intensely trivial

Kingfishers Catch Fire

I should have (oh, how I wish I had!) read my copy of Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire with a pen in hand and written all over it. Now I want to go back and read things to people, or attach gorgeous quotations to the ends of my emails, and I can’t find them. I think maybe I need to just reread the whole book.
Besides this being a practically perfect novel in an absolute literary way, its main character, Sophie, was one with whom I identified strongly. She is a young widow from England, 35 years old (my age), who packs up her two children and moves to Kashmir to become one of the peasants — at least that’s her ideal. The novel tells the story of that experience and her success, or lack thereof, in becoming like the people there. Of course she commits cultural faux pas (is that the plural of faux pas? any French speakers out there to help me?), both silly and dire. The subtle interplay between Kashmiri cultural subgroups is beyond her understanding at first, and she stubbornly pursues her ideals, while we get to watch the fallout.
To me, the scariest potentiality in my identification with Sophie is that she drags her kids along with her on this fairly dangerous (some would say foolhardy) mission. She doesn’t notice how they suffer as a result of her compulsions. It could be argued that they are strengthened by this in the end, but it was painful for me to see how difficult Sophie made her children’s lives. I too am prone to idealistic quests, and this story was cautionary for me, since I don’t want to trample over the needs of my children as I charge headlong into my own passions. They are my children, and they need me to be their mother. On the other hand, for the sake of my own internal integrity, there are going to be things I need to do: advocate for women, for example, or express myself creatively through writing, food, or music. Oh, it is so hard to balance it all.

I wanted to share with you just a few of the beautiful passages in this book. Bless my husband’s heart, he patiently listens to me reading wonderful things aloud to him all the time. With this book, he would practically snort with glee at the obvious ways in which I identified with Sophie.

Here’s Sophie speaking with a wise Kashmiri friend of hers early on in the book, at the beginning of her stay:

“You must remember,” said the pundit, worried, to Sophie, “we have not had a visitor here before.”
“All the better,” said Sophie. “The people will be innocent and unspoiled.” And she said firmly, “I shall not be a visitor. I shall be one of them.”
The pundit still looked worried.
“What can happen to you, Pundit Sahib, if you stand on your own feet?” asked Sophie sharply.
“You can fall down,” said the pundit.

Here’s Sophie speaking to her Aunt Rose about Sophie’s daughter, Teresa:

“She is so timid!” said Sophie. Sophie was always asking, “Why is Teresa such a little goose? Why is she so timid?”
One day Aunt Rose answered that. “You must remember,” said Aunt Rose, “if you hitch your wagon to a star it must often be very uncomfortable in the wagon.”

And finally, here’s Sophie thinking, later on in her experience, about the house she lives in while in Kashmir:

She could see the house roof down below among the trees. Dhilkusha — “Heart’s Gladness.” Heart’s Gladness! thought Sophie. Cross-currents, crisscrosses, pricks, and little stabs — hundreds of threads fastened into me, she thought, pulling me this way and that, and these strange storms and stresses. If a heart can stay glad through that it’s a strong heart, thought Sophie wryly, and suddenly she thought, startled, Is that what it means? Is that what we are meant to learn?

For one thing, I just love the sound of it: “Cross-currents, crisscrosses, pricks, and little stabs.” Read it aloud. You’ll think it’s interesting, too.

The one thing that’s bugging me is that I don’t have a good answer for what the title means. As an English teacher, I have to ask that question. It’s important! Maybe I’ll figure it out on my second reading.

If I haven’t convinced you to read the book, at least I’ve convinced you that I loved the book. It was a thoughtful read, but it also had this irresistible momentum.

Speaking of momentum, I’m reading my first book by Wendell Berry now, Hannah Coulter. I’m taking a break from it at the moment, because I was compelled to write about some other things, but as soon as I turn off the computer, I’m going back to Hannah Coulter. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about it.


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