Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The redemptive power of storytelling

Underlying Rockwell's every painting and gesture was his faith in the redemptive power of storytelling -- stories, he believed, were a buffer against despair and emptiness.
Deborah Solomon, American Mirror

A couple nights ago I was in the audience at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg when Les Standiford gave a reading, both from one of his John Deal novels and from a work in progress about dogs. This was part of the week-long Writers in Paradise series of public readings by authors. Reading from his dog book, he reflected on the oft-repeated observation that there are really just two basic plots in all of literature: the hero takes a journey or a stranger comes to town. All plots, or at least most plots, are about one or the other, or perhaps a combination of the two.

But is there perhaps just one plot? The stranger who comes to town is, at least in his own mind, the hero taking a journey. For each of  us, life is a journey, even if we never leave home. Each of us is on a quest -- a quest for love, for acceptance, for respect, for meaning, for significance. And this may be what draws us to stories, those we tell each other, those we read in books, those we watch in movies and television programs and those we see in Norman Rockwell paintings.

All this brought me back to Deborah Solomon's biography of Rockwell, American Mirror, and specifically to the sentence quoted above about "the redemptive power of storytelling." Stories about other people's journeys somehow comfort the rest of us in our own. They gives us hope and courage, while strengthening our resolve to continue our own quests, whatever they may be.

Take a good look at Rockwell's 1945 painting Homecoming G.I. The painting doesn't just tell a story, but it contains several subplots as well. A soldier returns to his rundown urban home, but is he the hero on a journey or, because of the changes inflicted by his war experiences, a stranger coming to town? His joyous mother spreads wide her arms, while his younger siblings run to greet him. Neighbors observe his return, and a shy girl, wearing perhaps her best dress, watches from the side. She may be wondering if he remembers her and if he has thought about her as she has thought about him during his absence.

So many of Rockwell's paintings are like that, full of stories upon stories, many of which we may only be imagining. And those stories we find in Rockwell's art, like those in the books of Les Standiford and other writers, can provide us with an ounce of redemption.

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