“The Summer Before the War” and characterization


So many writing texts tell us to detail biographies of our characters in order to make them authentic. “In Magic Words” Cheryl Klein suggests that we ask a myriad of questions about ourselves (and I mean endless questions) at various ages and save that in a file. She recommends that we analyze our lives at picture book age, at elementary school age, and at our teenage. Although I truly believe in this advice and offer it to others, I’ve never taken the time or pain to do this. The closest I came was in a workshop with Susan Campbell Bartoletti where she asked us to remember our most important house growing up. Then she suggested we think of something important that had taken place in every room of that house. Frighteningly, I remembered nothing but very negative scenes, the stuff for a Mary Carr memoir, maybe, but so far not for my personal work. I certainly entertained good memories then, after being self-shocked. Compared to many in our country, I didn’t suffer, and I know my parents were better parents than their own. So part of my resistance is that I don’t want to whine and especially don’t want to trash family members who tried their bests.   But I think I resist, too, out of laziness. I write memoir, but confine myself to disability issues. The characters that surround me are real people, which may be easier to fledge out than fictional ones. Of course, I’ve often changed names (with a disclaimer at the beginning of the books) and if they were (in my mind) really villainous, I’ve thought of ways to give them metaphorical small penises, so they won’t get litigious.

But in reading Helen Simonson’s second novel, “The Summer Before the War,” Random House I think, 2016, I’ve been so enthralled by the characterizations of her large cast, by the nuance of many. The book has the character foibles of a Jane Austen novel, but also includes the astonishingly cruel that we’ve come to know in contemporary authors’ work. It also deals with war with a reality that brings tears at times, so it’s not escapist fare.

I’ve been reading it every chance I get and am now into the last 50 pages or so. I’m reluctant to read with the same avarice because I don’t want to come to the end. So much of this is because of the wonderful characterizations.

The book has inspired me to try the character sketching drudge work. Some of my darker experiences could be varied a bit and given to fictional heroines, and that might lead to a kind of Beatrice Nash or Hugh grange from the simonson book. At least it’s worth a try.

And if I’ve motivated anyone to read this novel, I should say that her first book, 2010, was “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” which I think was made into a movie.



About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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