Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: May 2007.
One of Ours
Alfred Knopf, 1922
Willa Cather is one of my favorite authors because she writes with a gentle caring for all of her characters, but usually one in particular, the very sensitive one. Most of her best characters are men–sensitive men. (I suspect she felt a bit estranged from the typical women of her day. One of Ours is definitely about one of ours.
Her descriptions are also for the sensitive–simple but apt, clean and airy. They are like Nebraska and New Mexico, places she loved. Above all, she does not get in the way of her story. You never sense Willa Cather behind it all, as you do, say, Hemingway. But she still was seen–she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1923. Very HSP.
One of Ours is set in Nebraska just before and during the First World War. Its main character is Claude, a young man we meet as he is reaching adulthood, trying to adjust to the confines of the family farm on Lovely Creek. The work is divided into five books (not book-length, but more like long chapters). The first takes him through his going away to college and his discovery of ideas and deep conversations, a great relief to him. “One of his chief difficulties had always been that he could not make himself believe in the importance of making money or spending it. If that were all, then life was not worth the trouble.” (Book one, Chapter Five)
The second book is about his unhappy marriage. The third is about his decision to enlist, to save France from the Hun, as the situation was seen in the U.S. The fourth is about his voyage to France with his fellow soldiers, young men from all over the U.S., seeing their own diversity and unity for the first time. It is a wonderful chance to travel along, having an experience long past.
The fifth is about Claude in France and in the war. In particular, Cather wants to show us how much Europe, especially France, impressed all of these young men, overseas for the first time. Indeed, most had never been fifty miles from home before. Naturally she uses a sensitive person to report all the emotion and subtleties. For example, for Claude, the train ride to the front was an embarrassment of ecstasy– “Deeper and deeper into flowery France!”
The paragraphs below capture one experience, during his Company’s brief leave time in Rouen. While his buddies headed off exploring all the sights…
Claude found himself alone near the Church of St. Ouen. He was hunting for the Cathedral, and this looked as if it might be the right place. He shook the water from his raincoat and entered, removing his hat at the door. The day, so dark without, was darker still within; far away a few scattered candles were still little points of light… just before him, in the grey twilight, slender columns in low rows, like the stems of silver poplars.
The entrance to the nave was closed by a cord, so he walked up the aisle on the right, treading softly, passing chapels where solitary women knelt in the light of a few tapers. Except for them, the church was empty… empty. His own breathing was audible in this silence. He moved with caution lest he should waken echo.
When he reached the choir he turned, and saw, far behind him, the rose window, with its purple heart. As he stood staring, hat in hand, as still as the stone figures in the chapels, a great bell, high aloft, began to strike the hour in its deep, melodious throat; eleven beats, measured far apart, as rich as the colors in the window, then silence… only in his memory the throbbing on an undreamed-of quality of sound. The revelations of the glass and the bell had come almost simultaneously, as if one produced the other; and both were superlatives toward which his mind had always been grasping, or so it seemed to him then.
In front of the choir the nave was open, with no rope to shut it off. Several straw chairs were huddled on a flag of the stone floors. After some hesitation, he took one, turned it round, and sat down facing the window. If someone should come to him and say anything, anything at all, he would rise and say “Pardon, sir, I did not know it is forbidden [translated from Cather’s French].” He repeated this to himself to be quite sure he had it ready….
Some old recollection of astronomy lessons brushed across his brain–something about stars whose light travels through space for hundreds of years before it reaches the earth and the human eye. The purple and crimson and peacock-green of this window had been shining quite as long as that before it got to him…. He felt distinctly that it went through him and farther still… as if his mother were looking over his shoulder. He sat solemnly through the hour until twelve, his elbows on his knees… looking up through the twilight with candid, thoughtful eyes.
“When Claude joined his company at the station they had the laugh on him. They had found… the main cathedral, the tourist attraction, and a statue of Richard the Lion-hearted, over the spot where the lion-heart itself was buried; ‘the identical organ,’ fat Sergeant Hicks assured him.” (Book Five, Fourth chapter)
Black Swan Green
Random House 2006
David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (the weird title is the name of a subdivision) is harder going for an HSP. The book follows thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor for a single year, while his parents are divorcing at home and his school life is becoming unbearable. This year is 1982–the year the author would have been that age, so that even though it is a novel, it has that sort of firsthand, autobiographical authenticity that is especially helpful for us to have from a sensitive person, and painful in this case.
The story is set in a small village with some new housing developments (where Jason lives). There is quite a bit of violence and just plain nastiness on the part of the non-sensitive boys–a kind of ordinary-life version of The Lord of the Flies . The novel captures so well a sensitive boy trying to be like the others, trying not to become one of the most bullied. For example, the most respected boys were called by their first names, the second-best like Jason were called by their last names. “Taylor.” The dreaded last place meant you had a demeaning nickname.
Jason hardly knows he is any different, and the author does not paint him as that different, at first. But Jason gradually finds his way into another culture. For example, he writes poetry which he submits anonymously to the newsletter of the local church. Eventually he is found out by an eccentric French woman, who takes an interest in cultivating his mind.
The teachers in his school seem as uniformly mean as his classmates. Jason stammers, and has to avoid saying anything that might involve the letters he currently cannot say. The teachers seem unable to sympathize. Yet when the crunch comes, because of his compassion for others, which he can no longer hide, he finds some secret support from the adults around him and hope for his future. Hence, although you have to wade through a great deal of pain and ugliness, the ending is satisfying. I would think sensitive men who recall a boyhood of trying to fit into a culture designed and maintained by bullies will find some healing in Jason’s story.
Here’s a small excerpt, in which the sensitivity barely shines through, yet is unmistakable. The lake referred to has been the scene of some brutal games prior to this, in which Jason barely manages to survive humiliation and avoid broken bones through well practiced, HSP-style strategies. He hates these games, yet dares not refuse to participate. A chance to go alone to the lake is another matter.
Nobody’d be out on the frozen lake, I’d suspected, and there wasn’t a soul. Superman II was on TV. I’d seen it at Malvern Cinema two years ago on Neal Brose’s birthday. It wasn’t bad but not worth sacrificing my own private frozen lake for. Clark Kent gives up his powers just to have sexual intercourse with Lois Lane in a glittery bed. Who’d make such a stupid swap? If you could fly? Deflect nuclear missiles into space? Turn back time by spinning the planet in reverse? Sexual intercourse can’t be thatgood.
….Without other kids watching, I didn’t fall once. Round and round in swoopy anticlockwise loops I looped, a stone on the end of a string. Overhanging trees tried to touch my head with their fingers. Rookscraw… craw… crawed, like old people who’ve forgotten why they’ve come upstairs.
“A sort of trance” sets in and Jason sees a boy skating on the other side of the pond. Distracted, Jason falls through the ice, sprains his ankle, and totters off to find help in the house of a strange old lady who heals him overnight with a homemade salve. I wonder now if the author was thinking of it as magical in its healing powers, because things begin to improve a bit for Jason after that. For awhile. And in the end.
Help is on its Way
Available on Amazon
To quote my endorsement of the book, “Highly sensitive people will recognize their own childhoods in Jenna Forrest’s radiant painting–using every hue in the emotional spectrum–of her years from seven to seventeen…. Readers will be charmed by this sensitive woman’s unique creative force, a valuable reminder of their own.”
Every HSP is unique, of course, so you may find some things that do not ring true about yourself. Further, Jenna had a distressing home life. Her parents divorced and her mother seems to have been truly difficult. This adds to the drama of the story, but makes it, again, unique. The philosophy she develops from it also may or may not be helpful to you personally. But it is inspiring to read how she comes to it.