I’m currently reading a book called Icebound by Andrea Pitzer, a well-written book about a crew of late 16th-century polar explorers that face indescribable struggles for survival. (I’m still waiting to see if the sailors make it home.) This seems to be a frequent genre for me. In recent years, I’ve read many books about Shackleton’s journey to Antarctica, the afflictions encountered on Mount Everest, Peary’s walk to the North Pole, stories of plane crash survivors, refugees, missionaries in foreign, primitive lands, shipwrecks, military prisoners, disasters in space exploration.
What is it I find so enjoyable about sitting in my comfortable sunroom/library wrapped in a warm blanket, wearing my best fuzzy footies, and eating chocolate while reading about the extreme hardships of others? Does that make me heartless? What is so compelling about Everest mountain climber Jon Krakauer’s account of the deadly storm of 1997 or Matthew Henson’s 50 degrees below zero in arctic regions, or Barent’s crew of sailors trapped in a makeshift cabin with ice on their backs and bodies wracked with scurvy wondering if they’ll ever make it home?
Before you say, “What a sick person you are!” think about your own reading choices. My husband loves the battles of French naval ship captains. Some readers cling to tales of the fair maiden who falls in love only to face the hopelessness of unrequited affection. Popular titles reflect the struggles of unhealthy relationships, natural disasters, incurable diseases, poverty, and oppression.
Let’s face it—it’s the struggle, turmoil, grief, and pain that pulls us into a book. If Barent’s crew from Icebound were lounging in hammocks on tropical shores, I wouldn’t get past page 10 (unless a treacherous mutiny was brewing, of course.)
A good writer, whether of fiction or real-life people, knows how to torment and torture his or her protagonist beyond reason and still pull out a logical, if not always happy, ending.
But I’m thinking maybe that’s why we do it—read the books about hardships. I’m rooting for those brave souls all the way to the last page. I delight when they conquer impossible circumstances. It’s the hope of overcoming that keeps me going back to dismal pages in my free time. I want to know, no matter the tribulations, that some of my heroes will walk away from their afflictions. If they can, maybe I can, too.
I’m working on another revision of my first yet unpublished novel, The Wandering Place, and I wonder—have I made my poor aging Alzheimer’s victims and their caregivers face enough difficulties to keep my readers enthralled, or should I raise the stakes yet again? Writers are such cruel people sometimes.
And aren’t you glad we are?