The story of a pioneer can humble a reader at the same time it allows him to swell with pride. Beset by difficulties beyond an average person's experience, as a pioneer often is - largely by definition, her story is usually one of reminding. The reminding of the reader to remember her smallness and to place in perspective the difficulties and experiences of his life.
For there were pioneers who made our petty troubles possible and whose sacrifices dwarf them. And it is the magic of the story of a heroic pioneer that can simultaneously inspire us, even in the face of our relative lack of achievement, because the raw humanity of our hero is so essentially shared by the reader that a kinship is undeniable. These are stories of power in the human experience, stories of characters who, mostly by accident, mostly unwillingly, become beacons of possibility, soaring towers of example.
Like John McCain.
No, I'm kidding. I'm talking about the other shape-shifter inhabiting my thoughts these recent weeks, the hero Calliope Stephanides of Jeffery Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex. And please forgive the first paragraph. What I mean to say is: Calliope had it real bad, it wasn't her fault, but she survived. And sometimes it seems that all one must do to be a pioneer, to be a hero, is to simply survive.
I just finished, with some tear-action fighting to assert itself in my eyes, this moving book set in 20th-century Detroit. I wrote briefly a couple weeks ago about the heartstring-tugging that was going on as I read about familiar places in Detroit and longed for home. That emotional element of the narrative was strong for me for a while, but in time it gave way to my attachment to the characters. Eugenides portrays his cast tenderly, with a keen balance in each character.
For each the balance comes in a different form. For the Stephanides family's emigres, a balance between tradition and assimilation, secrecy and rebirth. For the 1st generation, a balance of love and pragmatism, of risk and security. For the city of Detroit at the center of the story: a failed balance between white and black, ignorance and revolution.
And of course for Cal, whose entire identity rested on a shaky fulcrum, whose scale tipped not to the right or left, but fell completely forward. A pioneer at 14, and a hero by accident.
The story is sad and wonderful right to the end (with a car chase!), and I highly recommend it.