The Nest

“We’ve come because of the baby,” she said.  “We’ve come to help.”

That’s all I had to read on the book jacket to be hooked.  There’s a problem, a possible trauma, surrounding the birth and/or care of a baby?  I’m in.  Not because I revel in such things, but because I look for solutions, for ways other people dealt with such things, for ways to support others in similar situations.

But The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (illustrated by Jon Klassen) is so much more.  It is rated for ages ten and up, but I found it compelling and psychically scary as an adult.

There is a baby, the main character Steve’s new brother, and he has an unnamed degenerative disease.  There is confusion on Steve’s and his sister, Nicole’s, parts.  There is the overarching sadness that permeates the entire family’s lives.

There is also a recurring vision that Steve has.  A group of luminous wasps that visits him in his dreams and offer to first help, and then ‘fix’, the baby.  This is where the psychological component of the story comes in.  When dealing with trauma and situations far above our intellectual or emotional understanding or ability, it makes sense for the brain to conjure up solutions.  However, Oppel blurs the line between Steve’s inner world and outer reality.

Steve struggles with an unnamed mental illness, one in which he makes bedtime lists and washes his hands so much that they “got all chapped and red, especially around the knuckles”; that makes him feel as if he is “all in pieces . . . like [he] had a hundred shattered thoughts in [his] head, a hundred glimmering bits of stained-glass window, and [his] eyes just kept dancing from one piece to the next without understanding what they meant or where they were supposed to go.”

In his dreams, the wasps – the queen in particular – talk to him about the baby’s condition, about how sad a situation it is and what might be done to remedy it.  Steve senses his parents’ sadness, feels his own.  He feels helpless, both in not knowing exactly what is wrong with his brother and not being able to do anything to improve it.  The queen gives him a solution.

 

“It’s just not something you can patch up with a bit of string and sticky tape.  No, no, no, we have to do this properly.  Go right back to the beginning of things.  Go deep.  That’s the proper way to do things.  No half measures around here!”

“You mean going right inside the DNA?”

“DNA – aren’t you the clever one!  Yes, good, you’re on the right track.  And we’ll go deeper back still.  That’s where it will make the most amazing difference.”

 

Steve’s relief at the queen’s assurances of making his baby brother better does not last as she reveals more of her plan, however.  It was never about ‘fixing’ this baby; it was about replacing him with a superior one.  In this special nest just outside the nursery window, they are incubating a baby from the larva state – to replace the ‘broken’ one inside.

Ironically, Steve is petrified of wasps and soon discovers he is allergic to them when one stings him on their back deck.  The fact that he looks to the very thing that terrifies him to solve a problem that terrifies him even more speaks to the psychic line Oppel dances along through the entire book.  Another exterior fear, the man who travels the neighborhood in a van offering to sharpen knives, delves into his interior world as well.

All of this swirls around Steve’s compelling need and desire to keep his brother safe.  It is not about perfection – for either of them – but protecting our true selves.  Whether mentally ill or physically disabled, the dignity of an individual human life is paramount.  And Steve dives into his worst fears to safeguard his brother’s.

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This is Love

When the other Dr. Meescham was alive and I could not sleep, do you know what he would do for me?  This man would put on his slippers and he would go out into the kitchen and he would fix for me sardines on crackers.  You know sardines?”

Ulysses shook his head.

“Little fishes in a can.  He would put these little fishes onto crackers for me, and then I would hear him coming back down the hallway, carrying the sardines and humming, returning to me.”  Dr. Meescham sighed.  “Such tenderness.  To have someone get out of bed and bring you little fishes and sit with you as you eat them in the dark on night.  To hum to you.  This is love.”

– from The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

‘Sweetness and Light’ Amidst the Darkness

“’So what new stuff are you going to plant in the garden, Mom?’ I ask.

‘Plant?’ Mom says. She looks out at the yard and shrugs.

‘How about if we make a list? Marcy said it was good for you to make lists and cross things off. When you first got home, you made lists.’ I stand up to go get some paper and a pencil. I want Mom thinking violets, daffodils, tulips, bright colors flashing in her brain.

‘Thinking about spring tires me out, Chirp,’ Mom says.

‘But in May we can pick lilacs!’ I say. ‘We love picking lilacs.’

Mom reaches for my hand. ‘Just sit with me, honey.’

I sit back down.

I need to stay patient with Mom, especially since her new psychiatrist just told her that he thinks her depression is chronic, which means it will never completely go away. She’s been depressed at different times in her life and will probably always struggle with it. That’s news she needed like a hole in the head just two weeks after gettting home.

