Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
QUESTION #1: How/why did you decide to kill off the most lovable character so early in the book? Did you feel guilty for doing it?So hello to Fr. Dude's class, and let me see what I can do about these questions...
QUESTION #2: In your own mind, did Gabriel survive or die? If he died, then how?
DISCLAIMER: I warned them that there is probably no answer to #2. Once it’s published, the poem belongs to our imaginations. But the kids insisted. And the choice is theirs.
But when I think about the book now, I am sure that he was the most vulnerable one--and in the chaos of departure and driving north, he was the one who disturbed the others with what they had lost. He grieves. He weeps. You're right--he is the most lovable character. For the sake of the book, that lovable nature was important. He leaves a Gabriel-shaped hole that can never be filled. For Thalia, surely his death is the beginning of inwardness. It is an event that can never be erased or un-remembered. For all of the young travelers, it brings the kind of quiet in which questions spring up.
You know, I did get some reproaches for Gabriel's disappearance from the book! But no, I did not feel guilty for his loss. Do you feel guilty for what you do in a dream? Most of the time, probably not--and a book is a kind of "guide dream." (I do remember, however, being stirred while writing by the growing knowledge of what was coming toward him.) Besides, I have plenty of real-world errors to feel guilty about; everyone does, eventually, I expect. And we hope to learn from those things and change and grow, rather than feeling frozen by guilt. Certainly the group is challenged and made thoughtful by the loss.
|One of Clive's interior vignettes|
"Did Gabriel survive or die?"
Okay, that was a smart-aleck response, but what strikes me is that I held more than one idea in my mind at once. Emma does the same thing. She connects the fearfulness of the great river and the bridge with the sea, where Gabriel would have been with family, and yet would have known the slap and tidal drag of waves, perhaps the cold slide of a shark near his body. It's ominous, that conjunction, and suggestive. Does he throw himself into the water in his panic and fear? Perhaps. She also imagines and even prays (praying for the past is interesting) that he was swept up to some "ashless paradise" by a "messenger." Death and an angelic salvation hang equally in her mind.
What lay outside my knowing is not in the poem. You see, I am in exactly the same position as Emma. I do not know precisely what happened to Gabriel. I may be afraid that he hurled himself into the water, but I don't know. I may hope that something beyond human knowing intervened. But I still don't know. The fact that I don't know makes the story that the poem tells stronger and more uncanny. A work of art should not give up all its mystery. There should be a kind of residue left afterward. Mystery tugs at us. It has power.
It's possible that I didn't answer #2 to your satisfaction. Feel free to ask another question.
p. p. s.
Emma is the name my mother would have named me, had it been her turn to name a child. While I don't have a lot in common with this Emma, we do share a passion for storytelling and books, and the village where I live is the model for hers.
p. p. p. s.
Fr. Dude was my student last summer at Antioch, and he was a splendid one! You are lucky to have such a teacher.