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“This is not a story to pass on.” So concludes the freed black community after its brush with the preternatural, as found in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved (1984).

Five years in its composition, the author dives deep for pungent images to express the inexpressible horrors of southern slavery and its afterimage during the Reconstruction, these anecdotes honed from her grandparents’ and parents’ experiences. Through Morrison’s artistry, her characters, no longer silenced, speak.

The setting for this novel is 124 Bluestone Road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. Within this two-story hovel live the protagonist Sethe, her eighteen-year-old Denver, and Beloved, the poltergeist of Sethe’s second daughter. The time is 1873. The narrative follows a circuitous route, with frequent insertions of backstory: Sweet Home, a small plantation in Kentucky where Sethe and five slaves tend the needs of the Garnets, a childless couple; Sethe’s “marriage” to Halle and their begetting four children; schoolteacher’s torture meted out to all the slaves, some escaping, others killed or rendered witless.

At the center of this circuitous route is lodged Sethe’s unspeakable crime that shimmies, beyond all telling. It takes forever to get there: the journey bristles with tension. Indeed, her poetic language crisps the soles of feet, squinches sensibilities, and fuels outrage.

“Love is or it ain’t. Thin love is not love at all,” Sethe tells Paul D, an aging Sweet Home former slave. From her perspective, her crime takes on a different hue—countering Evil and provoking questions that itch, badly, in the night.

 

 

 

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“I’m seeing His face,” gasped Basil of Antioch as he emerged from his dream of the Last Supper; the beardless one, in the center, seemed to school his slender fingers as they tooled the damp clay into an astounding likeness: wise, discerning eyes set apart beneath the broad forehead, the long nose, the briefest of smiles that masked a tortured spirit.

Basil’s commission had been to fashion a circlet for the handcrafted pewter cup from which Jesus drank during His final meal, with the twelve in the Wall of David. He was to recreate this scene in silver, superimposed upon grape leaves. Arduous travels around the Middle East produced likenesses of all the participants save that of Jesus. Enemies of the Way were already mushrooming in the first century.

Such a narrative unfolds in Thomas B. Costain’s historical novel The Silver Chalice (1952). Its tattered blue cover, streaked with watermarks and smudges, opened me to the enthusiasm of Jesus’s first followers, alive with His teachings, in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome. No matter the dangers, even death, that courted them on all sides and compelling them to live in secrecy and poverty. In hushed tones they greeted each with “Jesus is risen!” My heart burned within me.

So why does Jesus’s simple message create persecutions that continue into our times, especially in Middle East Nigeria and other countries around the world? The Internet lists such atrocities.

Why the aversion to live His Way in humility?

It does work! It really does!

 

 

 

Memorable writers dig deep for the next precise word to construct their narratives—a spiritual process that engages readers.

Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016) was such a writer, but unlike others, his eleven months spent in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald eviscerated Yiddish words learned in childhood. For ten years, silence stood guardian over his shocked psyche and sustained his sanity while mastering French in the Normandy home for orphans where he was placed after the liberation. But his heart wound was never staunched—The heinous Evil of the camps defied words. Still, he must try.

And he did. In 1954, he began the task, scrounging for words that shivered before the enormity of his experience. What was to become Night ballooned into 842 pages that underwent several published revisions: in 1956, the Yiddish Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent), reduced to 245 pages; in 1958, the French Nuit, reduced to 178 pages; in 1960, the English Night, reduced to 117 pages; and in 2006, a re-translation of the French Nuit, reduced to 115 pages. Decades of revision finally distilled Wiesel’s wound into its essence.

Although words of thirty other languages approximate this account, what actually occurred in the camps remains obscure. Those who plumb the mystery of Evil get scorched; it remains an unfathomable mystery.

So what to make of this world classic, Night? It still speaks to us, but how?

A clue to this dilemma lies in the Talmud’s designation of God as speaking through the white spaces between printed words. Within such silence emerges Wiesel’s deposition for those with courage to listen.

 

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