Three black-capped chickadees play follow-the-leader around the rhododendron bush. I can’t tell if Mom’s watching them.

‘You don’t have to pick lilacs,’ I say. ‘You can just keep me company when I pick them.’

Mom puts her arm around me and squeezes tight. When I look at her face, tears are streaming down.

‘Listen, Chirpie,’ she says, brushing the tears away like they’re pesty no-see-ums. ‘I need to tell you something important, okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘You’re a really special girl. A beautiful, strong, special, special girl. You know that, right?’ She’s gripping my arm.

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Good,’ she says. ‘It’s important.’ She lets go of my arm. She rests her hand on my knee. ‘When I was a girl, my mother loved to tell me what was wrong with me. I made no sense to her at all.’ Mom stares out at nothing. ‘Luftmensch.

Luftmensch?

‘It’s a Yiddish word. It means a dreamer. From my mother, the worst thing a person could be.’

‘But didn’t she like some things about you?’

Mom doesn’t answer for a long time. Finally she says, ‘My hair. My mother liked my hair.’

Wind whips across the yard. The grass shivers.

I touch Mom’s hair, but she doesn’t look at me.

‘She didn’t love me,’ Mom says quietly. ‘That’s just the simple, hard truth.’

A crow screeches, and all three chickadees take off into the air at the exact same time.

‘Wow!’ I say.

Please, Mom. Please, Mom. Notice.

‘Wow,’ Mom says, with a little smile.

We watch the chickadees until they disappear into the trees.

‘Lilacs are my favorite flower,’ Mom says.

‘I love them,’ I say

‘Me too,’ she says.

‘They smell so good.’

‘Like sweetness and light, Chirpie.’

I put my hand in Mom’s pocket. She reaches in and holds my hand. It’s sweetness and light, our hands together in her warm pocket.

— from Nest by Esther Ehrlich

Be the Book

I think all frustrated writers, those in the fits and starts, the various stages of creation and denial, dream of becoming the next great American novel.  Like the bedraggled outcasts wandering around in the flickering firelight murmuring lines from books at the end of the Fahrenheit 451 film, we imagine our stories and us as one, words burgeoning forth from our being.

fahrenheit

When I first started to take my dream seriously, I mentioned it to a close friend.  As we discussed the perils of the publishing world (read: nearly impossible to enter), she suggested, that since I taught middle level ELA and studied that literature extensively, I write young adult literature: an up-and-coming worthy field and one not as constricted by that impermeable culture (at least at the time).

I had the workings of a character already, her life – or at least neurosis – already well on its way.  And her neurosis, while certainly presenting itself in an adult way then, could easily be adapted to any stage of the human condition.  So I imagined Kathryn as a high school senior, about to embark on the most significant journey of her life thus far – with no freakin’ clue where to go.

I drafted her all the way through her preparation for graduation, her stretching and breaking, hitting rock bottom, and starting to put the pieces back together, shedding her sarcastic armor in favor of some spiritual guidance.  She hasn’t reached her destination at the end of the draft, but she’s got her suitcase packed and some of the itinerary fleshed out.

Only one problem: my YA novel wasn’t exactly YA.  It straddled the line between adolescence and that liminal space beyond.  Transitional, I believe they’d call it.  And when I looked back over what I’d done, it was the time after she’d left high school that I liked the most.  Broken into two parts, the second was longer, stronger, and more developed.  Had I written Part One to satisfy the YA gods before I got to the meat of what I really wanted?

Kathryn was born in one of the first depressive periods of my life – even though I didn’t necessarily know it at the time.  Not to say that I didn’t feel the movings of it in high school (particularly at the end where I chose to place the beginning of Kathryn’s story), but it’s been a definitive part of my adult experience.  And I know what Kathryn grows into, in this alternate universe where a spiritual awakening didn’t occur in post-graduate studies.  Not to say she’s not an amazing person as a young woman, but holding her to the fire longer strengthens her mettle even more.

And now the true question: would this novel be stronger and serve the world better by seeing a woman through her darkest days of mental illness and how she somehow comes out the other side?  Is that what this story is meant to be and I was trying to cram it into some other mold?  Yes, I could make it work – and well – in its other incarnation, but would I be ignoring what it’s been trying to tell me from the beginning?

Have you ever known the answer before you’ve asked the question, but need to go through this circuitous route before you trust yourself?  Or not even trust, but just listen to that little voice that’s been there all along?

Peter Johnson told me you have to write the story the way it’s meant to be written.  You can’t worry about convention or trend or even length.

Maybe I’ve finally learned that all you need to worry about is being true to yourself and your characters.  Maybe now I can be the book.

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