Got your attention? No, I didn’t choose the title for this post just to draw viewers (though I’ll take it!), but because over the summer, I’ve been doing more fiction reading than I have in some time. (As a history professor, reading what I do most of the day, but fiction is a luxury I have failed to allow myself for too long.) While I intend to get back to Wolf Hall shortly, I recently read Hunger Games, and am re-reading the Harry Potter books. (My son has begun the series, and I need to be able to answer questions along the lines of, “Who was Ravenclaw’s keeper in the first book?”)
As I read Hunger Games, I was struck by the scene in which Katniss says good-bye to her mother before departing for the Games, and almost certain death. Up until that point, Suzanne Collins had successfully convinced me to see the world through Katniss’s eyes. I felt her grief at losing her father, sensed her attraction to Gale, and her love for Prim, and in forging this link between reader and protagonist Collins was no less successful than Rowling.
But in the scene between Katniss and her mother, the emotional bond I felt with Katniss was suddenly broken, and I experienced the scene from her mother’s perspective. No longer was I the brave protagonist heading off to match wits and strength with other teens. I had become a helpless parent, sending her daughter off to die. It was a wrenching change, and one that got me thinking about the way we read and write.
I’d known for some time that parenthood changed my view of the world, and especially how I consumed media. After having kids, TV shows that dealt with violence against kids (I’m looking at you, Special Victims Unit) totally lost their allure, and even now I avoid news stories about the deaths of children; they are just too frightening to contemplate. Interestingly enough, I had the same experience during a trip to the National Archives outside of London, where I spent my first summer as a new father reading depositions from infanticide cases. Heavy stuff, to say the least. (Excuse me, sir? Could I ask you not to cry on the manuscripts? They are 400 years old.)
And I think it was the fact that I’m now a parent that caused me to read this scene in Hunger Games from a fundamentally different way than I would have before my children were born. For that moment, my sympathies lay not with Katniss – she would have a say in her own fate – but with her mother, who could do nothing except watch the television and pray. (Do the people of Panem pray? I don’t remember Katniss doing so, and she certainly had good reason to do so!)
Which brings us to Harry Potter. Let me say at the outset, while I recognize the books’ faults, they remain the most entrancing works I’ve ever read. At the end of every book, you can count on me to blubber like a child, not because the endings are sad, but because – like Harry – I have to leave the magical world and return to the rather depressing (and infinitely more complicated) world we’ve got.
But in seven long volumes, I never found myself making the leap that I did with Katniss and her mother; I never saw things from Ron’s or Hermione’s point of view, or worried about Harry the way his parents would have. There are many good reasons for this, of course, so I’m not criticizing Rowling for this, or counting it as a failing of the books, but noting Collins’s surprising achievement.
This raises a few questions in my mind, and I wonder what y’all think. First, what did Collins do to make this happen? I honestly have no idea. If I’m the only one to have this reaction, the answer may well be, “She didn’t do anything. It’s your fevered brain.” And if that’s the case, I can let it go.
Second, how does this change the way I approach writing? Since (like Collins) I’m writing in the first person, it had never occurred to me to punt the reader from one character to another, and I don’t know that I could, even if I tried. But it would be a great skill to have. Thanks to this scene, the stakes in the Games were even higher than they would have been otherwise. I was rooting for Katniss for her sake and her mother’s, and that seems like a very useful tool to have in my literary kit.
So is this something you’ve tried? Would consider trying? And if so, how would you do it?