What a year this has been…

(beware, here be spoilers)


I don’t post here much anymore, but I’ve just returned from the last trip of a very busy year, and I’m sitting in my house, making soup, watching the snow outside my window, and feeling things.

In 2017, I began teaching in the MFAC program at Hamline University, published five (FIVE?) books, and logged about 2 trillion Delta skymiles, visiting bookish conferences and festivals.  At the same time, Mose started middle school, Lew and he were separated for the first time, and lots of other big events occurred in my family/personal life.  I lost some dear friends.  My sister bought a bookstore and moved home! 2017 was a year of newness, challenge, growth, for me and for the people I love best.

Of course, more than anything, this year was also full of political insanity.  So we all woke up. We marched and marched and shouted. We knocked doors. We called our reps. We wrote letters, and made posters, and donated money to ease our frazzled and desperate consciences.  We flew to DC to shout at our senators (oh, those poor staffers).

But somewhere in all of that newness and insanity and marching, another thing happened. I published a book called Orphan Island, about a girl on an island, the oldest of a group of kids. A smart, capable, but imperfect girl, afraid to grow up.  A girl who, when the little green boat arrived, didn’t want to get into it.

This was, absolutely, a “book of my heart.”  It was a book I never really expected to see in print.  It was a book about the inner workings of my own mind/heart, more than anything.  About childhood, and leaving it. About not knowing where we come from, or where we go. About not having answers. About what it means to be the eldest child in a confused and fractured home. What it means to parent, and let go. What it means to know you are imperfect, to examine yourself and see your flaws, and still love yourself.  What it means to take what you need… or not to take what you need, because it isn’t always your turn.  Orphan Island was a book that let me explore ALL THE THINGS INSIDE ME.

Much as I never expected the book to be published, I never expected people to find and point out ALL THE THINGS INSIDE ME.  And because, somehow, this book found a really huge readership (compared to my other books), I got to see what lots of people thought about ALL THE THINGS.  I had laid bare my paradoxical, incongruous, conflicted, inner self– the twelve year version and the 44 year old version. So I received emails and letters and google alerts telling me just what people thought of that messy inner self.

That was totally great!  As authors go, I’m pretty thick-skinned, the product of many years of workshop-bruisings.  I believe that our readers are our collaborators, and I will fight anyone who argues that point. Every reader is entitled to interpret any book they like, and to feel their viewpoint is valid.  So, to the people who are bothered by the puzzling inner workings of my twelve year old (or 44 year old) soul, I say, thank you!  Thank you for reading. Learn and grow and YOU DO YOU.   I’m so happy the book made people think and feel things.

But there is one thing I’ve been sitting with, that I want to say.  One response I want to offer, not because anyone’s interpretation/collaboration of my book is wrong. But because  I did have my own intentions in writing it.   I haven’t wanted to share my thoughts very much, because I don’t want my own authorial intent to squelch the way others read my book.  I don’t want to suggest any simplifications to the conflicted moment Jinny is in. But…

But my intent is valid too, right? And there’s an issue I think about all the time, that I wove into these pages, in and around the other themes.  An issue that matters to me deeply, that I think about daily, as a citizen and as a person, as a member of my family, and my school community, and my synagogue, and my city and state. That issue is called THE SOCIAL CONTRACT. And I want to unpack that, just a little. For anyone who might care to read this.  But perhaps especially for anyone who thought that Jinny was punished for doing what felt right to her, for following her gut.

Jinny is both an individual and a member of a society that works (so far as we can see) really well.  As a member of that society, she has a role and a responsibility to others.  When her individual desires bump up against her role as a member of that society, she struggles.

We all experience this in the world. We all have moments when we want to break the rules for our individual reasons. We all long to jaywalk when we’re in a hurry, steal things we can’t afford, ignore the dishes in the sink, show up late to the surprise party.  But in those moments, we try to remember all the other people who are engaging in the contract alongside us.  We bear in mind that the system only works when we participate in it. So we do the dumb dishes.

