Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

"Human kind can not stand very much reality." T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

I finished Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane the day after the 2016 presidential election. As I read about a man's memories of his childhood friend Lettie and how she saved him from evil and death it seemed a fitting choice. For all the book's magical, alternate universe it is wise in ways deeply rooted in our universal experience.

There is in the real world, as in magical fictions, evil and threats and suffering-- and, sometimes, saviors and redemption.

The book's nameless main character is only seven years old when he follows a path to a neighboring farm inhabited by three women, seemingly three Hempstock generations. The girl Lettie befriends him, and warning him not to let go of her hand, takes him on a journey to a pond---the ocean, she calls it--through her magical world. He does let go, and he becomes a portal into reality for a creature whose goal is to fulfill need, to make people 'happy.' Manifesting as a beautiful woman, Ursula, she seduces his father. The boy is her gate and must be controlled; the more he rebells, the tighter her grip.

He finally escapes and is found by Lettie who takes him to her home. The Hempstocks help him by releasing magical entities to attack Ursula, only to discover they also desire to destroy the boy.

The saving of the boy comes at a dear cost; has his life justified the price?

Gaiman's story is wonderful on so many levels, from his imagination to his writing style.

I loved the insights into childhood:

  • I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled.
  • Books were safer than other people anyway.
  • Adults follow paths. Children explore.

And even more the insights into the human experience:

  • Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside...People are more complicated than that.
  • Nothing's ever the same...Be it a second later or a hundred years. It's always churning and roiling. And people change as much as oceans.
  • You don't pass or fail at being a person, dear.

I especially loved the quote, "Oh, monsters are scared...That's why they're monsters." 
Last evening I had searched for something to sum up how I felt about the election, from start to finish, and found this quote:
"Of all the passions, fear weakens judgment most."-Cardinal de Retz 
We were sold fear as a campaign platform and we were sold fear as the result of the election going 'the other way,' and were sold the fear that whichever person wins, America is coming to ruin.

It's not the first time America's judgment has been amiss. Native American genocide, rounding up Japanese Americans into concentration camps, lynching African Americans without due process are just a few examples of our errors in judgment, brought on by fear.

Nothing causes fear more than change. And nothing is as sure as change. Fear of change has made monsters, and they now reside with us.

I can only hope and trust that, as we have in the past, America will survive these monsters of fear, and burnished from the fire, become a more refined metal.

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