The Power of Story

Since the earliest cave paintings were discovered, telling stories has become one of the most fundamental communication methods. The creators of these paintings have left a living testimony, grounding and inspiring future generations.

Author Jeff Goins says,

“Stories are about people and places, not ideas and concepts.”

Stories are more than facts. They are about life, the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of our being. Stories allow people to connect in a deeper, more meaningful way.

American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote,

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

We tell stories every day: reflecting on what is past, reacting to what is before us, and ruminating on what the future might look like.

Stories define us and have the power to shape our lives.

That is why I love reading. I love a good story.

In How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, Mortimer J. Adler says,

“….a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable, but more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”

I have been reading The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society. It is an expansive title, some suggest overly so, but it poses some intriguing questions. For example, ‘Where is Guernsey?’ I discovered that Guernsey is an island in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. But why Guernsey? Guernsey and the other Channel Islands were the only part of Great Britain to be occupied by the Germans throughout World War II.

Before the occupation, a quarter of the island’s population, including school children, were evacuated to the United Kingdom. Despite there being no defence capability the Germans bombed St Peter Port harbour killing 33 and injuring 67 more.

With one German soldier to every three inhabitants, the Channel Islands were more heavily guarded than other occupied territories. In such small, confined areas, resistance was difficult, restricted to individuals and small groups doing small acts of silent and symbolic resistance.

The Germans were harsh and unpredictable. Any act of defiance could result in either death or deportation or both. Surprisingly, the Germans encouraged artistic and cultural pursuits among the Channel Islanders. Their object was to prove to the British that the German Occupation was a model one.

I am drawn to books that address particular themes. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a story of survival. This is a subject that has occupied my thinking since Adam’s death. People who experience the death of a loved one to suicide are called ‘survivors.’ It is an unusual term given the context, but suggests those bereaved by suicide have learnt to endure sudden loss, to accommodate the pain and sadness, and to go on living while not forgetting.

The members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society were survivors. They were able to negotiate the German occupation of their island by

1. Valuing and affirming their friendships

The society was formed by accident. The founding members had come together for a secret pig roast. Several of the dinner guests were out after curfew. A German patrol discovered them. Fearing for their safety, they said they were returning from a reading club. They were hoping the Germans wouldn’t think this a subversive activity.

The members of the society were a varied and eccentric bunch. The more prominent members included Elizabeth McKenna, founder of the book club, Dawsey Adams, a pig farmer, Isola Pribby, an eccentric villager, Amelia Maugery, an older educated woman who provided the members with books, and Eben Ramsay, an elderly fisherman.

Although they had been neighbours and acquaintances for years, it was the German occupation that prompted a strengthening of their friendship and a deepening of their trust. As they shared their stories they grew in confidence and experienced new levels of understanding and acceptance. Stories helped them feel not quite so alone in such perilous times.

As one Society member noted,

“We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.”

2. Finding inspiration in the books they read

The Society members read books, argued about books, and indulged in good food, when they could find it. They were able to forget, if only for a brief period, the terror of war.

Literature lifted their spirits. It proved an enjoyable distraction.

Although his ancestors were tombstone cutters and carvers, Eben Ramsay’s livelihood was fishing. Ramsay hadn’t had much to do with books since school. He chose a book from Mrs Maugery’s shelves called Selections from Shakespeare. He didn’t understand all he read but he believed Shakespeare was a thinking man. The sentence he admired most was this.

“The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.”

He says,

“I wish I’d known those words the day I watched those German troops land, planeload after planeload of them – and come off the ships down in the harbour! All I could think of was, Damn them, Damn them, Damn them, over and over again. If I could have thought the words, ‘The bright day is done, and we are for the dark,’ I’d have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstance – instead of my heart sinking to my shoes.”
3. Remaining true to their character

Elizabeth McKenna was a spirited woman with a passion for life. Through her kindness and compassion, she earned the trust of practically everyone. Her romantic entanglement with a German soldier, Christian Hellman, gave her opponents something to talk about. They were critical of her poor judgment. But Elizabeth was someone who always followed her heart. She could be spontaneous and rash at times.

Elizabeth and Christian became parents. Their daughter was named Christina but soon became known as Kit. She was much loved by members of the book club.

A year after her child was born Elizabeth was arrested for helping a young Polish slave worker who was desperately ill. She bathed his wounds, administered what medication she was able to find, and fed him broth. Someone observed her actions and informed the Germans. She was arrested and deported. She died in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp in March 1945. She was executed for coming to the aid of a woman who was being beaten with a rod.

We may question what courage looks like. Courage is standing for justice and mercy even when it may cost you your life. Elizabeth was a courageous woman. She didn’t compromise her belief in fairness. She believed everyone deserved to be treated fairly and respectfully.

Elizabeth’s survival was of a different kind. She survived with her character unblemished. She triumphed in death. She wasn’t looking to die. Her death was a consequence, payment for her commitment to the women she suffered with.

Elizabeth’s story is powerful, challenging us to think how we would act if we were placed in a similar situation. Would we have the courage to be true to our character?

Stories rarely deviate from the essentials of life: love and betrayal, unity and discord, success and failure, belief and doubt, poverty and prosperity, life and death.

Our own story shares many of these same elements. That is why stories are for telling. Your story can speak to me in much the same way my story can speak to you.

Stories are necessary for survival. They provide a sense of belonging. They connect us to one another.

Stories help us understand life and are crucial to our wellbeing. We cannot live without them. But we need discernment to recognise the stories that tell a lie. These stories have the potential to destroy us and rob us of life.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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