That said, when the system does not work, the social contract also demands that we pursue justice, fairness, a system that works better.  The social contract gives us a right to use our individual instincts to take care of ourselves, but also to change the system, seek something more. And this is where Orphan Island bumped into 2017, into history!  Because in 2017, many people stopped thinking the system was working.

When I wrote the book three years ago, I never expected this underlying theme to be as relevant as it is today, politically.  But here we are, in a society that has revealed its deep fractures and fissures. A society that suddenly sees those fractures, and is engaging with them, trying to figure out what to do. I think that has affected some of the most interesting conversations about the book. And the thing I want to point out is:

When, in the middle of the story, Jinny’s individual desire is to not get into the boat, her world is still working, so far as she can see.  She ignores that she’s part of a larger picture, and does what she wants to do.  In her way, she is breaking the social contract.  This doesn’t make her evil. It makes her human. But it is, according to the contract of the island, a mistake. And so (as might happen if eleven percent of “society” broke the rules) the world falls apart a little bit. She senses that, and feels bad, because she’s a good person.  There are consequences to her choices, and she knows it.  There are misunderstandings, and ripples in the world around her.

I will not go any further with this, as an explanation of the book. I won’t get into the details, or reveal anything I haven’t already revealed. As I said above, I believe firmly that my own interpretation is no more valid than anyone else’s.  I have not yet read a single explanation of the book I don’t find valid and interesting, or that revelations would radically alter.  But it’s important to me that I point out this distinction.  That the question I had in mind was not whether Jinny’s initial desire was bad, but rather…  how do we decide when to listen to our individual needs, and when to think of others?

This matters to me. Not just for the kids on the island, but for the kids in Atlanta, or Baltimore, or anywhere else. For all the kids.  It matters to me that the social contract works both ways. It requires that we think of others, as we make our own individual decisions. That we hold up the aspects of society that work, even when we don’t want to. We pay our taxes, and join the PTCA, and open the door for the woman with her arms full of groceries. We do our part.  We think of other people, the whole world, as we navigate what it means to be an individual.

BUT!  It also matters that then, when we see that the system ISN’T working, that the world is collapsing around us, that the laws no longer work or apply, we need to find another way to make decisions. When the sky is falling and the laws stop working as they’re supposed to work… we turn inward, search for our own moral compass, and figure out what to do as individual, so that we might fix the world.  Not because we want to do our own individual thing, but because when the system fails, we need to look for more creative solutions than obedience.

Jinny follows her instincts when she doesn’t need to.  And then she follows her instincts when she does.  Like any kid, she is learning how to be a person.

And so, here we are. It’s 2018.  Many people are noticing that the boat isn’t coming on schedule any more. The snakes are biting.  What are we going to do?  Most of us are out of practice at breaking the rules for the right reasons.  Most of us are rule-followers.  But not all rules are the same, and not all moments are the same.   What makes something a bad decision in one moment can make it the right decision in another.

Just something to think about…



2 Responses to “What a year this has been…”

  1. Linda Baie Says:

    It’s rather like the “perfect storm”, and to continue your own story within Orphan Island, expectations of children, or of adults, may be shattered, through moves, social and family conflicts, health, many things unforeseen. I loved Orphan Island, believe it is one where every person could examine her or his life through its lens, and it seems from your writing, that’s what you did. You just didn’t expect this 2016 political year. Thanks for the reflective post, Laurel. I look forward to your next book!

  2. Bonny Becker Says:

    Laurel, you packed so much into this story. I loved it. I expected Jinny to pay a price for breaking the rules of the island because she was trying to thwart the natural order. I didn’t consciously think of the social contracts at play on the island although I wondered how they had such orderly lives–especially in the way they interacted with each other (generally so decently and cooperatively.) This adds another layer to an already beautifully layered story. Thanks!

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