“Gregor lost his boot in a mudhole, but I don’t think he ever got justice. Books can be nicer than life sometimes.” -Vera Brosgol, in her author’s note for Be Prepared, the mostly-true story of a nine year old’s summer camp
“What we call retribution is the universal necessity by which the whole appears wherever a part appears. […] If you see a hand or a limb, you know that the trunk to which it belongs is there behind.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”
When my little brother was younger I told him stories about fairies. We’d lie down and explore how different groups — the fairies who lived in forests, or mountains, or beaches — wove themselves into the world. What did they do when it rained? What were their clothes made from? How did they interact with seagulls and bats, swallows and squirrels and beetles? When he got older, when he asked, “Do you really believe in fairies,” I didn’t know what to say. Because the answer was, I suppose, and sadly, “No.” I don’t believe that there are little creatures with two legs and caretakers’ hands who walk beneath the leaves. I didn’t want to get him teased by his friends. But the answer’s also, “Yes:” I think there are caretakers. I think there’s magic, a world brimming with it, and it’s all the more wondrous for moving through light waves and roots and nitrogen. And there are so many little creatures, two-legged and otherwise, who wander through a world larger than they know.
In writing this, I’m smiling, because I’m remembering sitting outside with my little brother. I’m remembering how he looked while he listened. I’m a child myself, going out to see how the bucket of rainwater has a face of ice in the morning. Last week, in a PhD physics lab at the University of Illinois, I listened to a friend explain equipment that she uses to grow crystals a few atomic layers thick. Listening to her I felt that same wonder. For me, I think, that wonder washes in on waves of fairy stories and scientific curiosity.
In Be Prepared, Gregor is the camp nerd, and Alexei is the mean, handsome boy who leads others in laughing at him. Brosgol gives Gregor and Alexei their “just desserts:” Gregor gets a moment of kindness and connection; Alexei finds a sketch of himself crumpled up and thrown into the latrine. He gets to see how some people view his meanness.
“Books can be nicer than life sometimes.”
Books can let us draw the resolutions we have in our heads, the movements we imagine, and where those movements end. I think sketching those arcs, as we grow and choose who to be, is incredibly powerful.At the same time, Emerson says compensation isn’t the heaven or hell we get for what we’ve done. Compensation doesn’t come later and somewhere else: it’s woven in here and now. I still believe in fairies, and when I move into that, the compensation is how I look at growing things and the equipment in the lab. I’m also mean, sometimes: I remember being thirteen and saying something I knew would hurt, because it would hurt. My “just desserts” weren’t only the feeling I had in that moment, but also the place I moved into by doing that: I’d treated a person as not a person, and to that extent, I’d moved away from the connection I really wanted.
The back of Brosgol’s book shows a girl running through the woods with a flashlight. A story, sometimes, is the flashlight we shine to pick out details of what happened and how it changed us. Maybe that’s why books are “nicer:” they let us see the changings in our hearts that might, otherwise, go unseen (but still felt) in the dark.