When my daughter Lucy was very young we found a book in the library by Astrid Lindgren about a little girl named Brenda who lived deep in the Swedish forest with her grandmother. When the old woman became sick, Brenda had to take on many frightening tasks in order to keep them both from starving.
Lucy and I read this story over and over again. Afterwards we talked about how important it was to be brave. She said, “I will be brave like Brenda, if I need to be.”
But life sent Lucy some tough challenges when she was growing up, and eventually she threw those words back at me. “Why did you have to read me that story? Why couldn’t you have read me one about a girl who was beautiful or lucky or rich?” She almost seemed to be saying that by my choice of story, I’d brought bad things down on her: things she had to be brave to face.
I had read her the stories she described, though. They just didn’t seen t0 stick with her. It was the story of a small girl who found the courage she needed to survive that Lucy remembered. That was the story that lived on in her and kept her going, even though she didn’t enjoy the process.
In On Fire, my new novel, fifteen-year-old Matti Iverly puts a similar question to an old woman named Mrs. Stoa. She tells Matti repeatedly that Dan, the young man she’s rescued from a forest fire has in some way walked right out of Dante’s Divine Comedy; that he will survive his ordeal because his namesake did. “Do you honestly think,” Matti asks Mrs. Stoa, “that a story from hundreds of years ago can pop up in somebody’s life like a chipmunk out of a pile of rocks and take it over?”
“You’re very literal,” Mrs. Stoa tells Matti. “And you’re also missing the point.”
“Which is?” Matti asks.
“These old stories don’t take us over the way you’re suggesting. But they are in the world. And sometimes we grab onto them.”
“Dan wasn’t even thinking about your Dante story until you mentioned it to him,” Matti says.
“But he is thinking about it now,” Mrs. Stoa tells her. “And so are you.”
Lucy has her own daughter now, of whom she is fiercely protective. The other day she said to me, “You know that story you used to read me about Brenda Brave?” I said I did. “I wonder,” she went on, “if we have it in the Edmonton library.”
I guess the work of a good story is never done.