A few months ago, a writer friend of mine casually dismissed my novel Ojibway Valley, saying “It was too sentimental for my taste.”
At first, his remark stung, as I respect his talent and skill as a writer. Then I got to thinking, of course it’s sentimental, what isn’t? A little while later, I’d figured out what he was really saying. “Too sentimental” was code for “unsophisticated.” His “taste” was too advanced for my simple story and writing, and “unsophisticated” meant that my work was lacking in subtlety and depth.
Whatever. I’m not going to argue with him about that. I do want to say something about “sentimentality,” though.
Pick up any great book in the history of American literature, and I’ll challenge you to deny the sentimentality that is at all of their cores. Huckleberry Finn? Please, the scene when Huck decides he’d rather burn in Hell than rat Jim out is one of the most overtly emotional turning points of any book. The Great Gatsby – what is it that makes Gatsby so great? It’s his ability to doggedly hold on to and believe in a dream when all around him is decay and cynicism. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee’s writing drips with nostalgia, and paints a world we all recognize as a shared romantic vision of Americana.
And then there’s this, from that shameless sentimentalist Charles Bukowski:
Google’s on-line dictionary defines “sentimental” as “of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.”
And what triggers these feelings? I think it’s loss. My sweeping proclamation of the day is that nearly all art is an attempt by the artist, in one way or another, to deal with loss. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain describes Huck as coming of age and learning to form his own opinions. But that freedom comes with a cost – the loss of childhood and innocence. So too is Gatsby, one of the most doggedly haunted characters ever created, trying valiantly to reclaim what he’d lost. “Mockingbird” longs for the simple and beautiful innocence of Lee’s childhood.
I would never be so pompous as to compare Ojibway Valley to any of these iconic masterpieces. I reference them just to make a point. As for examples of loss in Ojibway Valley, let’s take a look at how the main characters have been affected by loss:
Winston Bellamy – as a child, he loses both of his parents, his mother to murder and his father to alcoholism. The result of these losses is his inability to relate to other people, and he ends up living a solitary, hermit – like existence. He denies his true identity, disowning his Native American ancestry and inventing a new name for himself. He carries with him the only thing left of his mother – a small photograph of him as a baby in her arms.
Dan Wilcox – Through the years, he suffers the loss of both parents and finally, the devastating loss of his young son. Grief breaks up his marriage and drives him, alone, back to the valley, where he hopes to be healed as an adult like he was as a child.
Jessie Morris – Experiences the loss of his older brother, and is sent to live with his father and grandmother in Iowa. He returns to the valley as an adult, with unresolved anger and violence, and is unable to commit to any kind of romantic relationship.
Laney Harper, Ella Davis and the one legged men: Ella Davis sees in Ike Nelson the romantic courtship she never had with her husband, Billy Davis. The beautiful and lonely Laney Harper has trouble understanding how the physically repulsive Ella can have two lovers when she can’t find one. The loss of Billy Davis and Ike Nelson’s legs makes them physically incomplete, while Ella and Laney are emotionally incomplete. Ultimately, this is a story of the loss of youth and coming to terms that with the fact that the great romance is either a lie or unlikely to occur.
The book is essentially loss piled upon loss. It may be too much, my writing style might be too much this and too little that. But the subject matter, and the themes of loss and redemption, came from a very honest and personal place. When I was writing Ojibway Valley, I was trying to come to terms with the loss of my father and my oldest brother, as well as my own diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, which brings with it loss of a different type.
Whatever criticism a reader might have, that’s fine. What bothers me about the “It’s too sentimental for my taste” is that it’s a cheap cop out, and doesn’t really say anything except that “my tastes are superior to yours.”
Of course, the remark had no effect on me. It’s just coincidence that now, six months after hearing it, I’m still thinking about it, and writing this response.
I need to develop a thicker skin.