Some years ago, I taught a literature course in which, among other works, we read Montana 1948, a powerful novel by Larry Watson. The book sparked interesting class discussions over a period of several weeks, though none more intriguing — to me at least — than the one that took place after I found myself reminding students we were talking about a work of fiction, which meant the story, though written in the first person, was not true.
One student, a very quiet young man who always sat in the way back, seemed not to have understood that the book was entirely spun out of sugar and air until he heard my jolting reminder. When my words registered with him, he looked as though I had punched him low and hard. Because he had all along believed the story to be true, he said he felt betrayed — so much so that he told us he would never again read another novel. Other students said they also felt bamboozled, though no one else vowed to give up on fiction for good.
Even when I was a very young and inexperienced writer of fiction and poetry, I often got twisted around this idea of truth-telling and wondered what it actually meant for me to be an honest writer of made-up stories and poems. Over time, I have come to think that truth-telling is any writer’s true north and that sensitive readers will know an honest piece of writing, no matter the genre, by the way it makes them feel. Judging by the student responses in my class, I’d say Larry Watson’s compass needle was stuck on “N” all the while he was writing Montana 1948.
but the best encounter
I’ve ever had
the best one
I was tracking a jaguar
in the jungle
which I usually don’t do
I saw these big male tracks of a jaguar
I’d never seen before and
I just took off thinking okay
I’ll track it a little while but
I shouldn’t be alone but
I ended up tracking it for hours and
it was getting dark and
I didn’t have a flashlight and
I can’t be alone in the jungle without a flashlight so
I turn around and
there’s the jaguar
in back of me
(Excerpt from an 8.18.14 interview between NPR’s Diane Rehm and zoologist/wildlife ecologist Alan Rabinowitz )
Really we were jealous of Moira Keegan, who had had polio when she was small, but we pretended moral outrage. She was said to be fast, but no one actually knew this for sure or knew for sure what “fast” meant. Rumor had it that she let boys feel her up inside her blouse and that sometimes she hiked up her skirt so they could fool around up there. What they would do once they got to her cotton panties we didn’t know, not then, but privately we thought it had to be delicious. At least I thought that.
On the playground, Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Curtis, and Mr. Downing, the fifth grade teachers, stood at the center of our dodge ball game and warned us about Moira. We were scared for her, and some of us were just scared. We could only imagine wet kissing, not much more, and even that was a big mystery.
One Saturday afternoon, I met Johnny D’Angelo, a hood, at the movies. He was with Kevin Kelleher, and the three of us sat together. Once the theater went dark, Johnny slid his arm around my shoulders, leaned over me, and went straight for a tonsil kiss. There was nothing tender about it or him. When it was over, he leaned towards Kevin and said something that made them both laugh. After that, the three of us stared up at the screen.
The following Monday, I knew I would have to face Johnny and say something. When he sauntered into the classroom, I was standing by the coat closet with some other little girls. “I’m not Moira Keegan,” I shouted across the room and surprised myself.