for film) of what I’ve finished and what I’m excited to take on next, reviewing the lists as I go to make sure I’m taking in a diverse and challenging set of perspectives. It takes work, but it’s worth it.

So what’s my take on Little Women after finally having read the book and seen Gerwig’s adaptation? Loved both. Gerwig’s timeline and pacing are a delight if the book is fresh in your mind. The departures she takes from the book are light and perfectly in keeping with our understanding of Alcott’s life as a writer, and Jo’s relationship to publishing within the book. Highly recommend.