There are two things which never cease to amaze me about Summer School. The first is that something which is so invigorating and energising while it is happening can leave me so completely exhausted once it is over. I love the opportunity to get together with a group of friends to do nothing more than talk about books. (Well, we drink tea and eat a lot of biscuits as well, but the impulse to indulge in that sort of behaviour is built into the DNA of the printed word, isn’t it and so doesn’t count.) I never want to stop when our allotted time is up and fortunately neither does anyone else; we often overrun by nearly as much again. But, once it is over, I find I need to spend the next twenty-four hours doing absolutely nothing just to recoup all the energy I have spent when I thought what I was doing was replenishing it. I suspect that what I have been replenishing is the energy of the soul. Unfortunately, what I need right now is the energy to tackle the mountain of ironing which this morning seems to be even higher than the dreaded tbr mountain. So, if there is anyone offering out there, you are more than welcome to call round!
The second thing, and it’s one which happens every year, is the way in which the books chosen purely on the strength of having loosely connected themes suddenly start to talk to each other in ways that we might never have expected. By the end of the week we are talking as much about the books that have gone before as we are about the last book on the list and this year branching out into what the novels have to say about current events as well. I am going to put up posts about each of the titles and reflect a little on the nature of the discussion that went on but I thought today that I would just give you a hint of the type of topics that we found ourselves talking about.
The three books we read, under the overall heading of Breaking New Ground, were Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway and Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant. Of course, we talked about the individual themes of each of the novels and the merits of the books as literature, but there were also specific themes that kept cropping up.
For example, we repeatedly found ourselves discussing the way in which how we see a situation colours our experience of it and how we see an individual dictates our relationship to them. Coupled with this was the question of how we actually look. So, if we don’t look carefully enough at something, if we see it only partially, or out of focus, then we are going to misinterpret what we see and find ourselves in trouble because we have misjudged our position.
Another theme that was common across all three titles was that of the conflict between the rule and an individual’s conscience. Sometimes this surfaced as one of the character’s having to decide whether or not to obey orders laid down by a secular institution he or she was beginning to question. Sometimes it was the more personal dilemma of whether or not to remain true to the religious principles that had previously been the backbone of your existence.
The immigrant experience is, of course, common to all three novels, but a question we perhaps hadn’t expected ourselves to be discussing was brought up in two of the books; namely what happens when one group of immigrants is made to feel unwelcome, especially when we are talking about people who are fourth or fifth generation. Trying to pretend that the ‘go back where you came from’ lobby isn’t every bit as vocal today as it was in the times when these books are set is to imitate the proverbial ostrich. As is trying to duck the question of the use of extreme violence to convince your enemies to capitulate. Discussing various scenes in The Lieutenant two days after the news of James Foley’s beheading wasn’t easy.
So, all in all, a very thought provoking week and one that I hope to give you a flavour of over the next few posts. I hope you will feel able to comment on them and that by doing so we can widen the participation of the Summer School and extend the discussion even further.