The curious influence of art

When we create stories, we think we know what we’re doing. We invent characters, devise a plot, build a world, write what happens and what (we think) it means. But once that story is out in the world, it has its own life.

An example for me is the experience I’m having with my most recent work, The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird. For me, the novel is all about ghosts, many imagined ones and one that is all too real. But reviewers (and I’m grateful to each and very one of them!) have praised the book as a story of trauma. I didn’t think that was what the novel was about. There are some traumatic events, but in my authorial mind, those are subsumed by the ghosts that populate the story.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and remembered other times when the story I wrote was not the one some people read. I expect as a reader, I have also read novels in a different way than the author thought I would. It doesn’t affect my enjoyment, but it does leave a subjective impression. This phenomenon has been on my mind the past couple of weeks, because I heard an anecdote that really impressed me.

The teller of the tale is a new friend of mine, an amazing woman who began, in her middle life, to foster trouble and abused children. She and her husband (who must also be amazing) adopted seven such kids, adding them to their existing family of four! I have such deep respect for the work they’ve done with these children.
Foster children are usually taken from their homes because of abuse and neglect. Many are painfully young, some of them injured physically, almost all injured emotionally and intellectually. My new friend (who I hope will now be a lifelong friend) told me some of their stories. I wasn’t shocked—I worked in a home for juvenile wards of the court when I was in graduate school—but I was saddened to be reminded how cruelly some children have been treated.

The point of my sharing this with you is that my friend used a form of art to help these kids learn how to cope with their new situation. You may be surprised to learn that it’s a television show, an old one that is still being aired in thirty countries around the world— Little House on the Prairie. She and her husband sat their eleven children in front of that show day after day, a family activity. It wasn’t to keep them quiet or to occupy them. It was because in Little House on the Prairie, these kids who had no idea how a family can work could see a mother and father who cared about each other, a family in which there was no violence, no fighting, where there were rules and structure and respect for family members. The whole family loved the series so much that they’re planning a trip to the Little House museum.

Was this what Laura Ingalls Wilder meant when she wrote the children’s books? Probably not. Yes, they were stories of a pioneer family working together to survive. They have issues (you can read a lot about the author and her family and the issues with the books at ) but I very much doubt Ms. Wilder expected her books to become a fabulously popular series, and I think she would have been stunned to see a house full of maltreated kids learning another way to live from her work, seventy years after her death. Her stories took on a life of their own, a flawed life perhaps, but a worthy one.

And I am SO impressed by the creative way my new dear friend and her wonderful husband developed to help re-train the kids they took into their home.