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“What is real?”—A critical question posed to those seeking authenticity.

This is worked out in The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) by the American-British author Margery Williams. What appears to be the story of a little boy’s relationship with his stuffed rabbit becomes something else. Her toy animals speak.

“What is real?” asks the Velveteen Rabbit, a stocking stuffer ignored by the little boy that Christmas morning in lieu of the more modern wind-up toys in the nursery.

The Skin Horse, the favorite of the boy’s uncle, responds, “When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

After the holidays, the grandmother slips the Velveteen Rabbit into the arms of the little boy, asleep in his bed. The next morning, they become inseparable.

Months of cuddling the stuffed rabbit evidence the boy’s growing affection for his pet: bent and missing whiskers, glass eye hanging by a thread, worn patches of velveteen on the haunches, discolored torn ear. Then comes the change.

It comes with the boy’s scarlet fever, and with the single tear from the Velveteen Rabbit’s good eye coursing down its cheek: an arousal of love for his little friend. It also brings on the Nursery Magic Fairy who honors his fresh spirit, kisses him on the nose, then leads him to other rabbits in the forest where he becomes one among them.

This story of transformation appealed to me. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, my body continues wearing down, feelings surface through daily bogs, and grief’s tears water my psyche: all expressions of deepening love for Creator God who has brought me this far in life. I, too, must become real and submit to the stripping/loving in our relationship. To this ongoing process, I bring heartfelt trust.

 

Wrapping story around horrific events disseminates their skeletal outlines into bite-sized pieces for readers’ assimilation and learning.

Such an event occurred the night of January 30, 1945, during a freezing snowstorm upon the Baltic Sea. The Soviet submarine S-13 torpedoed the German transport ship, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, nine hours into its passage. On board were 10,000 refugees fleeing from the Russian and Allied offensive. Only one thousand survived.

For three years the author Ruta Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee from World War II, researched this disaster until, in her imagination, Salt to the Sea (2016) was conceived. The story unfolds, piecemeal, through four characters: Joanna, a twenty-one-year old Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a seventeen-year old East Prussian preservationist and restorer of works of art; Emilia fifteen-years old, Polish and eight months pregnant; and Alfred, a seventeen-year old delusional German seaman assigned to the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Like a skilled minimalist painter, Sepetys reveals more by what she leaves out. Her precise words have dropped depth charges upon this reader’s psyche, its rumble evoking a slow burn and profound feelings for the characters.

Salt to the Sea, an historical novel, also leaves me with questions. In seventy-five years, will anyone be writing of today’s refugees caught within the cross-hairs of global politics? Since when has it been all right to minimize the losses of the poor, even their lives?

All of this cries out to God—And it does.

 

“Once upon a time in a distant land, but not that far away, lived…” So opens fairy tales fraught with cosmic clashes between good and evil, useful for today’s conflict resolution if properly studied in depth; and so opens listeners’ imaginations, hungry for worlds mirroring their own. Life has always been hard, and still is.

So how did these fairy tales as we know them come about?

In nineteenth-century Germany the spread of literacy and the improvement of indoor illumination began usurping the role of itinerant storytellers carrying tales of mystery from village to village. Such had been their practice for hundreds of years. Into this changing world came Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, both philologists, who recorded and first published their tales in 1812; their volume fire-stormed collectors from other countries, worldwide, to do likewise.

It would be interesting to track the accretions to the fairy tale “The Two Brothers,” before the Grimm’s Brothers recorded it. Twenty pages long, it contains the classic elements found in fairy tales: good/evil, golden egg-laying bird, a King, a Princess, their castle, talking animals, a fire-spitting seven-headed dragon, a witch, an enchanted forest, magic potions, contests, and trickery—Even the use of numbering to facilitate the memory of the storyteller. This fairy tale could have ended in several places, but seamlessly, it continued on and satisfied its listeners, and still does.

Unlike the integrity of the Grimm’s Brothers cherished tales, our collectors of stories—journalists—play havoc with truth, their intent to rouse fear and manipulate imaginations, rather than ennoble them. I wonder which version of the spin-doctors’ palaver, if any, will be remembered one hundred years from now.

 

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