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  • Sonya Leigh Anderson

Beautiful-Terrible Stories

Bedside Table

One of the bright spots in my long winter was some wonderful reading. I doubt if I’ve ever enjoyed such a delightful stretch of back-to-back great fiction. Not that the stories themselves could be dubbed delightful. They were not. Every one was rather intense, to be quite honest. Beautiful-terrible stories – if you know what I mean.

The first was a children’s book. My sweet friend Jenny recommended this one on Instagram. Jenny and I go way back. She lives in West Virginia now, but she used to live in the rental house adjoining my boys’ piano teacher. I knew Jenny from church, and during lessons, I’d hike the short, wooded path to Jenny’s door, and invite myself over for a 30-minute chat. We were soul-sisters from the start. Jenny, at the time, was mom to a baby, my own boys spanning the tweens. She’s now a boy-mom of three, social media posts like déjà vu – her tribe and her life nearly mirroring mine, apart from location. And when Jenny recommends a book, I’m the first to grab it.

This morning Kyle was awake well before the birds, not sleeping. The pot of coffee already cold by the time I joined him. I was nuking my first cup when he told me, “I can see why you liked it. The book was good.” Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster. He was skeptical at first. It being for children, and there’s an actual monster, a bit of a stretch when your profession is math. But oh-wow-this-story.

“That’s how it works, doesn’t it? We are saved by saving others.” Nan wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She looked down at Charlie’s face…


“That’s what it is to care for a person,” Toby said. There was not even a hint of mocking in his voice. “If you’re not afraid, you’re not doing it right.”

Which is all you’re getting. You’ll have to read the rest for yourself.

Book two. Also Jenny, indirectly. Another Insta-post a year or so ago, my first introduction to Kristin Hannah. Talk about intense. I don’t know how she does it, but you live in her stories. Every horrible scenario, you’re sucked so far into the drama you’d best not put the book down until you find out just exactly how the whole awful thing comes out. Last winter it was The Nightingale; I commented on that one in a previous post. This winter, The Great Alone, and a girl named Leni, drug to Alaska by her POW father. And I’m smack in the middle of a grueling Minnesota winter, reading this brutal Alaskan tale, long winter nights being the least of the darkness in this particular story. So intense, I confess, I skipped four chapters. A few weeks later I chatted with another Kristina at our MOMs group at church. She’d grown up in Alaska, and I had to ask. The Great Alone – is it a true picture? She’d read the book, and pretty much, affirmed it.

From the horrors of child-labor in nineteenth-century London, to the oppression of alcoholism in darkest Alaska, of course my third winter novel, a Holocaust story. All the Light We Cannot See, and true to its title. I know how to pick ‘em. But actually, it wasn’t me. Picking this one – a story itself. Valentine date with my husband at Barnes and Noble, drinking coffee, and he tells me I can choose one book. So I pull up iPhone notes, scroll through lists from my neighbor Sandy and the past years’ CT book awards. I’m carrying a stack toward the Starbucks counter when I pause in an aisle and ask for a suggestion. From God, of course. We do this thing, once in a while, where I ask HIM – Is there a book I should read? And there it is, lowest shelf, first thing to catch my eye. I add to my pile, order my Flat White in a mug, start reading. Hooked from page one, and feeling quite certain. Whispering thank you. The book from my husband is also from Him. I make my purchase, carry it home to bedside table. (Kyle’s winter project. While I’m reading books, he’s making furniture out of reclaimed wood.)

And oh-my-breaking-heart. Talk about another beautiful-terrible story. Like the previous two, a breathtaking tome about the lives of children. I finish this one, and the obvious hits me. At least two of these are Pulitzer books, and maybe this is a list I should peruse more often. It’s March and I head to the local library.

Which brings me to present. Current read, still history, still raw. This time The Underground Railroad. And I’m not sure if it’s too many weeks of heart-stretching themes, or the onset of spring after all this winter, but I’m reluctant to read it. Every night before sleeping, my time for fiction, close to halfway through, and it’s not the book. The book is prize-worthy. It’s just that I’ve learned by now it’s sure to go bad for this girl, Cora, and every evening I’m bracing myself, not wanting, I guess, to face more horrors. Tales too true, too close to home, and near in history. Which I admit, is the genius. Authors saying YOU NEED TO KNOW.

And that’s how it works, doesn’t it? If you’re not afraid, you’re not doing it right.

Let me end with this. A bit of nonfiction. Just now, on my Kindle, a scholarly book I’m reading with Steph. Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. No irony there.

Lament recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against existing injustices (page 23).

The author is talking to us – to me – those whose lives tend toward mostly easy. Whose most awful stories sit on bedside tables, bound in fiction. He challenges us to know our history. To enter, lamenting, the brutal nonfiction of countless others who’ve lived it real. To tell their stories. Sweep, Alone, All the Light, and Underground Railroad. Nan, Leni, Marie-Laure, Werner. Cora. Fictional children from our world’s sorted history. Lament in story. So I might know.

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah

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