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I have questions on my mind when I read and the more questions I have, the better the story is, I believe.  Many stories, if not all, ask a basic question or several small ones.  Hearing the question and trying to see how the author answers it is a basic part of reading a good book and finding its resolution satisfying.

Some of the questions for Schaefer’s Shane are:

Can small farmers live beside big cattle ranchers or will they be driven away?

What are the positions of both sides of this question?  Do the cattle ranchers have a point when fences close off their water source?  Do small farmers have the right to use the land, too?

Do you meet violence with violence?  Shane had come to terms with himself and had put his gun away.  He tries to get one ranch hand, Chris, to desist without violence and when Chris will not, Shane does use violence, regretfully.  He makes Chris ask a question that he answers at the end of the book for himself in a positive way.  

What is the cost to Shane for picking up his gun again?  Does saving the family he loves make the price to himself worth while?

How can the family repay Shane?

It is young Bob, the narrator and observer, who asks questions as well as Marian his mother.  Why is that stump such a huge symbol for Shane and Bob’s father, Joe?  Why does Marian feel left out so she has to make a stump pie?  

When Joe asks Shane to stay he is asking him a bigger question than can he help put up fence posts.  Shane and the reader know this and it worries us.  

At the end of the book is the biggest question of all…will Shane live?

It is the powerful questions that make this one of the best books on my best book list and why I refer to this small perfect story so often at Bookflurries.

John Howard Griffin wrote Black Like Me after disguising himself as a Black American and traveling through the South.  The big question for him as a white man was what was it like to be Black in the late fifties? (1959)

Wiki says:

In the fall of 1959, Griffin determined to investigate the plight of African-Americans in the South first hand. He consulted a New Orleans dermatologist, who prescribed a course of drugs, sunlamp treatments, and skin creams. Griffin also shaved his head so as not to reveal his straight hair. He spent weeks traveling as a black man in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi (with side trips to South Carolina and Georgia), getting around mainly by bus and by hitch-hiking.

His resulting memoir, Black Like Me, became a best seller in 1961. The book described in detail the problems an African American encountered in the Deep South meeting such simple needs as finding food, shelter, and toilet facilities. Griffin also described the hatred he often felt from white Southerners he encountered in his daily life — shop clerks, ticket sellers, bus drivers, and others. He was particularly shocked by the curiosity white men displayed about his sexual life. His account was tempered with some anecdotes about white Southerners who were friendly and helpful.

I heard Griffin speak in 1964 and he was amazing.  He talked for two hours very quietly and no one in the auditorium moved though many were standing along the walls.  I will never forget him.  And my personal question was, "How can I help make a change?"

I am now reading essays, With My Face to the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War ed. by Robert Cowley.

The questions in the essays are what you would expect.  Why did the war start?  What strategies and tactics were successful and which ones failed?  Who was to blame for the loss of battles?  Which generals were effective and which ones were not?  How did the men live?  How did the men view the war and the battles?  What might have happened if Lee had not surrendered his troops?  What was the guerrilla war like in the various states?  How did President Lincoln direct the war?  And so many more…

The questions are important and though the answers may differ in various books, it is still important to hear different views.

The question in many great books has to do with good and evil.  What does seeking vengeance do to characters?  Three books that ask this question are Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  

In Moby Dick, Ahab has brought strange persons on board, as wiki explains, “dark figures in the mist, boarding the Pequod shortly before it sets sail that day.”

Ahab has secretly brought along his own boat crew, including a mysterious harpooneer named Fedallah (also referred to as 'the Parsee'), an inscrutable figure with a sinister influence over Ahab. Later, while watching one night over a captured whale carcass, Fedallah gives dark prophecies to Ahab regarding their twin deaths.

Ahab holds sway over the minds of his crew except for Starbuck who questions what he is doing.  He holds a dark rite with the secret crew and he ignores the warnings and requests of other ship captains.  In particular, he ignores the request to help the Rachel’s captain find his son who is lost at sea.  Ahab’s obsession with revenge causes him to ignore dark prophecy and eschew humanity.  Thus he brings evil down on himself and his crew except for Ishmael who is left to tell about it.

Another question is should Starbuck have rebelled and killed his captain before disaster happened?  Would this mutiny and murder have saved them all?  Or was the script already written and could not be changed?

The powerful story of revenge and redemption in Wuthering Heights scours the reader who dares to enter that dark world.  The evil is in Heathcliff who harms his wife and the young people in his desire for revenge against Cathy and her husband. One young woman resists him and brings light into the dark home.  She redeems the family that Heathcliff has despoiled.  The question is whose fault is it that Heathcliff goes off the rails?  How does one young woman prevail against such odds?  

The story of Cain and Abel plays out in East of Eden.   The questions again have to do with love and acceptance or the pain of rejection.

Caleb decides to "buy his father's love" by going into business with one of Samuel Hamilton's children, Will Hamilton, who is now a successful automobile dealer. Caleb's plan is to make his father's money back, capitalizing on World War I by selling beans grown in the Salinas Valley to nations in Europe for a considerable premium. He succeeds beyond his wildest expectations and wraps up a gift of $15,000 in cash which he plans to give Adam Trask at Thanksgiving.

Aron returns from Stanford for the holiday. There is tension in the air, because Aron has not yet told their father that he intends to drop out of college. Rather than let Aron steal the moment, Caleb gives Adam the money at dinner, expecting his father to be proud of him.

But Adam refuses to accept it. Instead, he tells Caleb to give it back to the poor farmers he exploited. Adam explains by saying,

“I would have been so happy if you could have given me – well, what your brother has – pride in the thing he's doing, gladness in his progress. Money, even clean money, doesn't stack up with that.”

The rejection of a son, the loss of the other breaks Adam’s heart and it is Lee who helps him reach out to the son who is left and make peace.

In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens many questions are asked.  Can a young man overcome his pride and accept what the truth of his life is?  Can he reach out and accept the love of a good man, Joe, and help one who has a loathsome background?  Can he give up the hope for love and overcome the manipulation of a vengeful old woman?

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens asks, “Who is your brother?  What do we owe to humanity?  Do we honor those who helped us by passing it on to others in the future?  Can we change?”

In John Irving’s story, A Prayer for Owen Meany, the question of redemption is tied to the character’s acceptance of his future and preparation for it.  The question is also about sacrifice and love.  How can someone be willing to give his life for others?  The same question is asked in Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities.  We see it in many true war stories as well.  

The question “Is it fate or pride that causes a man’s downfall?” is asked in Oedipus and Macbeth.  

In the fourth book of Colin Cotterill’s mystery series set in Laos of the early ‘70’s. Anarchy and Old Dogs, a very important question is asked.  Dr. Siri and his friends had fought the French to kick colonialism out and agreed that Communism was the answer that would free the people and give them a say in their lives.  The first two years have not been a success.  Dr. Siri asks whether he was wrong and have the Vietnamese just replaced the French and was it all for nothing because so many of the leaders seem to be either corrupt or ignorant?  I don’t want to spoil the book for readers, but the questions he asks are serious and compelling.

Great questions that teach us make books great.  Great hearts that can write great books are impressive and I honor them.  What questions are asked in the powerful books you admire most?

Diaries of the Week:

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A good question!

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Robert Fuller says:

Just posted Chapter 27 of The Rowan Tree - in which Adam continues to weigh qualms about fitting in at Princeton and Rowan offers advice about how travel changed his direction in life.

Still looking for reviewers…

NOTE: plf515 has book talk on Wednesday mornings early

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Wed Oct 09, 2013 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Community Spotlight.


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