I just finished listening to Sherman Alexie’s Flight on audiobook. Okay, I didn’t actually just finish listening to it. I just finished weeping after listening to it. As a former foster child, this book rocked me to the core. Over time, the title War and Peace has become a cultural symbol for great literature. This book doesn’t just deserve a place within the literary canon, but to replace other, less deserving works already there. It succeeds magnificently in describing the inner wars being waged within us that eventually manifest themselves in actual wars, with real casualties.
Although I don’t have a formal list of my personal criteria for great literature, this book made me want to make one. Throughout my life, I’ve read not just for enjoyment, but to escape the real-life circumstances of waking up in different places with different people. At it’s greatest, literature helps us maintain our connection with humanity even when there are no truly safe connections in our lives. Identifying with characters in books makes us feel less alone, and maybe get us through one more day of the search for real love and belonging. Real is when you don’t have to adapt yourself to your surroundings. Adapting to surroundings means acting—and acting takes up a lot of energy. That’s energy you don’t have to learn or grow or even care for yourself properly.
Abusive homes are microcosms of war. Some are religious wars, like when parents fight over which religion they will raise their children in. Others are cultural wars, like when there’s conflict between Irish customs, versus German or Italian customs. Then there are personal vendettas born of betrayal. We now know that our DNA identity, and which genes express themselves, is determined in part by the emotional history of our ancestors. That identity can change as other types of genes are triggered by our own emotional environments. Take a genetic history that includes genocide or forced relocation, add poverty and cruelty, and you have the perfect recipe for the destruction of a human spirit. Both of my younger brothers, also former foster children, committed suicide, one at 25 years of age, and the other at 55. We were all too old to be adopted by the time we were put into the system, and back then, child abuse was considered a parental right. I am the lone guilty survivor.
Alexie possesses one of the most powerful literary weapons in existence and he utilizes it skillfully. That weapon is simplicity, and with it, he was able to pierce the armor of my social facade to reveal the complexity beneath it. I feel more real and less alone after reading it. I also feel more compassion towards all casualties of war—both the walking wounded who lash out at others in a misguided attempt to ease their own pain—and those whose spirits have been killed who then go on to kill themselves to make their outsides match their insides. There are still times that I struggle to live between those extremes. With this book, Sherman Alexie reminds us that finding or creating a safe loving home is not only possible, but can make all the wars we have to wage while either seeking it or learning to build itworthwhile. If I were to meet him, I would say thank you for these healing tears.