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Old Habits, New Law

We’ve read a lot of articles recently about the types of community spirit that are often miraculously awakened in the shadows of intractable crisis. These may happen in clinics or churches or community centers, in coffee houses or donut shops, in libraries or schoolyards or vacant lots, between strangers or neighbors, and whether they are motivated by kindness or desperation or somebody’s idea of God or good old fashioned economic synergies, the impulse, for me, is a source of inexhaustible optimism, a flickering beacon on every dark horizon, and a cause to embarrass myself with the littlest provocation. I have written in this space, perhaps excessively, about some of the felicitous little venues that get carved from our cities and suburbs and parklands and wastelands so that we may once in a while amount to more than the sum of our parts, to gather and share and declaim, trade labors and schemes, and occasionally overthrow a government or two.

The Internet works that way of course, but it’s nice to get out and see a couple of warm bodies. Where I live, the talk is how restaurants are turning into offices – for freelancers and part-timers and the unemployed, everyone polishing their resumes and meeting and inventing deadlines and getting all bloodshot together – and I say Yeeeehaah! Get me another refill! Venti! Prego! Even Starbucks is handing out free Wifi these days. Way to go, Starbucks! What took you so frickin’ long? All of us were just stealing it anyhow!

Excuse me, I need to use the bathroom for a second. Keep an eye on my laptop?

Whew, thanks. Where was I? Oh right: we’re all in this together. Woo hoo! Most of us anyway. Maybe not that Spanish-looking dude in the corner there, with the pencil and the classified section – like I said, thanks for watching my hardware for me. Jeez, he’s not even drinking a coffee.

Left unsaid in many (if not all) of the aforementioned articles is the very pressing and awfully uninspiring question of what some of us are circling the wagons against. Community spirit? Depends on where you draw the line.

According to recent nationwide polls, nearly seven in ten Americans approve of laws permitting the detainment of anyone unable to verify their legal status. Six in ten agree the police should be allowed to question anyone they think may be in country illegally – on, basically, a sneaking feeling. Five in ten think immigrants are stealing our jobs cleaning toilets and slaughterhouses. Okay, I made that last one up – in fact it’s probably a little low. Whatever your opinion on these issues – and it’s a great deal easier to imagine our economy is simply overcrowded than in need of a total reinvention - it illuminates nobody finally to pretend there aren’t limits to our cozy mythologies.

Old Henry (by Joan Blos, with typically jaggedy illustrations from Stephen Gammell) will constitute few parents’ idea of a heartwarming fable. Still, it’s a story worth telling, if for no better reason than its ambivalence – human, recognizable. But instructive? Who the hell knows? At least you will not confuse it with all of the other happy endings out there which are presumed to be leeching the pessimism from future generations before they get polled.   

Nobody’s evil here, but nobody’s blameless either. The weird old loner of the tile moves into a dilapidated house in the archetypical small town, refuses to fix the place up, keeps a parrot, and generally makes a spectacle of his eccentricity. Ignores the community’s grumbling. Ignores their small courtesies. Says no to a Rockwellian pie. Gets ridden out on a rail. The house remains unoccupied, haunted looking. Everybody regrets. Old Henry writes a letter in the end trying to patch things up, but do we really think this can work?


1Posted by: Sarah on 10/20

There are many things I love about ‘Old Henry’—As a former actor turned teacher I’m sort of smitten by anything written in rhymed verse, I love the illustrations and I love the stubborn and uncompromising character of Old Henry. But I really dislike the ending. I dislike the ending so much that I feel it negates the beautiful verse and message of the first 2/3rds of the book.

2Posted by: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 10/20

You make a good case. I was totally freaked out by the ending here the first couple of times I read it, but I guess I came to appreciate the nerve of this writer and illustrator at not tidying things up. This book is sort of an anomaly that way, and I take them wherever I can find them. Thank you, sincerely, for feeling strongly.

3Posted by: Sarah on 10/22

I actually *did* think Blos tidied things up by having Old Henry write the letter. I didn’t want Old Henry to compromise. (I say that as the 9 year old I was when I first read the book).

The grown-up in me agrees with you, completely. As a teacher, I spend the majority of my days talking about and focusing on the importance of compromise.

I adore children’s literature. And every time I reread a book that I hadn’t read since childhood I always struggle between my initial ‘childhood’ reactions (ie my first memories of reading the book or having read to me) and my ‘grown up’ reactions (those of a 30-something-year old teacher and avid reader).

I really love this blog. I admire you as a writer. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts!
(and now, maybe it is time for me to read the archives)!

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