IS IT ONLY TRUE IF IT REALLY HAPPENED?
When I visit schools, students often ask me if this is a true story. Authors like to distinguish between "is it true?" and "did it really happen?’ When Katherine Paterson was asked once if a story she had written was true, she responded, "I hope so. I worked very hard to make it true." Paula Fox once said, "The job of the writer is to imagine the truth." Although the story of THE SUMMER MY FATHER WAS TEN was not handed down to me from my own father, I worked very hard to make it true - true to the core values that shape us and make us who we are.
The character of Mr. Bellavista, in THE SUMMER MY FATHER WAS TEN, was inspired, in part, by the father of my childhood friend, Alice Betta. I remember clearly a day when we were in her yard while Mr. Betta was working in his garden. He pulled a carrot from the ground, washed it off under the garden hose, and presented it to me to eat. I hesitated.
A part of my ten year old brain judged it unsafe to eat something that hadn't been bought at the grocery store. But another part of my brain said, "Of course it's safe - this is where carrots really come from, silly!". It was a magical moment. I felt as though I were glimpsing a great mystery and could understand it at last.
Gardening remains a magical experience for me. How is it possible to sow a tiny seed and get a plant with dozens of tomatoes, or huge watermelons or hundreds of flowers? It's a mystery, something which can't be completely explained or understood.
For me, writing a story is a mystery, too. I don't always know where the idea for a story came from. I frequently don't know at the beginning how a story will end until I get there. Little by lttle, bits and pieces of my experiences and beliefs make their way into my story. When it's finished, I stand back from it and see it as something separate from myself. I sometimes wonder how I ever produced it and wish I could call up that power again. It's a mystery.
For thousands of years people have used stories to explain the mysteries in their lives. The changing seasons, the awesome power of an earthquake, or why a bear sleeps through the winter have all been explained through stories. We have become more sophisticated over the years, but we still use stories to help us understand mysteries. Why do people do the things they do? How do we explain love? Why do people die? What are we here for? Stories give us some insight into the big questions.
It might seem on first reading that THE SUMMER MY FATHER WAS TEN is about the mystery of death, but that's only part of it. More important is the way it deals with the mysteries of love and forgiveness and their power to heal and transform lives. The young boy in the story is so changed by his experience with Mr. Bellavista that he has turned the experience into a story. The Truth of the story is so important that the telling of it becomes a ritual with his own child. The mystery which shaped his life and made him who he is, will also shape his daughter's life. Life is full of such mysteries which cannot be explained, but can be demonstrated in our stories.
THE SUMMER MY FATHER WAS TEN was not a story that my own father told me. However, I hope that it is a true story, not one that really happened, but one whose truth resonates in the hearts of its readers. May we all know the healing power of love, forgiveness and stories in our lives!