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Some personal favorites

Review by Lynda La Rocca

Favorite books – January 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

AFTER WATCHING A MARVELOUS BBC America production of Charles Dickens’ 19th-century classic David Copperfield a couple of months ago, I became obsessed with all things Dickens.

Not having read any of Dickens’ novels since college (with the exception of my annual rereading of A Christmas Carol, a book I extolled in a December, 1996, Colorado Central column), I’d almost forgotten how prodigiously talented — and timeless — a writer Dickens is.

Of course, I started my mini-literary review with David Copperfield which, of all Dickens’ novels, draws most heavily from the author’s own life. In this work, the fictional David tells his own story of a miserable childhood, a young adulthood of profound happiness and terrible tragedy, and a serene, successful middle age.

The characters surrounding David are literally that — yet describing them as eccentric diminishes their delightful humanity. From the ongoing war Aunt Betsey wages against trespassing donkeys and Mr. Dick’s obsession with King Charles’ head, to the ever-hopeful Mr. Micawber and the “‘umble” (and ‘orrible) Uriah Heep, these “people” seem so alive, so real that I wanted to embrace (or in Uriah’s case, throttle) them.

The same is true of the characters in the next Dickens masterpiece on my list, Oliver Twist. The cruelty and selfishness of the adults overseeing the workhouse where the orphaned Oliver spends his early years, the bleakness and brutality of the poor child’s life, literally took my breath away.

When Oliver, who somehow remains kind and virtuous despite beatings, starvation, and an almost-palpable loneliness, becomes the thrall of Fagin, a career criminal who corrupts homeless, destitute children by training them as thieves, I raged at such unceasing injustice. And when Oliver was at last rescued from this abyss of despair, I felt redeemed myself.

Dickens takes on another kind of injustice in A Tale of Two Cities, his portrayal of the terror and barbarity of the French Revolution. Alternating the action between Paris and London, Dickens unleashes his outrage at war’s violence and inhumanity by weaving a gut-wrenching tale of treachery and bloodthirstiness, exquisitely counterbalanced by an extraordinarily noble and heroic act.

When I read Dickens, I’m pretty much either laughing, crying, or marveling at his uncanny knack for dead-on social criticism, criticism that rings as true today as it did more than a century ago. Dickens was, after all, a writer who was compelled to tackle the big issues: poverty; the abuse of power; man’s inhumanity to man; and, most furiously and sometimes hilariously, the dangers of zealotry, hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

One example, from David Copperfield, will suffice. David has been invited to visit a prison espousing a thoroughly modern penological philosophy: that incarceration following a felony conviction leads to “sincere contrition and repentance” and a deeper connection to one’s God.

After hearing self-satisfied prison officials praise the efficacy of their own system (while studiously avoiding any reference to the crimes that led their felonious charges to their current abode), David is taken to meet two “model” prisoners, one of whom turns out to be the unctuous Uriah Heep, hymn book in hand and more “‘umble” than ever.

Once the prisoners have expressed their concerns about the poor quality of prison beef and the “great adulteration” of milk used to make the cocoa, Uriah expounds on how everyone, including his own mother, could benefit from a prison stay.

“Before I come here … I was given to follies; but now I am sensible of my follies. There’s a deal of sin outside. There’s a deal of sin in mother. There’s nothing but sin everywhere — except here.”

“It would have been in vain,” Dickens has David declare, “to represent [to prison officials] that [Uriah and the other prisoner] were perfectly consistent and unchanged; that exactly what they were then, they had always been … hypocritical knaves …”

Amen to that.

THOUGH IT MIGHT NOT SEEM, initially, that Dickens has much in common with 20th-century writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, both focus on humankind’s silly sense of self-importance. They just do it using thoroughly different settings and characters. Saint-Exupéry’s classic The Little Prince is a celebration of all that is marvelous, magical, mystical and important about life. Yet it also holds a mirror to what is most pompous, and profoundly sad, about the human race.

Alone in the desert after his plane crashes, Saint-Exupéry meets a little boy from a planet no bigger than a house. When the serenity of his world was shattered by the pride of a beautiful flower, the Little Prince set off on a journey that brought him, at last, to earth, where he learned the secret of what is really important in life–from a fox who yearns to be tamed.

In less than 100 pages of text and whimsical drawings, Saint-Exupéry weaves a light, yet achingly poignant tale of the Little Prince’s adventures, as he learns, and teaches, about beauty, love, loss, the importance of friendship, and the abiding inability of grown-ups to understand anything of consequence.

So what, according to Saint-Exupéry, is the secret of what’s really important in life?

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Lynda La Rocca teaches in Leadville, and lives and writes nearby at the base of Mt. Elbert.