I have never been fond of the exercise that asks students to identify a story’s theme. Most writers, I suspect, share my view. In fact, I once heard a Newbery medalist tell about her grandson receiving such an assignment about her book. Having access to the source, he called to ask.
She thought for a moment, then said, “Well, I guess the theme is . . . ” and she spelled it out for him.
He called her again a few days later to report. His teacher had given his answer a D.
I’ve seen some educator-produced materials designed to support On My Honor that explained the “theme” of my novel in ways I barely recognized. And though most of my grandchildren read On My Honor as a class assignment, I’ve been glad none of them ever called to ask me to explain its theme. I probably would have gotten a D on the assignment, too.
It’s not that stories don’t have meaning. They do. Always. A story could be saying, “Isn’t life a lark?” It might be, “Life is a dirty deal.” Perhaps it’s “Crime doesn’t pay.” Or maybe “Seems like we’re all in this mess together.” A story reveals its writer in the most intimate way by holding up her world view. Sometimes a story can reveal more of her world than the writer herself understands.
Stories—at least well-written, deeply conceived stories—are not intended to stamp a lesson in the middle of a reader’s forehead, no matter how young and stampable that reader might be. What stories are meant to do, more than anything else, is to make us feel.
The meaning of a story, any story, emerges through the feelings the story engenders, and feelings are difficult to explicate on an exam.
So what do I want my readers to feel when they read On My Honor? First, I want them to feel Tony’s sudden, unexpected death, the shock of it, the finality of it.
Then I want them to feel Joel’s misplaced guilt, the way he takes responsibility for Tony’s brash actions, the way he blames himself for daring Tony to swim to the sandbar. (It’s curious that my readers, even my readers’ teachers, rarely seem to notice that the guilt is misplaced. Joel made the dare because he was trying to prevent Tony from going on his own to climb the bluffs, something he assumed would have been even more dangerous than messing around in the river.)
I want them to feel the way Joel’s guilt becomes blame, becomes fury against his father. I want them to feel the hopelessness of that blame, of that fury, whether directed inward or onto another.
And finally, I want them to feel the solidness of Joel’s father. Like so many of us parents, Joel’s father has been trying so hard throughout the story to do the right thing that he has been wavering and uncertain. But when Joel needs him most, that man’s love is a rock.
“Will you stay?” [Joel] asked, reaching a hand out tentatively to touch his father’s knee. “Will you sit with me until I fall asleep?”
“Of course,” his father said.
I want my readers to understand in their bones that love doesn’t have to be perfect to be wholly, solidly, reliably there. And that it is love’s thereness that redeems.
When they feel that, it doesn’t matter whether they can wrap that feeling in words and call it theme or not. They understand.