Jodi Picoult’s “The Storyteller” is a hefty hardback boasting well over 450 pages. I picked it up primarily because it centers on a 20-something woman named Sage who forms an unlikely bond with a 90-something man named Josef.
The story promised to strum every heart string I have as a reader: contemporary fiction, intergenerational friendship, a life story revealed, a younger person all the wiser because of it. Yes, please!
But about 100 pages in, I realized this book was going to take me to places I had not anticipated. “The Storyteller” proved to be a challenge that sliced right to my writing soul.
Turns out, there’s a third character to this story who encompasses a large swath of those 450 pages: Sage’s grandmother, Mika, a Holocaust survivor.
The novel contains detailed and often graphic descriptions of what Mika endured from the time of Nazi occupation in her native Poland through her imprisonment at Auschwitz and up to the Allied liberation.
The searing images – and the emotion associated with them – that will forever live on in my mind. And that, I believe, was exactly Picoult’s aim.
Writers desire to move their readers in such a way the story will live in their imaginations long after the last chapter, to stir them into a response of some kind. This is a basic truth of storytelling.
This a basic truth Picoult captures beautifully in the Mika character.
Mika herself is also a fiction writer. Before the Nazi occupation, her vivid imagination was for entertainment value. It was the thing that fed her dreams of being a published author. When her reality changed, her imagination was the thing that kept her alive.
In the barracks of Auschwitz, she used whatever paper surface she could find to write her novel. Being in possession of paper and pen was a serious infraction that could lead to torture or death. Still, she wrote. In the midst of her nightmare, she wrote.
She wrote because it kept her mind alive amid bodily deprivation.
She wrote because it helped the other prisoners, with whom she shared the story so they might temporarily escape their reality.
She wrote because one of the guards was a fellow reader who was so taken with her writing he kept her protected in various ways so he could find out what happens next in the story.
She wrote because she was able to process what she was enduring, to attempt to make sense of how evil and good can exist in the same human soul.
She wrote, quite simply, because she was a writer. And that’s how writers live. Writers write with every breath they take. They stop writing only when they stop breathing.
Picoult wrote “The Storyteller” primarily as an examination of ethics and, to a certain extent, how faith and hope survive. But as a fellow writer, I took something else away from this novel.
“The Storyteller” challenged me to answer the question: How am I using my freedom to share the stories I have been given to write?
Mika did not have freedom to write, yet she wrote.
She would have given anything to write in peace, with actual paper, and a reasonable chance at publishing her work. All of that was stripped away from her, and she still found a way to write. She faced obstacle after obstacle to write, yet she found a way.
Still she wrote.
She wrote so that her story might live and thrive, even if she didn’t.
“Stories outlive their writers all the time,” she soliloquies during her imprisonment.
“I think, in the end, that’s why I did it. Because there would be no photograph of me for someone to steal or to memorize. There was no family at home anymore to think of me. Maybe I wasn’t even remarkable enough to be remembered; looking like I did these days, I was just another prisoner, another number. If I had to die in this hellhole, and the odds were very good that would happen, then maybe someone else would survive and tell their children the story a girl had told at night in the block. Fiction is like that, once it is released into the world: contagious, persistent. Like the contents of Pandora’s box, a story that’s freely given can’t be contained anymore. It becomes infectious, spreading from the person who created it to the person who listens, and passes it on.”
Stories outlive their writers, and that’s exactly the aim of writing.
Writers write to process, to understand, to live – and to speak into the lives of others they will never meet. Mika did it in a fictional existence. Picoult did it in a real one. As their fellow writer, I have the same desire.
I want to use my freedom to tell the stories I have been given. Because I can’t shake the notion these stories were never meant to die with me.
After reading “The Storyteller,” how can I believe anything else?
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