Recently, a friend, Martha, has given me the gift of deciding to read all my books. I said, “Really?” and loaded her up with an armful of novels. So now she is giving me the additional and even greater gift of writing her response to each one as she finishes it. And best of all, she tells me what she doesn’t like as well as what she likes. That’s a gift writers don’t often receive from their friends.
Here is part of her response to A Bear Named Trouble:
I’m so glad there was a happy ending. I’m nervous about reading animal stories as they have the potential to pull at my heart strings so (or too) much. I remember reading Call of the Wild and Old Yeller as a child and I still have feelings about those books. I would never read them again. As I was reading your book I was remembering that I walked out of the Disney movie The Bear because the first scene was the cub losing his mother. It was too painful.
So, as an adult I was very nervous reading this book. It pushed up against the edge of “uh oh might not enjoy this” but fortunately didn’t break that open. I think part of what helped that was that mom sent baby away. It was sad for baby but part of the natural way that didn’t involve tragedy. I was also sad Mama Goose got killed but again it was nice to have the adult have true empathy towards the child with that—helped him through rather than unresolved tragedy.
I realize I only like very happy animal stories . . . period. Funny, though, because I do not have such a strong reaction to hard things happening to people. I enjoy that because it feels validating in some ways.
Martha has presented me with clear thoughts on a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. What is it that makes tragedy in animal stories—and so often animal stories do involve tragedy, don’t they?—more difficult for many readers to accept and absorb than the same kinds of hard experiences in human stories?
Is it simply that we see animals as more vulnerable, more helpless, that most of us have a profound need to keep them safe?
Or perhaps it is that animals stand in for our deeper selves in a more unguarded way than a human character can? A human character is always distinct from us . . . different in gender or age, name or family background, desire or personality. We empathize. We feel the struggle. But we seldom let go of our own identity and become that person whole.
But animals—at least in stories—seem to become vessels that we climb inside and inhabit wholly. We put on the bear’s skin, wag the dog’s tail, curl up inside the cat. They are so completely other and so completely us at the same time. No protective membrane stands between the story animal and the reader.
Is that it?
I would love to hear some of my readers’ insights about why animal stories work so powerfully on people’s emotions. Why are people willing to see a human character hurt or even killed, but turn away—often angry with the maker of the story—from a story in which bad things happen to an animal character?