How Do They Do It? When a Story Becomes Something More

Have you ever reached a moment while reading a story when you suddenly stop and say to yourself, “Wait! Pay attention. This is important.” Something about the story is more than just a story. Something is happening that resonates, teaches, fills you somehow.

One of the best known examples is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. It isn’t just an exquisite and heartbreakingly beautiful story about a girl coming of age in a small southern town. Heartbreaking beauty would have been enough but this book, released at the dawn of the modern civil rights movement, actually changed people’s minds about race and injustice.

A less famous example that resonates for me is AND LADIES OF THE CLUB by Helen Hooven Santmyer. The broad sweep of history reaching from the end of the Civil War through World War One, as seen through the eyes of two young women who are among the founding members of a ladies culture and literary society becomes a loving portrait of America at that time. By the second chapter, I realized this story was greater than the lives of two young women. It’s our story, our lives, our history.

Some might disagree with this next one but I put LORD OF THE RINGS in this category. I didn’t notice it the first time I read it. I was a college girl and it was a popular book about an epic adventure with elves and hobbits. Then, many years later, I read it to my son and it hit me. Look! Here is this hobbit, the smallest, least powerful creature who battles monsters, overcomes terrible temptation and persists despite terrible hardship—who succeeds where more powerful beings would surely fail. Here is a girl who puts on a man’s armor and goes into a desperate battle. She breaks the rules and, despite terrible injuries, defeats the monster king thus turning the battle to the favor of the heroes. This story is thrillingly and frighteningly hopeful. I am small. I am weak and I will keep going. I will prevail.

Finally, there is a writer, hardly known now, who belongs in this exalted group. I first found Rumor Godden when I read IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE. It is a beautifully written story of a successful woman who drops everything in her life to enter a convent and become a nun. The book transcends the simple story of entering a convent when you realize that it is actually an epic saga of surviving shattering grief. To me it was, as with Mockingbird, an exquisitely heartbreaking story of forgiveness that somehow tore me apart and remade me better.

Rumor Godden wrote many books, some of them nice, ordinary books, but a handful of her collection are shattering masterpieces. Another example is AN EPISODE OF SPARROWS about a street urchin so hungry for beauty that she steals in order to create a secret garden. For these two books alone, I will always love Rumor Godden. She wrecked me then gave me hope.

So when we try to look behind the veil to see past the magic, what do we find? How did these writers do that? I have no idea. I wish I did. Something magical will always be mysterious. The one thing I know is that all these stories are intensely human (even the one about hobbits). They speak to our humanity and show us how to be our better selves. And that truly is magic.